Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood Tenth Anniversary

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07/01/2010

Neighborhood: Uncategorized

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Mr. Beller's Neighborhood Tenth Anniversary

Mr. Beller's Neighborhood has been publishing for ten years. The light-bulb moment of its conception took place on a cold day in February outside 225 Lafayette Street, then a warren of old time offices with frosted glass doors. Feedmag.com was there. So was Open City, and a lot of film makers and music directors and other creative types who secretly fancied themselves private detectives or budding tycoons, or both. It has since been converted to condos, and there is an expansive park out front where once a reliable group of red-faced Thunderbird drinkers, bums of the old school variety, made a tiny triangle of asphalt their home.

I write having just returned from a trip to Vienna, a gorgeous, terrifying city where the feuilleton was at one time enormously popular. Reading Carl Shorske's "Fin-De-Siecle Vienna," I kept coming across phrases and remarks that made me think of this project. They weren't all flattering.

"As his sense of the slipping away of the world increased, the bourgeois turned inward to the cultivation of the self, of his personal uniqueness. This tendency inevitably leads to a preoccupation with one's own psychic life," Schorske writes. "It can be illustrated in the style employed in the avidly read cultural section of the press, the feuilleton.

"The feuilleton writer, an artist in vignettes, worked with those discrete details and episodes so appealing to the 19th century's taste for the concrete."
The conflation of the physical, concrete (and also the asphalt) location with the highly subjective prism of each individual writer has been the modus operandi of the site.

"The feuilletonist tended to transform objective analysis of the world into subjective cultivation of his own feeling."

Schorske's remarks conform to my own experience of writing the personal, urban sketches for which this site hopes to be a primary venue -- not memoir so much as a highly subjective account of an event, or series of events, which take on a life of their own in the act of retelling. In a way, writing these pieces revives the proportions of childhood. The context is the city, a universe unto itself, and universal, and in the middle of it, in the one spot on the map where the action is taking place, the author.»

When writing pieces destined for this site, I often feel under the spell of a drug. There has been some event, something that happened to me or that I witnessed, and I am reliving it in the writing, reshaping it, faithful to the facts but now able to experience and understand all the feelings that had previously rushed by in a blur.

The intoxicating effect of the feuilleton is to push away the largeness of the world, its messy complexity, the terrible humourlessness when seen on the macro scale, and make it humorous or at least graspable, seeable. It brings everything down to the level of the street, or "eye level" (to riff on Vivian Gornick's great essay of the same title about walking in the city).

For Shorske, the feuilleton offered a reader, "the journalistic equivalent of Walter Pater's idea of art in general: 'a corner of life screened through a temperament.'"

New York is comprised of many corners, many temperaments. This site's use of maps to locate stories -- which dominated the front page for the first nine or so years, and will step forward again when our App comes along  was an attempt at a kind of "feuilleton channel." This marriage of private "temperaments" and a map of the city struck a chord. The site has published well over a thousand pieces of writing, some of which is collected in two books, "Before and After: Stories From New York," and "Lost and Found: Stories From New York."

I am tempted sometimes to think about Fin-De-Siecle Vienna, with its liberal values crumbling in the face of populist rage stoked by racism, as a parable for our own political moment. But I can also look to a sunnier inspiration for the site, the famously good humored if cranky E.B. White, who had a kind of breakthrough early in his career when he wrote a thinly veiled fictional account of a "Mr. Volante," on whom a waitress had spilled a glass of buttermilk. "Mr. Volante had written an account of the catastrophe at the time and sold it to a young and inexperienced magazine, thus making for himself the important discovery that the world would pay a man for setting down a simple, legible account of his own misfortunes."

The pay has gone down but the impulse remains. Therefore, so does Mr. Beller's Neighborhood.

June 7, 2010

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