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.


Pho­to: top, Naima Green

Insert: City Atlas