John Flansburgh, of the band They Might Be Giants, was on the phone. “I have mixed emotions about ‘fabulous’ Williamsburg,” said Mr. Flansburgh, 47, who has lived in that neighborhood for over 20 years, watching as bars and boutiques began to choke Bedford Ave. “It’s quickly becoming a life-size replica of St. Marks Place, and honestly, I’ve never wanted to live on St. Marks Place.”
None of the elite streaming out of Manhattan and over the pretty bridge to the mirror world on the other side want to live on St. Marks Place. But what do they want exactly? Brooklyn isn’t a united front. The North Brooklyn of do-it-yourself fashion and vinyl siding (Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Bushwick) just feels separate from brownstone South Brooklyn (from Fort Greene to Park Slope). South Brooklyn is rich and pretty; North is rougher-edged and moody. “I’m firmly committed to the notion that there’s an unbridgeable divide,” said a 27-year-old Bushwick resident, who explained that he even feels this way about “literary-minded, quasi-hipsters” like himself who live in the nether regions of the Hills and Slopes and Heights. “I’ve always felt deeply uncomfortable in Park Slope. And for everything that’s hateable about Williamsburg, I have this feeling that they’re my people.”
Of course, all of gentrified Brooklyn is somewhat similar. It’s mostly white. It’s mostly partial to some form of indie rock. Refugees from small colleges like Vassar and Wesleyan may trudge North; shiny Ivy Leaguers could prefer the South—but the bottom line is that they all attended fancy colleges. Southerners reluctantly fork over deceptively low salaries for DVF dresses and Paper, Denim, Whatever jeans; Northern chicks would rather jump off the Williamsburg Bridge than wear something they didn’t iron on themselves. But in the end, they all care a lot about what they wear.
So why can’t they get along? It might be that development, from Ratnerville to waterfront condos, newly threatens the borough’s beloved low-rise lifestyle. The gentrifiers are being gentrified. Even Heath Ledger has stood up and declared, Not in my three-car garage! And like citizens of the Holy Roman Empire, Brooklyn residents turn in on each other, clinging to the rapidly eroding identities of their neighborhoods in a desperate bid for that increasingly rare New York commodity: personal authenticity.
“It’s more like World War II France,” said a 27-year-old Fort Greene resident on a recent Saturday evening, sitting at the bar Rope on Myrtle Avenue.
The place was typical South Brooklyn, filled with plainly dressed white kids, one black couple warily regarding the scene. But a group of twentysomethings from both sides of the metaphorical Mason-Dixon Line were drinking vodka tonics, grumpily discussing how, when they see a block-sized, generic doorman building sprouting up on Court and Atlantic, or a plastic-looking condo park rising Lego-like out of the dust in Greenpoint, they inexplicably get angry at the people who already live in the neighborhood, as if they were responsible for attracting that sort of building rather than the developers who’ve imposed it.
“Everyone loves to say who was part of the Resistance and who was Vichy, and the reality is most everyone was the same,” World War II guy went on.
“Everyone was a collaborator.”
Pan over to Pete’s Candy Store in Williamsburg—which is not, of course, a candy store.
“Helloooo!” screamed the girl in the red cotton dress, hugging perhaps her fifth victim since she’d ambushed the amber-lit bar. “I love when everyone’s drunk!”
“I’ve been drunk for hours,” replied the huggee, a young man in camouflage.
More hugging: a girl with a clothespin in her hair, an indie rocker with a hairdo from a band called Cheese on Bread. A boy in a makeshift dunce cap—or was it a Harry Potter reference? How old were these people?—exclaimed, “Hey! It’s my CD-release party!” Whole decades, in human form, passed by—the 1950’s, the 80’s, cruel amalgamations of the two, black leather jackets and Facts of Life hair.
“It’s all coming back,” said a Fort Greene friend, 30, her chair batted around by the love-in tornado behind her. “Why I left.” She lived in Williamsburg years ago. But the kind of performative aspect so garishly on display in Pete’s makes many Brooklynites (especially the older ones) happy to abandon the party.
“I read on the Internet that this was the place to live if you couldn’t afford anything else … ,” said Jay Brandt, 24, standing outside another Williamsburg bar, the Royal Oak, on a recent Saturday night, smoking in a tight, striped sweater. He moved here 10 months ago from Minneapolis and works both at a hedge fund and the Chelsea restaurant Parish. “I heard it was a post-collegiate utopia.” But alas …. “I don’t like it,” Mr. Brandt said. “It’s insular and cliquey …. I’ve heard good things about Gowanus—is that how it’s pronounced? Oh, Gow-ah-nus ….
“Identity in New York seems to be so connected to your neighborhood,” he said. “I sometimes think, ‘There’s no way I can go to Williamsburg in this.’”
No doubt: The endless evolution of avant-garde fashion in North Brooklyn can be exhausting. For example, the other day at the Verb Café on Bedford Avenue, amidst a parade of studded belts, sundresses paired with cowboy boots and denim miniskirts paired with footless black leggings, a woman with a shaved head was reading Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet.
She was wearing a seersucker skirt, a belted black-and-white-striped secretary’s blouse, lime-green latticework pumps and a perfectly placed lime-green bangle. It was the bracelet that sealed the woman’s Williamsburgness, the extra work involved to a) find and purchase the lime-green bangle bracelet, b) remember one owns it, c) remember one also owns lime-green pumps, d) remember to put them both on, during the same morning. Williamsburg girls don’t forget the bangle, that’s the point. Anyone unarmed with such stylistic hand grenades feels vulnerable and exposed around her.
