Requiem for a Living City: Notes on a Home in TriBeCa

A reflection on growing up in TriBeCa through a post-Sandy lens.

This post was originally published on Medium.

The roof lintel, arched windows and sculpted keystones of 31 Desbrosses Street. Photo courtesy of the Tribeca Trust.

I pulled the car to a stop.

“I’m just going to get out and take a look.”

The loft building at 31 Desbrosses Street, in 2011. Photo ©Google

I left the car running, my wife in the front seat. I stepped out on the cobblestone street, the cold wind from the river on my face. An Uber SUV sat idling to my left as I crossed Desbrosses street, the only other car with a person in it on the block.

The sidewalk hadn’t changed. At the corner of Desbrosses and Washington streets, the grey paving squares were cracked and worn, with a second lip of concrete set back from the curb, a step up from the level of the street. Tiny threads of moss grew in the crevices, and a long rust-colored mark trailed along the inner edge of the step, where rain fell from the lintel of the roof, leaving residue of the copper and masonry that lined the building six stories above. The mark had barely changed in the thirty-odd years since my friend Sara, no older than 5 or six, pretended that walking over it would make you pee.

The space where 31 Desbrosses Street stood. Photo by the author.

But the building was gone. A green construction fence surrounded the site, with two or three diamond-shaped windows cut in the plywood. Peering through the plexiglass, I saw nothing but a pile of red bricks, patched with snow, filling the bare foundation. I snapped a picture or two, and took a deep breath. The building was gone.

The foundation at 31 Desbrosses Street, March 2015. Photo by the author.

The building was the home I grew up in, on the corner of Desbrosses and Washington Streets, in TriBeCa, lower Manhattan. My parents had lived there all of my life, until Hurricane Sandy pushed the Hudson River four blocks inland, covering the street in three feet of water.

The intersection of Hudson Street, Canal Street, and Desbrosses Street (left), during Hurricane Sandy, the night of October 29th, 2012. The entrance to the Holland Tunnel is at the right.

The waters receded, but the chaos left behind by the hurricane eventually culminated in the destruction of my childhood home. The building was gone, my parents were gone (alive, in good health — living elsewhere), and I was left peering through a construction fence at a place that now existed only in memory.


The author outside 31 Desbrosses Street, circa 1980. Photo collection Landfield family.

First, a little bit about me. I was born in 1976, in a hospital called The French and PolyClinic on the west side of Manhattan. The only thing I ever knew about the hospital was that my mother told me it was closed, and that “it was in the theater district.” The French and Polyclinic hospital had been a conglomeration of the French Hospital on 30th street, and the Polyclinic Hospital on 50th street (in the theater district), which joined in 1969, and then went bankrupt and closed in 1977, nine months after I was born (the building still stands on west 50th street near 8th avenue).

The Polyclinic Hospital on west 50th Street, 1915.
My father, Ronnie Landfield, on the roof of 31 Desbrosses Street, winter 1969–70. Photo by Melissa Schook.

My parents were artists. My father, Ronnie, an abstract painter, had been born and raised in the Bronx, and my mother Jenny, had been born in Manhattan and raised in the East Village and Forest Hills, Queens. They had both been on their own from the age of 16, and like other artists in the 1960s, lived a bohemian life. Seeking space to paint and live, they found their way to 31 Desbrosses street in 1969, after living in a loft at 94 Bowery.

Along with two fellow artists from the David Whitney Gallery — Ken Showell and Bill Pettet — they rented the six-story former Pertussin cough-syrup factory and divided the building between the three artists, each taking two floors.

My mother Jenny Landfield, 1970. Photo collection Landfield family.

My father and mother took the first and second floor.

As a child, I knew no other home until I left for college in 1994, at age 18.

My father Ronnie, in the studio at 31 Desbrosses Street, 1970. Photo collection Landfield family.

Standing there, looking through the hole in the fence, I looked down into the history of the city, an invisible road map of the past. A mirror in which I saw a vision of myself, the chrysalis of a place that could now only be seen with the mind. Staring at the naked foundation, scraped and bare, loaded with crumbled brick, timber and dirt, my mind lifted the stones and the glass, the beams and timbers, the plaster, the tin, and the earth, and reconstructed the place of my birth, the home I lived in but perhaps never knew. I peered through the window and saw the place where my father sat, the table where he made paintings, his desk and his chair.

Ronnie in the studio, 1989. Photo collection Landfield family.

I saw the staircase, the doors, the floors and the ceiling, the weight of the majestic structure as it sat on the corner of the block like a tall ship against the sky. I saw the history of my life before me, invisible but floating there in the empty space, so close, so solid, so permanent, and yet completely gone forever.

My brother Noah and I on Desbrosses Street, 1984. Photo collection Landfield family.

I thought about all the years of growing up, the quiet Saturdays when the neighborhood was even emptier than usual, and my brother and I would ride our bikes on the deserted streets. I saw the room that my brother and I shared, and I remembered my first moments with him, and the shock of suddenly having to share my comfortable world with someone new.

My brother and I, June 1979. Photo collection Landfield family.

Looking into that void of the empty foundation, it hit me that while those years were gone, no one else would ever share the memory of this place as their home. No doubt something new would be built, but it won’t be the same. When my parents came to Desbrosses Street, no one had lived in the building before them, and now, no one would ever live in it again. And suddenly I wondered, “had anyone ever lived in this place before?”

In wiping the building away, something new emerged: an awareness that there was a “before.” Looking down into the foundation and the surface of the ground it occurred to me, maybe for the first time, that something else had been there before this building, before we were there, and suddenly I wanted to know what it was. I suddenly craved a connection not simply to the place that was lost, but to the land that remained. The physical presence of the building had dominated my experience and my memory, and was seared into my psyche at the level of myth; a place so familiar it extends intact into my dreams. Yet the illusion of permanence had blinded me to something else — the place itself was more than the architecture built on it; it was a part of nature, and maybe had a place in a greater drama than I was aware. Suddenly, I wanted to know, what was this place?

The story of this building, this place, is the story of a new city emerging from the mantle of an old one. But the story of this building is also my story, the story of my family, and a coming of age story for the city and for me.

The story is also about Tribeca. What it was, how it started, what it is now. And where it’s going.


The land that we now call TriBeCa (the Triangle Below Canal, though it’s really a trapezoid) sits on the western edge of the southern shoulder of lower Manhattan, and is formed by the boundaries of Canal Street to the North, Broadway to the east, and Vesey Street to the south (at one time, Chambers Street).

Map © Google.

And my home at 31 Desbrosses Street was right at the north western tip, two blocks below Canal Street at the corner of Washington and Desbrosses, one block from the Hudson River.

Map © Google.

But how did TriBeCa become TriBeCa? Who was Desbrosses? And how did we get there in the first place? To understand that, I had to take a step back and look at a little bit of history.

A Little Bit of History

A magnificent visualization of lower Manhattan in 1609, from the Welikia (Mannahatta) project of the Wildlife Conservation Society, at

Formed by the movement of glaciers and rising sea levels at the end of the last ice age, Mannahatta, or “Island of Many Hills,” was inhabited by American Indians for at least 11,000 years. Originally settled by the Lenape, who later sold it to Dutch colonists in the 1600s, Mannahatta was a geographical “goldmine” to a maritime culture. Situated at the mouth of a large estuary, with miles of protected natural harbor and rich with forests, fishing and wildlife, and connected to the pristine wilderness in the north via the Hudson River, settling Mannahatta (later Manhattan) was a colonial “no-brainer.”

