Toni Schlesinger’s “Shelter” columns, which ran in the Village Voice for nearly a decade from 1997 to early 2006, chronicle the bizarre living situations of hundreds of colorful New Yorkers, including artists, porn stars, shamans, and people sleeping in space pods. Five Flights Up, Toni’s new book from Princeton Architectural Press, is a collection of hundreds of these brief, vivid columns.
Publisher’s Weekly said of Five Flights Up: "The drama taking place behind New Yorkers’ drawn curtains, Schlesinger reveals in this selection of interviews, is varied and vivid: bizarre, unhappy, frenetic, obsessive, euphoric, awkward, and endless. Divided into 15 sections, the book captures people at a moment in time, before 9/11 and after, telling the deeply personal stories that lead to new addresses: stories of death, ambition, love and rent control."
Toni works in theater and journalism and also writes fiction. She lives, of course, in New York City.
I’m not aware of any interviewers who don’t record their conversations. Why did you choose not to use a tape recorder when talking to tenants for your "Shelter" column?
For regular stories, interviews, I often do tape the conversations either for legal reasons or if the subject is complex. “Shelter” became this other entity that is similar to live theater in that, only in that moment, is what matters. I would write rapidly what the person was saying and often my own comments in a shorthand. I found that I could only write down what I really wanted to remember. I think I explain that more succinctly in the general introduction to Five Flights Up. To make this work I would have to run back and enter the interview immediately in the computer.
I learned long ago when I was writing a feature story on "Call Girls" for the Chicago Reader that a tape recorder can take the life out of a situation. It was a long feature story back in the time of long stories and I interviewed a number of people—pimps, cops, call girls—to show that world. I remember a vice detective introducing me to a pimp named Bobby who took me around in his long, white Cadillac and to places he frequented and he would not only not let me use a tape recorder but not even a pen. So when I got home in the middle of the night, I madly wrote down everything that happened and what he said and what he wore. Then later I got to spend a day with another pimp, the Saint, and his girls, and they let me tape use a tape recorder. I conscientiously transcribed everything, even where and how they did their laundry. Anyway, what interview do you think was the best? The first one. It was most alive and informed with my emotion of transmitting the information as best I could, perhaps energized with the fear that I might forget something. The interview with the Saint just was draggy, lost, too many details.
I also loathe reliving the moment. I write and perform theater, and there is a magic in the ephemeral, as in romance, the moment of wonder. When movies are filmed, there are all the takes, over and over, the people kiss again and again to get it absolutely right. The real becomes synthetic and hardened.
Some of the best “Shelter” columns are about a surprise or a misspoken word.
Though I did just buy a new digital tape recorder for a story that I am working on in which I want to be sure to have certain people on record.
So, in short, it depends on the situation.
In the intro to Five Flights Up you also explain that you’re drawn to the interview form because it’s in the present while "prose is the past." You say that the beauty of these interviews is that there is "no need to overthrow the government or expose the Department of Sanitation" and you were able to focus on "where the people are sitting and how they got there." I wondered, though, in reading some of the pieces in which tenants clearly are struggling with their landlords and other issues, did publicity from the "Shelter" column ever bring about a change for someone who was enduring some sort of housing-related injustice? Was that ever your intention?
It would have been wonderful to write something that made the housing situation better for others. I cannot recall that ever happening with the “Shelter” column because I very consciously could not take on doing an expose or examination of a struggle because I was only interviewing one household in one time period. To do a proper investigative story, one would need to interview all parties—the landlord, other tenants in the building and go back and forth from that. In many cases, I would research a situation beforehand so the subsequent dialogue could be more informed or I could present to the tenant what I learned after our initial phone call. There is a column in the book, an interview with Nazima Kazir, in which she is enraged about her landlady and the heat. But I could not contact the landlady to really pursue the situation further. So what made the “Shelter” column special—the one moment in time—did have its own limitation.
Alternative papers have traditionally done a wonderful job in taking on inequities in housing and the horrors. Though I think not as much attention is being paid to this subject as there used to be. This may apply to all alternative papers, but since I have not read every one, I should not say for sure. But if you look at issues of the Village Voice from the 1960s, they covered every minute element of housing, every community board meeting and not just the ones that Jane Jacobs attended. It’s pretty fascinating. In my time at the Voice, the late Julie Lobbia, current staffer Tom Robbins, former staff member Andrew Friedman, writer Erik Baard and many more all wrote great stories taking on landlords, zoning issues, affordable housing. In the case of “Shelter,” I could only give a forum for people to gently express their frustration but without getting into legal battles. So I would know the other writers were dealing with matters at hand, the struggles, the laws, while I got to discuss the psychological underpinnings. I am far more interested in the story of loss and time in the story of Etta Sherez (“The Baths”) than I was in going into a history of Mitchell-Lama buildings. Though I did do a column or more, not in the book I think, in which people bemoan the passing of subsidies and privatization.
