Skip to main content

For Fran Lebowitz, any excuse to kvetch about the state of her beloved New York City is a good one. Take, for instance, the earthquake that happened to shake the Big Apple to its core just hours before our scheduled interview. When we get on the phone, a process that begins by leaving a message on Lebowitz’s answering machine before she picks up (this is how she screens her calls), the 73-year-old cultural satirist and professional raconteur informs me she is okay before finding the appropriate nail for her ever-hoisted hammer.

Open this photo in gallery:

Fran Lebowitz will appear at Toronto's Roy Thomson Hall on April 18.Brigitte Lacombe/Supplied

“New Yorkers are so used to horrible noise over which we have no control that I don’t know if anyone even realized that was an earthquake,” she deadpans. “I just assumed it was from the renovations taking place at the apartment above me.”

Since the debut of her acerbic essay collections, 1978′s Metropolitan Life and 1981′s Social Studies, and the three-decade-long writer’s block that followed, Lebowitz has carved out a niche as an idiosyncratic arbiter of culture. Whether she’s opining on panel shows, holding court on the late-night television circuit or touring lecture halls across North America, she remains a steadfast observer and critic of the urban dynamics that shape our lives.

Ahead of her appearance at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall on April 18, Leibowitz spoke with The Globe and Mail about the failure of city planning, Donald Trump and the unexpected benefits of avoiding hikes.

You’ve spent a good amount of time in recent decades lamenting the gentrification of New York City. With Toronto and Vancouver all but in the same boat, do you have any tips for abating the inevitable cultural loss?

Listen, this is every city. Big cities have become like this because the world allows capital to travel freely with fewer regulations. In New York, you have these buildings that are worth US$100-million. Why would anything be worth that much? It’s a stupid amount of money. And these buildings are empty. It’s a place to park capital. And, at the same time, we have a tremendous homeless population. I remember walking past one of those eight-million-storey buildings on 57th Street, which would never have been allowed if Bloomberg hadn’t been mayor, and there was a guy sleeping on the street right in front of it. It’s impossible to be a satirist in this era. It would stump Jonathan Swift.

If not satire, what would you suggest to do about it?

We supposedly have politicians to make laws. The thing is, no one wants these buildings. It’s bad for all cities. If I was in charge, I wouldn’t allow the accumulation of wealth. It’s simply stupid. These people don’t pay any taxes. I’m especially sensitive because I believe myself to be the designated taxpayer of New York City.

As a, if not the, taxpayer in New York, how do you feel about the upcoming presidential election?

I’m trying to think of a word bad enough. It’s horrible. The idea that Donald Trump was ever the president … it’s still a thing I will never get used to. The thing that probably bothers New Yorkers most about Donald Trump is that people who don’t live in New York think he’s a New Yorker. He wasn’t even a real estate developer. The actual real estate developers in New York looked down on Donald Trump. I mean, can you imagine a level of moral squalor so profound that real estate developers looked down on you? And they were right!

In 2016, Hillary Clinton got more votes in New York than anywhere else and that’s because we know who he is. So, the fact that he’s running again – that he possibly could win, again! – is simply unbelievable. I mean, he should be in prison.

There’s a chance he could do both.

If he’s gonna be the president, I’d rather he be the president in jail.

Are you a fan of Biden then?

To the people that prefer not to have Biden, me too, but I would so much prefer to not have Donald Trump. Here’s the thing: An election is not a menu. You don’t get to hold the cilantro. There’s only two choices. I wish Abraham Lincoln was running, but he’s not.

At least Lincoln was a Republican you could trust.

When I was younger, I used to disagree with Republicans. But these people that call themselves Republicans now are not Republicans, they have no politics at all. I know the left likes to think of themselves as anarchists, but these people are the real anarchists.

On that note, you notoriously don’t have WiFi or use a cellphone. In an age where nuclear war seems like it could break out at any moment, are you not a little worried you’ll miss the warning?

There was an earthquake earlier and I’m still here, aren’t I?


Did I ever feel like I needed a cellphone? Not so far. I was watching the news recently and this hiker in California fell off a cliff at night and he pressed some button on his cellphone and they rescued him by helicopter. So, I suppose, if that were me, I’d be dead. On the other hand, I don’t go hiking.

You do, notoriously, like to walk around New York though. Which reminds me, your Netflix series with Martin Scorsese, Pretend It’s a City, was a pandemic hit. In many ways, it provided a yearning for a city that was no longer available to so many of us. As a person who takes so much of her material from being around others, how did you navigate that time?

I walked around the city every day. Mostly I walked around to make sure that they were not going to tear the library down now and build some condos. I felt like those developers would think no one’s gonna notice, like, “Alright, let’s just knock down the Empire State Building, we could put up something much higher now.” So it was weird. Sometimes I would walk for 40 blocks and see, like, three other people. That was disconcerting. I will tell you, the drug dealers were out in force though. If I would walk downtown, they would try to sell me heroin, and I would think, “You are very poor judge of character.” I mean, do I look like your average customer?

In the series, you recall having a meal with Charles Mingus and Duke Ellington as a parable for the idea that everyone, no matter how great, is deferential to someone. Who are you deferential to?

I’ll tell you when I meet them.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Pretend It's a City is an HBO series. It is a Netflix series. This version has been updated.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe