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12/30/2006

Neighborhood: Uncategorized

By JIM O’GRADY
Published: December 3, 2000

I SEE it as a bizarre, sprawling narrative connected to the city.” The speaker, Thomas Beller, 35, paced his apartment on West 11th Street, a book-crammed Zeus’ brow from which springs the Web site he is describing, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood.

Mr. Beller is a novelist and an editor of the literary magazine Open City. He does not want for metaphors. They pop out of him like the story-bearing screens that appear when you click on a dot on the map of Manhattan that anchors the home page of the Web site.

He stopped and tried some more: his Web site is a voice in the din of the urban id; an X-ray of the city’s ”crazy inner life”; an operatic production; an ”insane, labyrinthine, Dickensian narrative with all these tentacles and tunnels.”

Www.mrbellersneighborhood.com is an anthology of New York stories by amateur and professional writers, in styles from rambling and raw to polished high literary. It’s as if the Greek drama of the city has been temporarily halted to let members of the chorus step forward and sing about themselves. They produce tales and screeds and comic effusions and rueful reminiscences galore.

They are literally all over the map. You will find Carolyn Murnick’s diary entries about working as a waitress on the graveyard shift at French Roast, an Upper West Side brasserie, by zooming in on that part of Manhattan, then clicking on the red dot at Broadway and 85th Street. There, you can read about the long-haired man who rhapsodized to Ms. Murnick at 4 a.m. about the romance novelist Barbara Cartland, then offered to give Ms. Murnick a foot massage on the counter. She declined.

Mr. Beller said the inspiration for the project came in a flash in January, as he drove through a blizzard in Manhattan. Parking his mint-green Thunderbird in a snow-cloaked no-parking zone, Mr. Beller said he was suddenly struck by ”the grand epiphany that the Internet was a big deal.”

Even this self-deprecating story holds a metaphor about the Internet as a place where the old boundaries of publishing have been blurred.

Take Snooder Greenberg. He contributed a story titled ”The Dynamite Brothers Meet the Slapper,” about a dispute he witnessed at Avenue B and Third Street in 1972. It is, Mr. Beller said, the kind of ” casually reported vignette” that he likes. He would not have published it, he added, were it not for the Internet.

Mr. Greenberg is ”an ex-New York hippie who now lives in the woods of North Carolina,” Mr. Beller said, adding, ”This is not a writer I would ordinarily correspond with.”

But Mr. Greenberg surfed to the site one day and noticed a feature called ”Tell Mr. Beller a Story.” Like other contributors, he fished up a vivid incident from his years in the city and submitted an article about it. Mr. Beller turned it into a red dot at the precise location of the incident, within a section of the map that covers the east side of Manhattan from Little Italy to Gramercy Park.

The story begins, ”I was sitting in my fourth-floor fire escape window on a hot summer afternoon, watching the sparse street life on 3rd Street, a few people sitting around on our building’s stoop, a couple of guys had lawn chairs, a few guys standing outside the bodega . . . like that.” As the title suggests, the incident ends in violence. Another story by Mr. Greenberg, set in 1969, includes the line: ”I knew in five minutes that he was crazy and that he would be my brother.”

Still, Mr. Beller is selective. ”We don’t use everything we get, like, ‘Hey, I saw this guy walking down the street and he tripped on a banana and he almost fell, but he caught the cake.’ ”

The logo for the Web site, which went online in the spring, is a William Steig drawing of a frumpy man walking a dog with crooked whiskers. Mr. Beller thinks of this figure as a ”slightly batty” version of Eustace Tilley, the mascot for The New Yorker.

”He’s a citizen,” Mr. Beller said of the Steig man. ”He illustrates that this is a site by and for citizens.”

Some citizens are better known than others. The site includes essays by established authors like Phillip Lopate and Jeanette Winterson. (He laments the loss of seediness in Times Square; she sings an ode to Saks and its unusual silk sock, ”that elusive, must-have, slinky little number that glides over the foot like a geisha.”)

The whole sprawling site is rounded out with classic takes on the city, like Henry David Thoreau’s 1843 letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson, in which he makes this observation on the citizens of Manhattan: ”The pigs in the street are the most respectable part of the population.” There is also Luc Sante’s version of the 1988 riot in Tompkins Square Park, and a W. H. Auden poem about an angelic woman ”in an undistinguished hat” spied at a Madison Avenue coffee shop.

Mr. Beller, who grew up on the Upper West Side, was a staff writer at The New Yorker in 1993 and has been a contributing editor to The Cambodia Daily since 1994. His first novel, ”The Sleep-Over Artist,” came out in June to mostly good reviews. He still writes fiction, but says he is ”obsessed” these days with keeping fresh the multilayered narrative of his Web site.

”On the one hand, this is crazy ambitious,” he said of his goal, which is to create a ”giant collaborative history” of New York. ”On the other hand, the medium invites it.”

