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.


Anonymous said...

As a Native New Yorker I don't believe his book has anything to offer me.

DrGecko said...

@anon 8:10 - It would make a good gift, then. Like a Christmas fruitcake.

Rachel Rosenblatt said...

Jewish communist? I knew I liked this guy!
Look out Blumpft... we're coming for you!

Giovanni said...

First, Jake says he didn’t know about Columbia when he was in High School because “everything above 14th Street was like one of those old maps where the far north is labelled "there be dragons." Hello? Times Square. Madison Square Garden. The Knicks. Central Park. The Zoo. FAO Schwartz. The Empire State Building. Macys. Rockefeller Center. The Guggenheim. Harlem. The Cloisters. I’ve never heard anyone who actually grew up in New York say anything as clickbaity as this.

Then in the next section he says at the same time that everything below 14th Street was a mystery to him, and he never even explored St. Marks Place until he was 20. So he basically got off the subway at Union Square, went to Stuyvesant High, and got back on the subway without ever setting foot in the rest of Manhattan until he went to Columbia? Maybe the book should be called “Ask a Native Park Sloper.”

Anonymous said...

In 20 years I hope Hudson Yards is utterly reviled as the pretentious and fugly development that it is! Maybe people by then will be ashamed to say they live there (or ever lived there). From what I can see, living in Hudson Yards is like saying you live in Trump Tower: it's garish, ugly and overpriced; supposedly designed to "dazzle" others but only displays your bad taste.

Anonymous said...

Man, tough crowd. Good luck on your book and please ignore the flame throwers.

Quito said...

umm Giov many of us are very happy to stay in our hood, we get everthing we need! I'm from alpahbet city (4 st. represent!) and many of my people do not go outside of what we know and are fine with that! We don't know Columbia neigborhood or uptown and thats ok for us, many don't even speak english but we are still proud NYC and make this city what it is today! So please open your mind before you open your mouth!

Giovanni said...

@Quito. Point taken. I know people who never leave their own neighborhood and think Columbia Avenue is in another country. But that’s the point, Jake did not stay in his own neighborhood in Brooklyn his whole life, he came into Manhattan every single schoolday and still never ventured out of his narrow routine to explore what he now says is the greatest city on earth.

In addition, he applied to schools outside of New York but claims he didn’t know about the only Ivy Leagie school in the city. So obviously Jake was fine with going other places, as long as they didn't include anywhere in The City, aka Manhattan.

For anyone who attended Stuyvesant to say that they did it know about Columbia is strange to say the least. It’s pnenof the most famous Universities on earth and was the site of major student demonstrations in the 60s among other major events.. It’s ironic that he started a website that covers New York but seems to have missed out on a lot of the city’s history while he did God knows what in sleepy Park Slope.

Anonymous said...

I think anyone who chooses to make their life here and stay is a true New Yorker. You don't have to be born here. In fact, it is the immigrant population that makes New York what it is. It's the same thing with being an American. You don't have to be born here to be American. That's what is special about America.

Judah Silverman said...

I for one look forward to the day when borders, language, religion are seen for what they really are: antiquated systems of the past, no longer useful! We are moving towards a global community, a golden age of mankind, capable of true happiness for each and every one! And NYC is leading the way!! Shalom!!

XTC said...

It's the height of unbridled douchebaggery to say who's a New Yorker and who's not simply based by where one is born. It's like Johnny Rotten turning blue screaming what's authentically punk and what's not.
It's not where you were born but what did with your time when you came to NYC. Everybody has something different to offer- that's what makes NY NY.

Anonymous said...

@Giovanni: I think "Columbia Avenue" IS in another country, or at least another city!

PS: I was born in Queens & we lived near one end of the "A" train, and my trips to "the city" were to get on the "A" train with my family & get out at the Museum of Natural History - if you think I knew *anything* about what was between the stop where I got ON the train and the stop where I got OFF the train, you'd be quite wrong! People live in their little neighborhoods & there's nothing wrong with that.

Giovanni said...

@6:06PM. Obviously that was a typo for Columbus Avenue, but thanks very much for missing the point and being the official EV Grieve grammar cop du jour. At least you came into the city to visit a museum, which according to Jake he apparently never did.

FYI, Columbus Avenue is located right between Central Park West and Amsterdam Avenue, and it’s located in “The City.”

My main point wasn’t that not only does Jake claim that he never once explored the various neighborhoods of Manhattan while he was attending school here, but according to his interview, he didn’t even visit any of the major landmarks and attractions of NYC, even on a class trip, which I actually don’t believe. He is a bit prone to hyperbole and clickbaity statements, as anyone who reads Gothamist (or this interview) knows.

For all we know, Jake’s family probably had a regular table at Sardis and courtside season tickets for the Knicks, but for some reason he now wants us all to think he was some sort of Brooklyn hermit who never ventured out of the cloistered pseudo-suburban world of Park Slope to explore even St Marks Place as a teenager. And this is same the guy who wants to be the ultimate arbiter of who a real New Yorker is.

Scuba Diva said...

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."

Or like the poster A Glimpse of the Village by Mark Alan Stamaty (of Washingtoon fame) with the three hippies standing around talking:

"I haven't been above 14th street in 6 months!" (beard is down to chest)

"I haven't been above 14th street in a year!" (beard is down to knees)

"I haven't been above 14th street in five years!" (beard is pooled around feet several times)

Anonymous said...

@Giovanni: Yeah, I'm the grammar cop; it's what I get paid the big bucks for! And YOU were very sloppy to write "Columbia Avenue."

As for Jake, whoever he may be, why are you so fixated on his claims?I know many people who could say what he has said, and it would be true. Just b/c *you* can't imagine it doesn't mean it's untruthful.

Anonymous said...

New York would be a nice place if they ever finished building it.

Anonymous said...

Those hotdog carts shall be run off, and anyone busking or vending without Hudson yards permission will be escorted off premises.
In twenty years it will still suck, there will be a new generation of Bros and fros who think Hudson yards as normal.

Anonymous said...

Here's a question for Jake:

How do you feel about Gothamist comments sections being standing water for every mean, racist, bigoted, snarky loser in/around NYC? NYC's 4Chan/Redddit.