Many of your subjects in this book were living in rent-stabilized housing, and you mention that rent regulation is what enables artists to get by in NYC—but that it is now endangered by "mean glassy towers." What do you see as the future of rent regulation in the city? If it’s on the way out, what will happen to the artists who rely on it?
Artists cannot rely on it. Regulation was not created for artists. It was a way of dealing with the housing situation as a whole. Today artists and people in all professions are having to work even harder, having day jobs, having to earn more money, living in smaller spaces, living with more people, living further outside of Manhattan. But if a person really wants to do their work and they want to be in New York and, depending on the work, some must be, they figure it out. I am working seven days a week at this point and so are most people I know—in theater, visual arts. So it is a matter of having to work more and finding housing that is not on top of the Empire State Building.
I don’t know the details of Picasso’s life, but does one think if he lived in New York now and was young, he would have said, “Oh, I can’t do my work, the cost of living is ridiculous. ‘Guernica’ is out of the question”? I have a feeling he would have figured out a way. (I am speaking off the top of my head here as he was a savvy man and may have also been funded all his life. If that’s the case, then we should not print this last paragraph. But, because I am on deadline with a story to pay my rent, I have to get back to that.)
As someone who is putting forth the effort, you must feel that it’s worth it. What is it about New York that motivates you, personally, to endure these sacrifices? How long have you lived there–and do you ever consider leaving?
I have lived in New York since 1993 after moving from Chicago.
On the most basic level, I love the continuous action of New York. The same way I love being in a dark theater space, a film, a casino, a newsroom. Nothing stops, nothing ends, nothing dies. I love the celebration of artificial life that is implicit in cities, all human-made.
On the most personal level—my life is not about family or houses with kitchens. I am interested only in reading and writing and performing and talking with others who do the same.
In essence, I am not making a sacrifice to live here. The sacrifice I made was staying in Chicago for so long. Chicago is an architecturally brilliant city where I have many massively smart and wonderful friends but it is a city that collectively celebrates family, sports, politics above all.
But what I did not know about New York until I lived here was the wild diversity and connections and complications that are ever interesting. Just yesterday I was on City Island in the Bronx and then on a lobster boat (former) riding around Hart Island where prisoners come to bury the dead in Potter’s Field, and talking with a Brazilian landscape architect about Chicago blues and Paul Butterfield and the Checkerboard Lounge. That was a New York afternoon.
As for leaving, that is not a consideration though I might one day because of age or romance. I realized somewhat early on that when people move here, they have entered a sort of hell. There is no exit. You choose your sofa. I do not mean hell in a hellish sense but that you cannot go back. I think very few leave here, because if they do, other places seem strange, a bit empty. This city is a narcotic. I do not have statistics on this and I may be projecting my own self into thousands of other minds.
I do have longing for other places, anywhere in Italy or Greece, or Los Angeles, to drive around listening to sultry music and looking at that mid-century architecture.
On the other hand, I don’t know if I really care where I live. It is about who one talks to, what one reads, writes, creates. Whenever I have felt homeless, it had to do with feeling thrown out of my work for a moment. I have only realized that in recent years. But I feel as if I am living on a vast and wondrous estate when my work is going well and I am immersed in this or that story. I am working on a very strange story that happened in New York which will be a book. I spend days reading about a certain street and how they sold spyglasses on the street and there used to be pirates and I go there constantly in my mind. I am also working on a film about a small-town murder. There is a 1920s Tudor house in the story, and that in a way has become my home, in which I wander through the rooms thinking about this and that and all the secrets up the stairs.
It’s like that REM song, “Leaving New York, never easy…” Someone once described Manhattan to me as “a giant video game.” It seems like the kind of place where you can take in the kind of intense stimuli one encounters while traveling, except you are actually staying home. If that makes any sense. Anyway, is the "Shelter" column done for good?
I can’t say that the column is over for good. It is always in my mind. Perhaps it will run some other day in some other place. Or I will put together a Shelter America book and go deep into an L.A. apartment from 1935 with stucco and a rather silent courtyard and then later, a converted church in Wisconsin with a mural by an itinerant painter from Nudelheim all of which is under a large dark gray sky. Then of course there are the 280 New York columns that could go in their own book with their own chapters, maybe called Where the Sidewalk Ends or Five Flights Up the Second. But for now I am working on another book, involving clipper ships and locks and chains and Goldman Sachs and a film script which is somewhat Oedipal and also two plays, and other sorts of journalism.