I was a Brooklyn Townie
I’m from Brooklyn. I mean, I’m really from Brooklyn. I was actually born here—and 50 years ago at that; both of my parents were born here; I attended school in Brooklyn all the way through college, except for a brief stint in graduate school (Manhattan). I’ve lived in Brooklyn my entire life, except for a year and a half or so working in Europe when I was already around 40.
Once upon a time this was not something to brag about. In the crucial years of my late teens and 20s, when I was active as a musician, it was very easy for people like me to feel like outsiders. Everyone lived in Manhattan; Brooklyn was still considered mostly a backwater by anyone with any New York credibility. And not only was I on the wrong side of the East River, but I was practically at the end of the earth—in Bensonhurst, just three short subway stops from Coney Island. We had the world’s best pizza, but that was it.
Having spent my whole life til then in what was a pretty tough neighborhood, I wasn’t too bothered by this, and in fact I built up a kind of armor around a kid-from-the-streets-of-Brooklyn-where-most-of-my-acquaintances-are-druggies-or-thugs-so-don’t-even-think-of-fucking-with-me persona. Still, reminders of what it meant to be a Brooklynite in the late ’70s were everywhere. I remember going to a Manhattan comedy club with some friends when I was 19. One pal of mine, full of alcohol and assorted pharmaceuticals, made the mistake of heckling one of the comedians throughout his set. Finally, the comic turned to us. “Where are you guys from?” “Brooklyn!!!” we all shouted or slurred in unison. “Okay,” he said, “let me try to make you feel a little more at home.” And with a slow, exaggerated gesture, he disgustingly wiped his nose with the full length of his shirtsleeve. So that was Brooklyn.
Nevertheless, despite occasional bouts of self-doubt and half-hearted vows to move to the East Village (the only truly hip place in New York in those days), I never left. Brooklyn was My Home. Still, being reasonably sophisticated and intelligent, I knew that Bensonhurst, flush with small-time gangsters and low-rent drugs, wasn’t where I wanted to spend the rest of my life. So I moved—still within Brooklyn, naturally, but to Park Slope, which appealed to me because at the time it was filled with lefties, vegetarians, and people who owned books. I was perfectly happy there.
It took another 15 years or so, but one day I woke up to realize that the impossible had happened: Brooklyn had become hip, then hipper, then possibly the hippest place in the world. At that point I felt no shame about being a Brooklynite anyway, especially since I was immersed in plenty of creative, artistic, and political activities. I’d gotten deeper into playing experimental music; I’d read up on the Situationists, Wilhelm Reich, and Ivan Ilich; I’d become an editor for a publisher of dense Euro-theory books; I’d started doing a regular show on a highly regarded radio station. But if I had once felt even the occasional, defensive need to flash my fancy cultural credentials, I felt no such need now. I lived in Brooklyn, the planet’s hippest city! What’s more, unlike the kids suddenly pouring in from suburban towns around the country, I was from Brooklyn; I’d always lived in what was indisputably the coolest place in the world, long before any of these newbies had arrived.
But as the “New Brooklyn” continued to take shape, I started to feel different. Was being from Brooklyn actually cool? What about having a Brooklyn accent, like most of my family and all the people I’d grown up with—and unlike all the people creating the new scene here? (I’d more or less lost my accent at that point.) Or were the people who’d been born and raised here the “townies” of the borough? Was bragging that you’d lived in Brooklyn all your life as preposterous as trying to pull rank on a Yale professor by telling him that, unlike him, you’d always lived in New Haven? As with so many other gentrified cities, were only the newer, upper-middle-class-ish arrivals from elsewhere, ironically, the “Brooklynites” everyone was talking about?
Personally, I had no insecurities about this, no chip on my shoulder. I wasn’t a permanently angry New York Post reader who resented all these smart-assed college kids moving into his town. I had plenty of cultural and intellectual cred. I knew more about music that any of the nouveau hipsters flooding Williamsburg. But I still had a foot in the world I’d grown up in: I loved Canarsie, Flatlands, Plumb Beach, even Perfume Bay (the highly polluted body of water separating Gravesend, where I’d played little-league baseball, from Coney Island). I caught “punk” artists I knew, who’d moved here from wealthy suburbs, making fun of the speech of working-class cops in the city. (“They pronounce the word beer like ‘beah’!”). What would they say about my mother’s heavy 1930s Brooklyn-Jewish accent? I read an article in the Times about a run-in, in some rapidly gentrifying part of the city (I think it was in Queens, but it could just as well have been Brooklyn), between an exasperated local and a bunch of kids getting drunk in a happening new bar downstairs from her: When, late one night, she asked them to please keep it down because she was trying to get some sleep, they basically laughed in her face and told her to move if she didn’t like it. Whose neighborhood was it? Whose side was I on? Were the people I’d grown up with the Native Americans of Brooklyn, fated to be cleared off their ancestral land by more conniving and powerful settlers?
