In the high-rent gentrifying neighborhoods of New Brooklyn, class guilt is ubiquitous, if hidden.
The hipsters ruined Williamsburg. No, the condos ruined Williamsburg. It’s the helicopter parents I can’t stand. Food co-op political debates? Really? I bet that woman’s writing a novel, like everyone else. Oh boy, is he one of those tech startup guys? Enough with the locavores, Bugaboos, and the Brooklyn Flea. Neck beards, fixies, fauxhemians—ugh, vomit, eye roll.
A few decades back, some leading connotations of the word Brooklyn were these: the Brooklyn Bridge, the Dodgers, Coney Island, the brownstone. Today, another cluster of associations might come to mind first: gentrification, the hipster, the bobo, the stroller, the fixed-gear bike. One glance at the Times real estate section will tell you that the borough is now a much more widely desired place to live. And yet those older Brooklyn icons are almost always discussed with affection, while the signifiers of New Brooklyn reliably take a beating.
A recent New York Observer article diagnoses Brooklyn’s decline into a real-life version of Portlandia: “It’s as if the tumor of hipster culture that formed when cool kids moved to Williamsburg metastasized into a cluster of cysts pressing down on parts of the borough’s brain.” So hipsters are brain cancer, in case that wasn’t clear. The piece bears the clever headline “A Twee Grows in Brooklyn,” and it makes for fun reading. It got the thumbs-up in my Twitter world, which consists largely of media and publishing types who live in Brooklyn. The only complaint was that it was kind of old news. “Why the Hipster Must Die” came out in Time Out New York back in 2007. Everyone knows the hipsters are ruining Brooklyn. Also the yuppies in their tacky high-rises—let’s not forget about them.
People who have family money but act like they don’t are “trustafarians.” That’s a term that comes with the scorn baked in. The trustafarians are rich and they’re hipsters, plus they didn’t earn their money. Three strikes, they’re out. But what about the people who have money and act like it? Well, they’re sort of in trouble, too. Because it’s easy to tell they’re the 1 percent. Or whatever, they’re close enough. There are blogs about them, like Fuck Your Noguchi Coffee Table.
For the Brooklynite with a sizable brokerage account, it’s a little unclear how to avoid derision. Best to shoot for the skinny middle ground with the clothes and the apartment. You’re going to have to choose between public and private school for the kids—good luck with that. In the game of life, you definitely win, don’t get me wrong. But in the court of public opinion, you’re going to need a good lawyer.
At least there’s this, though: that bearded guy in an undershirt who shot you a look that said yuppie scum? Nobody likes him, either. There’s a book about him right by the register. Take it home and smile at the cover: Look at This F*cking Hipster.
What happened here? How did Brooklyn get so hip with so many people ruining it?
The roots of New Brooklyn run deeper than they might appear. In the 1970s, a lot of people wanted out of Brooklyn and very few wanted in. The postwar era had been very kind to the suburbs and the country at large, but not kind at all to the nation’s inner cities. Brooklyn was a particularly dramatic case in point. In the age of the GI Bill, the ranch house, and the automobile, those with the means left crumbling urban infrastructure behind to own a patch of grass in the burbs, and they took their tax dollars with them. They were just living the American dream, but in effect they each kicked a new hole in the floorboards as they escaped a sinking ship.
The Hal Ashby film The Landlord, the L. J. Davis novel A Meaningful Life, and the Paula Fox novel Desperate Characters, all dating from 1970 through ’71, paint a strikingly consistent portrait of Brooklyn at a low ebb. Though widely divergent in tone, they all depict the bleak conditions that held sway at the time, despite being set in what are now high-rent districts. Cars are stripped to the axles in minutes, rocks get hurled through windows, and bums heckle passersby from the shadows.
The protagonists in Ashby, Davis, and Fox, who dive into this mess, are the forerunners of contemporary Brooklyn’s bourgeois and bohemian crowd. They’re the shock troops of gentrification, a word that barely existed at the time. They are well-educated newcomers bucking the larger trend of an ongoing middle-class exodus. They are also, notably, all white. Their neighbors, as a rule, are not. It’s odd to reflect on the fact that the writers behind these works had no idea how this social experiment would turn out. About the prospects of the would-be gentrifier, in fact, they seemed decidedly pessimistic.
Two decades later, the fate of the gentrifier was still far from clear. Time magazine told the country about “The Rotting of the Big Apple” in 1990, as crime in New York reached an all-time high. Brooklyn had an outsize share of the 2,262 murders in the city that year, a total not far below New York’s 9/11 death toll. Cars were stolen in the borough at a rate of 122 per day (compared to the eight per day now). Outsiders viewed Brooklyn as a forbidding place, and it was tough to prove them wrong.
Still, the fear of Brooklyn that depopulated even the safer areas had its advantages. If the landlord tried to hike the rent, a ready reply was available: “Would you like to keep collecting my old rent, or would you like an empty apartment?”
Artists thriving on the low cost of living—Spike Lee, Rosie Perez, the Marsalis brothers, Paul Auster—began to give Brooklyn a patina of cool. Slowly. Then quickly. Whether the credit goes to Clinton or Giuliani or neither, the streets got safer in record time. More Manhattanites crossed the Rubicon—I mean, the East River—to scoop up a brownstone or pile into an illegal loft.
