Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Of Brooklyns old, new, and international

Ah, Brooklyn. The borough whose newish residents can't help but sneer at the even newer arrivals. Ha! one will say, I moved here back in 2005, when Williamsburg was only a little bit extremely popular and unaffordable.

The bizarre misconception underlying this painful rant about a NYT "36 Hours" travel feature on the borough is that the Times is some kind of coherent entity, whose readers and journalists are all cut from the same cloth, all inhabiting the same stodgy patch of the Upper East or West Side. When in all likelihood the writers for the paper who are under 40 - and many over as well - live in Brooklyn. But, when writing what is, after all, a travel feature, they assume that the person they're writing for isn't a prissy Manhattanite daring to dip his pinky toe into the L train, but rather a visitor who lives outside NY if not the US entirely, and who doesn't want to waste what limited time he has in the city on what one not especially NY-specific subculture - hipsters, if we're still calling them that - thinks is most important.

There's enough to do in NYC that it's not a given any tourist would visit Brooklyn at all; someone looking to see a side of the city not represented in Manhattan would do well to consider, for example, Queens, rather than spending 45 minutes on the train for what are essentially extensions of the Lower East and Upper West Sides. These are writers who know Brooklyn just fine, who no doubt have their own favorite spots, but who are describing it for a broad and middle-aged audience - broader and more middle-aged still in the case of a travel story. It's not that they're getting it wrong, but that to describe what would appeal to a particular sort of 23-year-old would be an odd choice, even if, granted, New Brooklyn caters largely to a particular sort of 23-year-old.

The response is incoherent in the way that defenses of Brooklyn can often get. On the one hand, we're meant to Celebrate Diversity, or, more accurately, to celebrate a kind of socializing among other college-educated white people that reveals courage in the face of having perhaps walked through two streets of a black neighborhood to get to the bar: "Is the New York Times trying to tell us that only bars full of upper-middle class people are safe? If that’s what you think, go to Connecticut or something. They have nice quiet white bread bars there, too." On the other, god forbid anyone imagine Brooklyn to be so uncivilized a place as not to have all the frou-frou amenities of Manhattan: "[C]ontrary to the Times' gentle suggestions to the contrary, there are tons of cabs on Court Street, especially in the dinner hours. It’s still a major street, even though it’s in Brooklyn." Which is it? Is Brooklyn so hardcore that those who can't take it must be exiled to New Canaan? Or are those who dare doubt that Brooklyn is, in fact, as nice a lily-white suburb as the best of 'em the problem?

Meanwhile, there were some valid complaints to be made about the "36 Hours," most notably the fact that much of New Brooklyn is inaccessible to much of the rest of New Brooklyn, such that anywhere in the Park Slope realm and anything any realtor has ever called "Williamsburg" are in fact far more difficult to get back and forth from than is either destination from Manhattan. Contrary to contrary to contrary to, even gentrified areas of Brooklyn are low on cabs, so even those willing to pay for what on the map looks like it should be a short trip may well end up on that delightful combination of Q, L, and whatever else if they decided to do all of New Brooklyn in one go.

One could also point out that the "36 Hours" feature is a guide not to Brooklyn, but to New Brooklyn, and as such ignores, with the exception of Sunset Park, the neighborhoods where Stumptown coffee does not already flow from a spout in every kitchen. This, if anything, would be the authenticity critique. The rant's author "imagine[s] that certain parts of the article could be a little obnoxious to Brooklyn natives," the cites as an example of this that the article had the gall to suggest... the wrong New Brooklyn rock clubs. Huh?