Things got worse. Brooklyn became Hipsterland, thanks mostly to the trend-hungry (or trend-starved) media. Daily style-section features gushed over “Brooklyn,” which now no longer meant Brooklyn, but rather the two or three neighborhoods where these fashionable young people congregated. It was if every existing map of the city had suddenly been redrawn. And every resident of the borough (as now defined) was a hipster! To cite one of the more annoying examples, a Gawker article about a young Brooklyn woman arrested for a hit-and-run accident opened like this: “Sophia Anderson is 21 years old. She lives in Brooklyn. She works as a waitress. That’s right: hipster alert. Big time.” So (living in Brooklyn) + (being 21 years old) + (working as a waitress) = hipster! In the Brooklyn where I grew up I knew young waitresses who were single mothers and worked their butts off to feed kids on their paltry salaries. And there was no doubt that they were still out there, in about two dozen Brooklyn neighborhoods that were of no interest to the author of that article. If some snarky journalist had come to Bensonhurst and told the decidedly working-class waitresses I once knew that they were “hipsters,” well, it would have been a good idea to have an ambulance waiting outside. For readers of the Times, there was no escaping inane phrases like “très Brooklyn” (supposedly on every smart young Parisian’s lips) or “the Brooklyn brand,” both of which referred to some ill-defined, and media-created, New Brooklyn aesthetic.
Some of the blame for all this must be placed on the New Brooklynites themselves, many of whom, let’s face it, were shallow and trend-obsessed. But this was a chicken-and-egg problem: Did thousands of fashionable Brooklyn kids never set foot outside a 10-square-block area because it had been pounded into their heads that there was nothing worth seeing in the rest of the borough, or were reporters simply picking up on the fact that this small group of telegenic young people had consciously limited themselves to a “Brooklyn” consisting of that tiny area? Immune as I generally was to this kind of silliness, even I found my cool detachment starting to weaken. Seeing a blogger, in all seriousness, refer to her friend’s block in Greenpoint as “the prettiest street in Brooklyn” made my blood boil. It was a perfectly nice street, but nothing spectacular, and I’d bet good money that this blogger had never set foot outside her neighborhood—to Midwood, or Bay Ridge, or Manhattan Beach—to make a comparison. A Times article about stoops contained this gem: “In Brooklyn, the borough of the brownstone, few spaces are more sacred than the stoop.” Brownstones are one of a hundred kinds of Brooklyn houses that have stoops—where I grew up we spent half our time hanging out on stoops, and we’d probably never seen a brownstone. But yes, stoops are sacred in Brooklyn because brownstones have them—and brownstones are, by definition, the houses that matter, since they’re owned by wealthy professionals in a small handful of northwest-Brooklyn neighborhoods. Petty as it may seem to pick on such casual remarks, they were symptoms of a very real and much bigger problem: For all intents and purposes the 95 percent or so of Brooklynites living outside a tiny enclave of hip and relatively privileged young people simply didn’t exist.
A rare article acknowledging that they did exist appeared in the Times this past summer, though its very purpose seemed to be “pitting effete snobs against benighted knuckleheads,” in the words of a friend of mine. Here, we learned that one Gerritsen Beach resident, when asked about the “greater availability of organic vegetables or sustainable, grass-fed beef in a place like Park Slope,” said (gasp!), “It’s not for me.” The head of Community Board 15, which covers Homecrest and Sheepshead Bay, gave this self-effacing comment: “We’re not looking for innovative ways to do things. I have a hard time setting up a DVR.” And a librarian in Brownsville was quoted as saying, “How can you have a cafe where people eat in the sun [as in the safer, gentrified neighborhoods] if they’re concerned about gangs shooting each other?” “Bummer,” I can imagine the reporter saying. “Get me the hell out of here and over to Wythe Ave.!”—from where, a week later, the Times ran a Vogue-worthy story on the comings and goings of the beautiful people frequenting Williamsburg’s newest high-concept hotel.
As a kid-from-the-streets-of-Brooklyn-where-most-of-my-acquaintances-are-druggies-or-thugs-so-don’t-even-think-of-fucking-with-me, I pride myself on having a very thick skin. But being bombarded with this crap—insulting to pretty much everyone, but most of all to the non-rich, non-trendy, non-r-pronouncing “townies” I grew up with, and especially the millions of non-whites who seem to be permanently excluded from the “New Brooklyn” discourse—can get to anyone after a while. Much as I wish I could end this article on a positive, optimistic note, I’m afraid that at the moment I see no end in sight.
But wait: How about if we round up a couple of hundred Brooklynites—Williamsburg and Bushwick residents definitely welcome—and hold a high-profile press conference, during which we all wipe our noses on our sleeves at once? Maybe that will frighten the Times enough to go off and bug someone else, leaving us to live together undisturbed, as we’ve managed to do for the past 150 years or so.
DAVE MANDL is a writer (the Rail, the Wire, Slate, the Believer) and musician. He hosts the weekly music show World of Echo Sunday nights on WFMU.