Now that a laptop screen serves as a porthole to a landscape of depression, with waves of demoralizing news washing in from around the world, and a physical window looks out onto a stilled city, it’s easy to feel cut off. Some of us are spending more time in our neighborhoods than ever, yet feel farther away. Others have fled but crave word from home. For a quarter-million residents of the Upper West Side, one lifeline is the West Side Rag, a suddenly indispensable online-only publication that combines up-to-date COVID-19 news with updates on a raccoon baby boom, falling trees, photos from adventures in grocery shopping, and videos of Broadway stars belting show tunes from their windows.
Founded in 2011, the “paper” — it has no print edition — established its bona fides with a steady rhythm of old-fashioned crime stories and dogged reporting on the controversial tower at 200 Amsterdam Avenue, patiently explaining the byzantine wrinkles in the zoning code that made it possible, and the court fight that may ultimately force developers to chop off the top 20 stories. Real-estate reporting has sometimes edged into social critique. In 2013, the paper’s founder and editor — who insists on being known only by his byline, West Sider — was sifting through public documents when he discovered that a building under construction on Riverside Boulevard would have a separate entrance for tenants of rent-regulated affordable apartments, a feature he dubbed a “poor door.” The outrage — and the coinage — went global.
These days, there’s something comforting and essential about the daily mix of stories, some trivial, others tragic, that make a dense slice of Manhattan feel like a provincial town. Neighbors greet each other less warmly on the street now that masks make us all look like strangers, but everyone can recognize the neighborhood from the site’s sensibility, equal parts wryness and rye. Especially in recent months, West Side Rag has turned into a lightning rod of goodwill: When Andrés Pastrana, the long-serving custodian at Christ & Saint Stephen’s Church on West 69th Street, died of COVID-19, the paper alerted readers to a $4,000 GoFundMe campaign for his family; it quickly raised four times that much. Readers are generous with their talents, too: An open call for original songs by housebound musicians quickly yielded a playlist of “quarantunes.”
West Sider spent years as a reporter at various small provincial papers, the kind of journalistic career that has practically ceased to exist. In the early 2000s, the industry mantra for struggling newspapers was hyperlocal: publications across the country squandered their strengths, rolling up national desks, recalling foreign correspondents, leaving Washington and international coverage to the wire services and the Times, and aiming dwindling resources on crime, local politics, and high-school sports. Few of those papers managed to hold their audience, and most are now in deep trouble. New York moved in the other direction, as the Times expanded its global horizons, and the Daily News and the Post struggled to stay afloat in between those two poles. Web-based publications like The City (affiliated with New York), Gothamist (now affiliated with WNYC), and the late DNAInfo, along with Straus News’ stable of local weeklies such as the West Side Spirit, have tried to fill the gap in local news, but left plenty of room for a shoestring startup. With its part-time staff of six, supplemented by an informal army of tipsters, the Rag has a virtual newsroom that is, technically speaking, bigger than the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s.
West Sider saw a neighborhood with an abundant supply of underemployed journalists, small businesses with few local outlets in which to advertise, and a fervently engaged potential readership nearly the size of Buffalo. “I’d pick up some news by attending community-board meetings, the kind of stuff that wasn’t being reported on anywhere else. I had some people I knew write a few columns. Then we started getting tips, which allowed it to be a bottom-up reporting experience, and we could report things even if we didn’t have sources at One Police Plaza.” It helps that the coverage area is not, in fact, Buffalo. One contributor, Eileen Katz, proposed interviewing locals for a series called “Why the West Side?” West Sider was doubtful but gave her the go-ahead. Katz came back with a “get,” a Q&A with Jerry Stiller.
Anywhere else in the country, Stiller would be one of the most opinionated, funniest, and loudest people around; on the West Side, he blends in. Accordingly, much of the action on the Rag site takes place in the comments section, which often turns animated, occasionally bordering on apoplectic. A 2015 story about a kosher restaurant that built a sukkah out into the sidewalk, making it too narrow for a double stroller to get by, spun off a dizzying debate that touched on fertility treatments, demographics, public space, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the legality of protest signage, density and suburbanization, the role of religion in civic life and private enterprise, bike lanes, stroller design, the papal visit to New York, intergenerational conflict, economic inequality, and, of course, grammar.
West Sider sees the Rag’s mission as three-pronged: “to get people information that can help them understand their lives, make them laugh, and, every once in a while, break a story of social importance.” Sometimes those categories intersect. A 2017 story about a man who died, homeless and alone, on a bench in Riverside Park, set the Rag contributor Jessica Brockington on an investigative hunt for his identity: The man whom neighbors called “Stephen” was actually 32-year-old Neil Harris Jr., from the Long Island village of Inwood.
Carol Tannenhauser, the paper’s managing editor and bureau chief — or, as she prefers to title herself, “Number One Helper” — had written for an assortment of women’s magazines and for a nonprofit when her daughter sent her an ad with a call for writers that included two key words: “We pay.” Of all her various careers, she says, writing for West Side Rag is by far the most fun. After The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel wrapped its shooting in Dublin House, an old-timey Irish pub on West 79th Street between Amsterdam Avenue and Broadway, Tannenhauser ducked in to see what the location scouts had liked, and emerged with a terse but vivid portrait of its owner, Mike Cormican: “He is a soft-spoken man, ‘old fashioned,’ he called himself. His flip phone lay on the table in front of him. He doesn’t have an email address. When asked what ‘sorrows’ Upper West Siders share, he said, ‘I can’t make those comments,’ as if doing so would betray a vow of confidentiality.”
As with most publications, the pandemic has boosted the Rag’s readership and battered its finances. In March, 597,000 visitors found their way to the site, more than triple the readership of a year ago. That kind of success doesn’t help the business much during a cataclysm. “The restaurants and real-estate brokers are not advertising now, so it’s not translating into revenue at the moment,” West Sider says. “Eventually, we’ll need to set up a subscription system, but everyone else is hurting a lot more, so we’re not even asking for donations now. Once we get over the hump, we can think about that. My concern is mostly the health of the neighborhood.”