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Jeremiah Moss Knows What You Think About Him

The author of the new book "Feral City" on why he felt free during pandemic lockdown, what he thinks of all of his critics, and why he never reads your tweets about him.

The writer Jeremiah Moss, pictured next to his new book "Feral City."

(Photos courtesy of W.W. Norton)

Jeremiah Moss, the very cranky alter ego of the writer and psychoanalyst Griffin Hansbury, knows that you either love him or hate him. In almost two decades of writing about and inveighing against what he calls "hyper-gentrification" in his blog Vanishing New York and his 2017 book of the same name, Moss has turned himself into one of New York City's most recognizable archetypes: the scold who bemoans how the city has changed.  

Moss's just-released book "Feral City: On Finding Liberation in Lockdown New York," his diary of the plague years, finds him contemplating the changes wrought in New York City by the COVID-19 pandemic—and how from the wreckage of almost unimaginable mass death, New Yorkers who had been pushed to the margins found a sort of freedom, reclaiming public space and engaging in furious and at times exuberant street protest as hundreds of thousands of others fled the city. 

The New Republic called "Feral City" both "blasé about the health crisis of Covid-19" and "also perhaps the best book on gentrification written in a decade." A more horrified Gawker critic chafed at what he perceived as Moss's "euphoria at the return of grit and graffiti, at the expense of actual living, breathing humans."

To Moss, his critics get him all wrong. "I think of this book as a bit of a counterhistory. Because this is the story that didn't get to be told," he told me. 

We talked about why he felt free during pandemic lockdown, what he thinks of all of his critics, and why he never reads your tweets about him.

Our interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. 

In your book, you write a lot about how during the pandemic, you found a sort of unexpected joy, even in the midst of so much suffering. And that everyone wanted 2020 to end, but you didn't. What were the joys to you? Why did you not want 2020 to end?

That joy was a difficult sort of joy to feel in a time when there was, of course, so much suffering and so much grief in a city saturated with ambient death. And it was a weird affective place to be.

The joy for me was in the feeling of space, of having space, space that had been really open when I arrived in the city, and had collapsed and become constricted, particularly, I think, after 9/11, and particularly with Giuliani and Bloomberg. After 9/11, the city had become much more policed both by the NYPD and by the people who are moving into the city—the way that space is policed by people who belong to the normative categories.

I knew that I felt constricted, I knew that I felt angry, I knew that I was irritated a lot of the time. You kind of know why, but you don't really—until they all left. And then I felt like I could suddenly breathe again. And I remembered parts of myself that I didn't even know I had forgotten.

What were those parts of yourself?

They're connected to my queerness, to my transness, to my sense of otherness. What comes to mind is the way I used to walk around talking to myself or singing, and somewhere along the line, I stopped doing that. And you think, okay, well, I've gotten older, that was in my 20s, this must be about aging. And then I was doing it again. And other people were doing it too.

I would walk around the East Village, or I'd walk around the parts of Manhattan I was in, and people would be walking around singing. And this is again, in the midst of ambient death. Why are people singing? Why are people walking around waving their arms in circles? And I thought, I'm not the only one who's feeling this freedom of the space. And so in the freedom of space and being able to take up space, there's joy in that.

Does that make sense?

I think if people were honest with themselves, particularly people who were more buffered from the most dire effects of the pandemic by virtue of their class or profession or not having children, they would probably admit to themselves that there was something freeing about not having that much to do, or having your day-to-day just radically altered. 

People don't like to publicly admit it. And I think this is where some of my anxiety around the book comes from. It's dangerous to do this, to publicly admit this. And it's interesting to see that in a couple of reviews I got, they said that I was blasé about the crisis. 

And I thought, well, so what is in that critique? What do people want to hear? Do they want to hear that the streets were full of queer people and people of color experiencing joy? And houseless people experiencing connection with others? Or did they want to just hear about people dying? And so, who's allowed to have joy and allowed to take up space? And who's allowed to admit to the joy, and what stories are allowed to be told? And what story about 2020 is allowed to be told and what stories are not permissible?