Some contributors are paid modestly, in ”the double figures,” he said, but most are not paid at all. Many of Mr. Beller’s friends and colleagues donated technical support to get the site up and running. Open City and other literary ventures pay for advertisements on the site, but Mr. Beller said he earned no money from it.

”If I’d gotten funding and hired six people and rented an office and didn’t make any money,” he said, ”I’d be out of business right now.” He said the site has lately been averaging 5,000 to 7,000 visits a week.

He plans to turn Brooklyn into the site’s second source of stories. After that, he hopes to do the same for the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island, then add a feature that lets visitors play music recorded in and around New York. And one day, he said, he might just branch out to other cities.

Too grand a plan? Maybe not. ”One of the things we’re discovering,” he said, ”is that literature is different from every other art form. Everyone practices it a bit.”

**

flak

Geography defines who we are. Where do you live? Where do you work? What part of town (or country) do you travel through to see the people you love? Where is "home," and what is home close to?

And while we wrestle with physical geography every day when we commute to work, travel by plane to visit relatives or take the train to Chicago, the Internet transcends it. For many organizations (like this magazine), the Web is a convenient way to bring people together to work on a common project, neatly sidestepping the fact that their members are scattered to the ends of the Earth. Geography is overcome — forgotten — and banished.

Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood takes a different approach to geography. The site is anchored by it, intimately tied to the physical relationship of buildings, streets and people by its content and interface.

The site itself is a virtual Manhattan, a sprawling collection of scrolling maps that show the island’s densely packed expanse with building-by-building accuracy. The maps, however, aren’t the point. They serve as a navigation device to lead the user to dots scattered across the online metropolis, each of which represents a particular story, essay, or observation tied to the location so marked. And while the maps provide focus, it’s the breadth and diversity of Manhattan’s population that provides the site’s wide variety of writing.

"New York is this kind of tabula rasa onto which people project all sorts of feelings and anxieties," said Tom Beller, the site’s editor.

Beller also shapes and polishes the site’s content, and serves as its primary correspondent, advocate and organizer. Beller is a former staff writer for the New Yorker, the author of "The Sleep-Over Artist" and "Seduction Theory," and the founder of the literary journal Open City. His attention to professional craft allows the more personal aspect of the site’s content to shine through — the site’s essays, which are written by a broad pastiche of contributors, are edited into an almost uniformly clear voice that allows emotional nuance and physical detail to be cleanly transmitted.

In a Web that is generally a morass of poorly edited content hacked out by strike-it-rich drones with degrees in communications and PR, the quality of Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood stands out. And the subject of the site — Manhattan — allows it to be geographically anchored without being shackled.

Aside from its novel navigation scheme, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood is also notable for its relatively enlightened attitude on e-business — also known as "trying to somehow squeeze money from online content."

"I feel privileged to be a wide-eyed neophyte in this field, in what turns out to be the days before the fall," Beller said. "It’s almost pointless to talk about the ideas I had for making money in, say, March, because I didn’t know. To be perfectly honest the people who did know, didn’t know either — they’re all out of a job now. In the last three weeks, there have been 1,300 layoffs from dotcom companies in Manhattan. There’s are 1,300 people who are relatively young, educated, people with ideas and education who were employed, and now aren’t."

Beller’s willingness to volunteer time and money to the project, working with submissions rustled up from similarly low-maintainence contributors, means that the site can’t die due to money trouble — it can only hibernate, or thrive. And while this isn’t a strategy business sites can mirror, it makes sense for a project as goofy and literary as the Neighborhood.

Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood is one of the most novel and ambitious projects currently walking among the crumbling pillars of the Internet’s collapsing ghetto of content sites. Its content is eclectic in topic, but consistent in form, and makes great fodder for browsing.

And while the site’s frame-based interface often feels a bit clunky, it’s probably the best low-tech method to implement Beller’s ambitious project. A Flash version would be a much smoother ride, but according to Tomas Clark, the site’s tech guru, it’s not yet a feasible answer.

"Flash uses vector graphics and the maps are bitmaps, which are made up of pixels," Clark said. "It would be a much greater download than it is now."

There’s no doubt the site will continue to evolve technologically. But even in its current incarnation, it’s well worth a visit. With one of the most creatively ambitious content schemes of any site on the Web, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood is a place as small as Manhattan, and as big as the world.

James Norton ()

**

February 4, 2002

By MATTHEW MIRAPAUL

New York City has twice as many stories now. Everyone has a tale to tell, but since Sept. 11 everyone here can also describe the personal impact of that day’s epochal events.

Thomas Beller, a New York novelist and editor, presents nearly 200 of these real-life accounts on his Web site, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood. The 18-month-old project is an online anthology of essays, memoirs and vignettes, most of them written before the World Trade Center attacks by authors in Mr. Beller’s literary circle or by the site’s visitors.

