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BookBrowse Reviews Feral City by Jeremiah Moss

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Feral City

On Finding Liberation in Lockdown New York

by Jeremiah Moss

Feral City by Jeremiah Moss X
Feral City by Jeremiah Moss
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  • Published:
    Oct 2022, 288 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rebecca Foster
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Jeremiah Moss's fascinating narrative chronicles an unprecedented time in New York City's history, as COVID-19 drove newcomers out and left misfits and protesters behind.

Having lived in Manhattan’s East Village since the 1990s, social critic Jeremiah Moss has witnessed gentrification firsthand and written about it in his blog and book Vanishing New York. He builds on that work, and specifically reflects on the COVID-19 pandemic, here in his follow-up, Feral City. Since 9/11, he believes, the area has morphed from a haven for outsiders to a preserve of what he calls the "hyper-normal": rich kids who come and go as they please, dumping perfectly good furniture on the sidewalk when they move on. This influx of the privileged into his neighborhood feels to Moss like an invasion, and in the first chapter he describes his passive-aggressive relationship with his neighbors, including "The Influencer," who documents her daily life via photo shoots for Instagram, and her hangers-on, who play obnoxiously loud music.

All of this changed, almost overnight, when COVID-19 hit and New York City instituted a lockdown. It was like a rapture, with the wealthy white residents (including, to Moss’s relief, The Influencer) fleeing to country properties before they got stuck in a city they perceived as fractious and potentially unsafe. The divide between "New People" and "Leftovers" became starker. The segments of society commonly considered less desirable were more visible than ever, including homeless individuals, street artists, and the eccentric denizens of Times Square.

That first spring and summer of the pandemic formed an incendiary time, what with Black Lives Matters protests, rioting, unnecessary arrests and documented instances of police brutality, and the return of Occupy camps. Moss was right in the middle of it. He started riding his bicycle all over the city, even taking up the self-appointed role of bike marshal at protests. Although smashed windows and looting contributed to a sense of danger, there was also exhilaration, the feeling that anything could happen, reminding Moss of the 1970s women's movement or 1980s hip-hop. As the 2020 presidential election neared, the volatility continued, but with a more political edge.

Moss (the pen name of Griffin Hansbury), as a psychoanalyst and trans man, has a unique perspective on the events he documents. He continued seeing patients over Zoom during the lockdown, but also extended compassion to those he met on the streets. On a couple of occasions, despite fear of the virus, he hugged fellow protestors who were struggling emotionally. His queerness, as much as anything else, causes him to identify with the marginalized. We get tiny glimpses of his childhood, forced to smile as a Shirley Temple lookalike. To him, liberation means being your true self; not being policed by others — or policing yourself.

The book goes more deeply into queer theory and sociology than some lay readers may be up for. There is occasional jargon (e.g., "When queer studies took an antisocial turn, away from the respectability politics of homonormativity (monogamy, productivity, consumerism), it embraced queer otherness with all its negative stereotypes" and "The life of a normopathic, entrepreneurial, neoliberal self is surely painful"), as well as a lot of deliberate obscenities, with the F-word embodying a deliberate stance of resistance.

That said, Moss's prose can also be effective and moving, especially in the book's closing pages. As 2020 progresses, the heady atmosphere of the transgressive starts to wane — and be threatened. Moss can see that talk of "going back to normal" means cleansing public spaces like Washington Square Park of misfits like himself. "All the beautiful parts of this time will be taken from us," he prophesies. The book closes with the idea of rebellion simmering in the background, ready to surge back at any time.

The beautiful final lines echo Dylan Thomas and reassure readers that the movement toward justice and inclusion has not been defeated: "The defiant soul of the city doesn’t die. It stays alive, right below the surface, pressing up against the boot heels, crouched like the life inside an egg, the force that drives the flower, forever reaching for its next breath."

As a portrait of a distinctive community during COVID-19 lockdown (see "Beyond the Book" for a reading list of other nonfiction narratives) and of a radical fringe that bravely confronts inequality, Feral City stands out for its own particulars as well as for the light it sheds on recent history. It’s also an invitation to readers to think deeply about the significance of their own lockdown experiences and what from that time is worth preserving.

Reviewed by Rebecca Foster

This review first ran in the January 4, 2023 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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