By the middle of the 17th century, the English had seized it from the Dutch, and in 1705, a tract of land stretching from Chambers street to Christopher street (much of what is now TriBeCa, parts of SoHo, and the West Village) was granted to Trinity Church by Queen Anne. This tract of land came to be known as the Trinity Church Farm (Trinity Church still owns much of the land between Canal and Christopher Street, and is one of the city’s largest landholders to this day). In the 18th century, the western shoreline of the island was irregular, and ran along what is now Greenwich street. Between 1798 and 1828 landfill of sand, oyster shells, sunken ships, and other bulk was used to expand the island westward, pushing into the deeper waters of the river and forming a long, straight shoreline with docks and piers to facilitate shipping. Washington street was extended from the south, and West street was created along the waterfront.

A map of the city from 1798. The irregular shoreline along the Hudson river extends north from the Battery. Collection of the NYPL.
The plan of the city from the 1811 William Bridges Map. The extended, straightened shoreline along the Hudson includes the extension of Washington Street and the creation of West Street along the water front. Collection of the NYPL.

As the area was developed it was divided into blocks and lots, and many of the streets were named for prominent vestrymen of Trinity Church, including Chambers, Reade, Duane, Harrison, Jay, Moore, Laight, Desbrosses, Watts, Clarkson, Vandam, King, Morton, and others.

Elias Desbrosses

Desbrosses street itself was named for Elias Desbrosses, a prominent merchant from a French Huguenot family (French Protestants), founder of the New York Chamber of Commerce, and vestryman of Trinity Church who died in 1778 and was buried in the cemetery in the Trinity Churchyard.

Elias Desbrosses’ gravestone in the Trinity Church Cemetery. Photo by the author.

Elias Desbrosses was also a warden of the church, and a prominent and venerated member of the congregation, known for his charitable giving.

But Elias Desbrosses never lived on Desbrosses Street. The Desbrosses family were merchants involved in the shipping trade, and during their time of the 18th century, virtually all of that business was conducted on the waterfront of the South Street Seaport on the East river. Other than Elias Desbrosses’ affiliation with Trinity Church, his connection with the street that bears his name is virtually nil.

So if Elias Desbrosses didn’t live on Desbrosses Street, then who did?

The answer is Leonard Lispenard.

Lispenard Meadows

The house of Leonard Lispenard in Lispenard Meadows, near the present day Canal Street. This view faces west with the Hudson in the background, Circa 1785. Collection NYPL.

Leonard Lispenard was a landowner, merchant, brewer and politician who lived in New York in the late 18th century. In addition to being involved in the politics of the city, Leonard Lispenard was an active revolutionary and militiaman. And, he also happened to possess a large tract of land on the west side of Manhattan, north of the settled part of the city (north of Chambers street during that time), where he had a large house and quite a few acres of farmland surrounded by swamp. He had leased 83 acres of swampy land from Trinity Church in the 1750s (a subsection of the Trinity Church Farm) with a mandate to drain the swamp and cultivate the land, and this part came to be known as Lispenard Meadows or Lispenard Swamp. Much of this land is now what we know of as Tribeca.

Map of lower Manhattan, 1767. Leonard Lispenard’s farmland is highlighted. Collection NYPL.
Detail: Leonard Lispenard’s homestead on the right, along the “road to Greenwich” (now Greenwich street). Chambers street is the last unmarked street on the center left. (Map rotated for readability).

For most of the 18th century, Lispenard’s house was outside the city, and it turns out, strategically located. In 1775, after the battle of Lexington, as George Washington was en route to Cambridge to take command of the Continental Army, he and his men sought a route through New York that would not attract Royalist attention (kind of like Obi Wan and Luke on their way to Alderan):

Embarking from Hoboken, Washington crossed the Hudson and landed near what is now Laight and Greenwich Streets. He and his men made their way to Lispenard’s house where they spent the night, thus bypassing the city proper, and the British army.

A plaque at the intersection of Desbrosses and Hudson Streets marks the place where Leonard Lispenard’s house once stood.

Photo by the author.

So Leonard Lispenard lived at Desbrosses Street, as early as the 1740s.

But that’s still not the whole story.

The Lispenard house was located along Hudson Street, on the east side of Greenwich street — on land that was part of the natural shoreline. West of Greenwich street during Lispenard’s time wasn’t land; it was water. The two blocks west of Greenwich weren’t land-filled until at least 1798, and probably not until after 1803 when maps clearly show the layout of the new streets.

The same area, from the 1609 Mannahatta visualization. The block at Desbrosses and Washington is highlighted in orange. Image ©

So, who lived on the block between Washington and West, along Desbrosses Street?

A Quest Begins

Finding specific answers about places in New York City that are not the sites of major landmarks, or the homes of prominent personages is maddeningly difficult, but being the curious “lay historian” that I am, I turned to every researcher’s secret (and not so secret) superpower: Google. Through Google I found an incredible wealth of documents, books and photographs in the public domain that helped me track the history of the building’s ownership back to around 1911, when a prominent Broadway playwright named Theodore Burt Sayre bought the building as an investment property. But before that the trail went cold. Who built the building? Who owned the land before the building was built? What was there before? These were all questions that I wanted to know, and so off I went to the New York City Department of Records.

The Book of Conveyances

The Department of Records is one of those city agencies that you imagine being something like Gringott’s bank from Harry Potter: a dark, cavernous vault filled with dusty tomes and gnome-like creatures who size you up as though deciding whether to answer your questions or eat you for dinner. And you would not be far off, except for the part about it being dark. Situated on the 13th floor of a building that shares offices with the parole board and a number of other city agencies, the department of records consists of a few desks with some old, out of date computers, a few micro-film review stations, and rows and rows of shelves loaded down with dusty tomes, containing the property records of virtually every city block and plot of land dating all the way back to the 1700s. It was here that I found “The Book of Conveyances” (books, really) that contained the history of the block at Desbrosses and Washington streets, and peeled back the veil of history to peer into the forgotten past of lower Manhattan.

There I found a succession of unfamiliar names, listed in the “Index of Conveyances” (a register of property records) that illuminated New York’s Colonial and post-Colonial past, and the growth of the city into a commercial and financial empire.

Hugh Gaine

The first of these was a man named Hugh Gaine, who was the first individual owner of the land after purchasing it and several other parcels of waterfront land from Trinity Church in 1803. Hugh Gaine was a prominent publisher during the revolutionary war period (who went back and forth in his loyalties depending on who was in power), and was (like Elias Desbrosses) a Vestryman of Trinity Church between 1792 and 1807. He was also, as it turns out, a bit of a land speculator (and likely a neighbor of Leonard Lispenard). By 1803 Gaine had acquired the entire riverfront block between Desbrosses and Vestry Streets as well as the block north of it, and by 1804 he had the lucrative water rights that went along with them. During this period the city encouraged property owners to develop the waterfront on their own dime, in return for valuable wharfage rights, and Hugh Gaine was nothing if not a savvy businessman and certainly took advantage of the opportunity.

Though Hugh Gaine dies in 1807, it’s likely that his heirs, with the aid of a dock builder named Jacob Halsey, began to fill in the land and develop the blocks west of Greenwich street into valuable waterfront property, and by 1824, this task was completed. After the Erie Canal opened in 1825, the Hudson River wharf, with its deep-water berths and proximity to the Washington Market, became a lynchpin of trade between the Port of New York and the interior of the continent, enabling the city to become the largest and most important port of trade in the world. Years after Hugh Gaine’s death, his heirs sell off his holdings, and an 1824 auction notice from his estate lists the block between Desbrosses and Vestry streets, west of Washington Street, as one of the lots for sale.