Candice Waldron, 32, recently opened a new high-end boutique, Jumelle, on Bedford Avenue, that sells clothes by designers such as Sonia Rykiel. “The style is really eclectic,” she said, describing the local customers. “A lot of women here wear vintage; they don’t really buy designer clothes. That was one concern about my store.” But “in the end,” Ms. Waldron said, “with the lines I would be selling I thought I’d be better off in Williamsburg.
“I like Park Slope a lot,” she said, adding that she’d considered a location there instead, on Fifth Avenue. “When I was doing my business plan, the average medium income was definitely higher over there.” But in the end, “I felt this is a better fit for me,” Ms. Waldron said. “I’m more in with this crowd.”
LITERATURE AND T-SHIRTS
While the North sees the South as moneyed squares, the South frowns on the North as poseurs—intellectual lightweights.
“In Williamsburg, everyone’s kind of illiterate. Relatively,” said Christian, a 29-year-old Williamsburg transplant who moved there from Park Slope and regrets it. “One time I was on the L train, and the girl sitting next to me was reading Women in Love, and I said, ‘That’s good—have you read The Rainbow?’ And she said, ‘No, this is my first Lawrence—is it all so deep and philosophical?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah … it’s literature.’”
On another occasion, he said, “I met a very bright and literate girl in Williamsburg, and we immediately started having a conversation about James Wood. It turned out she lived in Park Slope.”
Park Slope bears the brunt of a lot of Brooklyn contempt, so his heroic and creative defense was refreshing. And he speaks for the whole of South Brooklyn when he calls attention to its proficiency in both literature (Paul Auster! Jhumpa Lahiri! All those guys named Jonathan!) and literary critics; at this point, it’s fair to say that the easygoing nabes of Boerum and Cobble Hills are just as affiliated with the Slope, no matter what the early settlers of Smith Street might contend.
On that area’s border, Atlantic Avenue, just down from the proposed Ratner arena site, “Brooklyn” and “Breukelyn” T-shirts are hung proudly in the windows; the “bklyn”-embossed onesie has become a popular, even reflexive gift for the recent boom of newborns. In the window of artez’n, a store that caters to local artists, hangs a shirt that reads: Williamsburg. Too hip. Too far. Curiously, insultingly, the outline of the borough of Manhattan stretched down the front. (In Park Slope, legend has it that there’s a T-shirt printed with the motto “This is how we roll,” above a rendering of a stroller. This is how we roll?) Along the strip, one can also find “Red Hook” T-shirts, “Carroll Gardens” tank tops, all things “Park Slope”—the dream of a thousand real-estate agents realized in soft cotton and an array of fine colors.
“The ‘Fort Greene’ is so popular,” said Un Sook Lim, an owner of Enamoo on Smith Street, flanked by her partner, Michael Schade, who was wearing a “Cobble Hill” T. “Now everyone wants the ‘Windsor Terrace.’” But what of Williamsburg? It was nowhere to be found.
“It feels super-trendy …. I don’t feel comfortable there,” Jessica Furst, 32, the owner of artz’n said, musing on her popular anti-Williamsburg T-shirt. “But I don’t feel comfortable in Soho either.” She noted that it can be hard to get to Williamsburg.
“I laugh every time they shut down the L,” cracked her co-worker, who lives in Boerum Hill.
‘THESE YUPPIE BASTARDS’
One could argue that this narcissism of minor differences among neighborhoods masks a deep anxiety about change—not to mention nagging guilt about one’s role in that change. (As Mr. Flansburgh put it, “There are a lot of people who are perfectly well-heeled who talk about gentrification as if it’s an airborne virus that can kill you.”) But new arrivals to this fractured borough tend to be sweetly innocent to such angst.
“Is there any animosity between North and South Brooklyn?” an interloper asked a young group of picnickers in Greenpoint’s McCarren Park on a sunny Thursday afternoon. The foursome, three guys and a girl, were all dressed completely in black—even much of their skin was black with tattoos—and they were lying up against and on top of one another in black, artful, leisurely body configurations. Nearby sat a chipper red-and-white cooler, the kind that recalls your mom’s cold peanut-butter sandwiches at the beach.
“No,” said Carmen Mello, 22, a bartender with good hair, as her friends laughed wryly. “I mean, I don’t really like Park Slope, but it’s very nice there.”
“A Cobble Hill friend once remarked that Williamsburg is like Portland,” said the stranger.
“Portland!” Ms. Mello said, not smiling, her pale skin coloring. “I’m from Portland! What does that mean? That’s a compliment.” The group twittered.
“I don’t pass judgment on people,” said Montana Masback, 24, a bartender and guitar teacher who lives in Williamsburg. “And I’m sorry if these—”
“These yuppie bastards!” laughed another, smoking.
“—yeah, if these yuppie bastards, who don’t dress as well as me, think that way,” Mr. Masback said.
“I bet they don’t have a kickball league,” said another man, off to the side, also dressed in black. He was, the interloper suddenly noticed, holding a large tan ball.
Hovering around them, skeletal luxury condos clashed with the folksy baseball games and jungle gyms and … well, the kickball.
“No question about it—it’s hipper,” said Michael Brooks, 30, over the phone, of North Brooklyn. He’s a project manager with the Developers Group, the company that’s bringing high-rise condos to the McCarren Park area. “If there’s a hipness meter, Carroll Gardens is not on the same end of the scale as Williamsburg,” he continued. “There’s a lifestyle in Williamsburg. It’s become a place that people want to identify themselves with, being in a place that feels like everything is happening. It’s just a moment—there’s a moment in Williamsburg right now.”
Mr. Brooks should know: He himself has lived in Williamsburg for three years. He grew up on the Upper East Side.