Talking Paper Interview Series: Katarina Hybenova

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Katarina Hybenova is the founder of Brooklyn culture website, Bushwick Daily (B. D.). Raised in post-communist Slovakia, Hybenova's background is in business law, but an interest in photography led her to start a picture blog that evolved into Bushwick Daily. In addition to the site's day-to-day coverage of local restaurants, bars, music venues, art shows, and neighborhood news, Hybenova summarizes each year's ten most-read Bushwick Daily stories in an annual article. The two most-read stories of 2015 involved sightings of the musician Bjork, and the opening of outdoor bar Nowadays. Bushwick Daily has also produced a magazine, Bushwick Notebook, and a collection of short stories edited by site contributor Dallas Athent, titled Bushwick Nightz. In December 2015, Hybenova read from her upcoming memoir at local bar Hell Phone as part of the Nomadic Press performance showcase, Bushwick Stories. Nomadic Press recently interviewed Hybenova about Bushwick Daily, and her thoughts on the neighborhood's cultural life.

On What Gets Read the Most on Bushwick Daily

There are a couple of articles that are evergreens. Right now, the most popular evergreen is "20 Things You Should Know Before You Move to Bushwick," which I think reflects the fact that there is such a big movement to and from Bushwick. There are so many people coming in, or wondering if they should move in. Young people graduating from college, or just coming to New York to try their luck. So Bushwick is sort of the place where you want to be if you’re young and creative, I think, and many people don’t know about it. There are always the same questions that people have. Questions like, “Is it safe?” or “What’s the deal with restaurants?” So I’d been collecting these questions from Reddit, and from what people emailed me, and tweeted us, and I published these 20 things. 

On Bjork Being 2015’s Most-read B. D. Article Subject

Bjork is awesome. My generation sort of grew up with Bjork, seeing her on MTV, and being maybe the ultimate alternative artist making it in mainstream. Bjork is a total goddess. I think we can all agree with that. Seeing her in Bushwick was like, “Oh my god . . .” It’s so much better than any other celebrity. So I think it just struck a chord with people. It’s unconfirmed, but apparently she was rehearsing for her shows in a warehouse in East Williamsburg. Because she had that MoMA show, and then like six shows in New York that were very theatrical, so she was rehearsing here. She was hanging out at local bars, and she went to concerts, and danced there. So people were always seeing her, and they’re tweeting, “Oh my gosh, Bjork is here!” So we just followed her as she was popping up in places, and interviewing people.

On Covering Neighborhood Bar/Restaurant Openings

It has everything to do with the nature of our site being hyper-local. If you’re reading national news, and something somewhere is opening, you don’t care. But people walk around and they’re like, “There’s something. What is it? I want to know.” So we just provide that service for people wanting to know what’s happening in the neighborhood. [The opening of bar] Nowadays was awesome, because it is such a fun concept—that there is this loft in a kind of industrial part over there off of Halsey, and they made it sort of like an outdoor space where everybody gets to hang out. It’s a great concept, and [readers] really responded to that.

On Other Venues Opening in Bushwick

In the previous, say, five-to-ten years, there were a lot of illegal or semi-legal venues, or DIY venues. Those usually are very short lived, and they usually close. Funny thing about Bushwick current day is that the people who sort of graduated from DIY venues are coming back, and they’re opening legal venues. They somehow find an investor, and they open one. I can give you some examples, like John Barclay who runs Bossa Nova Civic Club, and also Juno Diner is his new thing. So he was like a rave kid who’s been running raves, and all those illegal parties at different locations. Now he has investors, and he opened an actual legal place. He was really complaining how much work it is, and how much paperwork, and how long it takes, and how much money it is. But he did it. So he has his own venue that is legal, and sort of continues the tradition that he has created. Another example is the House of Yes. They have had several locations before the current one on Wyckoff Avenue in Bushwick, and they were all semi legal. They started in some warehouse, where they rented it and invited a million people for aerial performances and music. They, too, have an investor now. They did a Kickstarter that raised around one hundred thousand dollars. They opened a legal venue with a restaurant, with a bar, with a solid business plan that can actually function. But it also continues the tradition of the crazy things they’ve always been doing. So a lot of people are opening venues like that.

