The man behind EV Grieve is finally out and about in the East Village.
“Hello, my name is John Elsasser,” he posted last night, “and I have been running this website for the past eight years or so.”
The blogger had remained anonymous during all that time, even as he was quoted in the New York Times as a neighborhood authority and even as his site racked up links and plaudits from countless other mainstream media outlets. (Last year the Village Voice named EV Grieve the city’s Best Local Website and praised it for “breaking news about the East Village and providing a forum for brutally honest commentary from its current and former denizens.”)
Elsasser wrote that he had long thought about revealing his name, but dragged his feet. “However,” he wrote, “it seems easier now to make this disclosure, helped in part that a news site has designs on publishing a ‘Who is EVG?’ article in the days/weeks ahead.”’
Several months ago, I received an assignment to write a profile of EV Grieve, and also look into who was writing it. I knew others had tried to find out the blogger’s name unsuccessfully, and I suspected I would be unsuccessful too. I imagined I would end up writing a piece about the journey to find this man (or woman), shaped largely by my conversations with the many people who followed the site.
In speaking to those people, I found tremendous curiosity about who was behind EV Grieve. Ada Calhoun, a journalist who is writing a book about St. Marks Place, called him the “Greta Garbo for the East Village.”
She once met him, though he didn’t tell her his name. “In the course of doing this book,” she told me, “I met a lot of famous people. But nobody has inspired more envy than him. People were like, ‘Whoa, you got to sit with him!’”
Greg Morabito, an editor at Eater who has often exchanged news tips with EV Grieve over email, said there was a theory going around his newsroom that Grieve was actually not one person but two — because no one could conceivably post that much. “Grieve is the only real mystery of the Internet as far as I’m concerned.”
Morabito said it was “nice that the site is anonymous.” But then he paused, and added softly: “But if someone finds out I’d be curious to know who it is.”
After I began my interviews, I did a simple “who is” search of the EVGrieve.com domain name. I didn’t think it would show anything, and indeed sites like who.is and whois.net indicate that the site has been “privately registered.” But another site told me that the domain’s owner had at some point (whether intentionally or unintentionally, it’s unclear) been identified as “John Elsasser.”
Public records told me that Elsasser was 49, moved to the East Village in 1994, and lived in an apartment there still.
I wasn’t quite sure what to do with the information. Clearly, Elsasser wanted to stay anonymous. I didn’t want to publish a piece if it would hurt his personal life, or if he would shut the blog down as a result. I had been corresponding with EV Grieve via his website, and he had told me he didn’t want to talk if he was “going to be setting up chairs and serving drinks at my funeral.” I assured him that he wasn’t, because I knew I wouldn’t write a story about who he was if it meant he’d stop publishing.
When I asked Grieve about his anonymity over email, his explanation was nearly identical to the one he ended up offering in his post: “It’s not a personal website, and the blog isn’t about me or what I had for dinner last night or what I did this past weekend. It’s a news site about the neighborhood, for the neighborhood.”
But at the same time, his decision to stay anonymous didn’t fully square with me. While EV Grieve doesn’t adhere to the traditional rules of journalism (he doesn’t necessarily seek comment from people when airing rumors) he functions very much like a journalist, gathering and breaking news, cultivating sources, and sometimes conducting interviews. And the other blogs that cover downtown Manhattan — such as The Lo-Down, Bowery Boogie, this one, and our predecessor The Local East Village — are all transparent about their identities.
Despite staying secret, EV Grieve also likes to make sure that there are no other secrets kept in the East Village. When a new building is going up, the site might acquire the renderings before they’re made public. When a restaurant or shop is rumored to be opening or closing, he often posts the rumor from a tipster. And when a bar is seeking a liquor license, he often names the person behind it.
Diem Boyd of the LES Dwellers, an activist group that sometimes works to stop new bars and restaurants from entering the Lower East Side, says Grieve is a great resource for them because when he posts about a new liquor license application “people can take action and mobilize against it. They get a comment on the comment board. And they present at the community board that they don’t want that.” Just this past week, Grieve posted about a petition demanding that an incoming bar reduce its hours and scrap plans for a DJ and doorman.
