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« In Which Emily Gould Is Bored To Death With Brooklyn Cliches »

No Sleep Till Brooklyn


"Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes! how curious you are to me! On the ferry-boats, the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more curious to me than you suppose; And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence, are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose," wrote Walt Whitman in 1900, of his fellow Brooklyn ferry passengers. 

Time-travel-noise! It's 2009.  And now here is how those who cross from shore to shore are typically limned:

"The people like organic food and bicycles. They compost. They fuss over their children. They don’t miss living in Manhattan. You get the idea." So NYTimes Moscow correspondent Clifford Levy wrote recently, in an article that purported to give Muscovites a primer on Brooklynites and vice versa. "Denizens of Brownstone Brooklyn like to pad around in plastic clogs," Levy also pointed out.

This kind of generalization is easy to come by, and so, to be honest, are Crocs, at least in Park Slope.  That neighborhood and several others near or nearish to it -- Prospect Heights, Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill, Brooklyn Heights and Fort Greene -- are what Levy is referring to when he says "Brownstone Brooklyn."  Levy is not referring to Bed-Stuy, though it is full of brownstones.  Those brownstones don't count as brownstones, because they are not yet entirely occupied by white gentrifiers.

The trouble with dismissing the stereotypical people who lazy writers describe when they want to call up an emblematic image of Brooklyniness is that they exist.  I see them all the time, glowy and unkempt, pushing their double stroller -- that odd kind where one child rides underneath, which seems un-fun for him-- and walking their large dog in the middle of the day on a weekday. 

What do they do? How does it enable them to afford an $800 imported stroller?  Why, during the pickup time for our Community Supported Agriculture vegetables, do they insist on letting little Phineas slowly, deliberately pluck his favorite 10 onions from the bin?  "One... (an eternity passes)...two...(another eternity, this one longer)"... They apologize to me, in line behind them, and shoot me winsome smiles as they throw up their hands like "What are you going to do?"  I have some suggestions, but I keep them to myself. 

I try not to get too worked up, knowing that these people constitute but one skein -- well, maybe three or four skeins, and they're the most visible, they're some flashy kind of sparkle-thread -- in the incredibly diverse tapestry that makes up my neighborhood and my borough. 

This, despite what pop culture would have you believe, but well, it's understandable that TV shows and movies and books and the New York Observer and New York magazine tend to fixate on either rich, overparenty breeders or rich, overstyled hipsters when writing about Brooklyn.  The consumption habits and recreational activities and intellectual preoccupations of these groups are simply the easiest to mine for yuks.  

It's hard to imagine Sarah Jessica Parker optioning an book about Borough Park Hasids, or Jonathan Ames developing an HBO series about a group of French-speaking African Baptists who stage lively revels in their Fort Greene church every Sunday. 

Instead, Parker has optioned Amy Sohn's recently-published novel Prospect Park West, which is a fantastical romp about the status anxieties of rich but not quite rich-enough Park Slope parents who vie for the attention of a secretly-troubled celebrity couple in their midst. 

Ames' series is about a feckless Fort Greene writer who spots a Raymond Chandler paperback on the floor of his sunny brownstone apartment after Moishe's Movers finishes loading out the belongings of his erstwhile girlfriend and immediately decides to declare himself, via Craigslist, a private eye. 

I watched the first episode of this series, Bored To Death -- a risky name for a show that, for people who aren't watching it for the thrill of spotting local landmarks, might be less than riveting -- at the end of a Brooklyn day.  It was Yom Kippur and I had spent the morning at free services that are provided by an organization called "Brooklyn Jews."  The services were held in Park Slope and I rode there from Clinton Hill on my bike. 

Later I rode my bike to Brooklyn Heights for a break-the-fast meal of bagels and lox.  As we wolfed the bagels and ate little mini-shortbreads from One Girl Cookies and looked out the beautiful bay window at the tall trees up and down the block shaking in a cloudburst, we talked about real estate, and the inexplicable dearth of good supermarkets in that neighborhood.   

Afterwards I went to a bar in Fort Greene -- a German beer garden with no garden -- and, while waiting for my friends to arrive, chatted with an middle-aged man who was sipping a beer while his laundry spun in the dryer at the laundromat next door.  He'd moved to the neighborhood -- actually, to an apartment above the beer garden -- from a Park Slope brownstone one year earlier.  "It's a one bedroom about the size of this half of the bar, like, from there to there," he said, delimiting an arc with his pointing finger that encompassed a wide swath of bar-space.  "$1350."  

"FUCK you," I said. The man took this in the intended spirit, and chuckled and felt good about himself.  It was the fourth time that day that someone had told me, unbidden, how much rent he paid.  