The Lorrillards & Cammanns

The man who buys the land from Hugh Gaine’s estate is Jacob Lorillard, of the Lorillard family, a prominent family in New York society in the 19th century. While the Lorillard family is known for founding the Lorillard Tobacco Company (later the American Tobacco Company), Jacob Lorillard was a leather tanner, banker, philanthropist and major land speculator (he bought more than 100 lots of property all over lower Manhattan), and he too was a Vestryman of Trinity Church, serving from 1826–1838.

Hudson Street, at the corner of Vestry, opposite the former site of St. John’s Park, 1900. Jacob Lorillard likely owned a house much like the federal style houses that can still be seen in the background. The Hudson rail line can be seen in the foreground. Collection NYPL.

Jacob Lorillard had a house in the Fifth Ward (the area we now call TriBeCa) known as the Lorillard Homestead, at the corner of Laight and Hudson Streets, opposite St. John’s Park (or Hudson Square, now the exit plaza for the Holland Tunnel).

In 1846, after Jacob Lorillard’s wife Margaretta passes away (Lorillard himself dies in 1838), their holdings are divided between their son and five daughters (and their husbands, as women were only just beginning to be allowed to legally own property). Lorillard’s eldest daughter, Catherine Anna, married to a prominent doctor named George Phillip Cammann (one of the inventors of the binaural stethoscope), retains ownership of the part of the block on which 31 Desbrosses Street would later be built. Catherine and George P Cammann live in the neighborhood at the Lorillard Homestead until the 1850s when they move uptown, but the land on Desbrosses Street remains in their hands and in the hands of the trustees of the Lorillard estate until the 1890s.

St. John’s Chapel, 1829. Collection NYPL.
St. John’s Park, circa 1867. Image courtesy the Tribeca Trust.

St. John’s Park

St. John’s Park, and the chapel for which it was named, was built by Trinity Church in 1803, and was the model on which later parks like Washington Square and Gramercy Park were built. The park became the anchor of a fashionable neighborhood which grew around it between 1820 and 1850. After 1851, railroad tracks were laid along Hudson Street and the growth of industry prompted the flight of the elite further uptown. The chapel itself was torn down in 1918.

West Street looking north from Cortlandt Street, 1900. Now the site of Battery Park City. Collection NYPL.

Port of the World

This time period is one of tremendous economic growth in lower Manhattan, including the expansion of the port from the East River, north along the Hudson (also called the North River). In 1862 the Desbrosses Street Ferry opens, and regular crossing to Jersey City becomes routine. The Pennsylvania Railroad opens a terminal at Desbrosses Street, to ferry goods and people back and forth from Manhattan to New Jersey at high volume.

Sketch of the West Side Piers Circa 1870, drawn from a Desbrosses Street Ferry. Collection NYPL.
Lincoln’s hearse arriving at the Desbrosses Street ferry, in the funeral procession to City Hall, 1865.

After the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, and the development of newer and larger ships that required deep-water berths, the Hudson River piers formed the foundation of New York’s rise to become the foremost capital of global trade in the world. With a large natural harbor and a water-link to Lake Erie — and by extension, the interior of the North American Continent — New York City becomes the nexus of major industry and trade connecting American goods, capital and resources to the rest of the continental US and the world.

And it is in this environment that the first tenants of 31 Desbrosses Street appear.

Mahogany: John and Francis Copcutt

Perris’s Insurance Map, 1853. A small brick structure (tiny pink square) possibly a shed, is marked on the south-west corner of Desbrosses and Washington, beside a coal and Mahogany storage yard. Collection NYPL.
An advertisement for J. Copcutt Mahogany at 440 Washington Street, from 1891.

According to William Perris’s insurance maps of Manhattan, by 1853 (and probably before) the corner at Desbrosses and Washington Street was occupied on both sides by storage yards, and the one at 31 Desbrosses street contained coal, and later, mahogany. This lumberyard was owned and operated by two brothers, John and Francis Copcutt as early as 1835, who according to a City directory were “importers & general dealers in mahogany, rose, satin, zebra, holly, maple, oak, walnut, & other foreign & domestic woods.” The Copcutt brothers travelled far and wide, and received shipments of wood from all around the world at their storage yard on Washington and Desbrosses Street, and then sent lumber up the river to Yonkers for milling and cutting. The two brothers remain in business together until 1875 when they have a falling out and one decides to retire, but the mahogany yard remains at 440 Washington until the 1890s.

Francis Copcutt, re-enacting his climb of Mont Blanc, in 1868. Copcutt looks like he would have been right at home with the avant-garde of the 1960s. Photo credit: Legé & Bergeron.

On this detail from Perris’s insurance map of 1857–62, the Mahogany lots have moved to 438 & 440 Washington/31 Desbrosses Street. The Eagle Sugar Refinery and North River Iron Foundry also identify this block as an active manufacturing and industrial area of the waterfront. Collection NYPL.

The Fifth Ward

St. John’s Chapel on Varick Street, on the east side of St. John’s Park. Collection NYPL.

While parts of the Fifth Ward like St. John’s Park were fashionable from the 1820s to around 1850, once rail-lines were introduced to the area, most of the district was taken over by warehouses and manufacturing buildings for the busy waterfront along the Hudson River. Driven by technical advances like the coal-powered steam engine, and later the railroad, the neighborhood lost favor with elites by 1867, when a major rail depot was constructed at St. John’s Park.

The Hudson River Railroad depot built on the site of St. John’s Park, circa 1867. Collection NYPL.
The Fifth Ward, looking west from Hudson Street. Circa 1870. Photo by Nathaniel Fish Moore.
Tenement and federal style houses on Washington Street (likely built in the 1860s), north corner of Desbrosses Street, circa 1930. This entire block was demolished in 1940. Collection NYPL.

The Fifth Ward also constituted housing for middle and working class residents (predominantly Irish and German immigrants of the first and second generation), though as the 19th century progressed, the commercial nature of the area increased and available housing dwindled. In the 1880s and 1890s through the 1910s, the city experienced an economic boom. During this time the majority of the remaining industrial warehouse buildings that characterize the neighborhood today were built, serving the vibrant commercial center of the Washington Market and the bustling docks along the Hudson River.

The West Street waterfront, 1899. The Pennsylvania Railroad Freight Station along the wharf is at the left (now demolished), and the Grocers Steam Sugar Warehouse at the corner of West and Laight Streets is at the far right. Built in 1853, the Sugar warehouse still stands. Collection NYPL.

A Building is Born

Through the mid-to-late 19th century the property at 31 Desbrosses Street (or 440 Washington Street) changed hands several times, until around 1898, the property comes into the hands of Henry and Hyman Sonn, also known as the Sonn Brothers. The Sonn brothers were Whiskey wholesalers, and in 1899 the “six-story with basement” industrial building at 440 Washington Street is constructed, and becomes their base of operations (the building is technically owned and built by a man named Sylvester L Mitchell and designed by the architecture firm of Kurzer and Rohl, but Mitchell appears to default on the mortgage, and the building is then acquired at auction for $50,000 by the Sonns).

The building at 31 Desbrosses Street/44o Washington, with a faded billboard for “Sonn Bros. Company Whiskies” on the western facade. Photo courtesy Walter Grutchfield.

