Wednesday, January 30, 2013

What my great-grandmother wouldn't have recognized as Brooklyn

Despite living in oddly-rural suburban NJ, and having had to dodge a live turkey while driving a couple days ago, I feel very connected to Brooklyns Old and New. Both of my parents grew up in the borough. I moved there for several years, right after college (cliché! sorry!), and I'm distantly related to a certain pair of artisanal-chocolate entrepreneurs who've won over, among others, at least two national editions of Vogue. (See also Slide 7 here).

One thing I've long noticed, but have trouble putting my finger on, is the way that Brooklyn-the-idea has become a kind of New York for people who otherwise hate New York. Who'd find it all too crass and competitive, or too diverse, too busy, too life just moves so fast. Young white people, but not ethnic whites from the region. White people from "Real America," not necessarily "Red America," but not suburbs of the city.

"Brooklyn" as an aesthetic has come to mean heritage-chic, or Americana-chic, this rustic, no-artificial-fibers, nothing-your-great-grandmother-wouldn't-have-recognized-as-food mentality. (Manhattan even has a Brooklyn-themed bar.) Nineteenth-century-ish vests and facial hair. Homesteader, pioneer low-maintenance-ness. Kale, rutabaga, and turnips. There's also Europhilia, and an influx of Western European tourists and expats, making Brooklyn (parts of it) almost an extension of that hipper, quieter, northern part of the Marais.

I am, as the expression goes, not hating, just saying. As I've said repeatedly, I'm a big fan of hipster cuisine. I miss the Greenmarkets, the coffee shops with chipper-yet-judgmental baristas. If I ever get over my pathological fear of spending more than $30 on jeans, I'm totally buying these. It's amusing to me, as someone who grew up in Manhattan, thinking of Brooklyn as vaguely dangerous and not remotely glamorous (although, by late high school, Brooklyn and my impression of it had changed), that it's now such a thing. But I'm part of the "thing," or was, back in the days when I'd get a martini at Soda on Vanderbilt.

What I find unsettling, I suppose, is the veneer of authenticity. It's all about being really authentically American, or maybe British or French (via). It's the embrace (aesthetically) of these identities through which Brooklyn's own earlier residents (non-whites, ethnic whites) were traditionally excluded. It's nostalgia not even for preppy or the era of quotas and Jim Crow, but something earlier still, a simpler time when these questions weren't even being asked. Now it's all about under-spiced food with self-farmed ingredients.

Meanwhile I certainly don't think those who participate in heritage-chic are themselves more likely than anyone else to be racist, or are participating with sinister motivations. "Hipster racism" may well be out there, but I'm not sure that's what this is. I don't know what it means that Brooklyn is the home of heritage-chic, but I must learn. Which is exactly why I'm having trouble putting my finger on my argument here; also why you, the WWPD audience, are getting this post before I've even tried to pitch this idea anywhere.


caryatis said...

So why do you like snobby baristas?

Petey said...

"I don't know what it means that Brooklyn is the home of heritage-chic, but I must learn."

I believe it dates back to when Pabst Blue Ribbon opened up their first brewery, which happened to be located in Brooklyn, of course.

The brewery was about to go under due to the low quality of its product, when the locals noted the irony value of the beer. Soon it became a roaring success and went on to go national.

And just as artists can gentrify a neighborhood for bankers, so can a humble beer with irony value gentrify a whole borough for heritage-chic.

Or so goes the story all the old Ukrainian women in Greenpoint tell...

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I just have this semi-rational belief that coffee made by a hipster, preferably one who has made me feel especially square during the ordering process, tastes better than other coffee.


I thought these women in Greenpoint were Polish?

But if one beer alone gets credit, impressive!

Petey said...

"I just have this semi-rational belief that coffee made by a hipster, preferably one who has made me feel especially square during the ordering process, tastes better than other coffee."

In my experience, this is indeed true. Snooty baristas highly correlate to superior product.

To put the shoe on the other foot, were I an underpaid barista serving superior product, I'd be damn snooty too. Gotta get your compensation somehow...

(But what do I know. I actually think that French notions of customer service are a societal good.)


"I thought these women in Greenpoint were Polish?"

Ah. The old Polish women in Greenpoint tell a very different history than the old Ukrainian women in Greenpoint do.

Their story is that it all dates back to the opening of Galapagos, which gradually raised Darwinian consciousness throughout the borough, leading to a widespread awareness of the evolutionary heritage of pretty much anything for sale in Brooklyn.

As to who got it right, the Poles or the Ukrainians, I remain agnostic.