clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

In the Footsteps of NYC's Best Chronicler, Joseph Mitchell

New, 10 comments
A new biography explores the work of author Joseph Mitchell, whose legacy still impacts New York City. All photos by Nathan Kensinger.

Welcome back to Camera Obscura, Curbed's series of photo essays by Nathan Kensinger. This week, Kensinger reflects on the work of Joseph Mitchell.

Sometimes, when the fate of the world seems to be a foregone conclusion ignored by the crowds surging through midtown Manhattan, I take a long subway ride toward the end of a line, to walk in neighborhoods with colorful names unknown to most New Yorkers—EdgemereMeadowmereBloomfield—quiet places where the tangled strands of the city's history demand excavation. On days like this, I often cross paths with the ghost of Joseph Mitchell.

Though he died nearly 20 years ago and published his last piece in The New Yorker over 30 years before that, Mitchell is still widely considered the best writer to chronicle New York City. The release of a new biography about his life, Man In Profile by Thomas Kunkel, has brought renewed attention to his work, with reviewers bestowing upon him several new posthumous titles, including "The Master Writer of the City" and the "Bard of Vintage New York." It has been five decades since Mitchell's final byline appeared, but his influence on the city remains strong. His once-rare books are now widely available, inspiring generations of new writers, and vestiges of the city he wrote about are still alive, if you know where to look.

Thomas Kunkel's biography presents a fine collection of facts about Joseph Mitchell's life, mainly culled from letters, journals, notes, and articles written by the subject himself. It traces his origins in rural North Carolina, his early days as "a journalistic prodigy" for various New York newspapers, and his storied career writing for The New Yorker, in which he poetically explored the city's dive bars, fish markets, graveyards, and ruins, creating a series of masterpieces about an ever-changing city. The book also provides insight into the long decades of silence at the end of Mitchell's career, when he reported to work daily but produced no new pieces. Overall, however, the biography offers relatively little new information for devoted readers of Mitchell's oeuvre, aside from several revelations of his somewhat unorthodox working methods, which led one bereft reviewer to state—in the Columbia Journalism Review, no less—"I wish this guy hadn't written this book."

For those unfamiliar with Mitchell's work, the best place to start would be with his own words, and in the months leading up to this biography, The New Yorker published three sublime unfinished autobiographical chapters written by him. In these scant pages, Mitchell's first published work since his final opus "Joe Gould's Secret" appeared in 1964, the author's dense, spiraling prose goes far deeper into his obsessions, motivations, and psyche than the book-length investigation written by Kunkel. For Mitchell fans, these short chapters were worth the long wait. They are quoted at some length in the new biography, overshadowing any other insight provided therein.

One fact made plain by Man In Profile is that Mitchell's influence on today's generation of New York chroniclers is undeniable. "For many contemporary journalists and writers of nonfiction, Mitchell's work still inspires," writes Kunkel. "Joseph Mitchell's work will endure." His impact can be traced down to some of the best present-day writers exploring New York City, which include Corey Kilgannon, who covers a similar beat of fisherman, cave dwellers, and dive bars for the New York Times, Kevin Walsh at Forgotten New York, the city's great scribe of urban minutia, and Jeremiah Moss of Vanishing New York, who documents the ongoing decimation of the city's unique old businesses. When asked, all three readily admit to having read Mitchell's work. "I'd say he's been a major influence," said Moss. "I've been a big fan of his for years. I wanted to be him."

The new biography, especially when read alongside Mitchell's collected works in Up In The Old Hotel, also offers a kind of road map to the author's physical legacy in the city. Though he operated in a world of words, and the city has changed dramatically since his death in 1996, the results of Mitchell's work can be seen throughout New York City today. Due in no small part to his articles, and to his later appointment to the Landmarks Preservation Commission in the 1980s, the South Street Seaport still stands today, McSorley's Old Ale House is livelier than ever, and the Rossville A.M.E. Zion Church Cemetery in Sandy Ground is a protected NYC landmark. Mitchell's pieces may have chronicled a disappearing city—closed restaurants, hotels and bars, the changing Bowery, the death of the city's oyster and lobster industry—but one of his greatest impacts as an author was to change how people viewed these parts of New York City. Because of his work, many New Yorkers have taken up the fight to preserve the city's history.