After the Sonns, the building is acquired by a man named Theodore Burt Sayre. Sayre, a successful Broadway playwright and the son of a pharmacist (and, interestingly, also a playwright), purchases the building in 1911 and leases it for ten years to the Hoffman La Roche Chemical Works, a pharmaceutical manufacturer. In documents prior to 1966, the building is identified as being located at 440 Washington Street, the street number on it’s Eastern facade.

An advertisement for a dietary supplement produced by the Hoffman-La Roche Chemical Works, located at 440 Washington Street, circa 1914.

In 1920 Sayre sells it to the Katzenbach & Bullock Co., also a chemical manufacturer.

Still later in 1923, the building finds its way into the hands of the Seeck & Kade company, manufacturers of Pertussin Cough Syrup.

The building at 31 Desbrosses Street/440 Washington Street in 1930, during Seeck & Kade’s tenure. Tenement housing can be seen at left (demolished by 1940, now Tribeca Truffles Apartments), and the Greenwich Street/9th Avenue elevated train station (also demolished in 1940) can be seen in the background. Collection NYPL.
Desbrosses Street in 2009. © Google.

Seeck & Kade remain owners of the building until Seeck & Kade itself is acquired by Chesebrough-Pond’s in 1956, a large chemical holding conglomerate. Chesebrough-Pond’s is the last major manufacturing company to own the building at 31 Desbrosses Street. In 1967, the building is turned over to a trucking company, it’s penultimate owner before being bought by Ponte Equities, who retain ownership of the building and many properties nearby for many years.

The Washington Market

During the 19th century and into the early 20th, the Fifth Ward was a busy mercantile district, driven by the shipping industry and the many docks and shipping berths lining the Hudson waterfront. Goods and materials brought in by ship or manufactured in the city would be transported by barge to and from the West street piers and the Washington Market to rail terminals on the New Jersey side of the Hudson. Several warehouses, some dating from before the Civil War, still line the blocks between West and Greenwich streets, from Hubert street north to Canal.

Built by the Grocers Steam Sugar Refining Company in 1853, the warehouse at 79 Laight street was one of the city’s tallest buildings at the time. Photo © Google.
The Washington Market, 1829. Collection NYPL.

The Washington Market, a predecessor of the Fulton Fish and Hunts Point markets, was the “Ur” marketplace of wholesale commerce in the 19th and early 20th century, and was the crown jewel and hub of the west side waterfront. Originating as an open-air bazaar in 1812, and centered around Fulton and Washington Streets, the Washington Market was at one point the largest produce market in the United States.

Washington Market, 1859. Collection NYPL.

Much of TriBeCa during this time was the receiving point for most of the food consumed in Manhattan, and was nicknamed “The Farm” in part as reference to the sheer volume of farm produce passing through the rail corridors, warehouses, trucking depots and shipping berths along the west side and traded in the Washington Market and its environs.

The Washington Market in 1956, located on the current site of the Freedom Tower. Collection NYPL.

Post-war Decline

The Washington Market was closed and demolished in 1967 to make way for the World Trade Center. The Freedom Tower currently occupies the site.

The waterfront began its long decline in parallel with New York City’s mid-twentieth century struggles. After World War II, New York had supplanted Paris and London as the financial and cultural capital of the world, yet economic and social forces beginning in the post-war years set the stage for the city’s gradual decline. In 1948, the Interstate Commerce Commission permitted fees to be charged by the barges transporting goods from New Jersey to the piers on the Manhattan waterfront. These fees increased the costs of transporting goods to and from the city, and prompted the decline of the ports and piers, and places like the Washington Market, as the shipping industry sought less expensive means of wholesale transportation. Technology too had a hand in the inevitable end of wholesale shipping in and out of the port of New York: the development of the container ship.

Tugs Escorting Container Ship, Port Elizabeth, NJ

Container vessels, first converted from tanker ships after World War II and later expressly built for the purpose of shipping, enabled bulk loading and moving of cargo at a scale and speed previously unknown in the shipping trade. The new bulk shipping containers could be loaded and secured before arriving at dockside, yet their large size, and the large size of the ships required to carry them resulted in the industry moving to the port of New Jersey at Elizabeth, where there was more space to berth and load the ships. Thus, the confluence of changing technology and modernization of large scale manufacturing and transportation resulted in the virtually complete abandonment of the west side of Manhattan as an industrial center by 1967.

Urban Renewal

Buildings between West Street and Washington Street north of Duane Street, vacated by Eminent Domain in 1965, with the elevated West Side Highway in the foreground (demolished by 1982). Almost all of these buildings were demolished and the vacant lots replaced with Borough of Manhattan Community College and Independence Plaza, during a period of Urban Renewal from the late 1960s-1980s. The row of three federal style houses visible in the center of the photo still stand, but were moved to Harrison Street. Photo courtesy Tribeca Trust.

The population of New York City also peaked in 1950 and began to decline, as more and more people left the city in the post-war years for newly developed suburbs in the surrounding areas. The population of New York City would not return to its 1950 level again until the year 2000, with the city’s population nadir in the 1980s coinciding with the city’s economic and social woes (and ironically, the growth of its cultural renaissance).

With the decline of the city’s historical manufacturing and industrial base, a declining population and economy, and increasing crime and social unrest in the 1960s, the section of Manhattan from Broadway to the Hudson River and bounded by Reade Street in the south to 8th street in the north became known as Hell’s Hundred Acres. Consisting predominantly of warehouses and industrial buildings, the area was notorious for fires, and though some light industrial activity continued and a few sweatshops remained open during the day, at night the entire area was largely deserted.

My mother and father, at right, standing in a vacant lot along Greenwich Street, now occupied by Independence Plaza, 1969. Photo by Melissa Schook, Collection Landfield family.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a number of urban renewal projects began that transformed the lower west side, including the construction of the World Trade Center, Independence Plaza, the Borough of Manhattan Community College, and later, the Shearson Lehman/American Express complex and Battery Park City. Most of the derelict piers were removed, as well as the majority of the 19th-century era masonry buildings south of Canal street along the river between West and Greenwich Streets.

Enter the Artists

It was into this environment that artists of 1960s New York entered, attracted by the remaining large, industrial spaces with high ceilings and good light, left vacant by the manufacturers who had moved on to greener pastures in New Jersey or the outer boroughs. Because demand for space was lacking and the economy of the city was languishing, rents were low and little attention was paid to artists who began to live in the same spaces where they worked. Because the buildings occupied by artists were not zoned or designed for residential use, the city eventually had to create a legal framework to accommodate artist residents, and amendments were made to zoning laws to create live/work districting to permit visual artists to remain in their lofts. Later, the Loft Law of 1982 would attempt to provide rent protection and greater stability for loft dwellers who were often faced with substandard conditions, eviction, and unfair rent increases.

And it was into this world that my parents found their way to 31 Desbrosses street in the fall of 1969.

Uncovering the details of this narrative revealed a number of things to me. The first was that my parents and fellow artists Ken Showell and Bill Pettet were the first people ever to live on the southwest corner of Desbrosses and Washington streets. What once was water, then a storage yard, and later a manufacturing building that had never housed people suddenly became a place where my father and mother made their home. While the neighborhood had once been a working-class neighborhood for the city’s many Irish and German immigrants, with schools and churches tucked in-between the busy warehouses, those days were long gone. Now, the building at 31 Desbrosses Street stood surrounded by predominantly empty trucking depots and post-industrial derelict warehouses, looming eerily silent on the empty streets. Living at a distance from the populous part of the city defined my parents’ outlook, and would shape my early life and perspective on the city.

