New York writers celebrate downtown's literary legacy at second-annual lit fest
Soho A few years ago, Amor Towles, a longtime Bowery resident and author of the novel "Rules of Civility," noticed that downtown Manhattan, for all its cultural offerings, lacked a dedicated literary festival.
"Downtown New York has been an important literary and cultural center for over 100 years," said Towles, who went on to list Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Edith Wharton and the beat poets as evidence of lower Manhattan's rich literary history. "Given that, it was sort of surprising that there was no forum to consider and celebrate that."
Towles approached Sarah McNally, owner of independent bookstore McNally Jackson on Prince Street, who, Towles said, took to the idea right away. In 2013, McNally Jackson partnered with fellow downtown indie bookseller Housing Works Bookstore Café, to produce and host the Downtown Literary Festival, a celebration and exploration of downtown literary culture. Now back for its second year, the free, one-day festival on April 13 features a diverse lineup of New York writers, and has expanded to include a third venue, Bowery Poetry Club, with performances, readings and presentations happening concurrently throughout the day.
"We like the idea that people can go back and forth and bump into people in the street, have a drink and move on," said Towles.
From inception, organizers and participants were intent on developing unique programming that goes beyond the traditional moderated panels and readings.
"I'm a big believer in the power of live events," said Lucas Wittmann, former books editor for the Daily Beast and executive editor of Regan Arts, a new division of Phaidon Press. Wittmann closes the festival as the host of a literary cabaret, where writers perform pieces about nighttime in New York City through monologue, story-telling or dramatic readings.
"Putting a bunch of writers together, you find interesting connections between their work and ideas, and what excites them about New York City and the downtown literary scene," said Wittmann, who co-founded the monthly literary cabaret series House of Speakeasy with writer and historian Amanda Foreman.
Children's events are new this year, and will include sing-alongs, puppet shows and a poetry-writing workshop. The day-long schedule also includes story-telling about bad apartments and a conversation between screenwriter Richard Price and novelist Francine Prose about downtown Manhattan's transition from an affordable, artistic community.