The blog has also outed specific people. After revealing that Benjamin Shaoul was the developer behind an anonymous LLC that bought a building across from Tompkins Square Park, Grieve instructed readers to sign a petition demanding that Shaoul be blocked from building a penthouse addition. “And this about [sic] more than simply saving one building…,” he wrote, “this is about preserving the integrity of the entire north side of East 10th Street between Avenue A and Avenue B.”
EV Grieve has outed others; in 2011, he revealed that actor David Schwimmer was the person who bought an 1850s townhouse and demolished it despite preservationist outcry. Soon, there was graffiti outside Schwimmer’s house, and it became a major news story, with the New York Post publishing a piece about the neighborhood’s outrage at the townhouse.
Ariel Palitz, a former Community Board 3 member and owner of the bar Sutra, which Grieve wrote about when it was open, said that she felt the blog should play fair when it came to anonymity. “The result of not being anonymous is you get trashed online sometimes,” Palitz said, speaking from personal experience (she was once accused of corruption by commenters who didn’t realize that a community board member could also own a bar).
“[EV Grieve] is protecting his name,” she said. “But if that’s the case then there needs to be the same respect and protection for the people he’s writing about.”
— Todd Patrick (@toddpatrick) June 15, 2015
Eventually, after talking to more people who read EV Grieve, I reached out to Elsasser himself. I told him I had found out his name. I also told him that I hoped to write a profile of both the blog and of the man who had written it for the last eight years. But he said he did not want to come forward. Then, last night, to my surprise, he published his blog post.
John Elsasser is the editor-in-chief not only of EV Grieve, but also of The Strategist, a magazine of the Public Relations Society of America. He has worked there, in the Financial District, since 1994, when he was hired as a news editor, to help launch another PRSA magazine, Tactics.
Elsasser didn’t grow up in New York. His formative years were spent in Piqua, Ohio. During high school, he was co-editor of the school paper, the Cavalier Crier. After graduation, he went off to college not too far away, at Ohio State University, where he earned a degree in journalism. He was editor of the school paper there, too, which was called The Lantern, and graduated from OSU two years late so he could keep editing the paper. In a blog post on the PRSA website, Elsasser wrote:
To my good fortune, I found something that I was passionate about: journalism… so while working as an editor for the university’s daily newspaper, The Lantern, I pared my class schedule down to part time… I learned that I just wasn’t going to make it to a lot of afternoon classes while spending so many hours in the newsroom. I loved the clickety-clack of the typewriters (dating myself) and the spirited collegiality of, say, writing headlines, deciding on our Page 1 articles…
After graduation, Elsasser got the job he wanted: as a journalist. He wrote for the local Columbus, Ohio, papers, and an alternative newsweekly (now defunct) called The Other Paper, and for the Columbia Monthly magazine. He wrote pieces about music and TV and the arts, and sometimes wrote bios for bars that read like poems – and that seem predictive of the kind of work he’d later do at EV Grieve. Here’s a part of one Elsasser wrote about a beloved dive bar near OSU called Larry’s, which is now closed:
High Street bustles by outside. Cars and buses and people and bikes.
Step into Larry’s.
Look around the dingy bar
Feel the sense of community.
And, yes, the poetry…
But…How to keep out the rowdy beer-guzzling undergrads, the campus Greeks, the conservatives?
In 2008, on EV Grieve, Elasser recalled his days in Ohio:
I started my journalism career at a similar chain of community newspapers that were locally owned. I covered all sorts of meetings (school boards, city council, zoning, etc.). This was almost 20 years ago. The plot lines seem to be the same, from a Midwestern city to here. We had the greedy developers hoping to build six luxury homes on a small parcel of land that would have ruined the fabric of a quaint neighborhood. There were chain drug stores taking over old mom-and-pop storefronts. Locally owned eateries closing to make way for some hideous chain restaurants.
Elsasser moved to New York in 1994. He had visited before, at least according to Ada Calhoun, who said that when she met him in person he told her about a magical first experience with New York when his dad brought him there as a child. “It was a story about falling in love with New York, and having this early awakening about the city,” she said. “I think it explains why he cares about things… why he projects this sadness about the Village now.”
When Elsasser made the move as an adult from Columbus to New York City, he moved into a six-story walk up on the Lower East Side. It was on Clinton Street, in a building that now borders a ramen shop selling ramen bowls for $17. In New York, Elsasser got hired at PRSA – his first public relations job. But it was also editorial in nature, a job to help launch the magazine Tactics, which was designed to give tips to PR professionals about how to be competitive.
