AUGUST 7, 2012
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 advised guests to “Walk quickly from the subway to the loft. Don’t look at anyone. Don’t come alone.” A college student at the time, Anasi didn’t exactly fall in love with the neighborhood, desolate as a frontier. Interviewing the party’s three young hosts years later, Anasi learns exactly what kind of elbow grease went into the homesteader loft:
The hole carved through the ceiling dropped dead rats onto the kitchen floor. In photos, the boys look at you from behind goggles and masks, wary of asbestos and gypsum dust, of silicosis and cancer. […] The thin cotton masks were a poor defense, but twenty-four is about risk, especially for the testosterone-addled, the future a million miles away.
The Last Bohemia is full of reported moments like this, interspersed with Anasi’s own memories. It’s a useful strategy, one that gives the book a pleasing, picaresque quality, and at the same time reveals the heart of Anasi’s project — his history of Williamsburg is a story of transformation so rapid that he cannot rely on his own memories to convey it:
The dot-com boom made history move faster; the real estate boom erased history. If you came to the Northside [of Williamsburg] for the first time in 2008 it was impossible to imagine what it looked like five years earlier. I wasn’t even sure myself. I’d walk to the waterfront and get lost, see a rubble heap covering a city block and try to picture the warehouse that had stood there for a hundred years. My memory was being erased.
Anasi’s interview subjects are varied, a mix of the neighborhood’s natives and newcomers, but by and large he focuses on the down-and-out: the addicts, dealers, and prostitutes who roam the waterfront; the barflies and cafe habitués; the artists who never quite made it; “the wannabes and freaks and romantics who were priced out of the East Village.” One extended profile follows Napoleon, a Williamsburg native whose entrepreneurial schemes eventually lead him to open one of the area’s most popular bars, Black Betty. Another recurring storyline is devoted to rise and fall of the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, an erotic vaudeville act that captured Williamsburg’s appetite for transgression. Anasi has a romantic eye, always on the lookout for people that strike him as authentic seekers, but he’s not sentimental, either. Recalling a failed relationship with an ambitious young woman, he cites his milieu as the culprit:
Expectations meant that Rebecca tried to do everything — work a forty-hour week at the literary agency, go to grad school full-time, run a reading series at Alt. Coffee on Avenue A. She was smart — smart! — and she had a soul. But she’d never been adrift. She had a tether. Most of the people I got to know in Williamsburg didn’t. We were drifting.
Woven through Anasi’s history of Williamsburg is a history of his own literary ambitions. A freelance journalist, Anasi’s desire for artistic freedom was equal, if not greater than his desire for success, and for a time Williamsburg was a neighborhood that indulged such split yearnings: “I never had a plan for life; I just wanted smart people to read me and fall in love. All the smart people. Everywhere.” His first book, The Gloves (Northpoint Press, 2003) suffered the cruel and unusual fate of receiving an excellent but never-published review from The New York Times — never published because the reviewer died before filing his rave. A second book, according to his author website, remains unpublished, stuck “in strange publishing limbo, awaiting redemption.” The Last Bohemia, his third book, was written while Anasi was a PhD student at the University of California, Irvine. Like many books about place, he had to leave his subject in order to write about it.
Williamsburg is a waterfront neighborhood, located on a stretch of the East River that was, until recently, occupied by abandoned warehouses, factories, and fuel tanks — remnants of New York City’s industrial past. But a 2005 rezoning plan brought a new waterfront, one of high-rise condos, recreational piers, and public parks. Not surprisingly, this is an unwelcome change, in Anasi’s view; he preferred the wilder, messier waterfront, one that had to be “navigated in jeans and boots…the waterfront for the daredevil, the urban Indiana Jones.” Some of the most evocative passages of The Last Bohemia bring this lost landscape to life, a netherworld where artists, migrant workers, and the homeless mingled. Unregulated by the city and rarely policed, it was a creative free-for-all, a place for band practices, “impromptu sculptures, made of paving stones”, and “word-of-mouth screenings, films projected against the back wall of a warehouse.” It was also a place for crime, illegal dumping, and prostitution. But more than anything else, the pre-gentrified waterfront was a place for Anasi to retreat:
As two feet of snow fell on Brooklyn one night, I […] tromped down to the water in my boots and stood on the retaining wall watching fat snowflakes dissolve in the East River. Eight million people out there and I could have been the only person in the world.
