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Author Spotlight Q&A: Jennifer Baum Explores the Upper West Side’s Legacy in ‘Just City’

14th December 2023

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Praised by Nicholas Dagen Bloom at Hunter College as “a readable autobiographical account, integrating personal memoir and housing policy analysis,” Just City: Growing Up on the Upper West Side When Housing Was a Human Right is coming in April from Fordham University Press. Here, author Jennifer Baum talks about the book.

Q: Manhattan’s Upper West Side is one of those neighborhoods that conjures vivid associations for many people. Tell me how your book fits in with the tangle of ideas and realities about this storied place.

JB: I feel as though my book gives voice to a collective experience. Growing up on the Upper West Side in the 1960s and 1970s, in affordable Mitchell-Lama cooperative housing, there was a belief in the common good that doesn’t exist as much today. We had housing security, knew our neighbors, formed committees to beautify our building grounds, organized activities for children, and more.

I tried to capture that in the book—this sense of a time when we all cared about each other, about the collective interest, not the private interest. Of course, not everyone felt this. There were hardships and housing displacements, and poverty, racism, and crime, but we were together to try to make the world, or our neighborhood at least, better.

Q: One of the great things about having your grounded narrative of neighborhood life is the personal perspective on sweeping changes as they unfold at an intimate scale. The arrival of the Upper West Side’s first McDonald’s is a wonderful example. Tell me about that.

JB: Well, at first it seemed exciting, and then it was normalized, like going to Sal’s Pizza for a slice. We went there for lunch hour from PS 75. For the Upper West Side in 1972, McDonald’s represented something new, clean, unique, sanitized, upscale. It was perceived as being exotic—our first taste of Americana. Neighborhood kids got McDonald’s gift certificates for Hanukkah. None of us, of course, had any idea what McDonald’s would come to represent, and how it would lead, along with other forces, to gentrification.

In the book, I was able to connect the opening of McDonald’s with the first new luxury building to go up in decades, The Columbia, just a block away on Broadway and 96th Street, and then to John Lennon’s death and Ronald Reagan’s election victory, both occurring in 1980. In my mind, these events were all related. My dad’s sudden death while visiting the private school I’d transferred to from public school, which also happened in the ‘70s, and my loss of innocence as a result, somehow mirrors the loss of innocence, even despair and cynicism, which resulted from the movement away from the common good.

Q: I’m interested in the methods that went into your book—especially the use of social media to reconnect residents of the “old Upper West Side.” What sort of second life has the neighborhood’s heyday from fifty or more years ago taken on, in memories and oral history, via new digital networks?

JB: Social media has definitely enabled residents of the “old Upper West Side” to feel connected in a profound way. There are two administrators of the “Growing Up on the Old Upper West Side” Facebook group, who have been instrumental in facilitating the group. Thanks to them, ten thousand plus members have a forum to express and relive their memories, longings, and experiences about such a unique moment in time.

I experienced this collective energy on the Facebook group and tapped into it, using it as a resource to find others who had the same experiences growing up that I did. At the time, I didn’t know if others who grew up in neighborhood Mitchell-Lama cooperatives would feel the way I did, but so many of them did. So many of them wanted to share. I was overwhelmed with the response. Across the board folks felt as I did—privileged to grow up not only on the Upper West Side, but in clean, well-maintained subsidized housing where you pay according to your income and get an apartment according to family size, and have a backyard to play and relax in. I’m lucky, as are all the other group members, that the group exists.

Q: In making sense of New York’s transition from the post-World War II moment to the present, phrases like “slum” clearance, urban renewal, and gentrification distill sometimes messy historical processes. How does your lived experience of city life fit with (or perhaps complicate) these dominant interpretative categories that are so often used to make sense of urban change?

JB: I’m back living in the city now after decades away. I feel extremely lucky that I can afford to live in a beautiful Brooklyn neighborhood in a one-bedroom apartment. I was able to buy my apartment because I took the homeownership route that is a route of upward mobility for those lucky enough to be able to manage it. We are told in America to buy. Buy a home. It’s a great investment. It’s the way to go to secure your future, to have a retirement fund, to make a profit, above all a profit.

So while I was living in Arizona as an adult, after my Upper West Side childhood, my husband and I bought a house. After we split up, we sold the house for a profit, enabling me to live in a one-bedroom in New York City. I wish it didn’t have to be this way. I wish American society was structured to allow renters to feel secure, to know they won’t be priced out, to be more like Vienna—that city that is such a great example of what subsidized housing on a large scale allows people to do—live well, live affordably, live safely, without fear of their rent being jacked up and being thrown on the street.

Q: Finally, a question about your publisher, Fordham University Press. What drew you to working with them?

JB: Well, I first tried to get an agent and had no luck. I’d been warned about publishing and didn’t have great expectations for being published by a commercial house. Again, social media helped in this regard. I’m a member of a few Facebook groups for memoirist/writers who lamented about the state of publishing and advised going the university press route. So I decided to pursue university presses that specialized in the NYC area. I was really lucky to find Fordham, which has the Empire State Editions imprint, that specializes in celebrating the diverse people and places of New York. It was a great fit for my book.

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Jennifer Baum is a filmmaker turned writer. Her writing has been published in New York Daily News, Guernica, Jacobin, The Village Voice, The Phoenix Jewish News, Canadian Jewish Outlook, The Jewish Observer Los Angeles, MUTHA, Hip Mama, and Newfound, which nominated her essay, A Different Set of Rules, for a Pushcart award. Baum teaches composition at Montclair State University and occasionally works as a freelance editor, most recently for a series of reports for the World Bank on poverty in Ghana.

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