In Memoriam, Robert Guskind
Photo credit: Hugh Crawford
Gowanus Lounge and its large community of readers, admirers and friends mourn the loss of founder and editor Robert “Bob” Guskind. Dubbed by some “Brooklyn’s Blogfather,” Bob was a talented journalist, author, photographer and editor whose deep interest in urban issues took root, right out of college, at National Journal. Bob’s abundant journalistic gifts flourished throughout the 1980s and 90s at National Journal, the Washington Post and other periodicals, and were reincarnated, in this decade, through the “revolutionary” (his word) form of blogging — where his own “personal newspaper,” which he started almost exactly three years ago, quickly stood out for the quality and seeming ubiquitousness of its coverage.
(Memorial gathering is April 4.)
Bob was found dead in his apartment in Park Slope by his wife, Olivia Kissin, on Wednesday, March 4. (An autopsy report is awaited; he had previously survived several severe health problems, and well over a decade ago had struggled with addiction.) He was 50. Bob had experienced a rough several months, and was struggling on several fronts in both his personal and professional life. In addition to working through some painful emotional challenges, he had recently been laid off, for economic reasons, from his full-time job as Brooklyn editor at Curbed, as well as from a side job he had considered secure.
Although both his demeanor and posts had grown somewhat darker and more erratic in the past few months, just before his death Bob had taken several positive steps toward navigating through these difficult straits and positioning himself for a long-term recovery. He had just signed a lease on a new apartment in Sunset Park so as to downsize his expenses, was considering offers for freelance work (including from Curbed), was seeking a business partner to help generate some income from his sizable readership at Gowanus Lounge, and had also completed his application for unemployment insurance — income that would have carried him through several months in which, among other things, he hoped to resume work on a memoir.
Bob left no farewell note, and, on March 2, the last day he maintained contact with friends, he kept an evening therapy appointment. Coincidentally, his Gowanus Lounge site went offline at the same time, as a result of technical problems, as it often had in the past — he did not intend for it to go dark.
Praise from the blogosphere
An outpouring of praise and memorials erupted in the Brooklyn blogosphere soon after word of Bob’s death emerged, first via a video tribute posted by Miss Heather in which Bob, upon inspecting an abandoned house on the Northside of Williamsburg on the afternoon of Sunday, March 1, encountered the former occupants, and eagerly took down their story.
“In person, he was pure Brooklyn, gruff, funny and kind,” wrote blogger Brenda Becker in this tribute. “Bob was a generous mentor to others in the fractious Brooklyn blogosphere, and used his own forum to advocate passionately and tirelessly for Brooklyn: his eponymous Gowanus, of course, but also all of brownstone Brooklyn and most especially, his beloved Coney Island. His blog was a quirky mix of personal passions as well; on any given day, it might feature a rare punk-rock video, a photographer’s strange glimpse of urban street life, or the hilariously existential ‘Street Couch of the Day.’” (Street Couch links here and here.)
“He was a genuinely engaging soul, a keen observer and an expert listener,” reflected Dave Kenny. “He had strong opinions on many subjects, but I always got the sense that he was willing to view things from many angles and even had empathy with people he disagreed with. Empathy. I think that’s the trait I will most remember him for.”
“Bob offered inspiration to and support for many bloggers, photographers and creative types. He brought so many people together, and supported so many good projects, important issues, and talented individuals,” commented photographer Nathan Kensinger, who specializes in exploring abandoned industrial sites. “To me, he was a friend, a collaborator, and the single greatest supporter of my photography in New York. He helped me start my own photo website, wrote a generous story on Curbed or The Gowanus Lounge about almost every photo essay I shot over the last 3 years, reviewed my film screenings, and happily sponsored the Red Hook Film Festival this past summer.”
“Coney Island is in desperate straits. No one cares as much or could give it as much in depth coverage as Bob did,” commented Tricia Vita of the Coney Island History Project. “I’m sad and afraid that many of the large and small stories that Bob would have covered will go unreported this season.”
