New York Works

New Yorkers who lament the loss of their ragtag city are in luck. The Radio Diaries series succeeds in salvaging a piece of old-world New York through their self-described “audio portraits of a vanishing city.” 

Each seven-minute episode of New York Works features a day in the life of a New Yorker working in a declining industry. It features a variety of warm and chatty people, ranging from the last remaining lighthouse keeper in the city to a saleswoman of a bra-fitting shop. This delightful series invites you into the entertaining worlds of each person, but it also serves as a poignant reminder that such worlds are quickly disappearing from the city.

As with most Radio Diaries profiles, this series is not narrated, leaving the subject of the episode to take the listener through the ins and outs of their day. The characters of the portraits take pride and pleasure in their occupations, and it shows in their personalised approach to service. Selma Koch, a 94-year-old owner of the Town Shop, can guess the size of her customers as soon as they walk in, and she does not rest until they leave with the perfect garment. Unlike the impersonal experience of shopping in packed chain stores, purchases at the Town Shop are accompanied by conversation with the witty saleswoman. 

Another episode traces Walter Beckerman, the last seltzer man of New York, as he delivers along the same route his grandfather followed in 1919. The customers that Walter visits on his route seem more like old friends than patrons; they exchange questions, asking about each other’s days and enquiring after loved ones. The listening experience is steeped in nostalgia. Ragtime music plays in the background while Walter and his friends banter over the table in raspy Brooklyn accents. Momentarily, you may feel as though you are part of this intimate city community. 

Like most capital cities, New York has rapidly gentrified in recent decades. As places like Starbucks and Chipotle proliferate, small businesses across the city struggle to pay rent, resulting in the closing of many beloved stores. This loss of local colour creates a generic cityscape marked by bland office buildings and streets lined with chains. 

New York Works highlights how local businesses, craftsmanship, and personalised service are integral to the city’s magic. The characters that the series features are often bursting with life. Loquacious, down to earth, and slightly eccentric – they easily make intimate connections when doing their work. It makes one wonder what a city would look like if it was devoid of such vital local characters.

 

Image by Francisco Diez via Wikimedia Commons.

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