IT’S PROBABLY IMPOSSIBLE to move to New York without feeling as if you have just missed the best possible time to live in New York — that’s part of the city’s masochistic appeal — but I can’t help feeling that anyone who has moved here in the past decade has the right to feel especially wistful. Despite many breathless accounts of New York, and especially Brooklyn, as a writers’ and artists’ mecca, I moved here in 2001 only to watch friends slowly decamp to smaller cities and towns in order to finish their books, find studio space, plant gardens, have children, and otherwise fulfill their creative ambitions. And I’m not alone — in a recent op-ed for The New York Times, Malu Byrne, a sculptor and jewelry designer, wrote of the flight of her artist friends from New York City to smaller, more affordable towns upstate. “The notion of ‘making it in the city’ is increasingly nostalgic and impossible,” she writes. “Yes, the city supports the arts, but not its up-and-coming artists.” The op-ed was especially poignant because Byrne is the daughter of David Byrne, the Talking Heads frontman whose career was nurtured by a New York’s downtown music scene, as well as by his neighborhood, Soho, a place now so posh and mall-like it’s hard to believe avant-garde artists like Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass, and Robert Wilson once felt inspired by its neglected alleys and cobble-stoned streets.
You can feel the same sense of dislocation now, when visiting certain Brooklyn neighborhoods renowned for their scrappy, industrial cool. As with Soho, real estate developers have transformed once-gritty areas into playgrounds for the wealthy, razing warehouses and artists’ lofts and replacing them with luxury apartment buildings. New development isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and anyone who has lived in ever-changing New York for more than a few months knows that searching for authenticity is a fool’s errand, yet I can’t help feeling nostalgic for the Brooklyn I never got to see — the one that existed before Brooklyn was an adjective, an international brand of hip. It was with this feeling of loss that I turned to The Last Bohemia, Robert Anasi’s memoir of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a neighborhood that has become the poster child of hipster gentrification.
Anasi was nursing his own sense of disappointment when he moved to Williamsburg in 1994. Stuck in the hinterlands of Washington Heights, he moved to Williamsburg not because New York magazine had recently declared it “the new bohemia over the bridge,” but because it was the only thing he could afford:
If you were a free-floating twentysomething skidding along ley lines, you wanted to live on Avenue B but would settle for Bedford Avenue. Williamsburg was a dog whistle that people like me were starting to hear, summoning us from every corner of the city.
Prior to his move, Anasi’s formative Williamsburg experience was as a guest at a loft party in the late 1980s — a party whose invitation advis...read more