West Street, looking east at Laight Street, 1970s. The elevated West Side Highway can be seen in the foreground (now demolished) and the Market Diner in the background (also demolished). The Grocers Sugar Refining Warehouse (at right) still stands. Collection Landfield family.

Surrounded on all sides by the ceaseless traffic of the Holland Tunnel along Laight Street in the south, Hudson Street to the east, Canal Street to the north, and West Street and the river to the west, a kind of “hidden valley” was formed in the north of TriBeCa, cut-off from the rest of the neighborhood by the eddies and flows of constant motor traffic. With few residences, services, and very few retail businesses in the area, foot traffic was limited and TriBeCa North was slow to develop.

In my early childhood at the end of the 1970s, there were only a handful of families who lived within a five-block radius of our house, and not many more in the surrounding area.

I have many memories of riding my big-wheel on the derelict off-ramp of the West Side Highway, and of walking almost a mile with my mom to the corner of Bleecker Street and 6th Avenue to go grocery shopping at the Pioneer Supermarket, the only place to buy food for miles. The opening of the Food Emporium on Greenwich Street in the early 1980s was a huge development in our household (though it was still a half-mile away).

My parents would also be among the last people ever to live in the building at 31 Desbrosses Street, as they remained tenants there from 1969 until 2013 when the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy rendered the building inaccessible. They were also the only family to occupy the building continuously for that time period, as the other original tenants moved out and new families moved in.

The Bridge

In many ways, our lives in that building and in the neighborhood of North Tribeca formed a bridge between the city of the past, with its vibrant industrial and working-class culture — a city of workers, builders, artisans and makers — and the city of today, with its genteel atmosphere, upscale residences, and wealthy inhabitants. And my parents’ lifestyle, living on the second floor of a building fitted for commercial use, with my father’s painting studio on the floor below, while unorthodox, also oddly reflected the customs of artisans of the distant past, when craftsmen of the 18th century lived above the workshops where they plied their trade.

My father Ronnie Landfield in the studio, 1972. Collection Landfield family.

The end product in my father’s case was art, a luxury good and a “symbolic” object, representing the “hand-made” and the “maker’s mark,” though one step removed from the utility of traditional consumer objects. Yet the methods and cultural practices reflected in the lifestyle that produced them bore more resemblance to the lives of pre-industrial artisans than it did to the industrial and post-industrial workers of the modern world. That the product was art rather than consumer goods reflected a changing culture and the changing times. Many artists in the area during this time lived in a similar manner, and it is in many ways the joining of old methods and customs with new ideas, economic realities and cultural ferment that set TriBeCa on its path to becoming the heterogeneous mixture of old and new that it is today.

My mother Jenny with my brother Noah, 1979. Collection Landfield family.

Raising a family in this environment also created its own incongruities. Children need schooling, and by the late 1970s, Ronni Moskowitz had started the Washington Market Montessori School, and PS 3 Annex, which would become PS 234, occupied a small three-story building within the Independence Plaza Complex (now occupied by PS 150), led by pioneering principal Blossom Gelernter. My brother and I, and virtually every other child of artists we knew in the neighborhood (and some from other neighborhoods) became students there. The small school, where there were no desks and the teachers were called by their first names, became the center of our community, and as we grew we watched as the neighborhood grew around it. Washington Market Park, down the block from the school, underwent a transformation from a spartan sand-lot with a jungle gym or two, to the bucolic gem of urban green space it is today.

The rapid transformation of lower Manhattan going on around us felt at times like a Bugs Bunny cartoon, the one where the cartoonist’s gigantic hand appears in the frame holding a pencil, and in a flurry of “meta” storytelling, sketches in the scene surrounding Bugs as the action unfolds, sometimes one step ahead of Bugs, sometimes just a few steps behind. So too do the changes taking place now feel like the same cartoon, this time where the cartoonist has flipped the pencil, and erases the scene around Bugs Bunny, leaving him in an unfamiliar and unsettling blank void.

The changes that were taking place in the neighborhood and the city around us ran like seams through our lives. My brother was one of the first classes to attend school in PS 234’s “new” building on Chambers street (a building it has now occupied for almost 30 years). By the time I was 16 years old, Stuyvesant High School had finished construction of the ten-story building it now occupies in Battery Park City at the corner of Chambers and West Streets, just in time for my Junior year. I was in English class in 1993 the day of the first bombing of the World Trade Center. And my family was at home on September 11th, 2001, as the planes struck the towers. For weeks afterward, my parents were confronted with checkpoints on their walk home from the subway, and the metallic smell of the fires lingered for what seemed like months. And, the gap left in the sky downtown was a cold reminder of a new reality — the quiet, peaceful village we had known was gone almost over night, and a creeping sense of unease settled in and stubbornly persisted.

Today, the neighborhood has grown exponentially, both becoming more populous and more affluent. Like the settlement of St. John’s Park in the 1820s, TriBeCa has once again become a destination for the city’s wealthiest and fashionable denizens, albeit on a far grander scale. And as a result, TriBeCa — including North TriBeCa — has become prime real-estate for developers looking to cash-in on the caché.

Uncovering the history of the neighborhood revealed that the changes taking place there are part of a continuum, part of the growth and regrowth of the city and our society as a whole. It also demonstrated that nothing takes place in a vacuum. Yet, seeking — and finding — the origins of this one particular spot, the land underneath my former home, also revealed a deeper truth.

Beneath the Surface

Hugh Gaine and the other property owners of the late 18th and early 19th century remade the waterfront to fulfill a vision of New York as an engine of maritime commerce and growing industrial power. Not content to abide within the natural boundaries of the island, they reshaped the geography of the land to accommodate their ambitious project, and pushed the river’s edge back from its high water mark further and further out into the effluvial channel. They forced nature to their will, forming and reforming the land to suit their needs.

In the two centuries that followed, the use of the waterfront reflected the changing character of the city, from pre-industrial port town, to bustling industrial city with steamships, railroads, warehouses and storage yards, to blighted metropolis whose derelict piers and empty commercial spaces would form the fertile, fallow ground in which a new city would emerge. The city of my lifetime transformed from an urban wilderness, where inhabiting the large swaths of post-industrial Manhattan was a new idea, to the settled Millennial city, tamer and taller, where the human-scale legacy of the industrial age was sloughed off and replaced with glass towers that loom high above the streets like lofty titans. Each successive wave of change built on and adapted to what the previous generation had left behind, shaping and reshaping the landscape to accommodate the social and economic forces at work in each period of history.

The destruction of the World Trade Center, and the economic crisis of 2008 slowed, but did not change the trajectory of transformation taking place in lower Manhattan. Where the builders of the 19th century and the city planners of the 1960s expanded the boundaries of the island horizontally, a new vision of the city is emerging, one in which the boundaries of the city are expanding vertically. Driven by the social and economic crucible that is 21st century America, and the forces at work in this more and more divided city, the relentless flow of energy that gives New York its strength is the same energy that strips it of lasting character and identity. Unable to preserve its past, the city cannibalizes itself, growing and regrowing to meet the needs of its population and the insatiable demands of capital.

