Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood began publishing in the year 2000. This sound portentous, and in a way there was something precipitous and heedless about the moment, the feeling of having gone over the edge of a cliff and not yet realizing it. The idea sprang forth in winter. Frigid, snow covered brightness, the hissing of old radiators, short days. The stock market was frothy and manic, driven by a mania for internet stocks.
Against that sibilant sheen - the money, the winter light, the metallic, robotic gleam of of the new computer age – I imagined a website that would be warm like the glow of old lampshades, a fusty, cozy place like an old, beloved study. Or an old city. Like each of these – study and city – the site would be dense with stories. It would a maze filled with nooks and crannies in which atmosphere pools. Less esoterically, it would be filled with people and their voices. But it would be literary not purely documentary. The importance of each piece would be defined by the author, not the subject. The site would be a place where personal voice in the literary sense could be honed against the Manhattan schist–and Brooklyn, and beyond. That was the plan.
Over a period of months, with the assistance of Marisa Bowe and Sabin Streeter, then at Word.com, the site came together, and went live in May, by which time William Steig, then well into his 90’s, had provided a logo – an old drawing of his beneath which he had scribbled the site’s name – and the stock market had crashed, lead by internet stocks.
The site was a novelty for two reasons: its main page featured a large, black and white satellite photograph of Manhattan. You could zoom into neighborhoods, and find little red dots. If you clicked a dot, a pop up window appeared with a story set on that specific spot on the map. That was a new concept at the time. When Google maps first appeared, we began to use it, and abandoned the old satellite photographs. They had been so expensive to acquire and difficult to stitch together– the digital equivalent of quilt making. I miss them, to be honest. Now an interactive map is so common in modern life as to be banal. It’s become a minor part of the site.
The other novelty was that it was a website created by and for people whose identified literary value in books and magazines. It was a site created by someone who read The Catcher in the Rye in Eighth grade and Cheever’s big red book of stories as a senior in high school, and who treated the New Yorker, especially its cartoons, not as something written or drawn so much as a utility, arranged in piles set on chairs and side tables, teetering, that is available at all times, like tap water or electricity, or the peculiar mish-mash of little stones that comprised the asphalt of a city playground.
Eventually the site produced a book. The book was scheduled to come out in the fall of 2001. Events changed its nature considerably. The months after 9/11 will almost certainly remain as the moment when the site’s purpose and audience - its usefulness - was at its highest. The need in the wake of 9/11 to hear from other people, to tell stories, to testify to what happened, was so acute at that time. This website filled a role. In 2002 the site was nominated for a Webby Award in the Print and Zine category.
The site’s continued existence is a joke on me, in a way. It was started, in part, in the spirit of a band-member who is sick of the drama of his band and wants to make a solo record. In this case the band would be Open City Magazine, which I had co-founded in 1990. I edited Open City Magazine, and its book line -for ten more years, ending in 2010.
Meanwhile, the site with my name stopped being edited by me in 2003. A series of enthusiasts, writer/editors who had had written for the site, have edited it ever since. the while the solo project, this site, continued on with my name on it. By which I mean that the impulse to say, “this one is all mine!” has turned inside out. If a name just become’s a symbol then it’s not connected to a person. It’s really the opposite. This is where writer’s who edit magazines get caught up in confusions of energy, altruism, and ambition.
As of this writing I have the notion that the site will publish new work for 5 more years, until 2020. Open City ran for 20 years. It would feel right for this to go that long, too. The fact is I like poking around on this site. I like the old pieces, many of which are older than they seem, because a redesign in 2003 re-dated the previously published pieces from 2000, 2001, and 2002, as being published in 2003. The thing about these old studies, and these old cities, is they take time to build. Like some beach goer who is still digging their moat and building a castle as the dusk encroaches and everyone else has picked up their towels and umbrellas and left, I feel this contraption should get more intricate, still, before it’s done. And when it stops publishing new work, all the old work will still be there, on the map.
–Thomas Beller, December 2015
An earlier version of “What’s this?” below:
The site combines a magazine with a map. It uses the external, familiar landscape of New York City as a way of organizing the wildly internal, often unfamiliar emotional landscapes of the city dweller.
It is about a specific place – New York – and it is about the many different consciousness that thrive and wilt and rage and reminisce here. We publish reportage, personal essays, urban sketches– any piece of writing that might illuminate a corner of life in the city. By and large everything you read on the site is true. The events of 9/11 were the site’s focus for a while, but this is a site about a place, not a disaster, and we’re open to all kinds of topics.
For the first five or so years the front page of the site was based on a satellite photograph of a map of Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn that was divided into sections, each representing a neighborhood. If you clicked on one of these sections you zoom into that neighborhood. The red dots link to articles. The green dots give you location.
In 2005 we switched to using Google Maps, which are in color, and can be zoomed into and out of more extensively, and are generally more flexible and user friendly, though perhaps lacking in some of the gritty drama of the old black and white maps, which looked like something one would find on the wall of a detective’s office.
Like any neighborhood, or city, or person, Mr.Beller’s Neighborhood is a work in progress. We are always open to new additions.
Who is Mr. Beller?
Mr. Beller has echoes of other Misters, such as
Mr. Ed, Mr. Ross, Mr. Rogers, and Mr. Softee.
He is someone rushing to work, or taking a solitary stroll along the river, or waving madly amidst a crowded bar, trying to get the bartender’s attention.
He’s this image William Steig drew for the site, along with its original logo.
On a less abstract note, Mr. Beller is the front for a bunch of editors and writers gathered together by Thomas Beller, author of two works of fiction,
The Sleep-Over Artist, a novel, and Seduction Theory, a collection of short stories, a collection of personal essays, “How To Be a Man,” and a biography, “J.D. Salinger: The Escape Artist,” which won the New York City Book Award for biography and memoir in 2015.
He was a co-founding editor of Open City Magazine, and has edited several anthologies or original work:
“With Love and Squalor, a book of essays about J.D. Salinger” (co-editor, with Kip Kotzen), “Personals,” and two culled from work originally published on this site: “Before and After: Stories from New York,” and “Lost and Found: Stories from New York.”
Notes on the old map images…
These images were taken by a plane flying over the island. Every dozen blocks or so, another picture was taken. This is what accounts for the odd, patchwork look of the Hudson and East River on the main map.
The main map, showing most of the island, is oddly beautiful to look at. The more detailed neighborhood maps, are downright disturbing after a while. You see Manhattan from a distant yet oddly intimate perspective. The closest I ever came to such a view was the time a plane, taking a very strange flight path, flew more or less right over Manhattan.
In a way my memory of Manhattan seen from above has a similar feel to the close-up view of the neighborhood maps: the light flew against the buildings at strange angles, and, from the plane, I was acutely aware of what a little island this is. So much ado about nothing! From this angle (and perhaps only from this angle) Manhattan looks like a benign place.
Seen from above, you see how densely packed together it is, tighter than it ought to be, self-regarding, almost haughty. But there are also spaces and valleys and all sorts of incredible looking crevices that immediately evoke Manhattan of days gone by. Its many previous incarnations somehow shine up at the viewer above.
The map is in black and white, so it has an odd surveillance feel to it.
The surveillance gets even more conspicuous on the neighborhood maps. Here you can examine, peruse, be specific. Find places.
If you are intimate with a single building in Manhattan, you’ll probably be able to locate it on the map.
And what then? if you think you have some interesting facts about the place, either in the journalistic mode or in the form of a personal essay – anything that can give us a window into the history of the place – tell Mr. Beller a story about the place.
The best explanation of what we are looking for can be found by reading the other pieces on the site.