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Urban Wonk

The Lifecycle of a 'Cool' Neighborhood

The Lifecycle of a 'Cool' Neighborhood
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Like the old New Yorker cartoon, New Yorkers think we define American culture. So all this talk about Brooklyn dying as the epicenter of hipsterdom worries us. Many who once celebrated the borough are now questioning its status, such as artist James Kalm and the author Robert Anasi

Kalm writes in The Brooklyn Rail that "the Williamsburg that’s gotten the world’s attention as a hotbed of cutting-edge creativity over the past couple of decades has 'matured' [losing both its edge and way as] ....one might say Williamsburg died quietly in its sleep the victim of age, ennui, and unrestricted developers, without ever reaching its hoped-for potential."

What do we make of these declarations? Should we care about unfulfilled artistic potential or aging hipsters in their skinny jeans feeling out of place in the space they created? Or is it about the dystopian neighborhoods like Williamsburg that have risen again? Or is it about those displaced by gentrification? Brooklyn presents us with a tough story to square, old and new, perpetual change. But it is an important case study. 

Declaring the death of hip neighborhoods seems to be an endless right of passage in Gotham. It comes with the territory of knowing and labeling -- articulating really -- what matters in a rootless city. Neighborhoods come and go  -- and I mean that in the Brooksian Bo-Bo way.

During the 20th century it was Greenwich Village, Harlem, SoHo, Tribeca, the Lower East Side, and then Brooklyn. At first these neighborhoods are whispered about among those in the know. Within a short time the New York Times Real Estate section profiles them -- and then the slide begins. These places are declared dead by those who have already moved on or those who have selected their neighborhood as the new, next paradise. You would need a sophisticated algorithm just to keep up. But it is great sport for certain New Yorkers.

What is almost always missing from these declarations is the simple understanding that people -- ordinary, working-class people -- have and will continue to live in these areas as their neighborhoods are changed.

The shifts in cool are a ceaseless urban effort to grasp at authenticity. Authors such as Simon Reynolds, Andrew Potter, Mary McAleer Balkum, Miles Orvell, and Abigail Cheever have demonstrated America's obsessions with authenticity as a defining cultural talisman. Knowing what is real and true, in a mass-produced world, gives one status, or cultural capital.

You might have this knowledge for a moment, then like ether it slips from your grasp. New York City has always had its share of deafeningly cool neighborhoods (and trends). And there is something really very gratifying to see Brooklyn (the neighborhood that too often was the brunt of jokes on TV sitcoms) get to laugh at the rest of the country, even if for a short time.

But, let's be honest, this discussion of Brooklyn (the Brooklyn of culture and arts, where novelists sit in cafes; the Brooklyn that Colson Whitehead wrote about in 2008) really is not the borough, but only a few neighborhoods: Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Bushwick, Bed-Sty and Fort Greene/Clinton Hill. These neighborhoods have gripped our imagination for almost 20 years, while the rest are absent from consciousness. 


Children play in the water along a sidewalk in the Bushwick section of the Brooklyn borough of New York. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

In the 1990s, Brooklyn was declared the "The New Bohemia," by Brad Gooch. Gooch and others signaled the rise of Williamsburg as the place to be and be seen. He quotes a cross-dressing performance artist who said, even in 1992, that Williamsburg's attention and fame would be short lived. Gooch's informant said that "in the seventies, it was SoHo...in the eighties, the East Village. In the nineties it will be Williamsburg." And, in the nineties it was indeed Williamsburg, with its galleries, clubs, youth, music and art.

In his recent book, The Last Bohemia, Robert Anasi can see the change. And he isn't happy. Writing about his return to Williamsburg in 2011 after several years of absence, he is shocked by how much his Williamsburg has aged out. He takes solace in the fact that the cool has moved. "Tonight in some club out in Bushwick or Bed-Stuy," he writes, "a nervous teenager is getting his head blown apart by a sound that will alter American music." Even The New York Times has declared Bushwick (the center of the rioting and arson in the late 1970s) the new hot spot.

All this talk about the essence of neighborhoods, moments and hipness reminds me of Ishmael Reed's prescient 1972 novel, Mumbo Jumbo, set in 1920s America. Reed's novel is an extended discussion (and science fiction romp) on the essence of black culture and its relationships to mainstream white culture. Who owns it and what happens when parts of it become mainstream? Is it dead or just different? And should it be defended or redefined?

Places like Williamsburg have undeniably changed. A walk down Bedford Avenue on any given Sunday afternoon finds fathers pushing strollers, folks at sidewalk cafe's and packed boutiques and specialty cheese shops. Tourist buses now can be seen on DeKalb Avenue in Fort Greene.

These new residents and their visitors have helped make a new, different Brooklyn. Is this better or worse? It all depends on where you find yourself. The Dominican families who crowded the South Side of Williamsburg certainly feel squeezed by rising rent. Nelson George has discussed the unease in Fort Greene in his recent film. What happened in Williamsburg in the 1990s is happening right now in other areas of Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens. The old and the new push up against each other in endless friction -- doing the perennial urban space dance. Maybe it's time to simply recognize these cycles of history and return to a more organic understanding of neighborhoods.

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody," as the urbanist Jane Jacobs has written, "only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

Photo credit: Chad Matthew Carlson / Shutterstock.com

Richard Greenwald is professor of sociology and history and Dean at St. Joseph’s College in New York. His most recent book is Labor Rising: The Past and Future of Working People in America (New Press, 2012). His next book, The Death of 9-to-5: Permanent Freelancers, Empty Offices and the New Way America Works will be published by Bloomsbury Books in 2014. All posts »

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