The small strip of TriBeCa North that once was my home is no different; in a way, the drama that took place there over the course of two centuries is a perfect pageant play of the current moment in the history of New York City: the old giving way to the new, the human, artisanal scale of a place retreating before the impersonal bend of progress. In some ways tragic in the erasure of history and the physical forgetting of a city’s legacy; in other ways, simply another phase in a long journey of transformation.

But there is another force at work that may represent a more pressing and urgent future than we are aware. The River itself — and the estuary where the Hudson meets the Atlantic Ocean — was the original claimant of the land, and may yet return to reclaim what was lost. If Hurricane Sandy prefigures things to come, the effects of climate change and rising sea levels will devastate and undo all of the development that has taken place around the Manhattan waterfront from before the time of Hugh Gaine. What once was water will return to water if no measures are put in place to safeguard the city from the relentless forces of nature.

Though perhaps that fate is all but unavoidable, and the four-odd centuries of urban development will be but a brief and fleeting moment in an enduring dance played out between the river and the sea.

More buildings in TriBeCa North are vulnerable to demolition. To learn more, and to support the effort to expand the TriBeCa Historic District, visit the Tribeca Trust.

I am indebted to a number of individuals and organizations for their support in writing this article. The staff at the New York Public Library and their online archives, Lynn Ellsworth and the folks at the Tribeca Trust for their knowledge and research, the The New York City Department of Records and The Department of Buildings, The Landmarks Commission, The archives of the Museum of the City of New York, the incredible resources available through Google Search, Google Maps, Google Earth, and Google Books, Ronnie, Jenny and Noah Landfield, and most of all, Caitlin and Benjamin for going with me the whole way.

Want more stories like this? Know some facts or details that I should know? Let me know what you think by leaving me a note!

Correction: A reader pointed out that the photo of Urban Renewal from 1965 shows the blocks north of Duane Street between West and Washington Streets, not North Moore street as previously stated.

The Contently Summit 2014: Perspective of a Gate Crasher

What follows is a thoroughly subjective, thoroughly incomplete report of my own recollections and notes from the Contently Summit held at the Bowery Hotel on November 6th, 2014. This report is in no way meant to represent a full accounting of the event, and rather provides my own impressions and takeaways from some of the panels, speakers and discussions.

Having recently returned to freelance life after leaving a job at a media company in New York, I reached out to friends in my network letting them know about my change of status. One of those friends hit me back with a note suggesting that I come to a networking event he was attending the following week– the Contently Summit, being held at the Bowery Hotel– and he followed that up with a ticket.

Fast forward a week and change, and I found myself stepping into the cavernous terrace area of the Bowery Hotel on a cold rainy morning in early November. Greeted warmly by a team of young tech industry types wearing bright blue T-shirts under their blazers, with the word Contently emblazoned in white across the front, I wove my way past the catering tables and coffee urns, and the hurried organizers stacking up schwag bags and give-away T-shirts in preparation for the blitz to come. I settled in to a seat on a plush sofa while brand marketers and journalist-types filtered in, nibbling on scones and pastries and sipping coffee. Suppressing a familiar sense of panic at being surrounded by strangers at a social event, I managed to fall into a light conversation with a marketer or two and a journalist making requisite Ebola jokes to break the ice.

Shortly we were ushered into the main hall, where rows of high backed chairs were set in a backwards L shape, projecting at right angles from a small stage in one corner of the large room.

After a brief introduction by Joe Coleman, co-founder and CEO of Contently, journalist, “Digital Media Consultant” and content-marketing guru Neil Chase took the stage as moderator, and kicked off what would turn out to be a long but astonishingly rich day of conversation between and among a parade of heavy-hitters in brand and content marketing and digital publishing.


Right off the bat, in the first panel on the subject of Audience, Steve Rubel, EVP and Chief Content Strategist from Edelman, described the “secret sauce” of successful content marketing as “the front-loading of the thinking” around distribution, and finding the tricky balance between applying distribution tactics without impeding creative. Rubel described the outcome of an Edelman/IAB study focused on understanding audience response to sponsored content and native advertising, which found that 60% of responders were open to advertising that tells a story, rather than ads that “sold” a product.
Relevance and authenticity were terms that cropped up repeatedly throughout the day (though use of both paled in comparison to the frequency of utterance of the painfully over utilized term “content”), and Rubel described the takeaways from the Edelman/IAB study as falling into three main focus areas:

  • Content must be RELEVANT to audience interest
  • Content must be AUTHORITATIVE— subject matter expertise is important
  • Brand familiarity and BRAND TRUST are critical– BE AUTHENTIC

In Rubel’s view, big companies (and by extension, well-known brands) have much to gain by applying the principle of authenticity to their communications efforts because they possess significant audience familiarity and visibility, which can translate to significant brand trust (but the importance of authentic communication is critical to sustaining that trust). He also mentioned that a strong current focus and challenge for brands is on partnering with publishers to get “in-feed sponsored content right.”

Audrey Gray, AVP and lead communication strategist at MetLife, talked about successful efforts she had undertaken at MetLife with the MetLife To Go portal and the MetLife Corporate Social Responsibility pages, and that some key takeaways for her were using a mix of high and low budget media, along with deployment of user generated content. While Gray commented that she makes use of both video and photography in MetLife’s content marketing efforts, she was very enthusiastic about the ability of photos to tell a story in a compelling and accessible way and emphasized the importance of good photography. Both Gray and Rubel agreed that video when deployed correctly provided significant value, but Rubel made a keen observation that “there’s a stigma on watching video in the workplace,” where photos don’t have that problem. Rubel was also sanguine on some older but perhaps overlooked communication tools like email and audio podcasts that continue to stay relevant despite their lack of “gee-whiz” dazzle.

Joe Lazauskas, representing Contently on the panel (as Contently’s Editor-in-Chief), in a discussion of the Contently platform’s focus on engagement metrics, emphasized the values of relevance and authenticity noting that some of the most popular articles on Contently’s own channels were on the subject of “content measurement.” Further in the discussion of tracking engagement metrics, Lazauskas noted big jumps in engagement in stories that were very human, and that while many brands struggled to find a “human” editorial voice, establishing that voice was extremely important.

A lot of props were given to digital publishers Buzzfeed, HuffPost and Vox for being “digital native,” and because of their success in finding and building audiences online. Rubel’s advice to brands was to study successful digital publishers, “reverse-engineer those best practices, and apply them to marketing.” Traditional media companies appeared to stand the most to lose in the new landscape of content focused marketing, and the stakes are high– “If the media business doesn’t get it right, they’re toast.”

An awesome live infographic drawn by Kelly Kingman at the Contently Summit.

A lot more was said by Steve Rubel, Audrey Gray and Joe Lazauskas, some of which is captured in the live infographic included above, but the insights described above were the primary bits that I captured in my notes.


No, not this blog, or even the Contently Summit, but rather Contently itself– the next speaker was Jay Moye, Editor-in-Chief of Coca-Cola Journey, Coke’s online content hub powered by Contently. Moye spoke at length about the tactics and approach employed by the team at Coke Journey, which included a broad mix of story-generating and optimization efforts, many of which were powered by Contently. Moye covered a lot of ground, but one of the most salient points that he touched on was the importance of unbranded storytelling in conjunction with branded messages.
“30% of content on Coke Journey is unbranded. We knew early on that if we used Coke in every headline, we’d only be talking to ourselves.”
Moye and his team are pursuing a strategy of reeling people in with unbranded content, with the hope that users will be drawn in and stay, increasing their likely exposure to branded messages– an approach that is proving itself out with low bounce rates and high engagement time on the Coke Journey hub.
In keeping with many of the speakers during the course of the day, Moye emphasized the value of measurement and optimization, describing the rigorous process of review his team at Journey go through to get the most out of the content they generate. Learning from the data was a key component of the Journey strategy, leading Moye and his team to consistently ask themselves “are we publishing content that people want to read, engage with and share?”
He even had a unique unit of measurement for the success of their content efforts, called EOI– Engagement on Investment, which was composed of data gathered from social channels, site page visits, and search data.