While a number of the endangered places Joseph Mitchell shone a spotlight on are still standing, there are no official public monuments to his work in the city. The author lived for most of his life in a modest apartment building on a quiet tree-lined street in Greenwich Village, surrounded by much nicer homes. No plaques are installed on his old block to commemorate his life. However, just a short walk away, a fitting memorial can be found. In the back room of McSorley's, the saloon immortalized by his 1940 piece "The Old House at Home," Mitchell's obituary hangs in the center of the wall, in a place of honor opposite Peter Cooper's old portrait. Even more fittingly, the daytime bartenders still provide a living connection to the author. "I met Joseph Mitchell," says one, with quiet pride. "He was a very kind gentleman." Mitchell's city may be in danger of fading away, but his spirit lives on.

Joseph Mitchell's home, according to "Man In Profile," was at 44 West 10th Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues. The block is part of the protected Greenwich Village Historic District.

With a variety of architectural styles, it is considered by some to be "the most beautiful block in New York City," though Mitchell's home was in an undistinguished apartment building.

No plaques have been mounted here to honor Mitchell's presence, though further down the block, a marker has been placed outside the home of poet Emma Lazarus, author of "The New Colossus."

One of Mitchell's favorite haunts, the old Fulton Fish Market on South Street, was the setting of several of his longer pieces, including "Old Mr. Flood," which was first published serially in the 1940s.

The Manhattan market was closed down 10 years ago, and many of the vendors moved to a new space in the Bronx. Preservationists have been fighting to save the empty buildings ever since.

An old calendar still marks the day of the market's closing, in November 2005. The Howard Hughes Corporation hopes to demolish the non-landmarked part of the market complex to make way for a controversial 494-foot tower.



Howard Hughes is currently using Joseph Mitchell's words as part of an "exhibit" wrapped around the construction barrier alongside their Pier 17 redevelopment site. The exhibit supposedly honors the South Street Seaport's history, and also includes quotes from Jane Jacobs, Mitchell's West Village neighbor.

The historic district along South Street that Mitchell once explored remains intact, but it is in rough shape today, with homeless camps and abandoned buildings. Hurricane Sandy caused widespread damage here in 2012.

Sloppy Louie's restaurant, the setting of Mitchell's classic 1952 portrait "The Cave," has been replaced by a tourist bike rental shop, though the upper floors have been protected by the South Street Seaport Museum. Mitchell's piece was later retitled "Up In The Old Hotel."

All along the Bowery, another neighborhood extensively explored by Mitchell, remnants of the historic past remain. His portraits of Joe Gould, Mazie P. Gordon, and others explored this once-celebrated area.

The ongoing demolition of the Bowery's historic buildings will soon swallow up these structures,"three of the oldest buildings on the Bowery," according to Bowery Boogie. Soon, the Bowery may be just another part of Mitchell's city that has been erased.

Out in Sandy Ground, Staten Island, the old A.M.E. Zion Church Cemetery that was featured in Mitchell's 1956 piece "Mr. Hunter's Grave" is now a New York City Landmark.

"When things get too much for me," wrote Mitchell, "I put a wild-flower book and couple of sandwiches in my pockets and go down to the South Shore of Staten Island and wander around awhile in one of the old cemeteries down there."

Mr. Hunter's gravestone is still unfinished in the cemetery, and the farmlands and old homes that once surrounded it are long gone.

In nearby Prince's Bay, Staten Island, Mitchell chronicled the decline of New York's lobster, oyster, and clam fishing industries for his 1951 piece "The Bottom of the Harbor." The community retains its nautical roots today, though much diminished.

Down in Lemon Creek, where Mitchell once picked wild pears. The waterway is now a protected part of the Staten Island Bluebelt. "He gave us the poetry of the city and its uncelebrated people," said Jeremiah Moss, considering Mitchell's legacy. "Who's around today to do that?"
· Nathan Kensinger [Official]
· Joseph Mitchell coverage [Curbed]
· Camera Obscura archive [Curbed]