We did absolutely nothing wrong; the only thing we did wrong was talking to you. You made me look like a bum.
—Evan Blum to J.A. Lobbia, April 4, 2001
As tiny, innocent, and wondrously optimistic as she was, 43-year-old Julie Lobbia, our sister who died on Thanksgiving, could unearth the facts that unhappily defined someone, even momentarily opening his eyes in self-recognition. Blum owned a gigantic downtown warehouse of architectural remnants that collapsed in the summer of 2000, injuring 11, forcing a hundred tenants out of their nearby homes, and ultimately leading to criminal charges.
Julie wrote about him three times in her Towers & Tenements column, including last April, when Blum, confronted with evidence suggesting that the collapse was due to illegal renovation work he was doing, decided that his only real problem was the five-foot urchin facing him with a notebook that never seemed to have a blank sheet. “I’m a triple-A person, and you made me look like a dirtbag,” Blum complained. The more insults he threw at her, the more she let him speak for himself in her story.
When Julie returned in August to report that Blum and his architect father had been charged with working without permits, she was just a month away from her own grim inspection report. A routine checkup, prompted by mild complaints, led to the discovery that her tireless body—honed on 100-mile-a-week bike rides—was consumed with a cancer so virulent it would kill her in two tortured months. Since Thanksgiving, she has perhaps been writing a housing column in heaven, where the landlords may be angels but, to Julie, still landlords.
In life, Lobbia won a 2001 Front Page Award from the Newswomen’s Club of New York on November 9, as well as the Scales of Justice Media Award from Mobilization for Youth Legal Services in October. She was the Society of Professional Journalists’ best columnist last year, as well as winner of its Golden Typewriter Award for public interest journalism in 1999. Before coming to the Voice in 1990, she got a master’s in journalism from the University of Missouri and won four prizes as an investigative reporter and managing editor of The Riverfront Times in St. Louis. “Injustice set her on fire,” says Voice editor in chief Don Forst, calling her “a giant unyielding in her pursuit of the truth.”
In her last days at New York University Hospital, Julie could not speak, but when her husband of seven years, Joseph Jesselli, teased that he was getting “the seven-year itch,” she raised a trembling middle finger in his face. In the recovery room after surgery, she asked for a pen and paper to scrawl out a note Joseph expected to be solemn. She drew an arrow to the woman lying next to her and wrote, “stomach-stapling operation.” Two weeks before her death, she had her husband help her up the steps of a five-story building in Chinatown to do an interview. Sorting through the gray in a world where she never saw absolutes, she was prepared to champion the cause of a sweatshop operator faced with a suddenly escalating rent rather than see the workers lose jobs they desperately needed. The story, unwritten, was her final professional hope.
Her office at the Voice remains a testament to her own complexities. An Italian Catholic from the southside of Chicago, she kept a statue of Jesus on the shelf by her desk, his arms reaching out in love. Beneath it was a similarly sized statue of a gyrating redhead in a skintight green jumpsuit, her flesh pouring out in heat. She volunteered weekly as a tutor in the immigrant literacy project of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart, yet she was also the most loved sister in a workplace of radicals, gays, feminists, and head cases.
Her other office artifacts include a gold and blue campaign sign that reads “Ashcroft—Missouri Values,” a photo of Fiorello La Guardia, a “Wallace ’48” purple tie for American Labor Party presidential candidate Henry Wallace, the Official Jack Webb Dragnet Target Practice game, and a giant Hagstrom’s House & Transit Map of the five boroughs on the wall. Right between books entitled Ourselves, Growing Older and For the Love of Pleasure, she kept a copy of Jacob Riis’s 1902 classic, Battle With the Slum. A legendary muckraker, Riis wrote, “Either we wipe out the slum or it wipes us out,” and Julie underlined it as her own inscription. Riis said it would be “a running fight” that would last decades, and almost a century later, Julie had enlisted in his army.
Her vintage dresses hang on the office door, Julie’s very personal fashion statement. Her husband describes it as “flea market or found or borrowed chic.” She changed in the office often, putting a magnetic bone on the door to warn officemate Jim Hoberman. She came to work every day in bike garb, the sound of her wheels rolling toward her office even after her diagnosis. Her bike was her microscope, opening up for her eyes only the far reaches of a city she both cherished and understood. She uncovered the path of new arson on bike rides in Williamsburg and Bed-Stuy. She fell in love with Fernando Ferrer by watching the streets of the Bronx come to life. Her column might as well have been called Traveling With Julie.
When she found out she had cancer, her first fear was that it would cut down on her bike speed. She asked to be buried in a dress and bike shoes. She told her sedentary husband during her illness to get a dog and call it Swobo, invoking the bike clothing brand name. The closest she came to dying before she got sick was when her long-loved bike broke in half and had to be shot. She was consoled only when finally comfortable aboard its elite replacement, racing the body-suited athletes in Central Park, astonishing them with 19-minute runs on the six-mile loop, pushing a perpetually underestimated body to extraordinary lengths.
Not only did the city become the map of her mind, but she also joined her husband in a search for its precious mementos. Jesselli says she gathered “old scraps of linoleum, shards of buildings, pieces of tin ceilings” as symbols of her city, and she and Joe turned their Little Italy walk-up into a personal museum. Beginning in 1996, she did volunteer work for the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, and its curator, Steve Long, says it was she who became “a repository of New York’s past with a real sense of place.” The two out-of-towners, said Long, struggled together to figure out how old apartments were and when the gas and sheet metal were put in. “She gave you a sense of rootedness, no matter where you were from,” Long recalls.
Her heart was as large as her sense of history. When an X-ray technician lost his job and his home, she got him mattresses, pillows, and blankets. When a Voice writer slowly died of AIDS, she virtually moved into his apartment, caring for him as if he were her brother. When a new writer appeared at the paper, she helped report and structure her first story. When she saw what she thought was an eviction notice posted on a Chinese-speaking neighbor’s door, she spent a workday getting it translated and slipped a note under the neighbor’s door, also in Chinese, explaining what to do. She was, says colleague and Voice executive editor Richard Goldstein, “a working humanist who came to her thinking through values, not any form of ideology, a person of faith.”
Sal Albanese, the former city councilman who ran for mayor in 1997, says that “most reporters made me feel like Don Quixote taking on big interests, but not Julie.” She made Albanese feel “empowered and inspired,” reminding him “of why I got into politics in the first place.” She was the antidote to cynicism, the embodiment of mission. Our paper will not be the same without her. (Any contributions can be made in Julie’s name to Recycle-A-Bicycle, 75 Avenue C, NYC, 10009.)
Research assistance: Sam Dolnick and Lisamarie Williams
We will post the time and location of Julie Lobbia’s New York City memorial service here when the information is available.
Other Obituaries for Julie Lobbia:
The Smoking Gun
NY Tenants Online
New York Newsday
New York Daily News