By James Maher
Name: Lisa Arbetter
Occupation: Editor, People StyleWatch
Location: Creative Little Garden, 6th Street between Avenues A and B
Time: 11 a.m. on Monday, Aug. 10
I was born in New York. My family lived in Queens at the time and it was the late 1960s, early 1970s. They moved us out fairly quickly. I only lived here for the first oh-so-formative 6 months of my life. My mom was from the Bronx and my dad was from Brooklyn and at the time we lived in Queens.
My grandfather on my father’s side worked in a vegetable market on the Lower East Side. My grandmother lived on Hester Street. Her family came from one of those towns that was Russia, and then was Poland, or the other way around. It’s a little confusing where she came from. It was the diaspora so people don’t know where they came from. The way she told it — and now this could totally be untrue — was that her family was incredibly rich and they had servants and everything. They had to be smuggled out of the country by their servants and then they wound up here and were very poor.
My dad likes to tell the story about why they left New York. One day they were making breakfast and they put the scrambled eggs next to the table by the window, and he turned around to get the coffee. By the time he came back with the coffee, there was soot all over the eggs. He was like, 'That’s it, we’re moving!' But I think it was more because everybody who had a family back then was leaving.
They took us to this small town outside Pittsburgh called Greensburg. My parents had grown up in these majorly Jewish neighborhoods and they had never been to Pennsylvania. They didn’t know where they were going. I think that they were shocked.
My dad was an entrepreneur. I don’t know where he found them, but he hooked up with these guys who were in Pennsylvania and they started this replacement window company. My mom had this funny Bronx accent and the town that I grew up in was incredibly homogeneous — a very Catholic small town. I remember my dad saying all the time, 'Life is not like this. Life is not like this. It’s like New York. You can't get The New York Times and the only bagels are Lender's.’ We were literally brainwashed into thinking life isn’t this, it’s New York. They would take us here once, twice, three times a year. It was never a question that I would live here. My brother moved here, my sister moved to Albany so we all sort of migrated back.
When I went to school, I was bound and determined to be a therapist. That was it, but when I got there I didn’t really like the program. I went to Syracuse and it happened to have a very good journalism school. I had always liked to write and at the time and I had always been this kid who loved magazines. I just didn’t think of it as a career.
So it happened that they had a program at Syracuse called Magazine and I signed up for that and was hooked. It was at the time when Tina Brown was editing Vanity Fair and it was a big deal. She was mixing celebrity with more high culture, articles on art with tabloid crime stories, but it was a sort of revolutionary mix at the time. She was making a lot of news and I thought it was very glamorous. I loved the idea that I could write and it could be about anything.
My first apartment was on 4th Street between A and B. I had moved in with a friend. It was a crooked apartment with the bathtub in the kitchen — that whole story. I couldn’t afford anything and I was living on an air mattress on the floor. My roommate had a very active social life and I wanted to live by myself so I found a place in Brooklyn. I’ve had four apartments in this city, two on 4th Street and two on Amity Street in Brooklyn. I moved back here in 2006 to 4th Street again. I love the neighborhood so much. There is so much diversity in everything. There’s diversity in the restaurants, the people, the ages, the races and the way people talk, the languages, the way people dress.
I got a job at InStyle around 2000. It was fairly new and the whole idea of the celebrity on the cover was a new thing at that moment. People didn’t care about models anymore. It was sort of like the bridge between the model, the supermodel period and the celebrity period. I then worked at Cargo, which was a short-lived men's magazine, during the whole metrosexual moment in time. Then I got hired at People StyleWatch to help launch it, then went back to InStyle, and now I’m at StyleWatch again.
I started this job about five or six months ago. It’s been crazy but it’s been so much fun. We rethought and redesigned the magazine over the last five months. It was more of a celebrity publication and now it’s more of a street-style publication. There are many blogs but it’s never been put into a magazine format. It’s the entire world. It’s every city, and pulling it together into trends, showing how people put outfits together, adding the service element, adding the shopping element, and also being able to show big beautiful pictures in layouts.
And what I love most about it is the diversity. Style is not one thing; it’s not one body type. All of us think many different things are beautiful, but in the media you see one sort of thing. Now we have a chance to show body diversity, racial diversity, and diversity of style. You see people that aren’t necessarily trendy or the newest thing, but they put their clothes together in such unique ways that it’s fascinating to look at.
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.