I think of this book as a bit of a counterhistory. Because this is the story that didn't get to be told. I just kept seeing [headlines saying] New York is dead, Manhattan is dead, Times Square is dead. And I thought, I'm in those streets. It is not dead. People are connecting and having a loving experience and having a human experience. And there are dance parties. And there are protests, and there is so much aliveness. And it was as if that was not allowed to be known.

At one point, you mourn that "all the beautiful parts of this time will be taken from us." What do you think it will take for those aspects to come back? 

Unfortunately, it seems to take mass trauma, right? Like after 9/11, we had a piece of it, there was a sense of people connecting, but it was short-lived. 

There's a poet named Ross Gay, who was on WNYC early on, in the spring of 2020. And he was talking about being in the presence of collective trauma, and how it can create or allow an anti-alienation effect. It sort of brings us back to our humanness. It connects us with each other. And that's the beautiful part that comes in these tragedies. How do we have that without a tragedy? I wish I knew the answer to that. I don't.

After reading your book, I thought, one thing that you would say needs to happen is for the people you’ve termed the "New People" or "hyper-normals" to once again leave the city. Who is a "hyper-normal" to you?

I started to sort of notice these people around the mid-2000s or so. And I thought, there's something extra-normal about them. It's not about ordinariness. It's about people who are subscribing wholeheartedly without question to a normativity. It's about the process of normalization, and how it moves through bodies and fashion and behaviors. And the people who I think most embody it also check all the privilege boxes.

I think of them as people who've really bought into neoliberal capitalism, in which they become products in themselves. And so these are people who see themselves as products, who identify with consumer products, who are super identified with consumerism. They're not just casual everyday consumers. You have people who are the influencers, who are immersing themselves in advertising, see themselves as a brand. 

I was struck by how many times you mentioned White Claw in your book. Seven times!

It was everywhere. And I was just thinking about whiteness and the white furniture and now there's all these white baseball hats. These white hats everywhere, like when people came back after lockdown, they're all wearing these white hats. And I just think there's something being communicated by these white hats.

You write about how even thinking of them makes your IBS flare up. 

I experience it as oppressive. I experience them as…there's a violence in them, which is not to say that they are physically violent people, but there is a violence that moves through them. 

There's some structural violence that’s trickling down through the presentation of these folks and how they move through space. And I think that's what's happening in my digestive system, is that I’m afraid of them. As a trans person, as a gender non-normative child, normativity was forced on me. I was told, in the ways that people like me are told, both covertly and overtly, that I was wrong, that my self was wrong, and that I had to conform to something that was about being normal. And so normal for me is a kind of violence, is a kind of pressure. When I'm surrounded by it, I feel anxious and angry. 

You’re known as a writer who memorializes a certain kind of so-called authentic New York. What to you defines a true New Yorker? 

I shy away from words like authentic. I know that I’m seen that way, and I understand why that happens. And I'm not innocent of that language. 

You know, I think that in some ways, it goes back to the "New People." They do something psychically, push down or split off or disavow, in some way, their humanness. And so that's why you'll hear people say, these people seem like robots, they're all the same, they don't feel like human. There's something that people tune into about them.

The New Yorkers that I was attracted to when I first came here, or when I imagined New York before I came, were people who were a little brusque, straightforward, had a kind of warmth to them. I grew up in an Italian ethnic family and so that sort of gruff lovingness is how I think of New York—sort of loud and a little intrusive and a little pushy. Just like really viscerally present.

Do you think, for example, that Eric Adams is an embodied, present New Yorker?

I mean, I'm not crazy about him, but he's got...he talks about his swagger. He's a character. 

Rudy Giuliani?

Ugh, don't make me say it. [laughs]

Have you seen some of the tweets about your new book? 

No, I don't read the tweets. I try to stay away from it, because it's so awful. Are you going to tell me something scary? 

Can I read one to you? 

Please don't, maybe paraphrase one. I stay off Twitter because it’s so toxic. 