The Journey team’s 2015 strategy includes a focus on Multimedia, Real-time marketing, and International Expansion– including cross-pollination of efforts from markets inside and outside the US (citing as a prime example the success of the “share a coke” campaign, which is running in 50 countries).

Some criteria his team developed as guiding mantras are reflected in the list below, again touching on the themes of authenticity, relevance and optimization:

  1. Authenticity Always Wins– content created with a genuine human voice proven to perform over “hard-sell” messages
  2. Iterate, Don’t Deliberate– it’s more productive to move quickly and optimize than to make things perfect the first time
  3. Data Trumps Politics– in a big organization like Coca-Cola, decision-making can be very political, but using data to prove success can make those decision a lot smoother and clearer.
  4. A Picture’s Worth 1K Words (a video’s worth 10K words)– speaking to the value of visual and motion media (photos, videos, gifs and new forms like Vines and Instagram videos)
  5. You’re Not Alone– was a little less clear on this one, but interpreted it to mean that in the digital ecosystem there are many lessons to be gleaned from partners, counterparts and competitors

Of the brand representatives who spoke at the conference or were in attendance, it seemed that Moye and his team at Journey were publishing content at a fairly high rate, generating 12-15 pieces a week, and using a mix of paid, owned and earned channels to amplify the content they do produce to make sure it’s not falling on deaf ears, using Outbrain, social & paid social.

Another interesting point that Moye touched on briefly was the place and role within the corporate organization that Coca-Cola Journey occupied, namely that the content hub fell under the Corporate Communications division of the company, and operated independently of the marketing division.


After a heady and pithy morning of discussion, I was also grateful to take a break for lunch at this point, as the high-backed chairs had slowly taken their toll on my tailbone. Lunch was provided, and the atmosphere at the hotel was lively and enthusiastic. The morning panel and conversations clearly resonated with the audience, and the lunchtime discussion was casual but equally engaging. And, when it was time to return for the afternoon session, new arrivals crowded into the auditorium, making the second session even more well attended than the first.


The afternoon started off with a bang with Chad Mumm from Vox Media, Wilson Cleveland from Unboxd, and Andrew Greenwood from GenPac, up to talk ostensibly about Quality in the content equation.
Wilson Cleveland led off with a run down of several projects created by Unboxd, a digital studio that creates original, story-driven, entertainment programming for brands. Unboxd got started creating a show called The Temp Life, a narrative, character-driven comedy series created for Spherion, a large temp agency that wanted to reach a new audience using online video. The Temp Life ran for five seasons and was a huge hit on YouTube and myDamnChannel, and led Cleveland to produce a number of other series for corporate clients, including a show about tech startups called Leap Year, created on behalf of Hiscox Insurance Company.
When he was approached by the client, they were interested in offering their insurance product to a new market– tech startup founders– but lacked insight into how to gain the trust of that audience. Wilson’s response was to start with a strategic approach to creative to “prove to [the target audience] you understand them,” and pursued an “unbranded” approach to storytelling– there was no product placement in the series (through specific directive of the client), and instead he shot “tangentially” related stories, storylines that were connected to the brand, but no direct product or brand placement. And that approach yielded results. According to Cleveland, “Leap Year was responsible for a 35% increase in insurance quotes over the 12 weeks the show ran.” Leap Year was renewed for a second season, and is in talks to make a move to television.

Next up was Chad Mumm the head creative at Vox Media and Vox Creative, the branded content arm of Vox. Chad came out swinging with a discussion of some Vox’s branded content efforts, including First & Long, a branded series created for Nike, where six NFL stars returned to their high-school stomping grounds unnanounced, and out-toughed their entire hometown teams through grueling practice sessions and impromptu games. The series was booked, executed, completed and delivered in two weeks, despite the fact that some of the NFL stars didn’t have existing deals with Nike. Vox leveraged the power of their existing fan and NFL star relationships through SB Nation, Vox’s network of sports media properties, and swung the deal in record time to capitalize on audience interest in pre-season high-school football.
Mumm also described work on The Next Mile, a sponsored content series created by VoxCreative for BP, where video, photography, and branded journalism are published on a hub and spoke model, with sponsored modules propagating throughout the web and on publishing and media properties owned by Vox and other partners. In the discussion of sponsored content, Mumm reiterated the emerging trend that in a media landscape that is becoming increasingly driven by social media engagement “The home page is dead, and now it’s all about the article page.” Mumm also discussed the Chorus and Harmony platforms, Vox’s proprietary software tools to enable and empower monetization of sponsored content.

Andrew Greenwood from GenPac representing the perspective of the B2B marketer, emphasized the importance of establishing credibility especially in a B2B marketing equation. Among many insightful comments, he noted that an effective strategy he had observed for reaching C-level audiences made use of distributing 3rd-party research– information from a known and vetted source to establish credibility, and that credibility was extremely important in making an impact on high-level audiences.


At this point in the day, my brain was so full of amazing information that it started not being able to retain stuff, and I practically missed some great points dropped by Stacie Grissom, Editor-in-Chief of Barkbox, And Adam Aston of The New York Times. Their conversation focused on the value of speed in the era of real-time social, but ranged from the blurring boundary between “church and state” (between advertising and editorial) to the emerging newsroom model of media response, and the newsroom model of newsroom response (in the case of the NYTimes). Here are some tweets capturing nuggets of wisdom from the perspective of Barkbox:

@Contently: “”When you focus content around a passion point (like dogs), you can have explosive social reach.” — of

@Contently: “Do what a brand wants first, blow it out of the water, then do innovative work when you have their trust, says .

but that approach can also lead to pitfalls:

@Grace_Land: “When brands want to guide the editorial process, it turns into an ad and not a story.”

So you need to find a balance, and it’s kind of like dating:

n on editorial speed: “We’re still in the dating phase w brands.”

And here’s the real-time infographic as drawn by Kelly Kingman:

photo 2


My brain still saturated with information, Catherine Burns and Erin Barker from The Moth came along to blast everything I had previously heard out of my head and think only of laughing and being excruciatingly moved by Erin Barker’s heart-shredding story about her childhood, “Is Your Dad Single?” After squeezing my heart back out of my shoes, Catherine Burns then laid it out for us exactly how to tell an earth shatteringly good story, and I have the important notes for you right here:

  • First, Define Your Theme— What is your story really about?

For example, Erin Barker’s story was about “Identity” — “who am I?”

  • Then, Set Up The Stakes— what are the stakes? SO IMPORTANT– the audience needs a reason to care. Give us a reason to care. For the audience.

And think about “Why do I care?” Stakes are relatable. For Erin, her story was about losing her sense of identity– “I thought I knew who I was, and now I don’t”

  • Develop the Arc— the arc of the story– who is the storyteller in the beginning, and who is the storyteller at the end? Every story has a beginning middle and end, but what is the change through the course of the story?

Catherine Burns said lots more stuff, and then proceeded to do a Moth workshop with Contently Editor-in-Chief Joe Lazauskas and a personal story about his 9th grade crush, which was fascinating to see and a great story.

