Filmmaker, Ruth Novaczek, on Nostalgia for New York in the 1990s
Ruth is an artist and curator who has extensive experience in film making and other forms of artistic expression. In this piece, we are regaled with a tale of her time in 90s New York. In the midst of perennial problems of political discrimination and economic deprivation, Ruth captures the impact of cosmopolitan diversity, social geniality and cultural optimism that made this time special.
50-50: A story - one of Ruth's short films
‘Everyone’s Jewish in the city, even if they’re not’ said a friend, and everyone is queer and some kind of artist, or so it seemed. I took a trip to NYC in 1994 for a film festival. At a Thanksgiving party, I fell in love. London suddenly seemed so parochial, so boring. Air India, London to New York, a hundred dollars return, how could I resist?
I’m nostalgic for a time and place that no longer exists but feels like home, like so many romantics. Back then, New York felt like home. The city was a perfect backdrop for my diaristic films, classically cinematic, captured brilliantly by Chantal Akerman in her wistful News From Home (1977). A grainy muted technicolour quality of light, a buzzing energy, and enthusiastic conversations with friends made fast. So different from Dickensian London.
It was my English accent and Jewish shtick that won me friends, because I was different in a place where difference counted for something. Everyone was interested, there were no mobile phones to distract from real life, streets were full of weirdos, eccentrics, and talkers. I loved the clunk and hiss of New York radiators and the old apartment blocks with ancient doormen. I loved that a plate of food in a restaurant was big enough for two: you could take half away and give it to the homeless. One guy on the street asked, ‘is this health food?’. I said, ‘sorta’, and he waved me away. I loved New York in a way that was different from my reluctant attempt to find things to like about London (beyond the parks and music scene). Somehow it was hopeful: I felt at home as a Jew and a queer. How many times did interesting-looking women check me out or walk up to me in a store? Write their number on a piece of paper and walk away with a sly smile.
It was my English accent and Jewish shtick that won me friends, because I was different in a place where difference counted for something.
This was a time before gay marriage, queers were marginal and the AIDS crisis exposed those margins starkly. Many lesbians had joined Act Up to protest the Reagan administration’s non-response to a sexually transmitted disease that killed so many gay men at the time. By the 90s things had begun to change, there were effective drugs, everyone knew about safe sex and all the gay bars had free condoms by the entrance. So there was a kind of optimism, but on the other hand the neighbourhoods my friends lived in were being gentrified, and the East Village, where we got together and exchanged ideas, was becoming unaffordable.
There was injustice and struggle as there always is, but in NYC it felt like a new world was possible. There was hope, for exciting urban life and culture, even after AIDS had exposed so much that was wrong with the existing order. Cafe Yaffa and Mogador in the East Village were Jewish/Israeli/Moroccan style fusion cafés, both on E9th Street, where I’d go to meet friends. Sometimes it was the place we called the mafia bar: gloomy with red plush drapes and a juke-box at the edge of a tiny dance floor. It was usually empty. Sometimes there’d be a couple smooching in the corner, or an old guy with a cigar. I loved the cheap sushi joints all over the East Village, the diners in Brooklyn, when people could still afford to eat in restaurants somehow. I loved Second Avenue deli, and when I told my girlfriend I wanted to go there, she said, ‘heart-attack food!’. I went on my own and had salt beef; the older guy sitting next to me chatted nicely. We talked about food, I think, and as I went to pay at the till, the guy said, hey wow, and I was like, what? That was Joe di Maggio, he said, he talked to you!
Cities are vibrant, New York City was full of energy; there was a sense of connectedness with interesting people who seemed to be at the centre of something great.
All the queer women I knew had a sense that they could become something; what I mean is that even struggling artist friends believed in themselves. The morale was incredible, something I hadn’t expected and something that changed my way of seeing my own possibilities. I ran around town with my Super 8 camera shooting the beautiful bodegas and the fabulous skyline crossing the Williamsburg Bridge.
All the queer women I knew had a sense that they could become something; what I mean is that even struggling artist friends believed in themselves.
The city where I found my voice, softer at the edges, a new vernacular, freed from the English inflections of class, yet starkly aware that the freedoms I desired were unavailable to many. Now the city is prey to developers who don’t care about the musicians, and queer art scene, who couldn’t care less about my friends determined to make something of themselves.
At forty, I wasn’t even young, but I was relatively naive. One evening I went out to buy wine for my hosts in their apartment near Columbia. I wandered up into Harlem, and loved the Haitian and Dominican music pouring from parked cars on street corners. At the liquor store I was buzzed in: it had bulletproof Perspex screens in front of the counter. I sauntered back, enchanted by the sensory extravagance of it all. My hosts were aghast that a white woman from London had wandered into Harlem.
I learned something amazing in New York, about the coexistence of utopia and dystopia, about the beauty of contrasts.
I’m writing this in the middle of a pandemic, travelling in my memories while travel remains risky and dangerous. Borders are closed to countries that have been cavalier, if not reckless, with the health and safety of its citizens. I thought about how much I learned when I lived in New York among friends who had no health insurance.
I learned something amazing in New York, about the coexistence of utopia and dystopia, about the beauty of contrasts. I think NYC made me complex, because it was a place I could grow up in conversation with people who felt more familiar than alien. Back then New York felt egalitarian, democratic, queer, and cosmopolitan. I set up my camera in bars and cafés and recorded conversations with friends, went out on the streets and shot the yellow cabs on First Avenue or East Houston, then cut all the impressions together.
Back then New York felt egalitarian, democratic, queer, and cosmopolitan.