Next week Mr. Beller is also moving offline with the official release of ”Before and After: Stories From New York,” a self-published paperback containing 60 articles from the Web site. It is being distributed by W. W. Norton. Like the Web site the book relates colorful pre-Sept. 11 encounters with cops, coffee vendors and taxicab drivers as well as wrenching post-Sept. 11 accounts like a meditation (by Anne Kovach) on the death of the artist Michael Richards in 1 World Trade Center.

The appearance of the bound volume does not mean that Mr. Beller, 36, is abandoning the commercially iffy sphere of cyberspace for the iffy conventional publishing world. Instead he intends to expand the Web site and remains as committed to the Internet as a medium as he is to the book.

”Thinking about writing and the Internet is like thinking about writing and the paper-mill industry,” Mr. Beller said. ”They do have a tangential relationship, but this scenario — the work we publish in the Neighborhood and now the book — suggests that the medium isn’t the message. The words are.” Are they? By presenting the same material on the screen as on the printed page, Mr. Beller provides an opportunity for readers to compare the two experiences.

Given a choice between reading a story onscreen and reading it on the page, most people will prefer the traditional format. A book is tangible, portable, familiar and reliable. The type is crisp. Sunlight does not prevent you from seeing it. As the electronic book industry flounders, it is evident that readers can resist a digital version of a real-world text.

But Mr. Beller’s site, www. mrbellersneighborhood.com, offers more than pure text. It is built around a simple yet compelling device: a detailed satellite map of Manhattan. Each article is linked to the location where its action is set. Click on a red dot at Fifth Avenue and 49th Street, and a window pops up to display Jeanette Winterson’s passion for Saks’s socks. Click on the World Trade Center, and two dozen accounts of the attacks and their aftermath become accessible.

Steven E. Jones, an English professor at Loyola University of Chicago with an interest in digital texts, said that the close visual relationship between the online stories and their geographic locations imbued them with a palpable sense of place and personal experience.

”As you zoom in, you get this feeling that you know exactly where you are,” Mr. Jones said. ”He’s hit on that thing that people feel about a city: every street corner could tell stories. It immediately makes you start thinking of your own.”

On the site is a link, ”Tell Mr. Beller a Story,” that encourages visitors to contribute their own tales. Whether it is used or not, Mr. Jones said, the feature implies that the reader is part of the site’s community and not alone with the texts.

Mr. Jones cited another simple touch on the site, a real-time clock, which, he said, conveyed a sense that the site is alive and its material can be updated at any moment. By contrast, he said, once the text is between covers, ”that chunk of it is separated and becomes static.”

Paula Geyh, co-editor of the Norton Anthology of Postmodern Fiction (1997), likened Mr. Beller’s site to those 1940’s mysteries with maps of a crime scene and its surroundings on their back covers. Because the Web site is interactive — visitors can read downtown to uptown or, if they know the route, follow a subway line — it seems more immediate and grounded in reality than the vintage books.

Ms. Geyh said: ”This site creates a much more dynamic and kinetic experience. It is akin to a virtual stroll around the neighborhood in which one pauses to chat with acquaintances and overhears fragments of conversations along the way.”

Presenting the stories in such a desultory fashion is not an option with a book, where Page 2 always comes after Page 1. In choosing the order of the stories, Mr. Beller said, ”I was approaching it like a concert. You start off all loud and up, then bring it down a bit, then go back up.”

Scott Rettberg, founder of the Electronic Literature Organization, said the linear progression of a printed collection reflects its editor’s artistic decisions. But online, he said: ”Readers expect they will be able to make navigational decisions and form their own compositions from the available material. The music of print is more classical than the improvisational jazz of electronic writing.”

Mr. Beller declined to favor one medium over another. He argued that the writer’s eye more than the reader’s imagination benefited from situating the stories in a physical location. He said the order in which the stories are read does not affect their individual integrity. If anything, he said, ”seeing the pieces aligned in the more linear fashion and on something you can spill tomato soup on is very gratifying.”

As for the Web site’s evolving contents — three to five stories are added each week — Mr. Beller compared the site to serial novels: ”It’s like this giant, unfolding Dickens narrative that you pick up and read for a couple hundred pages. It’s not in any way resolved.”

In producing the printed edition, Mr. Beller used what might be considered a couple of multimedia tricks. Each story is accompanied by a small abstract map, although it does no more than vaguely indicate the tale’s location.

But another idea is more effective. The book actually has two front covers, one for the ”before” stories and one for the ”after.” Readers who finish one section reach upside-down pages. Mr. Beller said that approach was intended to depict how the city was upended on Sept. 11.

There is also a flip side to the Web site. It may seem more immediate, more alive, more interactive and more grounded than the book. But without the interactive map, readers of the printed version are forced to project themselves more deeply into the verbal world that the authors have constructed.

Mr. Beller said he did not expect one medium to vanquish the other. ”To say which one is better is like saying one is going to win,” he said.

So which version is better, the Web site or the book?

”Authorial tone, point of view, the personality of an author, writing style, these are immutable things,” he said. ”Whatever your favorite piece is is no better or no less a good piece of writing in either form. To me, writing is writing.”

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