Meet Barbara Mensch, a photographer and writer, reminiscing about her Sheepshead Bay upbringing in If These Knishes Could Talk, a recent documentary about the New York accent, directed by filmmaker Heather Quinlan.
“Everyone in my family was loud. It was just normal to speak loud… Loud-ly,” Mensch says, correcting herself. “It was just this experience of being in Brooklyn that was just so intense.”
“I met Barbara in the Seaport when she had just published a book of photography, ‘South Street,’ about the Fish Market in the ’80s,” Quinlan told Sheepshead Bites. “I met her at a signing at Jack’s Stir Brew on Front Street, which is also where I ended up filming the dinner scene.”
At that dinner scene, Mensch talked accents with three New York City “wise guys,” one of whom recalled his often violent childhood in Little Italy and an observant neighborhood kid name Marty Scorsese.
With most of her “Rs” and “THs” intact, Mensch’s accent may not sound like signature Brooklyn. But, as it turns out, genuine New York accent has less to do with specific parts of the city and more with ethnic influences and local culture. That’s how a kid named Ben, also in the film, born in Korea and raised in Staten Island, grew up to sound like Joe Pesci in Goodfellas.
If These Knishes Could Talk is also a story of change and gentrification. Always in demographic flux, New York could soon end up without its trademark accent as those who speak with it age or get priced out of the city.
“Word on the street is the New York accent is disappearing,” Quinlan says. “A casualty of a city that’s evolved into a vast expanse of banks, H&Ms and glass-blown high-rises.”
In the film, Quinlan discusses this with an illustrious cast of New Yorkers, among them actors Pat Cooper, Penny Marshall, and Joe Franklin, fimmaker Amy Heckerling, Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, writers Pete Hamil and James McBride, and many others.
— Steven Volynets