I'll paraphrase one, which is someone painting you as a NIMBY, and who wrote, there's no positive vision for the future with the NIMBYs. 

The issue that I have with the NIMBY thing, is I think the word NIMBY has been co-opted in a way. NIMBY used to mean people who were more bourgeois and didn't want services for poor people in their neighborhoods. They didn't want homeless shelters, or they didn't want methadone clinics, things that served people who are maybe more on the margins. And now it means we don't want luxury condos in our neighborhoods. And it's like, that's not really NIMBYism. 

There's something going on with the language and the concepts that I think has gotten really twisted. So that you're saying [the fact that] I want a neighborhood that's inclusive of poor people and people who are maybe more marginalized, and let's not make it just for the rich—somehow that's NIMBYism. Someone's doing something with the language there.

People have this idea of me as being cranky. And sometimes I'm like, okay, fine, I'm cranky. But it's also a dismissal of an emotion and an affect of real anger for being in a world that is becoming more and more alienated, and alienating. That's something we should all be cranky about. And why aren't more people complaining? 

There was one review of your book, in which the reviewer wrote that you're not fighting for a more equitable city, but that you want the city to feel like a Scorsese movie. 

That seems like a ridiculous notion. 

Do you think that’s fair?

No, not at all. Something’s being done there. When you say that, what are you trying to undo about what I'm trying to do?

There's a way that the transness of trans men is invisibilized. And so other white men and white cis men in particular see me as like them and coming from their perspective, where something like a fantasy of a Scorsese movie makes sense to them. And I'm like, I'm coming from a minority position. I am white, I have white privilege. I have the passing privilege of appearing to be cis male, but my queerness is invisible. 

There's something that happens—and it's largely in the cisgender, binary-organized sort of mind—that my transness cannot be held in mind. It's a little hard to articulate this, but I'm trying to wonder, what is going on? When those people are telling me I want the city to be a Scorsese movie instead of an equitable city, when the book is all about holding lots of different kinds of people who are getting pushed out. 

I do all this work to try to connect the dots. And it doesn't get taken in. Do you think this makes any sense? What’s going on there?

I think people are very anti-nostalgia today, and think it's a regressive impulse, one that holds us back. 

I think another misreading of me is that I romanticize the '70s. To romanticize is to only see one side of things, which is not what I do. But I do believe that there has been a project of demonizing the 1970s, and demonizing New York in the 1970s. And that any time you try to talk about positive aspects of the '70s, the demonization comes in to crush that, and to claim that you are romanticizing. So there can be no speaking of anything positive from that era. 

And it was an era of protest, it was an era when democratic socialism was starting to take hold. It was an era of a lot of uprising of minority groups. Gay liberation and Black liberation, this was happening in the 1970s. And incredible art was being made. There was a lot of progress happening at that time. 

There was also crime, and there was also a lot of scary stuff happening, too. But it's as if that's all you are allowed to talk about. And that's what I push back against. 

If you want to call it nostalgia, or [Mark Fisher] calls it hauntology, what was really weird about the pandemic, about the lockdown period, was that there was all of this weird '70s and '80s stuff leaking through the culture, all these weird echoes sort of everywhere. And I thought, where's this coming from? It was almost cosmic. 

There were moments I thought, when is the good '70s feeling going to turn into the bad '70s feeling? But the good '70s feeling was, everybody just kind of roaming around together, listening to music, talking to each other on the streets. The graffiti, which I love.

What compels you to stay in New York City? 

Because there's still enough New York here. 

What do you mean by that?

There's still people who either were born here or came here and stay here because it is a place to be free, as free as any of us can be, to be free to express yourself, in terms of fashion, and sexuality, and creativity, and eccentricity, that still is more allowed than in most places. It's not as allowed as I would like it to be, and I think it can be, but it is more allowed than in many other places. That freedom is priceless. Especially for people who get squeezed and have been squeezed from early in life. That is oxygen. That's absolutely necessary.

I'm assuming you probably have no plans to leave your rent-stabilized apartment.

Maybe, I have some things that I’m not ready to talk about. But I might be, it might be time.

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