“We were his faithful readers, his web compatriots, his audience, his collaborators, and his neighbors, in our real and virtual lives,” wrote David Weiner in the Huffington Post. “We were touched by him, learned from him, and grew with him. Yet most of us would never have recognized him if he were sitting across from us on the train or behind us at the movies…. The site, like so many local blogs, somehow used the very medium that is in many ways driving us apart, to bring us closer.”
Blogger Flatbush Gardener (Chris Kreussling) has compiled a comprehensive list of responses in the blogosphere.
Personal and professional background
He immediately was hired by Neal Peirce, one of the founders and then a senior editor of National Journal, in Washington, D.C., and continued writing for the magazine and working with Peirce on his syndicated columns for the Washington Post Writers Group over several years. Bob’s articles for Journal covered such topics as politics and regionalism, the policies of America’s mayors, public housing, prisons, and the role of casinos and stadiums in economic development. He covered several Democratic and Republican conventions and even undertook several foreign assignments. With co-writer Jerry Hagstrom, Bob initiated a multi-year series, unique in the nation, tracking the consultants hired by candidates for major offices and the television advertising they placed.
The initial story on political consultants in the run-up to the 1984 election was cited in the New York Times as the first study that demonstrated conclusively that every serious Senate and gubernatorial candidate in the nation had hired a pollster and media consultant. At a time before C-SPAN and DVDs, when officials in Washington had no way of seeing political TV commercials being shown in races around the country unless they traveled or were invited to the filmmakers’ studios, Hagstrom and Guskind began analyzing the content of commercials for National Journal readers and in each election cycle analyzing the performance of the pollsters and filmmakers. Hagstrom continues analyzing the performance of the consultants in each election cycle to this day.
During these years, Bob also worked with Peirce on many articles on the nation’s neighborhood movement and developed the appreciation for neighborhoods that influenced much of his later work. With Peirce, and on commission from the Bruner Foundation, Bob coauthored Breakthroughs: Re-creating the American City (Rutgers, 1993). The book tracked a range of urban success stories ranging from resuscitation campaigns in ravaged New York City and Lincoln, Neb., neighborhoods to the major transit reconstruction of Boston’s Southwest Corridor. He also wrote occasional articles for the Washington Post.
Descent and reemergence
After struggling and finally succumbing for several peripatetic years in the 1990s to addiction, during which he nonetheless continued writing prolifically (he had produced several pieces of a memoir “based on his travels and experiences as a reporter and formerly disreputable dope fiend,” according to his bio on the website Underground Voices, which has collected 29 of his harrowing, acidly funny, creative non-fiction stories), Bob reemerged at the new millennium, and worked as the writer, photographer and editor for the weekly newsletter of the New Community Corporation in Newark, NJ, the largest and most comprehensive community development organization in the United States. This job, with its boots-on-the-ground coverage, and all-purpose, DIY skill requirements, was the before-last piece in the puzzle that would eventually coalesce into Gowanus Lounge.
The last piece in that puzzle came through a chance post-9/11 chat room meeting with a young WNYC staffer named Olivia Kissin. Olivia had just bought a small Park Slope apartment, and as their relationship grew, Bob eventually moved in, and began discovering Brooklyn through and with her. His longtime friends saw this new love as fundamental to both his recovery and to his personal and professional rebirth. Olivia often accompanied Bob on his long walks and drives through the Brooklyn streets, parks and boardwalk that would become the muse and lifeblood of Gowanus Lounge. In August 2007 the two were married at the Queens Museum.
“The world saw a journalist, but he and I — we played like children together,” Kissin reminisced. “Funny voices, silly stories. His creativity poured out of him when we played. It was the play, the fun between us, that he loved, that I loved, that held us together. He was very comfortable sharing his serious side with the world, but with me he was a cuddly man, who gave the best hugs in the world, who made me laugh.”
The quintessential community blogger
Gowanus Lounge was named not after a neighborhood Bob liked to prowl, but — in a sign of Bob’s strong sense of Brooklyn’s past — after a now-departed bar on Union Street and Fifth Avenue in Park Slope. With Gowanus Lounge, which he founded in April 2006, Bob aimed “to cover, through words and pictures, whatever moves me, with a particular focus on New York City as it is today and is becoming. The focus will be Brooklyn — and particularly Gowanus, Red Hook, Carroll Gardens, Park Slope, Prospect Heights, Williamsburg and Dumbo…”.