In a blog post Elsasser later wrote about his first day at PRSA, he noted that the person who hired him thought he was a great candidate but “perhaps too progressive. Might not be happy in biz-reporting setting.”
But Elsasser got a lot out of the biz-reporting setting, including this new thing in the 1990s called blogging. In an email EV Grieve sent to me, he explained that for his day job he “needed to stay current with trends in publishing and news distribution,” and in doing so “became intrigued by the blogging medium. Then I actually started my own blog.”
Elsasser got the idea for the blog in 2007, while he was on a train reading the newspaper, and spotted a news article in Page Six about the imminent closing of two bars he frequented in the East Village, Mona’s and Sophie’s.
“I got the idea on an M9 to maybe document the end of days at the bars… I’d start populating a site with any news accounts of the sale, and create a time capsule of sorts for the bars,” EV Grieve told me by email. He’d call the blog “Sophie’s Bar Blog.” Its first blog post, about the impending closure, was titled: “And so it begins, when the depression sets it.”
Not long after, Elsasser himself was quoted in a Villager piece about Sophie’s and Mona’s:
“Given the way things are going in the neighborhood, everything seems to be turning into a bank branch,” said John Elsasser, a resident of Eighth St. and Avenue B, who’s been coming to Sophie’s steadily for the past few years. “A lot of people boohoo about the loss of Manhattan, but it’s happening everywhere.”
Ultimately Sophie’s and Mona’s changed hands, but did not close, and Elsasser thought perhaps Sophie’s Bar Blog wasn’t necessary after all. He thought about taking the blog down. But another new local blogger, Jeremiah Moss of Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, whose blog was “a bitterly nostalgic look at a city in the process of going extinct,” encouraged him to continue.
“I told him to keep going, to expand it, to write more about the neighborhood as a whole. He was doing something interesting,” said Moss. Grieve and Moss also became “blog buddies over email,” Moss said, “and I wanted him to stick around.”
Grieve did, and soon changed the blog’s name to “EV Grieve” — so that he could more widely mourn the changes happening around him.
And by June 2008, the EV Grieve blog actually began to get readers, starting with a post he published that unearthed a 1984 New York magazine story. It was entitled: “The Lower East Side: There goes the neighborhood.”
This new blog had a new mandate: “Appreciating what’s here while it’s still here. Remembering what’s no longer here. Wishing some things weren’t here that are here.”
As EV Grieve began to get readers, Elsasser did a podcast for PRSA at the same time defending the pursuit of blogging. PR professionals, Elsasser said on the podcast, were still skeptical of the medium and its practitioners, but they shouldn’t be. “People are like, ‘Eh, I don’t know if I really want to talk with these bloggers, because they’re no good. That’s of course absurd,” he said. “I think it’s important to get an understanding and embrace these technologies.”
Over the next few years, Elsasser embraced blogging wholeheartedly, and began to populate EV Grieve with all kinds of stories. Most often his posts were about gentrification: the vanishing bars and restaurants, the rising cost of eating and living, the city’s increasing suburbanization.
By 2011, it seemed, Elsasser had become bitter about the changes he was chronicling, much in the way that his counterpart, Jeremiah Moss, is now. In a Q & A with Rebecca Flint Marx in the Village Voice that year, Grieve seemed almost hostile as he complained of the changes:
“Many of these restaurateurs don’t even bother reaching out to their neighbors. They’re greedy carpetbaggers here to cash in on the East Village gold rush. So once the foodies move on to the Next Big/Buzzed-About Thing, as they always do, there’s no one left to dine in this place… And the arrogance of some of these restaurateurs never fails to amaze me… The near-constant openings are turning into near-constant closings in some cases. We should start a Dead Pool.”
Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation said he still sees that anger come through in the blog – and that it’s justified. “He’s channeling a lot of the angst and concern about the losses that are part of daily life in the East Village,” said Berman. “And he’s sounding an alarm bell. Alarm bells ring loud, can sometimes be shrill but they serve an incredibly important function.”
Marx, a freelance journalist who has closely covered the East Village for the Voice and New York Times, among others, said EV Grieve has become so widely read because he was “really one of the first to say: ‘What is happening to the Village? Or he was the first I paid attention to and a lot of other people too. Now, he speaks for a lot of people that feel a similar way,” she said. “He’s like the town crier.”
