Q&A: James Wolcott on Lucking Out’s New York City, “Bloomberg’s City,” and TV and Internet Culture
James Wolcott dropped out of college and left Maryland in 1972 with eyes full of literary dreams and a letter of recommendation from Norman Mailer in his pocket. He wanted to be a writer, so he did the only logical thing that all young, aspiring artists do. He moved to New York City.
He quickly realized that things might be a little more challenging than expected. After interviewing for a nonexistent position at The Village Voice, even with Mailer’s stamp of approval, he failed to impress editors. But he didn’t get discouraged. Rather than run back home, Wolcott physically just hung out around the Voice offices while looking for work, dropping in “randomly” to see if he could pick up an assignment. Eventually, he snagged one and talked his way onto the payroll by working in circulation. Soon, he’d be churning out pieces about late ’70s culture in New York, writing about rock music, books, theater, and more, befriending Pauline Kael, Patti Smith, and many other members of the scene. His memoir,Lucking Out (Anchor), which gets its paperback release today, tells the story of that time in New York and how it shaped him. Wolcott spoke with the Voice over the phone while spending time by the Jersey Shore due to some apartment renovation. He chatted about being broke in New York, the current restructuring of The Village Voice, and how technology has shaped counterculture journalism.
Your book came out right around the same time as other books about ’70s in New York, like Patti Smith’s Just Kids andWill Hermes’s Love Goes to Buildings on Fire. Was that just a coincidence?
I think part of it is that there’s a sense that the city has really changed in ways that it’s not going back to—in that it was hospitable to all kinds of ground-up movements and general funky experimentation that it just isn’t anymore, because real estate is just too expensive. It just is gone. The sense of when people come to New York now, it’s very much a Bloomberg city.
What do you mean by “Bloomberg city”?
Well, it’s just so expensive, and the neighborhoods are kind of blending into each other. In the ’70s and ’80s, neighborhoods had very distinct identities. Soho was a very distinct thing, and now Soho has the same kind of high-end stores that other neighborhoods have. Tribeca is not that much different. There are pockets, but, you now the fact is—it’s a cliche that everybody brings up, but it’s true—every block has aDuane Reade and its two banks. I moved to Washington Heights a little while ago, and it’s very, very local, but the big thing they’re building right now is one of those TD Banks. It’s this huge space in the middle of these little funky bodegas and restaurants. Now it’s spreading north. Another thing it reflects is that everyone now feels like Brooklyn is the place where things are happening.
I live in Brooklyn, and there still is that feeling of “moving to New York to make it” among young people.
I was in Williamsburg [recently], and you could see it was a lot of hole-in-the-wall places, strange little antique places next to makeshift art galleries and little restaurants, and it reminded me a lot more of the East Village when I came to New York—although the East Village minus the menace and the heavy drugs.
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