On Expanding the Scope of Bushwick Daily

We’re covering Bushwick and its psychological borders—like Bushwick in this greater sense of the word "Bushwick." Because the community’s evolving, and it’s moving in different directions. What we have noticed in the past couple of years is that a lot of people from Bushwick have moved to Ridgewood (I being one of them, actually), because the prices are a little cheaper there, it’s really nearby, and it’s really nice. For all those reasons, and we feel like Ridgewood has the same movement. What’s happening in Bushwick has a very similar feel to Ridgewood. So we thought it only makes sense to cover Ridgewood. We also cover East Williamsburg, which has a very Bushwick vibe.

The borders of Bushwick are actually one of the things that we write about in that article, "20 Things You Should Know About Bushwick." It’s really weird, because according to New York City laws, there are no official boundaries of neighborhoods. A neighborhood is really just psychological. What you consider your neighborhood is your neighborhood, and that’s it. There are only lines that demark districts for community boards. Community Board 4 serves Bushwick, so we go by their lines. But it’s not always that apparent, because there are community boards that include like three-or-four distinct neighborhoods. So it’s not a neighborhood line. The actual borders of the community board for Flushing, it gets really weird around Ridgewood. Because it’s like Cyprus Avenue, St. Nicholas Avenue, and I think also Broadway. The most distinct one that people wonder about is the Flushing Avenue one. So for example, when you’re going to Roberta’s, that’s already East Williamsburg. They made it such a brand that they’re in Bushwick, but they’re actually in East Williamsburg, according to that line.

On the Economic Impact of the L Train on Bushwick

Huge. I think it's absolutely essential. Because [development] has just been moving along the L train, going a little bit further and further—and you can always just take the train back to Manhattan. A lot of people have jobs there. So I think [the L] is super important.

The impact of [L train service suspension] will be huge. I think it will impair the development of this area a little bit. Just the thought of all the people coming and moving in along the L train, it will be a huge thing. Again, I think the majority of these people work in Manhattan, so they need to get to Manhattan. The M train is slower. There are less of them, although they say there will be more trains running. But rider stats show that it’s just not going to be sufficient for all the people. So I think it’s going to deter people from moving here, along the L, because the L will not be sufficient.

On Bushwick Open Studios Moving from Summer to Fall

I feel kind of strange about it, to be honest with you. I feel June was perfect, and it was a long-established tradition. I know they are saying that they want to return to their activism roots, and I think they feel like Bushwick Open Studios has grown so much that they maybe lost track of what exactly they wanted it to be. But I think it’s strange. Because I almost feel like, “If you want to be an activist organization, do activism. If you want to organize a festival, organize a festival.” But I feel like it’s hard to mix those two. I almost feel like they should pick what they want to do, because the festival is huge for the neighborhood. It’s been very positive. People say a lot of critical things, like a lot of people are coming from the city, and they don’t even go to see actual art. They just hang out at a street party. But I think it’s so multifaceted, that everybody chooses what they want to do, and a lot of people see art. It’s just such a celebration of Bushwick. So I’d love to see it the way it was before.

On the Bushwick Gallery Scene

I think it’s very important. The gallery scene is booming. It’s one of the largest in the city. Many people don’t realize how huge it is, that there are 60 galleries in Bushwick approximately, maybe more. You can find a similar situation maybe in Chelsea, a little bit less on the Lower East Side, and that’s it. So the Bushwick gallery scene is very, very awesome.

We used to cover it a lot more. We always cover on the basis of what people read. We review our traffic and what’s been read most. We actually found out that people don’t read art reviews so much. Bushwick Daily really is a general interest site. We’re trying to stick with that. I know people who are really into art, and are really part of the art scene. It’s a little bit different than our average reader, and they probably go to specific sites that are covering art in depth, like Hyperallergic or Blouin Artinfo, rather than us. I also think that art is not geographically specific. So we cover Bushwick, and that’s our strength. Whereas, if you want to know about art, you probably want to also know about art on the Lower East Side, and art in Chelsea, and what’s happening with MoMA—the whole spectrum of art playing together. I think it’s really interesting how we’re actually finding out what we are. We’re like, “Oh yeah, we’re not an art blog.” So we cover news that is interesting about art for the general public. We had a story with Lisa Levy, the artist. She did a performance where she was sitting naked on a toilet. She was staring into the eyes of a person sitting opposite of her. So that was a huge story that we broke, and it’s something that everybody wanted to hear about, even outside of the art circle. Like a hundred publications linked to us. That’s a key to success for any publication. You want others to link back to you, because that’s how you grow and find new audiences.