For New Yorkers of a certain persuasion, Manhattan was getting a little too gussied up. What’s with all the bankers at the bar where Ginsberg and Jackson Pollock used to hang out? What’s with the Toys “R” Us where Travis Bickle cruised by the hookers in Taxi Driver, thinking “Someday a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets”? Apparently the rain had come. But it was washing away more than the scum. It was washing away the culture of Greenwich Village, the culture of the Upper West Side. It was washing away the world of Woody Allen, the world that made a certain kind of college kid hunger for New York. And all of that was washing up on the shores of New Brooklyn.
Problem was, Brooklyn already had a lot of people in it. It already had a culture. Tin-eared new arrivals spoke of discovering neighborhoods, of being “pioneers,” as if Brooklyn were the Great Plains and the natives a negligible detail. Now two people often wanted one apartment, and of course no compromise is possible there. This being capitalism, the loser was the one with less money. Friction generated heat, and it still does.
The very day I moved to Fort Greene, in 2005, I asked two young black men, late at night, where I could find a 24-hour deli. One of them looked at me hard, seeing a white guy with glasses, and said flatly, “Manhattan.” There was a 24-hour deli around the corner. I resented it a little, but the more lasting emotion was guilt, maybe even shame. In my mind, I tried, absurdly, to wriggle away from where I thought he had me pegged. I’ve lived in Brooklyn for a few years already! I don’t drink lattes! I think that stop-and-frisk stuff is terrible! Some of my best friends … The exits were closed. If he saw me as the type of person who was taking over his neighborhood, he was absolutely right.
In 2010, for the first time in a hundred years, Brooklyn was whiter than it had been a decade before. Fort Greene saw an especially pronounced transformation, recording a double-digit decline in the black population and a double-digit growth in the white one in a single decade, and the story was much the same in Prospect Heights and Clinton Hill. Racial demographics are clearly not a straightforward indicator of gentrification, which is a tricky thing to quantify, a complex stew involving income, education, and lifestyle choices. But let’s be honest. Anyone can see what’s happening here.
And it’s happening, too, in Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Austin, Seattle, Boston, not to mention Berlin, London, and Paris. In a process the urbanist Alan Ehrenhalt has called the “Great Inversion,” affluent whites are reclaiming city centers while the relatively poor migrate outward to the fringe areas and the suburbs. It’s an uneasy situation from any angle.
Whatever your intentions, to be a member of the new, more privileged wave of residents in a gentrifying neighborhood is to be a part of a process that is displacing families who have lived there for decades, even generations. You have to be something of a moral idiot not to feel some queasiness about this. Although it is rarely discussed directly, I suspect that for a lot of who are, broadly speaking, on the advantaged side in this turf war, just walking around brings regular stings of class guilt. Obviously it is worse to be on the disadvantaged side; that’s why the advantaged feel bad about feeling bad, and therefore avoid talking about it.
What the advantaged do instead is pick apart all the failings and hypocrisies of our own team. That way we align ourselves, so we imagine, with the other team, the team that seems to have justice on its side: If I’m part of something bad, at least I have the right attitude about it.
Implicated in an uncomfortable reality, we resort to a bit of psychological jujitsu to fight off the shame. Feeling the heat of the spotlight, we swing it on a fellow gentrifier who’s going about it all wrong. I’m white and raised in suburbia, but I don’t wear khakis and clog restaurants with my stroller at brunch. Or perhaps: At least I’m not this guy here on the park bench, with his beanie and flip-flops. I mean, really. Look at this fucking hipster.
This is Freud’s “narcissism of minor differences,” but with a twist. In Freud’s theory, we deride and attack those near to us to establish dominance, as an outlet for hardwired “inclination to aggression.” In this case, I think, the derision comes from an impulse toward self-violence. It’s an expression of socioeconomic self-loathing. The gentrifier insults hipsters and bobos precisely because they are more or less like him; he needs to dole out the punishment that on some level he feels he also deserves. “Narcissism” isn’t quite right, because he’s not trying to love himself more. He’s trying to hate himself less.
On several occasions I have been to the Brooklyn Flea, a popular flea market franchise cofounded by Jonathan Butler. An Ivy League graduate with an MBA, Butler had previously launched the Brooklyn real estate blog Brownstoner, a haven for the gentrifying crowd, while working at a hedge fund. In a schoolyard a few blocks from the corners where the Notorious B.I.G. started dealing drugs at age 12 in the 1980s, the Flea offers shabby-chic antiques and clothing, rescue trinkets, old vinyl, and food trucks that make “ethnic food” less ethnic. You know the drill. The nostalgic instinct, the devotion to quirkiness, the almost fetishistic environmentalism—to me it’s all a bit … much. But there I am, visiting the vending table of an artist who draws cityscapes in pen on Post-It notes. I really like his stuff. Until the mental backlash comes: Oh God, I am not one of these people. Please tell me I am not one of these people.
But what do I know about these people, really? Has anyone articulated what is so wrong with carrying canvas bags, eating organic, doing yoga, and trying to limit environmental damage? And do we have to be embarrassed if we take pleasure in a pluralistic and creative place?
Mocking the hipster or the bobo is fun and hey, a joke is just a joke, we gentrifiers say to ourselves, but we’d never be caught joking about the lifestyle of a family living in the projects. No points to be scored that way. But that irritating-looking guy at the Brooklyn Flea, the one whose outfit embodies all the New Brooklyn clichés? He’s asking for it.
Evan Hughes is the author of Literary Brooklyn, and has written for such publications as The New York Review of Books,The New Republic, n+1, and others. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. Reprinted from Tin House (No. 53), a quarterly which publishes fiction, poetry, and essays by new and established writers.