Anasi attempts to recapture this feeling in his memoir’s prologue, recounting a visit to Williamsburg during the summer of 2011. Frustrated by crowds, fences, and newly minted bike lanes, he and a friend sneak into a construction site, hop a jersey barrier, and slip through a hole in a chain link fence in order to climb atop an abandoned fuel tank, a relic of the New England Petroleum Company. Later, they venture out onto an old pier, one that had not yet been reclaimed by new development:
We sit on the dock edge, feet hanging over the water. Across the river the skyline, the bright Manhattan dream. Tour boats slide by, festooned with light. It’s so quiet we can hear conversations on the boats, people at the railing taking it all in.
It’s hard not to have sympathy for this quiet version of New York City, and yet, as a female reader, I sometimes feel left out of Anasi’s waterfront idylls, knowing that if I had lived in pre-gentrified Williamsburg, I wouldn’t have been able to navigate the waterfront with the same freedom. Anasi admits as much, aware that when he takes a date to the waterfront, he’s introducing them to a side of Williamsburg they wouldn’t normally see. But his sympathy ends there. It doesn’t seem to bother him that “his” Williamsburg waterfront was off-limits to women — not to mention children, the elderly, and the disabled. He sneers at the new parkland, created as part of the 2005 rezoning ordinance, unable to see it as anything but a haven for yuppies and their spawn.
I have to admit, here, that I once worked for the city’s public parks, so I am not an unbiased defender of them, but for someone who is such a class warrior throughout The Last Bohemia, it seems odd that Anasi can’t at least acknowledge the democratic value of clean and safe public spaces, or the ways that parkland makes New York more environmentally sustainable. He may be right when he describes Williamsburg’s new waterfront esplanade as a place where “dog walkers jabber into iPhones as their purebreds urinate on the well-tended lawns” but even if this is true, the culprit is not public parks, but the lack of affordable public housing — something which was also promised as part of the 2005 rezoning, but has largely gone unfulfilled.
Is it possible to write about Williamsburg without writing about hipster culture? To his credit, Anasi does not offer his own critique until halfway through his memoir and even then, his analysis is mercifully short and frank. He knows it’s a tired subject and he also doesn’t see it as particularly noteworthy. To Anasi, hipsters are quintessential cool kids, “more attitude than style,” whose entrenched sense of irony forbids them from expressing enthusiasm about anything that might be considered serious, universal, or god forbid, mainstream. At the same time, Anasi recognizes how seductive this kind of irony is, even to established artists. Recalling an exchange with a successful poet, Anasi describes his attempt to engage the man in a conversation about philosophy, only to be shot down as ‘pretentious’ for carrying around a copy of Lucretius. But true pretension, Anasi argues, would have been to act as if he didn’t care about writing and philosophy:
Williamsburg was separating into two different worlds: one the world of the artist, the other subtly different, the world of the artist’s simulacra, the hipster. Often the division split the same person. I sported beaters in warm weather. I wore a baseball cap and had a mechanic’s jacket with ‘Darryl’ on the nametag. But I couldn’t be ironic about writing; I was gambling my life on it.
Anasi also writes about “Williamsburg snobbery,” which is different from New York snobbery, he claims, in that it prizes beauty over power. Williamsburg snobbery is thus closely linked to Anasi’s ideal of bohemia — a place where artists can live and work as part of a community that does not concern itself with money, status, or tradition. The tension between that ideal and the city’s prevailing culture of achievement is a tension that has been, for many New York artists, a source of inspiration. But Anasi’s memoir shows the ways the equation has fallen out of balance, weighing too heavily on the side of the powerful. Without a community of “Williamsburg snobs,” Anasi lost his drive. In the book’s closing pages, he describes his decision to leave Williamsburg, a place he called home for fifteen years. Faced with the choice of a salaried magazine position in New York, or five years of graduate school funding in California, he was surprised to find, at age forty, that he’d rather return to student’s life of semi-poverty. The reason? He’d fallen out of love with his neighborhood, a place that had become so shiny and new that it no longer felt like a respite from the corporate world. “I didn’t feel guilty about leaving Williamsburg; Williamsburg had already left me.”