Friday, April 5, 2019
Q&A with Jake Dobkin, co-founder of Gothamist and author of 'Ask a Native New Yorker'
After helping launch Gothamist in 2003, co-founder and native New Yorker Jake Dobkin enjoyed answering questions and offering advice (often unsolicited!) about NYC to staffers who recently arrived here.
Eventually, Editor-in-Chief John Del Signore suggested that Dobkin, a third-generation New Yorker who grew up in Park Slope, share his humorous and opinionated perspective to readers who may have questions about adjusting to the NYC way of life or to longtime residents looking for a unique point of view.
And so, in the summer of 2013, Dobkin wrote his first "Ask a Native New Yorker" for the news site, tackling a topic that people may wonder about but couldn't find an answer to: "Is It Normal For Roaches To Crawl Through My Hair At Night?"
Now, after 150 columns — addressing questions ranging from "Should I Wash My Hands After Taking The Subway?" to "When Should I Call The Cops On My New Neighbors?" — the series has been turned into a book. I recently asked Dobkin a few questions about "Ask a Native New Yorker."
You've written some 150 "Ask a Native New Yorker" posts for Gothamist. However, the book isn't a repackaging of those. What can readers expect to find in this volume?
I wanted to start from scratch here and really create a volume of advice that could guide a New Yorker from birth until death. I thought a lot of the original columns on the web were pretty good, but they were written under the usual blogging time constraints.
For the book. I had a lot more time and so I think the answers are a lot more thoughtful, and hopefully more amusing. Turns out banging out eight blog posts a day ain't the best way to create quality writing!
In the book, you write that to be considered a native New Yorker, you must have, for starters, been born in one of the five boroughs. What are your feelings about people who say they are a native New Yorker — they just grew up a quick LIRR ride away in, oh, Valley Stream?
I feel bad for these people, because the truth always comes out, and then they look like real chumps. Listen, I grew up in Park Slope — it's not exactly the most hardcore neighborhood in New York, and so I understand why someone might want to shade the truth on their origin story. In college I used to tell people I grew up in South Brooklyn or something.
But ultimately to achieve wisdom you must be honest with the world and yourself about who you are and where you come from, and anyway, it could be worse — you could be from Jersey!
Do you allow for any wiggle room for iconic figures from the city's past or present — people who made an impression on NYC's culture and history though they weren't born here and hence not native New Yorkers? People such as Mickey Mantle, Andy Warhol, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Patrick Ewing, Debbie Harry and Patti Smith to randomly name six...
Newcomers, immigrants and refugees from the suburbs all contribute to the wonderful tossed-salad that is NYC culture — I'd never denigrate anyone who took the extreme act of courage it takes to move here. That said, I think it's fair to say that natives have a different, and valuable point of view, that is too often overlooked, and which I hope the book shines a light on.
You went to school at Columbia. At the time while making your collegiate choice, did it occur to you that attending, say, Brown or Dartmouth, would have watered down your native New Yorker status by being away for four years?
I was raised by hippie radical communists in Park Slope, whose style of parenting was to avoid parenting as much as possible. So when it came to applying to college I was pretty much on my own.
Stuyvesant High School in those days had about one college counselor for every 950 kids, so there wasn't much advice there either — it was pretty much "don't forget to apply to college!" So I was actually totally unaware Columbia existed until after I graduated from high school — basically everything above 14th Street was like one of those old maps where the far north is labelled "there be dragons."
So I didn't apply there, and actually got rejected by every school except Dartmouth and Binghamton. Now, I knew I couldn't go to Dartmouth, because I had a feeling my whole sarcastic Jew schtick wouldn't play well in New Hampshire. So I ended up going to SUNY Binghamton for 12 weeks, and then dropping out, and at that point, finally, someone suggested I check out Columbia, and I did. It was like I discovered El Dorado — an amazing lost city of gold.
So I wish I could say my college choice was the product of my New York Native realness, but it was actually just a kind of ridiculous stumbling ass-backwards into a situation that worked for me. The moral of the story is I'm not letting my kids apply to any school you can't get to on NYC public transit. Maybe I'd make an exception for Rutgers or something.
The book provides a lot of helpful tips for people new to the city. Do you have any specific advice for residents who are new to the East Village?
I remember when I first got to Stuy, back in 1990 — I was 13, and in those days it was on 15th and 1st, just outside the East Village. Everything south was this giant mystery which took me years to unravel. I actually think the first time I walked down St. Mark's I was 20 years old! But since then I've developed tons of favorite spots, none particularly original — Veselka, Sobaya, 7B, etc.
One of the best secret spots in all of NYC — the New York Marble Cemetery off Second Avenue — I love going in there whenever the gate is open.
Do you still believe — as you write — that New York is the greatest city in the world? You finished this book before Hudson Yards opened.
New York is the greatest city the world has ever seen, and probably will ever see, since between climate change and our current politics, the human race doesn't seem like it has so much time left.
You can't let things like Hudson Yards bother you too much — New York has always changed at a blistering pace, and somehow we always turn out OK. I was up there [the other day] shooting the Shed, and I saw like four hot-dog carts already colonizing the edges of the site. I have no doubt in 10 or 20 years the place will be totally over-run with real New York chaos.
"Ask a Native New Yorker: Hard-Earned Advice on Surviving and Thriving in the Big City" (Abrams Image) is now available wherever books are sold.