What moved him was clear: “I am not a fan of what is happening in our communities, and particularly of the looming Manhattanization of Brooklyn and of the ongoing Theme Parkization of Manhattan.”
Bob regularly broke neighborhood stories that wound up in daily newspapers like the New York Post, leading him to sometimes grouse publicly (and not without reason) that he did not receive attribution. He was a stalwart, however, on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show and Brooklyn community television, and was regularly cited by the New York Times’s City Room blog and New York Magazine’s Daily Intel.
He spoke prominently at the annual Brooklyn Blogfest, offering sage counsel to other bloggers and encouraging newcomers, and was a spokesperson for the Brooklyn blogging wave, suggesting in the New York Times that a critical mass of issues had led to an increase in the number of neighborhood blogs.
Most of all, as Brenda Becker described it, Bob used his platform fiercely as “a Fool-Killer and Weasel-Slayer, the two occupations I have come to respect most in this age of untrammeled greed and comatose consciences.”
“Bob was one of those people who could be wry and warm at the same time,” wrote Dave Kenny of Dope on the Slope. “His engaging approach to neighborhood oriented blogging was enormously influential to a number of Brooklyn-based bloggers. A discussion I had with him after one of the blogfests about creating an actual social network of bloggers that met face to face led to the creation of the Brooklyn Blogade.”
He worked extremely hard, posting perhaps a dozen blog items a day for Curbed, his paid job, and easily another dozen — often many more — on Gowanus Lounge, his labor of love. He even kept posting on GL during his honeymoon in Hawaii.
During one appearance on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show, Bob responded to veteran journalist and author Pete Hamill’s disparaging comments about blogging. Bob comes on at about 32:00 in the WNYC audio. (Link to the entire program available here)
“Bloggers post stories precisely because blogs lack newsroom hierarchies and editorial priorities that may have nothing to do with the news. We constantly hear from both reporters and from community activists about good, solid stories in Brooklyn that are killed by editors or that are discouraged in the first place….
“The fact is that there are countless stories in Brooklyn, from environmental issues in Williamsburg and the demolition of historic structures to neighborhood development fights and illegal construction, that wouldn’t get any coverage without blogs.”
Skewering the real estate boom
Bob took particular delight in chronicling the efforts of overambitious real estate developers and architects as they transformed neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Greenpoint. “Greenpoint to Get Another Hot Karl,” he wrote once in describing the work of architect Karl Fischer. Bob played a key part in VBS.TV’s “Toxic – Brooklyn”. At 2:28 of Part 2 in the series he discusses development in Williamsburg and Greenpoint.
Bob first appears on camera, describing the numerous environmental issues in north Brooklyn: “I’d wonder about any property in this neighborhood.” Later in the segment he describes how he dubbed the site of Karl Fischer’s Warehouse 11 condominium complex “The Roebling Oil Field.”
On a recent trip to Coney Island, Bob encountered a butcher named Jimmy Prince, and interviewed him on camera, in a very moving segment, about Prince’s imminent retirement after 50 years in the neighborhood, and his lament about the impact of development on “the people’s paradise.” Bob’s coverage eventually made it into the major media.
He wrote with particular passion about the fate of Coney Island, posting in January:
“We stood on Stillwell Avenue, freezing, with Mr. Sitt’s big empty lot on our left and the vacant Beer Island on our right and wiped tears from our eyes, not because of the cold but because of fond memories and a sense of hopelessness and despair that those in charge of this process aren’t up to the challenge of keeping it on life support while the economy works itself out.
“What a sad, sad thing for a place that has suffered so much. We urge the city to negotiate hard with Mr. Sitt. We hope all parties sit down and come up with a realistic five-year plan to keep Coney going. We hope that Mr. Sitt shows that he has a shred of human decency in his body and that ‘Joey Coney Island’ helps save it instead of being the guy that pulls the trigger and inflicts the final fatal wound.”