On Where Bushwick Daily Readers Reside

Right now in Bushwick there are like 80,000 inhabitants, and we have like 250,000 readers per month. So I think it’s a lot of people from all over the city who are coming to Bushwick for fun or for restaurants. Because Bushwick really is a destination neighborhood at this point. People come here for entertainment, art, music.

We have a very strong Facebook following. Our Instagram has been growing, too. I’m happy about that. Facebook is definitely great, but it’s also weird. Suddenly you will have less traffic, because they change something in their matrix. So I’m trying not to rely only on one [social media platform]. I’m also trying to really build up our newsletter more, which I totally recommend to all websites, because those are contacts. Those are your people who you have reach to, unlike Facebook. God forbid, but they can decide next week that if you want to reach your followers, you've got to pay more. Whereas in a newsletter, you possess their email address, and they are people who care about you.

On Bushwick Nightz

It was a nice project, and really the brainchild of Dallas Athent. She’s our longtime contributor. She wanted to do this collection of short stories about Bushwick, and she thought it would be good if we teamed up on it. I excitedly agreed. I thought it was awesome, and I wanted to try it out. I also feel like we’ve tried almost everything that you can try as a hyper-local website. This wasn’t really motivated by profits. It was more a cool branding thing for us. Honestly, it was a cool project we wanted to try, but I don’t think we’re going to do it again, unless we have a much better idea of what exactly we’re trying to do. It was great. I loved doing it. It was also an awesome learning experience to gain the knowledge of how the self-publishing world works. Everything you have to do that a normal publishing house would do for you, it’s a lot. I wouldn’t self-publish. It’s a lot of work.

On Art in Bushwick Daily

Jeremy Nguyen is super amazing. I think he [originally] just sent me an email that he was an illustrator in the neighborhood, and he wanted to do something for us, and I was like, “Yeah, sure.” Eventually he developed this whole crazy thing called "Stranger Than Bushwick," which are weekly comics that ponder funny things about Bushwick—sometimes criticize, sometimes just point things out, and most of the time is really funny. He’s been doing it for a while, and I totally love that collaboration. I think it's super cool. 

We also used Jeremy for Bushwick Notebook, the printed magazine. That was one of the experiments I mentioned that we’ve tried. It is currently on hiatus. We made two issues with the intention that it was going to be quarterly. But we also ran into financial difficulties. We’re a company, so we are trying to make money, and make our salaries. So we cannot just pour money into it. We’re not a nonprofit. Unfortunately, that’s what ended up happening with the magazine. It cost more than it was bringing in. Even so, I absolutely loved the project, and our writers loved it, too. They really feel like they reached new levels by writing for actual print. It’s so funny that people somehow are still really into print. Our writers really wrote great stories. I absolutely love issue two and how that turned out. I think we would have gotten better at it even and found the perfect product, but the thing is that currently we just don’t have advertisers to support the project. We are kind of supported by local businesses from the area, and I hope that maybe with the magazine we can approach some national advertisers or somebody slightly bigger who wants to sponsor a physical object.

On Paper vs. Digital Culture Publications

I moved to the neighborhood in 2010, and I was already looking at websites all the time. There used to be another Bushwick blog that I followed. They folded around 2011, but I was always following online stuff. There wasn’t much in terms of printed, or newspapers. I feel like that’s been going on for awhile—that our generation is looking online, primarily because it’s so much faster. It’s so much more flexible than waiting for a print [publication]. Especially if you want to get news. I feel like it’s peculiar if people are still reading a newspaper. “Wow, you’re reading paper? That’s amazing.” I love magazines. I still think that printed products make a lot of sense because otherwise you’d have to always stare at screens. There’s something to having a physical object like a book or a magazine. I think it’s really beautiful, and it’s something that is not going to go away. But I think newspapers will eventually disappear. 

