Zoo York co-creator/NYC OG Eli Gesner knows how to stick his nose into badass projects. After helping to write & produce the 1994 New York noir Kids, Gesner went West, where he got his hands into film more deeply. A decade and a half after Kids, Gesner conceptualized and created an HBO series called How to Make It in America, which was (in our opinion, wrongly) canceled after its second season. We checked in with the man on the changing face of streetwear, and the character of old NYC.
On growing up in New York City in the ‘70s and ‘80s:
The NYC I was born into, grew up in, and loved is DEAD. It is 100% dead. The NYC of today is a lot better in many ways. It’s much cleaner, it smells better, it’s safer, the trains work, it’s less offensive, and there’s an American Apparel and a Starbucks conveniently located on every corner. The [city] that Sex And The City sold to America is alive and well — BUT THAT IS NOT MY CITY.
I grew up in Manhattan skateboarding and writing graffiti in a financially bankrupt New York City. Soho and Tribeca were empty warehouses & artists lofts. Tompkins Square Park was a shanty town of homeless junkies, as was Union Square. The Bowery was a sh*thole of drunks. And 42nd St was all p*rno theaters & hookers.
On why NYC is now “a homogenized, elitist, redundant, and uninspiring ghost of its former self”:
…Post-9/11 New York City has become INTOLERANT. Manhattan is now a pristine, safe, destination spot for wealthy Americans (and even wealthier foreigners). Anything inspiring has been pushed out to the periphery, with creative kids struggling to figure out something new and and original where no one can see them make a glorious mess. And immigrant culture is now hidden away in the most hard to reach locations.
I blame Sex In The City.
On how that old-school NYC upbringing built character:
The abandoned railway tracks that the High Line Park is built on was a dangerous place that me and my friends would have to climb up to get to, risking death. [It] was a place to practice graffiti pieces, mess around on wires and meat hooks, and have illegal outlaw parties at. And now look at it. Impeccably designed and opened to the public. Except after dark.
And I think that’s the point right there. The New York of the ‘70s and the ‘80s had CONSEQUENCE. It was the most amazing, rewarding, creative, and enriching place on Earth. But it was also one of the most rundown, broken, angry, and dangerous places. If you wanted to play all day with your friends up on the old High Line you had to get dirty, you had to climb, you we’re probably going to get hurt, and somebody might die. Now? All you need to do is walk up some steps as you tweet and dodge tourists. And once you’re up there, [s]o is everybody else.
On the NC-17-rated Kids, on which he collaborated with Gus Van Sant, Larry Clark & the Zoo York skate crew:
Film is a funny thing. It’s probably the most collaborative art form there is. It takes so many people. And everyone has a different view and opinion. That was at the beginning of the whole Supreme / Zoo York era. Back then, all the NYC skaters had this “too cool for school” attitude — ‘Keeping it real!’ — We were all stoked to be making a film. And we were stoked for Larry [Clark, Kids writer] and Harmony [Korine, Kids director]. But [...] it was the movie producers, Carey Woods and them, who were utterly convinced that we were making lightning in a bottle.
[The producers were always saying] “This is the new Taxi Driver!” But I think the general consensus amongst us skaters was “Whatever. Let’s just do this. It’s only a million dollar budget. Who’s gonna care about us?” It wasn’t like there was some sense of “we’re making magic here”… we were just doing what we usually did [...] It was almost like watching a home movie. There [we were], with all [our] friends, in all the spots [we] hung out at in real life. So it was surreal on one hand, but then had little impact to us skaters on the other, [like] “Yep! Skating in NYC”. Zzzzz.
Us skaters had no idea who Harvey Weinstein was. And then in comes this fat guy with a hockey jersey smoking a cigar. We watch the film, it ends, and everyone turns and looks at Harvey. He smiles through his cigar smoke and says “I like it. I like it a lot. I’ll take it.” The producers cheered while me and Harold Hunter looked at one another, and were like, “What just happened?” Just like at the end of the movie. And the rest is history. It’s really weird to still hear what an impact it had on people because it still seems like something me and my friends made in our backyard.
On watching the decline of Zoo York, the once-proud skate East Coast brand he founded with Rodney Smith:
Ooof. That’s a tough one. At the end of the day, the LEGACY of Zoo York is what is important to me. And by its legacy, I don’t just mean just the skateboard company. I mean “The Soul Artists of Zoo York”, Mark Edmunds, Futura, Andy Kestler, the original ‘70s crew, all the way through what we did with Zoo York and skateboarding and New York City street culture in the ‘90s. As long as that legacy is kept alive and made known to more and more people and future generations, I will always be happy. But as far as how the company has been handled and treated since me and my partners left? Well, I think that speaks for itself.
On the challenges of rejuvenating his old brand, SHUT NYC:
It’s a different world today than when we started SHUT in 1986. Back then there were no skate companies on the East Coast, and and hardly any streetwear brands at all. [W]e got to make everything up as we went along, and we got to be pioneers in a marketplace that didn’t even exist yet. So by “vengeance”, [we] mean things are going back to the way sh*t was. You can’t argue [with brands like] SHUT, or Supreme, or Zoo York. How can you talk sh*t on the very thing that made you who you are? We built this and that is the truth. It is beyond argument.
On how to break into streetwear… or why not to:
Why should anyone buy your tees over a couple other dudes with some swag? Please. No diss, but what do you have to say that hasn’t been said already? [U]nless Lil Wayne decides to rock your tee on the cover of Rolling Stone, or your crew suddenly pops off with a million hits on YouTube… I’m f**king sorry, bro. [U]nless you’re laundering your drug money through your clothing line, or you want to burn through your trust fund, you’re probably better off opening up a silkscreen shop and making the tees for everyone else’s stupid brand instead.
On producing fictional clothing lines as the creative director of How to Make It in America, and the legal hoops he had to jump through to do so:
[A]lthough funny in retrospect, it nearly killed me. The standard practice in the skateboard & shirt design world is: “Make the graphic now, deal with any consequences later.” [For example:] Use this Devo record cover for a graphic, and if Devo’s lawyers get mad, we’ll stop. No harm, no foul. THAT DOESN’T WORK ON TV!!! Because once it airs, that’s it. Everything must be kosher with the lawyers by the day the show premiers on TV. Especially if you’re [on] HBO and the whole world thinks they can sue you for millions.
I spent two weeks making over 20 tees in three different colorways for the show: Crisp graphics and Neanderthal graphics. And then three days before they need to be ready for the shoot, the HBO lawyers are all ‘You took all these photos. Right? These are all your images.’ To which I said ‘Of course not.’ – This lead to a 48 hour lunatic blitz of buying stock images that HBO could own the rights to and then me having to redo all the graphics that I just did for two weeks, in 24 hours! It was a nightmare. But the shirts came out dope and everyone was happy.
On global brands like Supreme, and whether their fans are a bit “too” loyal:
I think people, especially kids, need to be part of something. Why not Supreme? I’ve known James Jebbia [the company’s founder] well over 25 years, and he’s done a stellar job with his brand. I’ve admired James since Parachute! That’s some old-school sh*t.
But those Supreme fan boys? To me they’re no different than kids camping out to see Lord Of The Rings or Star Wars. And I know that the guys who run and operate Supreme look down on all those kids with utter contempt. I know because they’ve told me. But what can you do? Without their fan boys, they probably wouldn’t have such a successful business.
It’s like me getting mad that there are too many skateboarders in the world now. It sucks! Skateboarding used to be a secret organization for just a select few. And now every skate spot is full of idiot longboarders and kids on scooters. But what am I gonna do? They all pay my rent…