That was a lot of stuff, but still more stuff happened.


Two more incredibly smart people took the stage to talk about what they were doing– Steve Sachs, the CEO of OneSpot, and Debra Russeth, VP of commercial marketing and strategy from HSBC. Both Russeth and Sachs were focused on ways to measure the success of marketing efforts, and Russeth discussed at length the herculean efforts she and her team had gone through to build an effective measurement apparatus for their content marketing at HSBC, enabling them to prove out the value and return on the investment in marketing– no small feat by any stretch at any organization, though guided by the principle that “marketing has to connect back to a sale.” She also noted that they are seeing a lot of engagement on mobile, but that mobile web does better than engagement in mobile apps.

Steve Sachs from OneSpot talked about the idea of “content sequencing,” or having an ideal sequence of relevant content for a particular audience, and an awareness of how that sequence is intended to produce effects, ie., the sale. From Sachs’ perspective, Content Engagement metrics drove business results, proved out in OneSpot’s findings, that the more pieces of content people engaged with, the more likely they were to deliver a business result. Sachs echoed Chad Mumm’s dictum from earlier in the day that engagement happened at the article level, but took it one step further, describing OneSpot’s approach of serving content to audiences on Publisher platforms, rather than expecting audiences to traffic back to a particular site (homepage) or publishing hub.

Setting goals were key in Sachs’ equation, staying focused on:

  • Revenue
  • Sales
  • Purchase Intent
  • Brand Metrics
  • Consumer Actions (such as registering, signing up for newsletters, product searches, etc.)

and in the realm of content sequencing, an awareness of specific Engagement KPIs made the difference:

  • Repeat Engagement
  • Average Pieces of Content Consumed
  • Average Time Spent




Stepping in for Shane Snow, the co-founder of Contently who was traveling and unable to make it back in time for the conference, Joe Coleman the CEO/co-founder of Contently and Sam Slaughter, VP of Content, took the stage to wrap up things up.

Coleman recognized the challenges that brands face in the content marketing landscape, acknowledging that “creating content that people like is really hard to do.” They also recognized the emerging shifts over the past several years and the emerging trends going into 2015, noting that many brands were moving toward “centralizing content,” and finding holistic ways to manage and produce content marketing. Building “owned channels” and using technology (like the Contently platform) to optimize and manage their publishing efforts were some of the ways that companies are finding to make reaching their audiences more cost effective and efficient, and both expected that trend to continue. “We’ve had more meetings with CMOs over the past 9 months than the past 3 years,” said Joe Coleman, as an indicator of the move toward building owned and brand-managed content hubs.

Sam Slaughter made a key observation that these efforts are in some ways less about the brands themselves and more about the audience– that, as the interests and needs of audiences shift, brands must find ways to adjust in order to take advantage of the new opportunities the landscape presents. “Content is more than content marketing– it’s everything a brand does, across everything in their company.” Speaking about the evolution of Contently, in tandem with the rise of content marketing, Slaughter observed “We’ve solved the What and How of Content Marketing. 2015 will be about the Why.”

And with that, Neil Chase wrapped up the day’s sessions, and prompted everyone to stick around for happy hour.

Final Thoughts

Conversations continued at the bar long after the close of the panels, and by the tenor of the crowd it was clear that everyone had been left with lots to think and talk about. It was also clear from the caliber of speakers and those in attendance in the audience that the subject of the conference was important to a lot of brands, companies and marketers, as well as journalists and content creators, as the convergence of social media, mobile technology and the rise of the “connected society” were reshaping the media landscape for everybody. Hearing from those companies and individuals who are on the forefront of that change was valuable for all involved, and Contently deserves praise for providing the forum and for practicing what they preach– creating good storytelling that people want.

I thanked my friend for the invitation, said my goodbyes, and headed out into the cold, rainy November evening, with lots of food for thought.




Bosu Squats are Hard

So I’m about four weeks into my exercise experiment. After months of abortive attempts, the stars have aligned and I’ve gotten off to a good start. It’s been about four weeks, and I’ve managed to average about 3-4 days per week in the gym.
What have I learned? Yes, bosu squats are hard. Jumping up and down onto a semi-spherical rubber balloon and balancing on it while doing deep knee-bends isn’t exactly my idea of kicking back, but then again, I’ve discovered muscles I didn’t know I had somewhere in the region of my thigh/outer leg/rear-end area. And they can get sore fast.
But more than that, I’ve learned a lot in a few weeks. No surprise, I’m out of shape. And I’m not very flexible. My hamstrings are as tight as a drum. But my body has also adapted quickly, and I’ve definitely gotten stronger.
Three or four weeks ago, I could barely do 12 push ups off the bench. Today, I did three sets of 15, at a good pace. My core is stronger, my back is stronger, and I feel different when I stand up from my seat on the subway, or find my balance on a moving train.
There’s still a long way to go. Besides discovering the benefits of exercise, it’s also clear that not exercising can have a profound effect on your body, and your state of mind, in a less than ideal way. This process has helped to make that clear, and given me a chance to observe the opposite effect, going from a state of zero as it were, to one bosu-step forward.

Baby steps– Kqool for Change

Getting back to exercise again after a long, long hiatus. My company (Magnet Media) recently signed us up for a corporate gym membership, so I joined. My knee injury has healed with the help of physical therapy, and also a better configured bike seat (it was too low before), and I’m feeling a strong need to get back into physical activity.

I don’t have a huge budget for this process, and the gym membership itself isn’t cheap. So I’m trying something new. I made a video a few years back for a client who created a website for personal training called He used the website to transmit workouts to clients remotely, so that they could follow his routines on their own– and stay up to date with their training on days when he wasn’t able to work out with them (when they were traveling, or simply on the off-days when they didn’t train with him).

I’m going to use to get myself into shape.

My plan is to go to the gym four mornings a week– Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday, Friday. I’ve made it there three days so far this week. I’m doing my best to follow the routines (I’m really out of shape, and they are hard), but also to go easy on myself as I’m just getting back into exercising after a long break. The gym has a pool, and I’ve also been taking some of the time to practice my swimming. I only learned to swim properly as an adult, and I’m also out of practice there, so I’m using my time in the gym to brush up on my swimming skills, as well as follow the kqool routines. I’ll post regularly with my progress.

Physical Therapy

My name is Matt Landfield. I’m 36 years old, and I have a four and a half year old son. I also have a
lovely wife, a nice home, and all the comforts and conveniences of modern living. One thing I also have is an injury to my right knee, which, over the course of several months, has gradually deepened and worsened, so that I can’t ignore it anymore. It’s not enough pain to make you cry out, but just enough to remind you of how uncomfortable you are when sitting down, no matter how accommodating the chair. Even standing still or climbing stairs is irritating sometimes.

So today was my first day of physical therapy. Though I’m only 36, I felt like an 80 year-old man trying to stretch my aching right leg out straight for the therapist, to show her how far my hamstrings could go.

Not very far.

This condition is unacceptable to me, and it is long past time that I did something about this, and I’m ruthless in my self-castigation—how could I let myself get to this point? Yet I’m not at all surprised that this battle has to be fought yet again, this struggle against inertia, which proves over and over again to be one of the most powerful forces in our lives.

No amount of resolve is ever enough to overcome it, inertia can only be overcome by an intensive influx of energy, and even then, it will always win in the end.

The challenge is to struggle against inertia, and in doing so, live— not try to overpower it.