On a recent Sunday afternoon in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, dads went by with well-bundled babies draped across them like mink stoles. Moms pushed strollers and pulled children. Couples held hands, coffee cups, dog leashes, cell phones, shopping bags. All the cheery, chatty toddlers at the playground stood around and mingled, as if attending a make-believe literary party. Every street corner along Smith Street was set and lit like a Norman Rockwell. But. The signs in the windows all read: “Wanted for Sexual Assault. Reward of $12,000. Name: Peter Braunstein.”
It’s not Whitechapel during Jack the Ripper, but ever since the former Women’s Wear Daily reporter allegedly assaulted a woman in her Chelsea home on Halloween night, Peter Braunstein, or his unlucky doppelgänger, or some mass-hysterical hallucination, has been spotted sipping lattes and annoying dry cleaners all over Cobble Hill. Every day the police dragnet continues, and every day drags nothing up.
But Alberto Braunstein, the suspect’s dad, knows that Peter wasn’t the suspicious coffee drinker or the irate dry-cleaner customer. His son, Mr. Braunstein assured the Daily News, wouldn’t be caught dead outside Manhattan. “I have never known my son to even go to Brooklyn,” said Mr. Braunstein. “So I was stunned.”
Forget the massive manhunt. Is Peter Braunstein the last freelancer in New York who thinks he’s too good for Brooklyn?
It would have seemed that, by now, few New Yorkers still cling to the old anti-Brooklyn bigotries. Who persists in seeing the borough as little more than Manhattan’s waiting room, its discard piles, its backwater wilderness? Who still considers a move there on a par with the exile eastward from Eden? Even prejudiced Manhattanites are migrating en masse to Brooklyn.
This hegira off the island into Brooklyn has been going on for years, but can no longer be understood simply as the search for cheap, mythically large apartments; rents in Brooklyn are nearly as high as those in Manhattan. It’s different now. People aspire to Brooklyn. The vector of the city has reversed itself.
Apparently, according to Elaine Golin, 38, a lawyer who lived in Manhattan for 11 years but is now renting in Red Hook and on the move to Park Slope, living in Manhattan is like “perpetually living in college.” “People are living with roommates,” she continued. “This kind of living is infantilizing. But living in Brooklyn is more grown-up.”
James Vause, 26, a barista at Sweet Melissa’s Patisserie on Court Street in Cobble Hill, put it more simply: “Brooklyn is the suburbs.”
MOST SIGNIFICANTLY, CELEBRITIES ASPIRE TO BROOKLYN. Well before l’affair Braunstein, Cobble Hill was already a neighborhood under siege. Tabloid paparazzi, bystanders with camera phones and curious locals in need of a new cocktail-party anecdote all lingered too long on street corners and sat too patiently at Bar Tabac’s outdoor tables, hoping to catch a glimpse of the neighborhood’s newest resident: Matilda Rose Ledger, the spawn of Australian soon-to-be-superstar Heath Ledger and his Brokeback Mountain co-star, Michelle Williams.
Matilda’s so tiny that, in Us Weekly, there’s just the little half-moon of her forehead peeking out above her Baby Björn, that body armor for infants. Her parents are, however, and have been for some time, totally ubiquitous.
In fact, when The Observer contacted Jen Argenta, 30, owner of Watts on Smith (a men’s boutique teeming with Ben Sherman clothes) via e-mail to inquire about the influx of celebrities into Cobble Hill, she was actually staring at one: “Heath Ledger, with a hat on, looking at what we have in the window, while we were trying to do some inventory. It’s not very exciting,” she said later.
On the borough’s creeping immigrant population of celebrities, Brooklynites show more message discipline than Republican Senators during a judicial confirmation fight. About every celeb they see, live near or shop beside, Brooklynites stick to talking points of diligent, respectful indifference.
Ira Boudway, 27, lives on Douglass Street, not far from the house where Heath and Michelle lived before moving into their $3.5 million, three-car-garage house on Dean Street. He believes it’s this act of indifference that draws celebrities to Brooklyn. “My private theory is this: I once read that the Beatles used to go to the restaurants where people were too snooty to recognize them, and maybe there’s that same sense in Brooklyn: that if you’re among hipsters, they’ll be too cool to bother to notice you,” he said.
But the simple fact is that Michelle and Heath were noticed. A lot.
More people have seen their photos in Us Weekly and In Touch than have seen any of their recent movies. Countless sightings have poured into Gawker.com over the past few months, and it wasn’t just Manhattan tourists in Brooklyn whipping out their phones to text into gossip sites their description of Heath skateboarding outside Rite Aid, or his and Michelle’s bike ride down Smith. The two lovely, in-love young celebrities were as carefully monitored, closely tracked and constantly cooed-over as pregnant pandas.
“We’re very protective of our celebrities,” said Louise Crawford, 47, who writes Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn.
There is something quintessentially Brooklyn in this precious depiction of celebrities as endangered species in need of preservation. It would never happen in Queens. To many Brooklynites, their star neighbors are cause for self-congratulation. It confirms that they made the right choice not to live in Manhattan: a cooler, better choice, a nicer choice.
About Park Slope, that far-flung, cosmetically flawless utopia bordering Prospect Park, Ms. Crawford said: “Everyone calls it a college town without the college.” So what does that make celebrities, of which Park Slope has an excess?
