Where Is The Village Voice For The 2020’s?


When Village Voice columnist Arthur Bell got home late one evening in August 1972, he had an answering machine message from a friend. Two gay men were robbing a bank in Brooklyn and had taken several people hostage. As one the few out gay journalists in New York, the situation was indeed of interest to Bell, so he called the bank’s phone number.

“Hello, this is Arthur Bell from the Village Voice. Can you tell me what’s happening?”

“Arthur, am I glad it’s you,” said the voice on the other end of the line. “This is Littlejohn.”

“Littlejohn, what the hell are you doing down there?” replied Bell, recognizing the voice.

“I’m one of the robbers.”

“Littlejohn” was John Wojtowicz, and he and Salvatore Naturile’s caper would inspire Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon. Bell knew Wojtowicz from the Gay Activists Alliance. Over the phone, the latter told him what had led to the robbery. As Bell wrote in “Littlejohn & the Mob: Saga of a Heist,” published in the next week’s issue of the Voice, Wojtowicz said he’d met a Chase Manhattan bank executive at Danny’s, a Greenwich Village gay bar, and the executive had “told him how he could rob a branch of $150,000 to $200,000.”

But the plan had gone awry, with an expected armored truck having already come and gone. So the pair “had no alternative but to hold the bank staff hostage.”

“Could I do anything, I asked,” wrote Bell, “Could I come down and talk to him?”

“John said, ‘Yes, you come down and be our mediator. Tell the FBI chief that I want to talk to you, and I’ll tell him at this end. He’ll let you in,’” wrote Bell. “I confessed it’s been a long time since Flatbush Avenue days and I didn’t know how to get to Brooklyn and it might take a while. John said, ‘Grab a cab. I’ll throw a few $100 bills out the window.’”

Wojtowicz explained that he’d wanted the money for a sex-change operation for his partner. Soon, Bell and Voice city editor Mary Nichols, a stalwart activist herself, were in Brooklyn, trying to mediate between the bank robbers and the FBI. A couple of days later, Bell went to the Gay Activists Alliance meeting, tasked with moderating a discussion of the robbery: “Did it or didn’t it, should it or shouldn’t it relate to the gay liberation movement?”

A more eventful week than usual at the Village Voice office, but not by much. No matter what was happening in New York, the Voice was always in the middle of it. It was as if the ragtag group of writers and editors knew everything and everyone. That’s because they did. It’s why they were hired. The paper prioritized experience, though not in the sense publishers usually mean.

As Dan Wolf, the paper’s founding editor, says in Tricia Romano’s The Freaks Came Out to Write: The Definitive History of the Village Voice, the Radical Paper That Changed American Culture, “The Voice was originally conceived of as a living, breathing attempt to demolish the notion that one needs to be a professional to accomplish something in a field as purportedly technical as journalism.”

“Our philosophy was you do not hire an expert; you hire someone who is living through the phenomenon worth covering,” explains Richard Goldstein, rock columnist and then editor from the ’60s through the 2000s. “The person I hired to cover hippies was Don McNeill. He was a homeless guy. He had a bed on the top floor of the office. He knew the scene; he lived what he wrote about.” (Moving Through Here, McNeill’s book about the era, is worth reading, too.)

By rejecting the distinction between observer and observed, subject and author (at least to a degree, and more so in the arts and culture back of the paper rather than the newsy, investigative front of it), the Voice was a dispatch from a world unknown to most, penned by writers who were themselves characters in it. Standouts in this regard come from the paper’s music critics: the larger-than-life Lester Bangs, and Robert Christgau, who was so widely reviled by musicians for his taste that he garnered insulting name-checks in songs by both Lou Reed and Sonic Youth. Such involvement was a source of trust (as Bell heard over the phone from his bank-robbing acquaintance, “Arthur, am I glad it’s you”); the Voice’s staff were in it.

Romano’s new history of the alt-weekly is an oral history, polyphony being perhaps the only form it could take given how disagreement structured the paper. One of the Voice’s most popular features was the letters of strident disagreement about other writing published in its pages, authored by readers and staff writers alike. People love beefs, and the Voice knew it.

“You can read all kinds of views in the Voice, and then make up your own mind,” recounts columnist Nat Hentoff, who was himself notorious for using his columns to attack his colleagues. “We don’t tell you what to think.”

The Freaks Came Out to Write is five hundred pages, but it breezes, with the feel of a drunken, gossipy party, albeit one where you stayed far longer than you’d intended. Which makes sense since that’s how working there felt to many of the staff. Says Karen Durbin, whose tenure at the paper spanned two decades, “What it always made me think of was a great bar in the Village, a funky bar. And everybody’s sitting at the bar, and having whatever they’re having, and talking about everything under the sun. And sometimes an argument and sometimes a chorus.”

The Voice earned its name, a “loud, open mouth” as one contributor puts it. The alt-weekly’s heyday was well before my time, but much as far-flung readers sought out the paper for a taste of New York life, ordering copies to podunk outposts of the country — or, in Colson Whitehead’s case (before he joined the Voice’s staff and later became a famous novelist), borrowing his older sister’s copies — Romano’s book offers a similar salve.

About the glory days: they lasted a remarkably long time, especially from the vantage point of the present, in which every cool cultural institution struggles to survive even for just a few years. The Voice was founded in 1955 by three men who had no experience with running a newspaper: editor Dan Wolf, psychologist Ed Fancher, and novelist Norman Mailer. (Naturally, even this is contested, with news editor and columnist John Wilcock claiming the title of fourth founder.) Wolf became the editor in chief, Fancher the publisher, and Mailer, flush from The Naked and the Dead’s success, an investor and, for a time, a columnist. Disagreements as to when it all went downhill differ, naturally. Suffice to say, by the ’90s, the party was over.

