There’s a relatively new book out that examines what it was like to grow up in Co-op City, not too far from where I lived in the Bronx. I always wondered about those behemoths near City Island and I bet a lot of you have too. That’s why this book, “The Bookmaker: A Memoir of Money, Luck and Family from the Utopian Outskirts of New York” by Michael J. Agovino, is a revelation. The bookmaker in question is Agovino’s father. He’s a larger than life character but so is Co-Op City. Beautifully written.
I recently posed some questions to Agovino about his book and he was kind enough to send me his responses. Here is that Q & A. Please pick up the book and take a look for yourself. I loved it.
What is the first reaction you get when you tell people you grew up in Co-op City?
It depends. A lot of people who aren’t originally from New York don’t know it or only have a vague idea of where and what it is. So they don’t have a powerful reaction. Some others pretend to know about it and say things like “Oh, sure, I know Co-op City” or, as one magazine editor once wrote me, “I know all about Co-op City, my son had a friend there.” And to people who really do know a bit about it-its size, its scope, the idealism behind it, how it evolved-it seems as if their perception is off. Those from affluent suburbs think it’s hard-core ghetto, even if it wasn’t quite that bad. That or–especially from white liberals–they speak of it in such patronizing terms when they would never live there in a million years. Last December, it was funny, I went up there with a European TV crew and the cameraman said, “It’s not so bad.” I asked him where he lived and he said “Larchmont.” I felt like saying, “I’ll trade you Larchmont for Co-op City.”
But even to those from ghetto areas, Co-op City was never a dream destination, even if many ended up there by the 1980s. I think home-ownership was always the dream for South Bronx folk, if it was just a modest two-family house in their own neighborhood or up around Gun Hill Road or Wakefield.
That’s why I thought Co-op City would make a great setting for a book, because it’s such a complicated place-always was. It was ahead of its time in terms of racial diversity and it was so grandiose, in its size and its ideals.
Do you feel removed from the kids you grew up? Are you in touch with any?
I’m in loose touch with one guy I mention in the book, but he met an Australian woman and moved to Brisbane. When I was trying to do some interviews for a reported magazine piece on the history of Co-op City, he put me in touch with one of our old classmates. He was black, a great kid, very smart, and was now a teacher at a state university. The first thing he said to me was that he remembered my fifth birthday party and how racially diverse it was, that usually he wasn’t invited up to white friends’ apartments. He remembered that all this time later. I was touched by that. He had some great observations about Co-op City and racism and had great, provocative quotes. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the piece published.
If you’re not in touch with them (and I’d guess from your book you are not), why do you think that is? Is it because you’re more educated/sophisticated or moved up to a different class?
I don’t play those games of I’m-more-sophisticated than you or “I’m this and your that.” No, I just think to begin with Co-op City was an alienating place, physically for sure, but also socially, despite its ethos of interaction. By the 1980s, it ended up not having a community feel at all and it never had an “old neighborhood” feel, so when people moved, went to different schools, went into the military (as many did), often you didn’t see them again. And like any place, you just go in different directions. While I was there, some kids fell into the wrong crowd. I wasn’t going to shoot dice and drink 40s under my building-like that one scene in my book where the guy is killed–just to prove I was like everyone else. My point in that scene was to say, I could’ve easily been in with that crowd, but luckily my parents were strict. And yes, I guess in that sense, education was important.
Do you ever miss Co-op City? What do you miss about it?
I can’t say I miss living there physically. Twenty-two years there-or anywhere-was probably more than enough. The commute was often brutal, and those were the days before the MetroCard so being we were in a two-fare zone, we had to pay double. But sure, I miss some of those kids I grew up with. I hope life’s been good to them, though I’m not sure it has. They’re not the kind of guys who have Facebook pages or are on Linkedin.com. Hell, I’m not on those sites either. But, yeah, I have some fond memories of Co-op, and I think that comes through in the book. I’m hard on Co-op, but there’s a lot of love, too. In fact, I met someone from Building 7 through a friend of mine. I lived one building over but we didn’t know each other, nor did we recognize each other, but we talked for hours about Co-op, about our teachers at I.S. 181, about all the characters, we couldn’t stop laughing.
Have you heard from anyone you grew up with who read the book? What did they think?
No, not from people I grew up with it, but some people from Co-op who read it, including the woman I just mentioned, really seemed to enjoy the book and said I got the vibe of the place right. My guess is that so many of the kids I grew up with probably don’t even know about it. It wasn’t a best-seller and while it got some excellent reviews, I did think it would get more attention locally, especially since Co-op City was never explored in such depth and nuance before. Richard Price set his second novel, “Blood Brothers,” there, but it wasn’t a big part of the story at all. He even fictionalized the street names of Co-op City.
One highly-regarded critic said the book wouldn’t get much attention because, well for one thing it wasn’t a sensational, I-hate-my-parents memoir, but also because it took place in “New York’s least sexy community.” It was a back-handed compliment (I think!), but I understood what he was saying. The New York media, and the literati, love stories of inner city despair and eventual triumph. So maybe if the book took place in the South Bronx, or Bed Stuy, with guns and drugs, maybe it would’ve gotten more local coverage and word-of-mouth. Or, conversely, if it was about the Manhattan elite, like that book “740 Park.” Rich people love reading about other rich people and so do the middle classes. It gives them a vicarious thrill to know what it’s like to live on Park Avenue or what the drug of choice is among the prep school kids. But my book is more ambiguous; not so much black-and-white, but gray. Like the buildings of Co-op.
Did you feel growing up that Manhattan was like a different civilization?
No, not when I was growing up, believe it or not. My parents took me to Manhattan-or “the city,” as we used to call it-all the time, so growing up it felt kind of natural and somehow attainable-a place without pretense. But those were the 70s and 80s. Ironically, it was once I got my first publishing job in the early 1990s and then when I moved into Manhattan that it felt like this different universe, where everything had a subtext-and a sub subtext–from your address to your job to your social circles (if you even had any) to what high school you attended to what you wore and didn’t wear. It wasn’t the city kids who played those games. It was the privileged, ambitious young up-and-comers who were being bank-rolled by their parents (especially in my field of publishing). They had a sense of entitlement and, frankly, superiority. Well, not just the out-of-town rich kids, but Manhattan kids, too.
Now that you can live anywhere you’d like (within reason and money) where would you live? Where do you live?
Ah, but money always has the final say, doesn’t it? I’ve never felt that I could live anywhere, frankly. But I’m a city kid, and I’m a sucker for the big cities of Europe: London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, Barcelona. Locally, I’ve always liked the West Village and Gramercy Park, but that’s not possible. Even the Bobo precincts of Brooklyn are unaffordable. Plus, I’m allergic to most of these neo-Brooklynites-and I’m not talking about you Paul! So for now, I’ll stay in my relatively-affordable neighborhood of Yorkville, as annoying as it can be. (Little-known secret: There are still pockets up here that are more affordable than Brooklyn.) Long term, I’m not sure I even want to stay in New York. It’s a city that’s lost its soul. It’s all about status and money-even after the economic meltdown, maybe especially since the meltdown.