Sometimes, EV Grieve breaks news, like after the major gas explosion in the East Village in March, when the blog had a story up within minutes – beating the New York Post, the Huffington Post, and the New York Times. More often, though, the site functions like a community forum, posting resources after the explosion, for example, for those who had been displaced. A reader is just as likely to find a story on the blog about a red-tailed hawk nesting in Tompkins Square Park as it is to find a Q&A with a local business owner or a photo of an East Village sunset. On EV Grieve, there seem to be no boundaries of what makes news – so long as it concerns the changing face of the city.
EV Grieve has become very popular over time. So popular, in fact, that when the East Village Community Coalition did a consumer survey this past fall, it found more people used EV Grieve as a source to find news about the East Village than used Google. “The consultant we used had never seen anything like that,” Sara Romanoski, the coalition’s managing director, told me.
At the same time, some see the negative tone of EV Grieve (more specifically, its most vocal commenters) as equivalent to being anti-business, and say that’s not warranted. “The name itself is East Village Grieve,” noted Palitz. “The implication is that it is a place to air grievances. And so this isn’t a place where you are going to be showering businesses with praise.”
A former EV Grieve reader and tipster, Steven Matthews, over time became so turned off by the negativity on the blog’s commenters — especially regarding the opening of a 7-Eleven on Avenue A — that he started his own rival local blog, East Village Today. In contrast, Matthews’ blog seems almost Pollyanna about the changes in the neighborhood. But Matthews said there needs to be a balance, especially about local businesses.
“The negative tone kind of pervades everything [on EV Grieve],” Matthews said. “So we’re talking about stores, places where you go buy some things, like cookies or something. Even something where you would expect them to support a new, like, yay, small business owner, mom and pop store… well when one opens they don’t like it. It’s kind of a reactionary position.”
Matthews also said he was stopped from being allowed to comment on EV Grieve as of November 2014, after Grieve published a sarcastic piece about Facebook’s new headquarters in the Village, which included ping-pong tables. Matthews had commented on the post in equal sarcasm: “I’m sending them my resume today. I love ping pong!” Elsasser didn’t respond to my email asking about banning Matthews.
But Marx argues that Elsasser’s negativity doesn’t manifest itself in the same way it does in most people who bemoan the changes happening in the East Village. “It’s really easy to get preachy when you’re talking about changing neighborhoods, gentrification,” said Marx. “But he’s not preachy. Instead he’s very wry.”
And, over the years, it feels as if Elsasser has mellowed out. Where before he could seem angry or bitter, that role seems to be held exclusively by Jeremiah Moss now. In contrast, Grieve feels like the often irritated but mostly sad and wistful observer. And, over the years, Ada Calhoun says, she feels as if Grieve has become “almost religious” about the blog. “It seems like a calling for him,” she said.
Jeremiah Moss agrees, and says he thinks that’s most obvious in the posts where EV Grieve personifies objects around the East Village. Elsasser will mourn “a pile of abandoned Christmas trees” just after Christmas, for example, or even a “down on its luck stuffed animal unstuffed, stuffed in the trash.”
“He has a compassion for inanimate objects, which is really, when you get down to it, maybe what urban preservation is about,” said Moss. “Caring about buildings and cafes and dive bars, the places and things around which people gather, and from which a living city is constructed. They have a life of their own, and Grieve is tapped in to that.”
In the last few days alone, Elsasser has posted about a fallen tree branch in the park, and about East Village’s streets “melting” in the heat, and put up an image of empty tables at Odessa, with a man drinking alone at the bar at closing time.
In an email Grieve wrote to me, he said he’d never done this for money or attention. “I’ve always loved this neighborhood, for better or worse, and I probably always will,” he wrote, and repeated the same words in his blog post. “That sounds corny, but it’s true. That drives me more than anything.”
After Elsasser came forward, dozens of people commented thanking Elsasser for writing EV Grieve. “Thank you so much for all that you do — the tireless reporting and documenting of this neighborhood, your humor, your generosity for allowing others to contribute and comment, and for creating an invaluable historical document,” wrote a commenter who goes by Goggla. “I read this site every day (sometimes more) and it keeps me going.”
“Please don’t stop blogging,” another commenter named “Roma Ashby” wrote. “The EV, and indeed the whole city, counts on you.”