A thin, attractive woman was balancing a tiny newborn in one arm and a soft diaper bag in the other as she slowly, expertly, mounted the steep steps of a Boerum Hill brownstone on the evening of April 20—deliberate as a tiger.
“Now that’s the difference between Brooklyn and Manhattan,” whispered some single, childless, brownstone-less person among a crowd of similarly “without” people, standing outside smoking. A tree full of perfect white flowers bloomed nearby. “Bringing a baby to a book party.”
This party—and it was catered—was for an anthology published by HarperCollins called Maybe Baby: 28 Writers Tell the Truth About Skepticism, Infertility, Baby Lust, Childlessness, Ambivalence, and How They Made the Biggest Decision of Their Lives— which made the presence of an infant appropriate, decisive, a human gauntlet thrown upon the hardwood floors in the original-molding- trimmed vestibule entrance. Maybe baby? Here’s my baby. Take that!
The party was hosted by Elle editor Laurie Abraham, a contributor, and her husband, a lawyer, whose two small daughters could be glimpsed tangled around their parents’ legs throughout the evening. “I hope this starts a trend of book parties in Brooklyn,” said Lori Leibovich, 35, the editor of Maybe Baby and a friend of this reporter’s who works at Salon, thanking them for having the event in this “beautiful brownstone.”
And the brownstone was beautiful. In Brooklyn, it might actually be a faux pas to forget to call a brownstone beautiful, to neglect to recognize this life achievement. Everyone at the party recognized it, their faces twisted in paroxysms of admiration and financial calculation: When did they buy it? How long into the Brooklyn gentrification process? Seven years ago? What was I doing seven years ago? Where’s the bar?
(The bar was in the playroom. Kids too! When did they …. )
Because this is what happens when New Yorkers enter a Brooklyn brownstone: Their lives pass before them.
Though it’s raw material envy of a sort, it’s different than the sort of raw material envy one experiences in Manhattan. Recently, at a birthday dinner on Chrystie Street in Nolita, guests also ran wide-eyed and complimentary through the home, marveling at the expansive, stark space, at once like a loft and an unfinished basement. The toilet was but a small and minor destination in its gigantic bathroom; the bed seemed miles away from the entrance to the bedroom. Whee! The downtown Manhattan loft! What a throwback! The place was sparely furnished—it had a feeling of being unfinished, and therefore of possibility.
But a brownstone is not unfinished. It is quite finished. These days, even in Brooklyn, a brownstone is procured by a successful career; a brownstone shelters one’s family. It is densely populated with chunky chairs and antique end tables. It has children. It is not for “hipsters.” It is a destination, a certain kind of life—one that required planning, wisdom, foresight and/or a lot of money. Still, Brooklyn’s homey, outer-borough-ness, reminiscent of suburban childhood, always suggested a myth of attainability.
“If anything, it’s kind of so aspirational,” said Maybe Baby attendee Michelle Goldberg, 30, also of Salon. “As if you cobble together some success in this world, eventually you will have a brownstone big enough to host a book party too.”
When the brownstone-less enter these small palaces of existential reckoning, their minds reel: the jobs they took and didn’t take, the people they slept with and didn’t sleep with, the dollars they spent and the dollars they did not invest.
Ms. Goldberg lives in an apartment in Cobble Hill; her agent and editor are also in Brooklyn. Next month, a party for her book Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism (Norton) will be held at the Last Exit bar on Atlantic Avenue. “Far more of the other writers and journalists I was likely to invite live in Brooklyn,” she said. “All of us are less likely to flake if the party is in the neighborhood.”
Still, despite the looming literary presence of Norman Mailer in the Heights (and who lives in the Heights these days? Lawyers and investment bankers, right?), it’s not yet standard-issue to hold a book party in an outer borough—not for those who remember the endless rows of gins and tonics and pretty girls in George Plimpton’s Upper East Side townhouse, anyway—and there was some initial concern among the Maybe Baby crowd about whether anyone would show up. But many writers, editors and interns trekked to Brooklyn on this night, including 11 out of the book’s 28 contributors: novelist Dani Shapiro from Connecticut, writer Peter Nichols from Maine.
As Ms. Leibovich gave her thank-you speech, standing next to the obligatory brownstone fireplace, a gilt-rimmed mirror overhead, The Observer wondered: Was it original to the brownstone, or a new addition?, and felt sharp pangs of self-hatred for such thoughts, ultimately resolving to believe they were spawned by a worthy and academic interest in 19th-century (early 20th?) design. The living room was narrow and homey, filled with women, a few men, but mostly women, of the who-have-it-all variety: skinny moms, media people, loyal husbands and daughters (Salon editor in chief Joan Walsh had brought her preternaturally wise teenager from San Francisco). There were falafel balls, bottles of white wine (16 would ultimately be consumed—hey, it’s spring!) and marauding toddlers being kept up past their biologically appropriate bedtimes. A plush chaise spread out across the fireplace, bifurcating the room.
“I want one of those,” someone said later, pointing to the long, funny chair.
“What would you do with that? You’d never use it,” said her boyfriend.
“Yes, I would. For reading.” Other women chimed in that they would want it too. And for reading.
The lone man bravely shook his head. “Oh, come on, you don’t read!”
The chair was lovely. And is this what Brooklyn has come to? The home design touted in New York magazine’s discomfitingly consumerist “Brooklynism” issue this week—less reading than gaping at “Tobias Wong’s solid-gold Coke Spoon 01,” “intended as a commentary on luxury obsession” ($265) and “Portia Wells’s Slipcover Chair Project” ($7,500)?
Arrivederci, Tony Manero—check out this cool ashtray in the shape of a gorilla.
“When I got out of the subway, I thought how annoying Smith Street was,” said a friend who moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn back to Manhattan. “I’m so proud of my 212 area code!”
How does a neighborhood suddenly become so loathsome? What is this Brooklyn worship and this Brooklyn hatred?
Are they bitter? Mounting the unending, narrow staircases of these Brooklyn brownstones, another unsettling feeling seeps into the consciousness of moderately paid New Yorkers in their 20’s and 30’s: I can no longer afford this. This is the bourgeois utopia that take-out-loving white kids created in the shells of middle-class homes built for home-cooked meals, where everyone spends thousands of dollars to escape the shallow, conspicuously consumptive evils of deepest Manhattan. But down-home luxury and refuge may never be theirs, either. These young people will probably never buy a brownstone for a pittance and watch it appreciate into millions. That Brooklyn—from Fort Greene to Carroll Gardens—has been sealed.
“I like my apartment,” said another Maybe Baby guest, Carlene Bauer, 33, who is working on a memoir for HarperCollins while freelancing from a rental in Park Slope. “But often I think if I did buy a house, I would have to go back to South Jersey.” When you enter a brownstone, she said, “you do think: If I want this, I’ll have to start thinking about things I’m not thinking about now. I sometimes walk around Park Slope and think, ‘I’m gonna have to get a movie deal!’ I don’t really want to go back to New Jersey, where I came from. And then I think, ‘Well, maybe I won’t have a kid.’”
And so one leaves the Brooklyn party, no matter how lovely and beer-filled, a little dejected and a little more confused, wondering whether they should have wasted so much money on last night’s dinner at Frankies 457. Where will their lives unfold if not here? Brooklyn is so big, and yet ….
Outside of Maybe Baby, a party guest ducked out of the ground-floor entrance, two beers in one hand.
“Did you see it down there?” she said, addressing the solemnly nodding stoop-gang audience, still littered on the stone steps.
“She’s making real-estate plans,” said her friend. It was a joke. Maybe a dream, too.