The Village Voice’s archives are not digitized. It’s a situation that there are plans to remedy in the very near future, but for the time being, our archives remain a state-of-the-art analog experience. To look up an article, you need to consult a card catalog that is stored in a makeshift archive room alongside a set of bound volumes dating back to the first issue, from October 26, 1955. Those bound volumes contain roughly 500,000 pages of the Village Voice, plus various supplements and spin-offs, like the short-lived 1980s phenomenon the Long Island Voice, which sported a bright red logo (and an added dose of attitude somewhere between sass and snark). Alternatively, you can attempt to intuit when the story you’re looking for might have been published and dive in cold. As far as we can tell, the card catalog hasn’t been updated since roughly the turn of the 21st century, so Method One (card catalog) often leads to Method Two (intuition), which leads to a lot of leafing through old newsprint.
In thinking about the September 20, 2017, edition of the Voice, which is the last weekly print edition, I’ve done my share of leafing. I’d liken the experience to watching the life of a city flash before your eyes — except that, with the Voice, it’s hard not to slow down and get lost in individual moments. For example, early on, the Voice did a lot of unscientific “polling” of people its writers found in Greenwich Village, to obtain a more anthropological understanding of who lived there. In an early survey of 100 “villagers who don’t work,” the Voice reported that a 23-year-old actress provided an answer to the question “How do you spend your days?” that summed things up for many of the respondents. “Usually, I just look for jobs,” she said, “but mostly I brood.” In response to a later poll regarding “the village male,” one reader offered her own field guide. For “The Promising Young Man,” she wrote, “He’s got a job, usually in Publishing (with a capital P), and is just full of Ideas all the time. His future is still ahead of him,” she concluded, “and will be for the rest of his life.”
But ephemera such as those barely scratch the surface. There are Nat Hentoff’s columns — 51 years of them, sketching and agitating in the intellectual space that surrounds civil liberties and free speech. The images of Fred McDarrah, Mary Ellen Mark, Sylvia Plachy, James Hamilton, Amy Arbus, Catherine McGann, and Robin Holland, which have defined so much of what we think of as the Village and the way the Voice has looked at the world. The unflinching reporting and investigative work of Jack Newfield, Alexander Cockburn, Susan Brownmiller, James Ridgeway, Wayne Barrett, Teresa Carpenter, Joe Conason, Tom Robbins, Alisa Solomon, Jennifer Gonnerman, Michael Tomasky, Peter Noel, Julie Lobbia, and Mark Schoofs, just to name a handful. The groundbreaking critical writing of Jerry Tallmer and Michael Feingold on theater; of Jonas Mekas, Andrew Sarris, Molly Haskell, J. Hoberman, Amy Taubin, and Stephanie Zacharek on film; of Peter Schjeldahl, Roberta Smith, Jerry Saltz, and R.C. Baker on art; of Richard Goldstein, Robert Christgau, Tom Carson, James Wolcott, Nelson George, Barry Walters, and Ann Powers on popular music; of Stanley Crouch and Gary Giddins on jazz. The innovatively cross-current cultural writing of Jill Johnston, Ellen Willis, C. Carr, Karen Durbin, Vince Aletti, Greg Tate, Guy Trebay, Thulani Davis, Hilton Als, and Colson Whitehead. Jules Feiffer’s “Explainers” illustrations. Michael Musto’s “La Dolce Musto” columns. The recurring “10 Worst Landlords” feature. The brilliantly ahead-of-its-time Voice Literary Supplement (VLS), edited by M. Mark. This list, as lists like this often do, goes on and on and on.
Ed Fancher, Dan Wolf, and Norman Mailer founded the Voice back in 1955, at a time when the future seemed possibly more unknown than it does now. The postwar years were prosperous ones in the United States, but the social fissures of the Cold War and McCarthyism had begun to widen and deepen, and there was a budding counterculture afoot. Greenwich Village, a bohemian enclave since the earlier part of the century, had by then been annexed by the Beats, who mixed and mingled with the working-class folk, immigrants, artists, vagabonds, fugitives, exiles, outcasts, and trustafarians who had converged on the neighborhood.
Fancher and Wolf, both World War II vets, met while attending the New School for Social Research under the G.I. Bill. Mailer, who was friendly with Fancher, had already published The Naked and the Dead, Barbary Shore, and Deer Park, and brought a modicum of celebrity (and cash) to the Voice venture. The original team also included Tallmer, who would play a significant role in the Voice’s coverage of Off-Broadway theater and in establishing the highly personal voice of the Voice, and John Wilcock, a British journalist who would later become an icon of the underground press, helping to start the more radical East Village Other as well as Andy Warhol’s Interview.
From the beginning, the Voice displayed many of the hallmarks that would come to define it. It would report on local news, rage about gentrification, and cover the arts — theater in particular — with enormous rigor. The Voice opposed a sunken highway that Robert Moses wanted to run through Washington Square Park, and fought to unseat the last head of Tammany Hall, Carmine DeSapio, as Greenwich Village district leader. (He would eventually be replaced by future mayor Ed Koch.) Within a year of launching the paper, Mailer would pioneer another Voice tradition by quitting in a fit of anger, purportedly over a copy mistake in one of his columns. (The word nuances was changed to nuisances.)
I won’t regale you with further tales of all the writers, editors, photographers, art directors, illustrators, and multitalented multihyphenates who have worked at the Voice over the years and the incredible things they’ve done here and elsewhere since. (I’m leaving too many out.) But the Voice, in its heyday — and when that was depends on who you ask — was a prime mover of the tectonic variety, and it attracted revolutionaries. The Voice tackled subjects that no one else did in ways that no one else would. If you were a politician, a real estate developer, a wealthy industrialist, a would-be art, music, or film star, or anyone deemed to be of dubious intent or motive, the Voice could be brutal. If you were marginalized, mistreated, ill, poor, a victim of injustice, or an activist or advocate for those who were, the Voice could be a beacon. At its best — and sometimes, its worst — the paper has been a combustible melting pot of people, ideas, and ambitions. The Voice changed the course of journalism, elections, court cases, legislation, political careers, popular culture, lives, loves, and New York itself.
When I talk with people about the Voice, they often refer to it as an “institution.” But I think of it more as having a constitution. By that, I don’t mean a document containing a statement of essential principles by which the Voice is governed — I mean a constitution in the way that a person has a physical constitution. If you treat it well, then it can flourish; if you don’t, then it withers. Its existence is not inevitable. It needs to be fought for. When I look at what this paper has been for the past (almost) 62 years, I see the names of many people who have done just that for the Voice, and we’ve decided to dedicate this final print issue to them. The Voice may be bigger than print and ink or any owner, editor, medium, or era, but this paper belonged to New York, and the people who have worked for it have served both the Voice and the city in exemplary fashion.
One final note: I will miss the red boxes. After ignoring them for years, I’ve come to regard them as possessing a kind of stoic nobility. There was something poetic about the way they would get moved, battered, and pillaged each week, withstanding all manner of disuse and abuse, but spring back to work every Wednesday morning. I hope they find a peaceful, environmentally friendly resting place — or wind up as part of an Ai Weiwei installation.