Cartoonist Jules Feiffer was a key early get. As Fancher tells it, Feiffer walked into the office in the paper’s first year “with a pile of cartoons under his arm.” No one else would publish them; did the Voice want them for nothing, with the caveat that they publish one every week? Yes, they did — the cartoons would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize. Stories of staffers getting jobs by simply showing up at the office with an idea abound.

Vivian Gornick recounts submitting a piece to Wolf about LeRoi Jones (later better known as Amiri Baraka) at the Village Vanguard, the legendary jazz club. Says Gornick: “A few days later, he called me up. ‘Who the hell are you? Send me anything you’re writing.’” So began her storied career. The Voice was a flame, and weirdos far and wide were inexorably drawn in.

Of course, the Voice’s rejection of distinctions between one’s personal life and one’s work, an embrace of advocacy journalism and its pioneering first-person writing, made for a proudly unprofessional workplace. Sometimes it was lighthearted, as when advertising manager Jackie Rudin came into the office after her first night with a woman and, upon announcing the milestone, was given a standing ovation. But not always.

Columnist Stanley Crouch was prone to throwing punches, and sexual harassment and homophobia repeatedly rear their heads in the book. The “whiteboys,” as some called the stuffier white male staffers, old-school investigative news reporters, were frequently up in arms over their countercultural coworkers’ coverage of out-there artists and the feminist and gay rights movements. (The decision to print a condom on its cover during the early years of the AIDS crisis provoked particular outcry among some of the more conservative staff.)

It’s hard to imagine an outfit like the Voice today. Gawker captured some of its energy, but we all know how that ended. The Voice was the twentieth century’s most influential alt-weekly, and alt-weeklies have largely gone the way of the dinosaurs, victims of the decimation of advertising dollars wrought by the internet. The paper’s wildly profitable apartment listings and personal ads kept it afloat. Village denizens relied on them for their whole lives: apartments, partners, band members.

As musician Clem Burke tells Romano, he joined Blondie by responding to a listing, which Romano reproduces: “Freak energy Musical Experienced drummer needed female fronted estab. working NYC rock band. Excell. optty. money. Fun. CALL NOW 925-0531.” (Romano’s canny reproduction of the first few paragraphs of Voice pieces being discussed by interviewees frequently led me to put the book down to read the full columns online.)

“Yash, ‘freak energy drummer,’” Blondie’s Debbie Harry tells Romano. “There were sixty applicants. It was insane. Some of the craziest people in New York, or ever anywhere, and all different kinds, all different types. It shows what kind of reach the Village Voice had.” (When I mentioned the Blondie listing to my dad, he sent me an ad for a drummer he and my mother, both punks in the Village in the same era, had themselves placed in the Voice.) Once Craigslist came along, the writing was on the wall.

There’s more to the book, much of it to do with the crises that followed from the paper’s sale to new ownership every decade or two. When media magnate Rupert Murdoch purchased the paper in the late 1970s, it led the staff to unionize, though Murdoch, a canny businessman, was surprisingly hands-off despite his stark political differences with the staff. He knew a moneymaker when he saw one. But it trends toward an inevitable destination: today’s barren media landscape.

The Voice shuttered in 2018; it has since revived as a quarterly, though it is unclear if that will maintain: its website currently features a reflection on the late, great, Greg Tate, a groundbreaking music critic of the paper’s earlier days — a piece published just this week. But the rollicking writers’ paper of the Voice’s height is long dead, a victim not only of the internet but of its own success.

The New York Times, the Voice’s enemy, lifted the paper’s approach to culture, even hiring several former staffers; you can still see that legacy in its Styles section. New York magazine, too, began covering the same cultural scenes and the same social movements, invading the alt-weekly’s dominion with far more money. Where young black writers had once had the Voice as their home for covering culture (hip-hop in particular) in a way no other newspaper would’ve let them, now there are other magazines offering similar freedom, and without so many white editors.

“The culture that we covered and championed became part of the mainstream, so you didn’t need the Voice anymore,” editor Michael Caruso says toward the end of Romano’s book. “What we were doing, what we were covering, what we were saying became part of the mainstream. And the Voice lost a lot of its cultural importance.”

Still, that hasn’t stopped New Yorkers from fantasizing about what a Voice-like publication might look like today. The publication of Romano’s book has inspired such thought experiments among some of the city’s writers and editors: How would one create a publication that could establish similar countercultural hegemony? Could it exist in a city where housing costs have scattered cultural scenes and political milieus, which no longer have as decisive a center as Greenwich Village was for the Voice?

A present-day version of that project would need to hew to the city’s immigrant communities too, the economic margins that, much like the cultural margins, are so often the site of experimentation and new ideas. Could that work within one publication?

Per one friend I spoke to who has been considering what a modern-day Voice might look like, you’d also need to have the vision to see what issues or powers define our lives today, forces or subjects rarely written about or even described today. This, too, is what the paper did, lending the imprimatur of “newsworthiness” to the basic stuff of life: experiences with discrimination, the sturm und drang of countercultural scenes, new experiments in living and their challenges. And could you pull off print runs, the paper as an object one might come across on the street, rather than just a website?

Probably not. You couldn’t have a Voice-like entity because people don’t need it anymore: they can find apartments, drummers, and just about anything else on the internet. And there are great recent ventures that capture some of the Voice’s spirit online: Hell Gate, a worker-owned local outlet, has an admirable penchant for weirdness. Gothamist and the City take local reporting seriously, with their reporters accumulating sources in ways front-of-the-book Voice pioneers might’ve admired. Yet as New York carries on devouring all that is holy, with power-mad elected officials and their cronies driving working-class people into desperation and crushing artists before they can even get their footing, it’s worth wondering.





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