At Curbed, Bob channeled his energy and curiosity into a somewhat different framework. Curbed founder Lockhart Steele reflected, “Looking through the email archives, the subject headers of his emails capture his fascinations perfectly: ‘Greenpoint getting Fingered too?’; ‘Ugliest building in Brooklyn?’; ‘Scarano’s latest!’ In response to a reader email titled ‘Williamsburg Toilet,’ he dashed off the note, ‘Pulling this together as we speak.’ And of course, he was.”
Though Atlantic Yards was not his focus, Bob wrote forcefully about Brooklyn’s most controversial development. In a GL Analysis published last December, on the day of the project’s five-year anniversary, he observed, “A quarter century from now, when the planners analyze what went wrong in Brooklyn in the early 2000s, they will have a lot to say (and none of it good) about the chain of events that started on December 10, 2003, when developer Bruce Ratner, flanked by a beaming Marty Markowitz and other public officials announced a magnificent plan called Atlantic Yards.”
At the end of the month, he presciently predicted that “Developer Bruce Ratner will have difficulty obtaining financing for a nearly $1 billion Gehry arena and the arena will either be scrapped or a new version from an off-the-rack firm for $500 million will be built.”
Less than ten days later, word emerged that the developer was trying to drastically scale back the arena’s cost.
A volcanic mind, a volcanic heart
As will be universally attested by those who knew, wrote to or read him, Bob was generous, huge-hearted, compassionate, loving, kind, loyal to his friends, and perhaps most of all, unsparingly honest. As many others have already testified, he was also a first-class reporter — and one of the few who could not only successfully make the transition from print to blog, but also manage, in so doing, to honor and elevate the fundamentally civic act of journalism.
Most of all, Bob was a brilliant and versatile writer, gifted with a volcanic mind that matched (but could never tame) a volcanic heart. It is possible that this mountain range was a bit too vertiginous for safe travel. At the end of his very first post on Gowanus Lounge, he wrote, “If I were to spend time with a writing psychiatrist, he or she would likely tell me that I have several personalities and that they are not well integrated,” adding, “I don’t take myself as seriously as all this might make it sound.”
When circumstances in his personal life, last September, made it all but impossible for him to function to his high standards, Bob closed down Gowanus Lounge for a few weeks to work through the challenges that were tormenting him. The degree of reaction from his readership did cheer him, and with support from his friends, he was eventually able to relaunch the site, bringing in several new contributors to share the load.
“We quickly became friends and shared our life stories, our troubles and our mutual love of music and Brooklyn,” reflected E. C. Stephens, who enthusiastically signed on. “Soon he spoke of needing a coeditor and we began running the site in the past few months together. His friendship will be missed, but I think the biggest loss goes to the Brooklyn community he loved.”
Unbeknownst to all but a few, Bob had survived cancer, a heart attack, and several other harrowing experiences earlier in life, and had battled tooth and nail with the personal demons that throughout his life threatened to pull him down. Only his most intimate friends could appreciate the extent of his courage, and his love, in continuing to grow, to work, to exist, despite it all. He was cherished more deeply than he could perhaps feel.
Besides his wife Olivia, Bob is survived by his mother Sally Guskind, of Clifton, New Jersey, his sister Sharon Vitale, brother-in-law Chris Vitale, niece Shawna and nephews Eric and Travis Vitale, all of Butler, New Jersey, as well as his mother-in-law, Suzanne Kissin, and his aunt Hanna by marriage, both of Queens, all of whom loved him deeply and miss him beyond measure.
It is our hope — and, we believe, would have been his as well — that this site should stay open, as a testament to a man who had a far more profound effect upon others than he ever realized, and to the issues (and the city, borough and communities) that he loved so much, and so well.
We invite you to post your tributes, thoughts and comments below; we would like to keep a record of them. Meanwhile, please stay tuned for announcements regarding the memorial being planned for Bob.
Photo credit: Miss Heather
(Written by Marc Farre, with the assistance of Norman Oder, Heather Letzkus and Neal Peirce, and the approval of Bob’s family.)