“If this is a college town, they’re just like the star professor with the best-selling book,” replied Ms. Crawford. Her metaphor-making suggests the volcanic rivers of envy and adulation flowing under all that Brooklyn cool.
IN BROOKLYN, THE OLDER YUPPIES BITCH and bellyache and theorize about the younger yuppies moving in, as if this latest batch of arrivistes into Brooklyn were the flood of Muslim immigrants into France. Best to take it with a grain of salt. The public defenders bitched about the corporate lawyers, the artists about the professionals, the immigrants about the artists, the New Netherlanders about the New Englanders, the Delaware Indians about the Dutch. But Brooklynites would be ill advised to give “their” celebrities a pass. Just as the Europeans brought smallpox to the New World in their blankets and their breath, these stars carry with them to Brooklyn pandemics of media attention and ultra-rich renters. Centuries hence, when the very famous and the very wealthy have totally overrun the outer boroughs, only the street signs will remember Brooklyn’s previous residents: Yuppie Street. Hipster Place.
So there’s a deal that’s struck: In exchange for their protective apathy, Brooklynites do seem to want their celebrities to master a certain habit of conspicuous, virtuous anonymity. They expect all their Supermen to act like good Clark Kents.
“We really cherish Steve Buscemi,” said Ms. Crawford. “He’s just a great guy. He’s kind of the perfect celebrity. He’s the perfect Brooklyn celebrity, because he’s so unpretentious. He’s a part of the community.”
Established celebs of the Slope—John Turturro, Paul Auster, etc.—aren’t thought of as neighbors per se, but as landmarks, as well-worn and familiar as the Prospect Park band shell. But then the preposterously beautiful couple Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly (who actually grew up in Brooklyn) popped up on Prospect Park West like two glamorous high-rises suddenly dwarfing all the brownstones. Goofing around with their kids at the playground or catching a matinee at the Pavillion, Mr. and Mrs. Jennifer Connelly try to pass for professors, but they are too famous. They have too much presence, and their neighbors worry they will shift the balance of the neighborhood. Still, Ms. Crawford holds out hope that Jennifer Connelly can become another Buscemi.
“Jennifer Connelly is aspiring to that,” Ms. Crawford said, “other than the fact that everyone knows which house she has, and I don’t think they care or are very obsessed with it. But she’s gonna blend in the more she’s involved. She’s at the playground, she looks like every other mom: admittedly quite beautiful, and elegant—but certainly not Upper East Side elegant. She just looks great. She’s got that expensive-bohemian thing going.”
And so do Brooklynites, don’t they?
As Ms. Argenta, the owner of Watts on Smith, put it to The Observer in an e-mail, “At the end of the day, celebrities moved to the ’hood for the same reasons that we did and are enjoying the benefit of living in an urban community where you say hello to your neighbor and know all the names of the people who work at the bodega. It is sort of a Sesame Street idealism that we grew up with or were drawn to when we moved here.”
Gentrification has finally achieved what cracks, gangs, graffiti, bankruptcy, budget busting, Giuliani, the smoking ban and global terrorism could not: It has rendered Manhattan utterly uninhabitable. These days, the Upper East Side and the Lower East Side have both become the forward positions of what can no longer be reasonably called the bridge-and-tunnel crowd. No point in dressing in rags and belting out lyrics from Rent, because every block of the East Village looks like frat row at the University of Michigan. In Manhattan the successful can’t afford homes, while the impoverished stay healthy, well-fed and drunk on their parents’ credit cards.
“People also recognize that it’s not just the proximity to New York that’s great about Brooklyn; it’s Brooklyn that’s great about Brooklyn,” said documentary filmmaker Rory Kennedy, 36. “A lot of culture, a lot of people …. There’s a nice energy in Brooklyn—more space, nice sense of community, a small-town feel in a big city.”
So people have retreated out to Brooklyn to manufacture a more authentic city. As much as new Brooklynites like to imagine Cobble Hill and Fort Greene as little European villages (and themselves as charmed American expats), they’re actually trying to live a much more innocent Sesamer Street version of a city—where, in fact, the Big Apple’s made small and the small town’s made big.
“You know in The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, when, at the end, the hobbits have been up in this fantastic place, and they’ve been hanging out with Gandalf and Liv Tyler and all of these people, right?” said Edward Wilson, 36, a banker at Goldman Sachs who moved with his wife, Hesu (Suzy) Coue, 39, from the West Village to a brownstone in Park Slope. “And then suddenly they’re back in the Shire, and they’re all kind of in the pub. And when we were watching the film, and it’s all over, we just looked at each other and both said, ‘Brooklyn.’”
Brooklyn presents itself as a happy medium between surviving in Manhattan and sequestering oneself in the suburbs, between continuing to live like a college kid and sniffing enough carbon monoxide in your garage to become a happy zombie. In Brooklyn, New Yorkers can rehearse their adulthood without committing to it; can play in their brownstones without feeling trapped inside of them.
And Brooklyn is no longer Failure-ville. Even the celebrities—people who dreamed of “making it” long ago, who came to Manhattan to get famous—show proof of their success in Brooklyn. It is the dream.
“I will never go back to Manhattan,” said Ms. Golin, the Red Hook lawyer. “Brooklyn is like a religion.”
—additional reporting by Erin Coe