Bruised and Broke in Bloomberg's New York

Choire Sicha's first book documents the lives, loves, and looming debt of New York's new-media power brokers as the gay 20-somethings try to navigate Mayor Michael Bloomberg's millionaire island.

BY Savas Abadsidis

September 18 2013 6:00 AM ET

Gay writer Choire Sicha, whose first name is pronounced like Corey, has a storied and sordid love affair with the Big Apple. 

With Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. AD 2009) in a Large City, Sicha has written arguably one of the finest historical works New York City in recent memory. It also happens to be the prolific blogger and journalist's first book. 

Very Recent History is a reported book that reads like captivating fiction, allowing the infamous journalist to turn his insightful wit on New York, the Great Recession, and youth itself — as seen through the lens of a group of broke, gay 20-something men, all of whom are real players in today's media world whose true identities Sicha keeps hidden. The friends brave bars, debt, treacherous jobs, and each other’s beds to produce an honest portrayal of the modern millennial's life that could make even Samantha Jones clutch her proverbial pearls.

Sicha is himself a product of this new media boom. He cofounded the Website The Awl, which GQ called "the closest thing on the Internet to the much-imitated Spy magazine of the '80s and '90s." He's also a former editor of Gawker and Radar, and his writing offers a visceral sense of New York City and the way it has transformed from the '90s Sex and the City era, to today's soon-to-be post-Bloomberg, post-9/11 era.

While New York has seen phenomenal growth, the city has also undergone an enduring change in its socioeconomic landscape. In one of the greatest cities in the world, the richest man in town is the mayor — at least while Bloomberg's still in office. Billionaires shed apartments like last season’s fashion trends, even as the country’s economy turns inside out and workers are expelled from the city’s glass towers. The young and careless go on as they always have, getting laid and getting laid off, falling in and out of love, and trying to navigate the strange new world they traffic in: the Internet, complex financial markets, credit cards, pop stars, micro-plane cheese graters, and sex apps.

In his historical retrospective, published just three years outside the time it memorializes, Sicha explores the multifaceted impact the recession is still having on young people. With characteristic wit and the relatable, casual online tone he's helped establish as the norm for digital reporting, Sicha notes that people like him are just being supplanted by younger people subsidized by their parents to live in New York, and explores how that compares to the situation of young people around the country who are moving back in with their parents after graduation. It's a story that hits home for Sicha, who was priced out of his apartment on St. Mark's while writing Very Recent History. Sicha temporarily relocated to Miami. 

"I think we're coming to see that there were some relatively permanent effects [of the recession]," says Sicha. "I say 'relatively' because cities are funny and have funny generational life cycles. This also won't be the last crisis and or recession we see, but I think most of the further shocks will be pretty related. We didn't fix the systemic stuff that caused the last one."

Even before the recently decided New York mayoral primary, Sicha was prescient, having seen the emergence of a candidate like Bill de Blasio as a welcome respite from Bloomberg's bags of money and disregarded term limits. Not only is de Blasio's family biracial, but his wife at one time identified as lesbian, and she wrote about it for Essence in 1979. 

But why didn't Sicha put his money on Christine Quinn, the speaker of the New York City Council and onetime front-runner in the mayoral race, as the right person to usher in a new egalitarian era? If she'd been elected, Quinn would have been the city's first female and first openly gay mayor. Instead, Quinn conceded the race to de Blasio after coming in third in last week's primary. Sicha echoes the concerns of many of Quinn's queer detractors, arguing that "by aligning herself with Bloomberg, she sort of sealed her own doom."

But with de Blasio squaring away the Democratic nomination for mayor, Sicha welcomes the breath of fresh air, eager to escape some of the more sinister effects of 12 years under a Bloomberg administration. Sicha says that under Bloomberg, New York re-created a permanent service class. 

"New York City became for a while a place of fairly high social mobility," says Sicha. "But now, with great concentrations of wealth — with 400,000 millionaires! — and with instability in employment and an elimination of middle-class jobs, we have more people to fill these service jobs than we 'need,' and no one cares to do anything about it."

Over the year documented in Very Recent History — which is being stocked in the sociology section, according to The New Yorker — one of Sicha's main characters, Edward, has to move home with his parents. That's a reality for countless young and not-so-young people who can't afford to live their dreams and pay New York's astronomical rental rates. 

"There are a lot of people tenuously in New York City," explains Sicha. "But of course, many of them have nowhere else to go. People don't fly back to their countries of origin after starting over in New York. They hang on, tough as nails, and do what they have to do. But I did see a number of like formerly middle-class, now sorta-not-quite middle-class people, have real troubles staying in [the city].”

If we're to believe that the recession is truly over, Sicha's report will bookend a series of accounts of life in the city that begins arguably with Andrew Ross Sorkin's Too Big to Fail and ends with Very Recent History. Of course, we'll likely need a bit more distance to judge the impact our own very recent history will have — will a new mayor help heal New York City and revive its reputation as the city where young, energized hopefuls go to work hard and make it big? Or will the rich continue to get richer while the rest of the city licks its economic wounds? Perhaps we can ask Sicha to tell us in three years' time.

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