After deriding “Brooklyn’s Overhyped, Undercooked Restaurant Scene,” the New York Observer has now gone ahead and declared that “Brooklyn is over. Done. Finished. Brooklyn as brand has overtaken Brooklyn as place, turning itself over fully to the project that was always its greatest work in the first place: the cultivation of a luxury lifestyle.” Oh, snap! And here we thought its greatest work was Leaves of Grass.
Yes, like everyone else, Observer senior editor Kim Velsey rolled her eyes at that Times piece about BKLYN1834, a new company “dedicated to selling the borough’s image beyond its borders.” In case you missed it: a group of mostly middled-aged uptowners are trying to raise $2 million to create places similar to “The Clubhouse,” a communal house in Ditmas Park where a bunch of creative types have been making music and videos and whatnot.
The Times headline — “Brooklyn Communal Cool: The Brand” — just begs the reader to spew hot vom everywhere. But read closely and you’ll see The Clubhouse is home, or has been home to, an interesting cast of characters: an R&B songstress who’s been compared to Sade by Essence magazine; a producer of hip-hop albums by the likes of Theopolis London; a saxophone player for Prince’s band who recently performed on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon”; a Grammy-winning trumpet player; a band that’s scoring an Off Broadway production.
The whole clique is using the house to record music, film videos, network, and live cheaply. Which doesn’t seem that bad. So how did it inspire this Observer headline “Brooklyn Is Now Officially Over: The Ascendance of Brooklyn, the Lifestyle, Above All Else” (or as it was originally titled, with even more hyperbole: “So Much For That: Brooklyn Is Now Officially Over”)?
Here’s what bothers Velsey:
Only, what the artists of the Clubhouse are producing is not work that aspires to the heights of Hemingway, Picasso or Stein, but branded content for their corporate sponsors — a new media company called BKLYN1834 “dedicated to selling the borough’s image beyond its borders.” BKLYN1834 seeks to skim the cream from the residents’ “artistic” collaborations, a relationship that the residents refer to as a “mutually beneficial partnership.”
Okay, so the problem is that these artists, in addition to their usual gigs, have found a way to get companies like Converse to pay for their work. Kind of like how LCD Soundsystem made a mix for Nike that spells the death of creativity in NYC is groovy to listen to. Call them savvy, or call them sellouts — but it seems a bit much to make them representatives of this damning thesis: “Brooklyn has been an alluring and extraordinarily successful brand, but its days, like all things that reach the point at which they cease to produce anything more meaningful than their own mythologies, are numbered.”
Velsey argues that “the [Brooklyn] experience is lived expressly to create the brand, rather than the other way around.” As proof, she says people don’t meet up at coffee houses to talk art and be creative anymore, they just want to nerd out about the origin of the beans. But how about Kávé Espresso Bar in Bushwick? Sure, it offers barista classes, but in addition to trafficking in latte art, it hosts actual art shows, stand-up comedy, open-mic poetry, jazz performances — even astrology and tarot-card readings. Somehow we doubt people are attending these events just to talk espresso and model for Brooklyn Hipster. And then there’s the Bushwick coffee shop that’s actually hosting conversations between artists and neighborhood old-timers about gentrification.
But boy does Velsey have a thing about foodies. After all, what’s a “Brooklyn Is Over” piece without some pickle scorn? She insists “art has ceded more and more to craft” and writes, “The borough’s creative class has long focused its talents and energies on producing pickles and artisanal doughnuts, bespoke blue jeans and exquisitely renovated brownstones rather than a creating [sic] definable school of art of [sic] literature, music or social movement.”
No definable school of literature? Someone better alert the author of Literary Brooklyn. Or Jake Tomsky. At our , he said, “People need to shut up if they’re talking shit about Williamsburg. Just shut the fuck up. It’s great: go to Ohio and check back in and see which one you like better.”
Maybe Velsey wasn’t aware of — or wasn’t impressed by — the array of art on display at Greenpoint Gallery Night or Bushwick Open Studios or the more recent Beat Nite. But to say the borough hasn’t produced a definable school of music? So much for that New York magazine cover piece lauding the Brooklyn sound and identifying 40 songs that define it.
And we’re guessing Velsey has never been to an underground trap rave. Just this week, Junglepussy released a new single, “Satisfaction Guaranteed,” off her forthcoming debut album — but the only rappers Velsey mentions are the ones who’ve left the borough or have died:
And though Brooklyn can claim artists like Jay-Z, Biggie Smalls and Spike Lee, who have all, in some fashion, been used to bolster the Brooklyn brand, the borough’s famous sons grew up under conditions which are no longer much in evidence –conditions so vastly different from Brooklyn as we now know it that they inspired Mr. Lee to go on his now famous rant about gentrification, saying of the dog-filled Fort Greene Park: “It’s like the motherfuckin’ Westminster Dog Show.” This is now Brooklyn, the brand — not Spike Lee, but the motherfuckin’ Westminster Dog Show.
It’s undeniable that parts of Brooklyn are becoming whiter and richer, but it’s a stretch to say the conditions under which Jay-Z grew up are “no longer much in evidence.” The Marcy projects are still there, after all. And East New York, where Junglepussy was born Shayna McHayle to Trinidadian and Jamaican parents, has yet to see a $10 latte.
But, fine, let’s assume Williamsburg is the “Brooklyn” that Velsey is talking about when she complains that the borough is becoming less economically and racially diverse. Ian Vanek of Japanther had something to say about those types of generalizations when we spoke to him: “That kind of stuff where people want to say, ‘Fuck Williamsburg, fuck hipsters,’ and shit — South Williamsburg is just as gangster as ever. So if you want to say ‘Fuck Williamsburg,’ you better not be talkin’ bout the Southside.”
We’ll let him and Velsey have that conversation. To be sure, we’re not dismissing her concerns about rising rents. And yes, the hype surrounding Brooklyn has bred many a business catering to European and Japanese tourists who’ve heard all about this Brooklyn thing and want to buy a silk-screened BK t-shirt at Brooklyn Flea. And that’s annoying. But saying Brooklyn is “over” is a case of throwing the baby out with the bathhouse water. Velsey says she doesn’t want to “discount the work of many talented artists who live and have lived in Brooklyn,” but when she lumps Brooklyn in with things that “cease to produce anything more meaningful than their own mythologies,” isn’t she doing just that?