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Christopher Bonanos On "The Encyclopedia of New York"

The Encyclopedia of New York cover
Courtesty of Avid Reader Press
The Encyclopedia of New York

It has been almost 400 years since the Dutch first set up camp in New York City. For the past five decades, the incomparable "New York" magazine has been chronicling life in the big city and beyond — exploring its culture, politics, food and infrastructure. A new book from the magazine’s editors called "The Encyclopedia of New York" features entries on New York City’s creations — with entries ranging from Pastrami Sandwich to Tuxedo to Sweet'n Low.

Contributing to the collection was city editor Christopher Bonanos, who joins us now.

How did this project come about?

Well, a couple of years ago, the magazine turned 50. And we made an arrangement with Simon and Schuster to start making some books, the first of which was a celebration of our own material from our own pages telling the story of our 50 years embedded in the story of the city’s 50 years. And so now we were thinking about ideas that were not about us. And one idea that came up was we did an issue in 2011, which was called The Encyclopedia of 9/11, on the 10th anniversary of the attacks.

And it was such a satisfying project, we all sort of felt like it was one of the best special issues we ever got off, and the word encyclopedia kind of lingered in our heads. And then, as we thought about this project, we realized that a true encyclopedia reference book was not exactly what we had in mind, because that's not all that magazine, what we wanted to make was something that was entertaining as well as definitive. And we settled on the idea of New York innovation, because that is sort of the core idea of New York City, people come here to make something and rob it out in the world, you know, so the entries in this book, slightly over 300, everything in here is something that was either invented in New York City, or developed and broadcast out to the world from New York.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but reading through this book, and you know, just being a lifelong reader of the magazine, it seems to me that part of the approach at New York magazine is to treat the serious things seriously, but also, the ridiculous and the sublime just as seriously. And that's where the voice of the operation really comes from. And I think you carry that off in this book, too.

That is extremely perceptive. And it is, it is a conversation we have inside the magazine as well, too, especially, you know, in the digital realm of our publication. On Vulture, our site devoted to movies and music and culture, we had a story a few months ago at the end of 2019, which was every single movie of the past decade, ranked. It was 5000 short movie reviews in order. You know, and taking that sort of manic over the top serious approach to a very silly idea. it's absolutely core to us. That we cover City Hall politics, but we throw as much energy behind covering you know, where to get a great dumpling. That's the cocktail of New York magazine. And we really did hope to translate it to this book, I hope successfully.

Not long ago, the magazine was bought by Vox, marking a new era in its history. How do you retain the identity of New York magazine and the voice when something like that happens, you know, an abrupt change?

You know, we were all, maybe not our top executives, but a lot of us wondered about that. And it turns out that Vox is a good match for us. Their voice is a little different on some of their properties, but it's not wildly different from ours, and most important, their attitude toward news and coverage and, and magazine making is very much ours. They it turns out wanted what we do; they didn't want to turn us into what they do, which isn't all that different from what we do anyway.

There were there were companies that could have bought us, I suppose. If the family that owned us had been willing to sell to them, that would have messed it up terribly. But I don't think they wanted to do that. They have been extremely good stewards and they only sold two Vox because they knew and believed that they weren't gonna mess this up.

Not long ago, the magazine went down to a couple of issues a month instead of the weekly format. And, you know, I like reading it in print. But New York is also expanding into all different types of media. Now, we're talking about this book, but you've also got all these different verticals online. How do you see the property evolving in the next decade or so?

About five or six years ago, we kind of became a digital media company, you know, we went from being a magazine that has a website to a website that also has a magazine. And that has accelerated since then. Both because it has to commercially and because it's where people consume their news. That's just a fact of the world. That said, the print magazine isn't going anywhere, we have been told over and over that not only do the Vox people liked it, but also that the idea of subscribing to print and digital in one go is something that we intend to make…that's, that's our play, if you will. That's said, we are expanding in the digital realm every day. And in fact, this very week, we are relaunching the Vox site Curbed as a New York magazine site alongside The Cut and Vulture and the other verticals. It's going to be kind of our urbanism and city life site, for lack of a better term. And I think it is a great fit, it started off really, really strong, and we hope to make it even stronger. In fact, I've been working on that now that the book has been sent off to press.

How is New York City doing these days? It's such an interesting time to release a book about New York City and to think about its legacy, because it's been through the wringer in 2020.

It sure has, yeah. We, you know, we're all feeling it down here. And it is a tough time for a lot of people. There's no, you know, even setting aside, people who have experienced actual loss, but many thousands of deaths, a lot of people at work, a lot of people stuck at home, a lot of people not stuck at home because they have to go to work. These are all tough things. You know, it's some we are coming back, you know, the all the sort of I'm leaving New York stories seem to be one-offs. And anyone who says New York is going to die from this is just being ridiculous.

New York has been through worse, New York will get through, it always does. And in fact, this is just to tie it back to the book we're talking about, yhis is a book about inventing our way out of problems. And New York will once again invent its way out of problems because it always does.

How do you see that happening?