I suppose, though, that my objection here is less to the response as a Defense of Brooklyn, than its place in the ever-growing canon of travel advice not exactly aimed at hipsters, but that conflates 'where the hipsters are' with 'where one finds local color.' The old-as-time popularity of telling people how to find 'off the beaten path' restaurants, of how to (as is written, preposterously, on the side of tourist vans near Battery Park City) "Come a tourist, leave a local," has morphed into a kind of parallel tourist industry, in which there's an assumption that everyone's looking for pretty much the same thing around the world, namely the equivalent of Williamsburg or Wicker Park of whichever locale they may find themselves in. This is the real-life travel equivalent to the street-style blogs depicting identically-quirkily dressed 20-and-30-somethings, whose locales one can only discern from their ethnicity. (Naturally platinum blond and in the '70s-inspired uniform-of-the-moment? Helsinki. Dark hair and a rockin' post-army bod in the same outfit? Tel Aviv.)

It's precisely this approach that sends tourists in Paris - Paris! - to the Canal St. Martin area, which is good and well but... the 6th and 7th Arrondissements! The Seine! One doesn't go to Paris for hipsters who happen to speak French and own a bit more striped stuff. One goes for the beautiful everything, for the 60-ish women who look like a young Catherine Deneuve, for the bichons frises with their own chairs in a café. As I thought in 2004 and continue to think in 2011, it's all about the poodles-and-pearls. Or if you're interested in a particular immigrant community and how it and Paris have mixed - the Queenses of Paris - that's also something Paris-specific worth checking out. But hipsters? The globalization that leads to that international subculture of like-minded sorts certainly facilitates friendships and relationships across borders, but if you're going somewhere different on account of it's different, why go that route?


Sigivald said...

the neighborhoods where Stumptown coffee does not already flow from a spout in every kitchen

See, this strikes me as humorous.

Because I live in Portland and I don't think I've ever actually had Stumptown coffee. At least, not knowingly.

(Sure, I make my own espresso at home, but I use cheap city-roast beans that are $6.99 a pound.)

To think it's a marker of hipsterdom 3000 miles away...

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Different products have a different significance in different cities. Is this humorous to you because the stuff is not hipster-signifying in Portland (never been to Portland, so have no opinion on this), or because you've never, personally, tried it? Unless you identify as a hipster, I'm not sure how the latter situation is humorous, but of course no hipster self-identifies as such...

Whatever it is, it's what they use for the iced coffee at Ace, and that's the best ice coffee in Manhattan, and as a year-round fan of the stuff, I would know.

Britta said...

In Portland Stumptown is a marker of Portlandness, not hipsterness (although plenty of hipsters hang out and work at Stumptown). I used to and when I'm back there still do go to Stumptown all the time, it's actually pretty cheap to get a cup of coffee there, and the coffee is good ($1 for 8 oz drip, the same price as the Div School, though prices might be rising). They're known for their no-nonsense attitude, no flavored drinks, etc. Looking online it looks like buying beans from there are pretty expensive though.

Britta said...

*IS pretty expensive though.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I need to go to Portland, or at least watch "Portlandia." My impression, born of ignorance, was that a lot of what would be called 'hipster' elsewhere is default there, such that simply coming from Portland, something like Stumptown will get classified as 'hipster' in NY.

As for prices, Ace is not unreasonable considering it's a coffee bar at a trendy hotel in Manhattan. The dollar cup... has started to be a thing of the past. It was until recently possible to get one in Chelsea Market, at a place that serves Stumptown or similar, but no more.

PG said...

Good post. I don't know why people who are besotted with their own address would read the 36 Hours feature on that area, given the oh-so-insulting implicit premise that one could really get *anything* out of a place in that period of time.

Britta said...

I think that's true--I think Portland was in many was a proto-hipster city. It's always been filled with overeducated people working in record stores or coffee shops and wearing thrift store clothing, and I guess that's kind of the origins of hipsterness. I would say, at least in the 90s, there was more of a leftover hippy vibe (e.g. tie-dye and birkenstocks), and there was (and still is a bit) more social activism than hipsterness entails, like people building things out of straw bales.
Of course, now that hordes of hipsters are moving there from around the country, the hipster qualities of Portland are becoming a sort of self-perpetuating feedback loop.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Yes, this was what was so perplexing.


Perhaps hippie removed from the hippie context and commodified=hipster? That's kind of where David Brooks was going re: bourgeois bohemians.