Reese Schonfeld

Please tell us about what you do.
I am currently entrepreneuring, which Ted Turner once defined as “looking for a job.” These days I’m working on developing new projects, investing in other new media projects and having a pretty good time. I still write for the Huffington Post and do some other writing so I stay active as a writer too.

I started out as a copy boy for a company called United Press Movietone News back in 1956 and just had the good luck to stay with it for a long, long time — working in television when you still had to carry a big 35 mm film camera and sound boxes around to the days of digital where one person does more work than a crew of 3 used to.

I went on from United Press to start a company called the Independent Television News Association; I put together all the independent stations — as many as I could at the start and all of them by the end — so we could gather our own news outside of the networks. All of the ten o’clock news around the country used that news, and the reporters and the members of that company.

And that proved to be the laboratory for CNN, so that when Ted Turner thought of CNN, he knew that I would be the best one to do it and he called and so we started CNN, where I built it for one year, and ran it for two.

And then after that I did People Magazine on television for CBS, and a lot of independent documentaries, then started the Food Network, which turned out to be a pretty good thing. Right now, I’m working to develop a new way of using cloud computing. I’m in the middle of the cloud right now. It’s just a new technology that makes it easier to communicate with others.

What would you like to see in New York in the future?

I’d love to see New York become more of a workingman’s city. When I grew up people worked all over New York, there was manufacturing even in Manhattan. My father was in the glass business, making mirrors and scientific glass. And his company had an eight story factory down on Greenwich and Morton Street. Now one of the most yuppified areas of New York, and their building is an NYU dorm now, but it used to have a loading dock and it was reasonably close to the river. People would go down to the docks and pick up shipments and make shipments to Europe easily – it was what New York used to be.

Next door to the glass factory was Vita Foods which made Vita Herring. Across the street there were enormous warehouses, and the whole neighborhood was a place where people worked with their hands. People put silver on the backs of mirrors, rolling with great rollers, and people cut glass and made lenses, and they just did things with their hands, and there were probably 500 people working on that one block alone.

That glass factory was founded in 1844, and the plant grew and lasted until the 1970s. So it lasted 130 years, and then suddenly it vanished and stood empty for ten or fifteen years, and now it’s a dormitory.

New York was a city of manufacturing?

The Village was a place where people worked – the West Village was full of artists always, and there were bars, and places you hung out and horsed around, but further there on the West side and east of it, people actually worked. You don’t see people working in manufacturing in New York anymore.  All they do is push papers around or they work in the media and make big television shows and Internet stuff.

The garment district – you can walk through what the garment district was; the seamstresses and the guys pushing racks – that’s all gone. New York was a better place when there were people like that. New York was a better place even with Tammany Hall, which organized all of those working people and turned them into an important political force.

Manufacturing lasted all the way until I suppose the early 70s. Nabisco used to have a great plant on the west side on the river turning out all sorts of products and then Drexel Burnham or somebody else fought for control of Nabisco and they got it, and they sold it off, and left it a public company, one third of the size it used to be — and nobody working in New York anymore. No bakers. I think the last bakery in New York closed just 6 months ago. Nobody bakes bread here anymore. I mean, white bread, wonder bread. We still have local bakeries. It’s just we’re headed to what Paris became in the end – a city that tourists come to, and otherwise you have a bunch of people in offices.

It’s still the most exciting city in the world to work in. I could walk down the street, bump into somebody and before you know it, we are starting a business. It’s just people you meet casually. You cross; you begin to talk to each other. All of a sudden you decide you are interested in this and they decide they are interested in that, and between the two of you, you are out there either raising money, or else you are investing money, and it may or may not turn out to be something pretty good. But I think Silicon Valley got the edge for new technology, and now the cloud computing company I’m working with is based up in Boston.

What are other people thinking about the future of work in the city?

Maybe it’s tough to talk to people in the street because half of them are tourists, and they aren’t going to know much. But it’s a tough question because it depends on where you are asking. Are you asking in Brooklyn? In the Bronx? Are you asking in Queens? Manhattan? You’ll get different answers everywhere. People in Manhattan, south of 125th street, may be feeling pretty good about where New York is, and the rest of the people in the other boroughs aren’t doing so hot. Unless you go to parts of Brooklyn where everybody is an artist, and they find this to be one of the most creative places in the world.

When I talk about New York being like Paris, New York is the Paris of the 1920’s, where it is the center of the arts for everybody in the world, where people want to come just so they can work in the arts, or have a chance and get discovered. I like that and I want to keep that very much but I would still like to find a way for people who live in the other boroughs to have the chance to get decent jobs, where they make decent wages where they produce actual things, rather than ideas of just plain money.

Now, we still exist on the brain-power we have, we have a lot of good schools, so people come here to learn. All the publishing houses are here, so people come here to write and get close to those who can help them get a career as a writer, and the greatest theatre district in the world is still Broadway – but I think these are all amusements, they are not jobs.

What’s a happy day for you in NYC?

Well you know there are so many ways to have a happy day in the city. You know just walking through Central Park and eating a hot dog, at the ball field’s café is a happy day. Or walking over to Lincoln Center and seeing War Horse makes for a wonderful, wonderful way to spend a day. And the museums all over the city offer options that you just don’t get.

But for me, because I’m a work-a-holic – the happiest day is when I go into work and I feel like I have accomplished something. When I’ve written something that I think is good, or I’ve made a deal that I think is actually going to work out. And there is always family. You know yesterday one of my grandchildren graduated from Friends Academy, so just spending the night with him, and his family.

The people you meet – bumping into people – New York is a great adventure. And on those days, no matter what you are doing, or where you are going  – it’s a wonderful city to live in.

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Photo: top, Naima Green

Insert: City Atlas