Joseph Berger, longtime reporter and editor with The New York Times, wrote the acclaimed memoir Displaced Persons: Growing Up American After the Holocaust about his family’s experience as immigrants in New York City in the 1950s and 1960s. He has a new book out, The World in a City: Traveling the Globe Through the Neighborhoods of the New New York that he will be discussing with Ari L. Goldman, former Times reporter and current journalism professor at Columbia University, at the Y on October 16. Berger is also the moderator of our Breaking News in the Jewish World and Beyond series. He’s the perfect subject for our New York-focused Q&A feature.
How many years, apartments and what neighborhoods have you lived in NYC?
I first came to Manhattan in 1950 as a five-year-old immigrant and we lived on 102nd Street near Columbus Avenue on the Upper West Side. Of course, my parents brought me and my brother, Josh, 3, was there too. In 1955, Robert Moses needed to tear down our building, so we left for the Bronx and settled in a plain brick building on the Grand Concourse, six blocks north of Yankee Stadium, where my sister Evelyn was born. After a few years we were able to exchange a rear apartment for a front one and after about 10 we moved to one of the Concourse’s art-deco gems on 165th Street, sunken living room and all. I moved out in 1967 when I was 22 and returned to Manhattan, spending one year near the Y at 89th Street then moving to the West Side where I as a bachelor in three different apartments (there was also a detour to an apartment in Inwood but it only lasted two years). In 1979, newly married, I moved with my wife to 104th Street and Riverside to an apartment with river views. But in 1991, the city was at its nadir and with a 4-year-old daughter, my wife and I thought it would be prudent to escape to the suburbs. We guessed wrong about the fate of NYC, but like our new town anyway (and it’s only five miles north of the Bronx.)
What era, day or event in New York’s history would you like to relive?
When I was 8 years old my friend, Maury, my brother Josh and I walked from our homes on 102nd Street down to Chinatown and back north to the UN. I’d like to relive the sheer wonder, novelty and innocence of that encounter with New York. I had that feeling many times in visiting some of the changed neighborhoods of New York, but it never quite matched that first sense of childish wonder, something like what Scott Fitzgerald describes in that famous ending of Gatsby where he talks about the feeling the first explorers must have had encountering the New World.
What’s your New York motto?
Never let down your guard. I did recently and got my bike stolen.
Describe that low, low moment when you thought you just might have to leave NYC for good.
I did leave New York in 1991. There were 2300 murders the year before, my car had been broken into three times, and three guests had their cars broken into. There was a terrible sense that no one in the city administration could grapple with the problems of drugs, graffiti, homelessness and other city ills. Finally, there were the repeated frustrations when having to take my daughter to preschools on two West Side buses while carrying a stroller, a briefcase and on a rainy day an umbrella. Of course, we did not envision that the city would turn around. Getting my daughter to school in the suburbs with a car was definitely easier, but I do miss the daily electricity and street theater of the city, though working in the city provides a good dose.
Who do you consider to be the greatest New Yorker of all time?
Saul Bellow. He was born in Chicago and died in Vermont, but in a few years in New York and in novels like “Seize the Day” and “Herzog” he captured the frantic zaniness of the city and the way it worms itself into every soul.
What was your best dining experience in NYC?
An anniversary meal at the first Bouley in Tribeca or any meal at the Second Avenue Deli that included the pitcha.
Of all the movies made about or highly associated with New York, what role would you have liked to be cast in?
The part of Rod Steiger in “On the Waterfront.” Like many New Yorkers, his soft heart betrayed his hard shell.
If you could change one thing about New York, what would it be?
I’d like the new Euro-chic Madison Avenue to be more like what Lexington Avenue is today--idiosyncratic and unpredictable and not dominated by swaggering international brands. But as a suburbanite who sometimes drives in, I also wouldn’t mind building some more underground garages and lowering the parking price.
A World in a City: New York’s Changing Immigrant Population: 10/16/07
Breaking News In The Jewish World And Beyond with Jeffrey Toobin and Joe Berger: 10/22/07
Breaking News In The Jewish World And Beyond with Daphne Merkin and Joe Berger: 3/18/08