A good question. You know, we're gonna have a new mayor next year, at the end of next year, and there may be some change there. There's all sorts of things that can be done, whether it's a matter of rent relief, whether it's a matter of small business support, whether it's matter of federal money, which may or may not come. You know, I'm not the inventor in chief. So it's hard to say. But I do know that we are muddling through and we will continue to muddle through.

Well, you've segued us to the T section of the book, there is an entry on Trumpism, but not Trump. And I want to talk to you about the president. He's a very famous New Yorker, of course, but he's got an oppositional relationship with his native city to say the least right now. How did you all conceive how to include him in the story of New York City?

Well, I will say that because the book is devoted to inventions, there are no entries for individual people. There are lots of things invented by people that talk about those people. For example, there's an there's no entry for Robert Moses, probably the most influential figure on contemporary New York, on the physical city, right. But he pops up all over the place in this thing. There's an entry for the elevated highway, which he invented with the Miller highway but what many people call the West Side Highway along the Hudson River, and he shows up – our pop critic Craig Jenkins wrote an entry for hip-hop that is just epic. And he lays the foundation of hip-hop at the racist housing policies of Robert Moses in some ways because of the sort of violence he visited on places like the South Bronx.

That created a subculture. And that subculture begat hip-hop.. Anyway, Trumpism is clearly something that came from here because, you know, Trump is a media creation and a lot of what he did to become president involve work in the press. And he did that in a particular way that is very specific to New York City and specifically New York tabloid culture, which by the way, has gone into the tabloid newspapers. So we felt as though his particular form of you know, hucksterism, is very specifically ours. There's also an entry in fact, for PT Barnum's form of hucksterism. It's under freakshow.

And I see, maybe you're relating the two?

I wouldn't call the president a freak. Let's put it that way.

One more question on the president. Last election cycle, there was a famous New York magazine cover that said “loser” on Trump's face. But of course, by the time the magazine got delivered, he had won. And I'm just wondering how you're conceiving covering the closing days of the election and what to do this time around, you know, at least in print.

I don't actually know what a cover is going to be yet. It will certainly depend on how the election goes. But you know, you can watch Intelligencer, because it's happening in real time. The thing is about our political coverage, right, is that mostly plays out on Intelligencer,  our website devoted to politics. And it's breaking story after breaking story after breaking story there. Olivia Nuzzi, our White House correspondent, has an amazing story on the current issue, about the behind the scenes in the White House as Trump went to Walter Reed, and then came home to the White House. You know, the cover itself will be a surprise, both to readers and probably to us. We react to news as it happens. So, you know, we change plans in a hurry sometimes.

Well, I want to briefly talk to you about another big aspect of life in New York City and in this book, and that's food. It plays such a huge role in the culture of New York. Do you have any favorite food entries in this book?

There's so much food in this book. It's true. And there's a lot that I love. You mentioned pastrami sandwich. I'm fond of that. You know, we invented it. There's a lot of debate over who actually sliced up pastrami first and put it between pieces of bread.

But most sources go to a guy named Sussman Volk, who had a butcher shop on Delancey Street and sold pastrami and then figured out a sandwich of it would be a good thing.

The detail I love is that Sussman Volk’s son shows up in another entry, because he instead of building tall sandwiches went into the building demolition business. Jacob Volk invented the wrecking ball. There I like that one I like pasta primavera, which was invented, arguably, at Le Cirque in 1976. And then, you know, there are a lot of fun entries devoted to things that were not precisely invented here, but were so thoroughly popularized in New York, that they we can claim them. Like the bagel, for example, which probably comes from Poland. But come on. Bagels are from New York. There's an entry for that.

The only thing I'll say about food is that the hybridization and reimagining of ethnic food in New York has made certain cuisines our own. That is, Italian cooking is Italian cooking. Italian American cooking is largely a New York creation. It happened other places too, like the north end of Boston or wherever. But by and large, you know, the biggest Italian immigrant community was in New York and therefore, a lot of it happened here. And so you get things like pizza and spaghetti and meatballs that are not nominally ours, but really are ours. Spaghetti is Italian. Meatballs are Italian. But spaghetti and meatballs is ours.

Do you have a favorite entry in the book that you wrote?

There are a lot that I'm fond of. I wrote an entry for stickball that I think is a nice. I'm sort of proud of that. And, you know, there's one I love because it's very short, but it's a thing. that I love having in the book, because it's a New York invention that nobody has ever heard of, and is universal. It's a thing called the Halligan bar.

Nobody knows what a Halligan bar is unless you're a firefighter. Halligan bar is the is the steel tool that every firefighter in America carries in the truck. It's like a crowbar with a couple of extra extras on one end. It's got a forked end at one side and a spike on the other. A firefighter carries it into a building,  and you can knock a hole in a sheetrock wall with it or pop a door open or break a window, you can do a lot. It's a big heavy thing and you carry it locked onto your axe. The blade fits through the fork. It was invented by a fire chief, Hugh Halligan, in the 1940s. Everyone uses one in America and beyond. And I just love that there are these things, specialty things that were broadcast out to the world. Almost invisibly, almost as afterthoughts, that are universal, and are New York creations.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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