On the Look of the Bushwick Daily Website

I’m currently working on a redesign of the site. We've had the current website since 2012, which in digital years is a lot. Currently, the website has more of a traditional blog layout. But in the future, we’re going to look more professional so that we’re not just a blog. We’re also a neighborhood news site. Images are super important for us, so we’re trying to emphasize images that are really engaging Bushwick. That, and our headlines. We try to mention Bushwick in every headline, so that we are the number-one source for Bushwick. I tell my writers that when we write about an artist or a place, try to put Bushwick very early on in the headline (and also in the paragraph) so that we’re the first one when somebody searches for it. Even though these days they say search engines are a little less important than social media. I think social media is the number one source for gaining traffic, but searches are important, too.

We already have the new website design. We’re working on the code right now. We collaborated with General Assembly, which is a school of many things, but also user experience design. We had a team who actually tested the new design with our readers. They hung out with maybe 50 people, and gave them different tasks, like finding our latest article about a new bar and where would you search. So they incorporated all of these findings into a new design. It’s supposed to be very easy to use, and I’m really excited for it.

On Her Photography

It’s a strange relationship. I originally grew up in Slovakia, and I studied law. I wanted to pursue a very traditional route into the professional world, and I soon found out that it wasn’t for me. I’d taken some photos already when I was living in Prague and worked for a law firm. But the whole thing really exploded when I came to grad school in New York, and I had more time to explore whatever I wanted to. I have always been writing, but photography really became front and center when I was in law school. I bought a small camera so that I could take photos of my classmates in bars, because this was supposed to be a fun year. I found myself experimenting with it a lot, and I was always taking photos with this little thing. At law school, there was a friend of mine whose uncle was a professional photographer, and he was dabbling in photography and had a DSLR. He told me I really needed to get a DSLR and would teach me to use it. So with this friend, I bought a DSLR. I somehow had an idea that I would not know how to operate this camera, because I’m not that technical. But it’s really not that hard. I’m actually okay with operating technical stuff. It’s really funny how we have these perceptions of ourselves. As soon as I got into [photography], I was totally in love. That’s how Bushwick Daily started. It was originally just a photo blog. I wanted a place where I could upload my photos that I was taking around the neighborhood daily when I moved here. I didn’t know much about it, but I just loved what I saw, and I really love portrait photography more than anything. I even loved writing about people. So this really drove Bushwick Daily in the beginning—interviewing people, and taking a lot of photos with them. It really grew from there.

On Writing Her Own Story

I’m writing a memoir about the time when I decided to not be a lawyer, just live in Bushwick, and focus on Bushwick Daily full time with a bunch of gigs in the first couple of years. I’m busy writing that, and I’m almost done. Although, now I have a new job, so it’ kind of slower. I've written it very much like a novel. I’m not as inspired so much by other memoirs, as I’m inspired by really good novels and really good writing. To me, it’s a strange story. There are so many things that happened that sound like they’re from a novel but that actually happened, and when they were happening, I thought, "Oh my gosh, this is really happening?" Sometimes it’s so real, and I think, "Oh god, it’s so embarrassing." I’m hoping it sounds like a novel, rather than a memoir.

Things sound different when you read them out loud. But to me, it’s more of a question as to whether or not they sound good when you read them out loud. I think it’s just a sign of good writing. I’m trying to do that with my articles. I read them out loud, and if they sound good, you can tell. If you’re reading something out loud and there’s a problem, you note that there is a problem that needs to be worked on. I think it’s a good technique for any writer to read their stuff out loud. I’m also doing that with my memoir. I’m currently editing it, and somewhere online, I found really good advice that you should edit four times. The first time is when you’re writing, which is the close editing; then do it once again; then print it, and do it on paper; and the last time, you should actually read it out loud, and see what works and what doesn’t. Even with regard to the pace of storytelling, you can tell, “Oh, I really condensed this part.” That’s my thing. I really condense stuff. Then I think, “Okay, let's let it breathe a little bit more."