New York City, when Joe Richman arrived there in 1989, was a different city than it is today.
"It was this special time, when you were sort of seeing the last of a lot of things—the last of a certain kind of business ... a certain kind of New York," he said to me.
A bit more than a decade later, in 2002, Richman, of Radio Diaries, and his colleagues, Emily Botein of WNYC and independent producer Ben Shapiro, decided to try and capture what remained of that era. They tracked down New Yorkers who were among the last—and in some cases, the very last—to hold jobs in industries that were dying. "We were just trying to look at jobs that were disappearing, ways of life that were disappearing," says Richman.
They came up with seven people—a Brooklyn fisherman, a water-tower builder, a cowbell maker, a knife-and-scissor grinder, a lighthouse keeper, an old-fashioned bra fitter, and a seltzer man—each more charming and quirky than the last. They talked to them, heard their stories, and created a series, "New York Works," which aired on WNYC's The Next Big Thing and on NPR's All Things Considered. In the years since, several of the subjects have passed away.
That includes Frank Schubert, the last civilian lighthouse keeper in the United States. Schubert was 85 when Richman and Botein spoke with him; he passed away in 2003.