Then I went home and watched Bored To Death. In the first episode the protagonist, "Jonathan Ames," who is Jason Schwartzman, has coffee with his friend Zack Galifianakis at Smooch.  I guess the fictitious Jonathan Ames is unperturbed by the worst Yelp reviews I have ever seen for any business, and the flies.  (To be fair, the veggie burger is great). 

Jonathan and Zack have to sit outside because a postnatal yoga class has just gotten out and the shop is packed with mommies.  A herd of their parked strollers clog the sidewalk outside; Jonathan trips over one as he gets up to leave. 

I yawned.  The ghost of Walt Whitman yawned.  "Maybe less curious than I had supposed!" he mumbled.  We shut off my computer and went to bed.  

Emily Gould is a contributor to This Recording. She lives in Brooklyn and writes at Emily Magazine

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Reader Comments (27)

Is one of the Brooklyn archetypes, "Writer Incapable of Constructing Sentences? Brooklyn is filled with those, too.

October 6, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSB

Wow--this really got me thinking! To me, Brooklyn is like a cool underground band that you and your two closest friends thought you had discovered, because you loved their first few records, only to realize that with their third, they are playing David Letterman and being featured on the Hills, and so you start to hate them a little, or a lot -- at least openly -- even if you still love them somewhere in your heart. (Wow that was a mouthful!) There's a part of me that will always miss living there (by which I mean the part where the white ppl live), because it has cool bars and awesome vegan restaurants and a certain preponderance of liberal, educated people who don't walk around calling each other faggot (like the two dudes I just rode up the elevator with in my Washington Heights building). But I think it's fair to say that no neighborhood gentrified as fast or as furiously as Park Slope-and-environs Brooklyn in the past ten years, so that like any rising star, there's a tendency to want to belittle and tear it down (which leads to lazy stereotypes and cliches by people -- even those who could afford to live there -- who don't care about anything but pandering to the jealous and irate masses, most of whom are correct in assuming that they will never be able to experience the good life in Brooklyn). I personally crave Brooklyn, and hate myself for craving it as much as I do. Most of the time, I resolve this dissonance by pretending that -- like my youth -- it no longer exists.

October 6, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMG

Uhh, I'd take two dudes calling each other faggot in an elevator over "cool bars and awesome vegan restaurants and a certain preponderance of liberal, educated people" any day. You sound like an incredible douche. Maybe tone it down while you resolve that dissonance?

October 6, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterNO

Whoas, sorry I offended you, NO, but at least I'm not an anonymous douche. (Was that u on the elevator?)

October 6, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMG

hey, hey. tone it down, faggots.

October 6, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMolly

I completely understand MG's comments about Brooklyn -- I live in Queens, but all of my friends are in Brooklyn, so I spend a lot of time there, and I both love and hate it.

Also, I really like Emily's writing and I really like This Recording...put the two together and it's swell!

October 7, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterZoe

so is $1350 (per month ,I presume) high or low rent for Brooklyn.

October 7, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBSTUFF

For a big one bedroom in a great neighborhood close to the train, it's low. But he does have to live above a bar, so.

October 7, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterEmily


October 7, 2009 | Unregistered Commenteranon

Is it possible for a writer in Brooklyn to write about anything other than Brooklyn? (Even if it's"Tongue In Cheek"; that's still no excuse. In fact, it's worse. So many unintentional LOL's.) If not, is it too much to ask for something original, insightful about the place, then? If not, how about a tad less pretentious? If not, how about- Oh, forget it; I don't live in Brooklyn; what do I know?

October 8, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBored To Death

more about california--we're tired of new york.

October 12, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterYani

who is the celebrity couple?

October 12, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBstuff

I used to see Jonathan Ames in the Boerum Hill Food Company many a morn, eating eggs and reading the Times...his ulcer seemed to be getting the better of him when it started becoming the hang out for the PTA poobahs of the elementary school half a block away. Jonathan and Amy Sohn once romanced, and she wrote an article hating on the stroller mafia at the Tea Lounge on Court St, and now she has a kid, and a popular book satirizing her fellow Park Slope parents, and both the Boerum Hill Food Company and the Tea Lounge are closed.

Presumably, this too shall pass.

And THEN hopefully someone will write that series about the French speaking African baptists in their Fort Greene church.

Most importantly, in the penultimate photo, is Jason Schwartman wearing a mini top hat, cocked at a devil may care angle?

October 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAyun

HMMMMMMMMMMM! (vocalized in a lovingly worried and concerned Marge Simpson kind of way.)

October 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBSTUFF

Brooklyn basically begins south of Church Avenue.

December 8, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRichard Grayson

you are an excellent writer. you should write about something that matters sometime.

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