I moved to New York in October 1999. I arrived with a suitcase, a winter coat, and $2,000 I’d saved writing jokes for late-night Israeli TV. I spent about 10 percent of my earthly possessions within 15 minutes of landing in JFK: Knowing little about the local geography, I hailed a cab and asked it to drive me to Westchester, to the home of a friend who agreed to put me up for a few days, a $200 ride. Within a few weeks, I ended up in unfashionable Brooklyn, in a small one-bedroom and a job sorting paint at a hardware store. I had little left at the end of each week to spend on luxuries. Smartphones did not yet exist, and computers were far too dear, as were TVs, and so, for entertainment, I read the Village Voice.
Every Wednesday night, I made a point of staying in the city late, hopping on the D train only after I made sure to swing by one of those ubiquitous red boxes you saw at every street corner and grab a copy of the weekly magazine off the freshly stocked pile. I read it slowly, cautiously, like a child licking a precious lollipop he never wants to end. And I understood little of what I read. New York’s politics, its culture, and its habits made little sense to me, a newcomer. The city I knew was the spacious and shimmering one I had seen in sitcoms, not the fabulously filthy town the Voice now unfurled before me. Like a yeshiva bochur poring over the ancient texts he’s convinced would teach him much more about the world than life itself ever will, I memorized names of rock bands and real estate barons and anyone else the Voice insisted I note.
And that, more even than the friends I was slowly making or the habits I was acquiring, made New York real to me.
I was never a stranger to the power of journalism. I had served in the Israel Defense Forces spokesperson’s unit and worked in media for two years before getting on that plane and moving to America. But had you asked me what role I believe journalism played in public life, I would’ve given some sterile speech about speaking truth to power and reporting honestly so that we citizens can decide. The Voice changed all that. Journalism, it taught me, was about something larger than that: It was about community.
If that sounds like a battered trope, consider the city as it appeared to me that winter 18 years ago, an omnivorous leviathan happy to crunch another brittle body with its teeth of steel and glass. How to make sense of such a beast? Even those of us born here grapple with its immensity; we may have friends and family and memories here, but a turn or two to the right or the left lies the vast unknown. But never in the pages of the Voice: There, the city was smallish and steamy, sexy and sensible, bite-sized; a story well-told that invited you to imagine your place right in it. Sure, there may be hundreds of concerts and readings and poetry slams going on around town on any given Wednesday, but if you were looking for the important ones, the ones that mattered, all you had to do was read the paper. To a stranger, this sense of order provided great relief.
I thought back about my first days in New York this week when I read that soon, the Voice will no longer exist as a print publication. It’ll be just another website. An immigrant washing up on New York’s shores will never again be able to stand by the red plastic box on any street corner and wait for a copy to arrive from the printer. Instead, he or she will be directed to the internet, where nothing is true and everything is permitted and where there is no arbiter of taste mightier than our appetites and our fears.
Great nations, like great cities, are, to quote the scholar, imagined communities. They work because they bring together people who share the same stories and see themselves as invested in their happy endings. With the Voice gone, we have one less campfire around which to huddle for warmth, swap tales, and be together. And that, more than the rise of any political candidate or party or ideology, is the real peril to American democracy, the darkness to which we must never succumb.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.