BroBos in Paradise

‘I LIKE OWLS’

AS MANHATTAN GREW more expensive during the 1990s, the city’s young would-be Bohemians were crowded out by well-paid financiers and consultants. The hardscrabble Brooklyn of Saturday Night Fever became but a distant memory as the proto-BroBo upper middle class started settling in the borough. With their arrival, the romantic idea of making it as an artist in New York was replaced by a dream of backyard parties, stoop sales, small plates and meticulously designed signage. This evolved into creatures enchanted by the spiffy, sexy suburbia of Mad Men and comforted by the summery chillness of the appropriately named, suburb-loving indie rock band Real Estate from Ridgewood, N.J.

A lot of BroBos are self-conscious about their BroBoism, but finally content and confident that they’re not really doing anything wrong.

“Fuck, Brooklyn’s great!” said magazine writer Matt Power, who owns a house in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens. “I’ve got three blueberry bushes, I’ve got a fig tree, I’ve got 20 tomato plants. We put up enough basil last summer to have pesto until now. It’s fucking great. Why would you suffer living in a lightless hole?”

Standing on a block that is arguably the epicenter of BroBoism (bike shop Ride, sex shop Toys in Babeland, maternity clothing store called Bump and a designer hot dog joint, Bark), Ms. Hambleton said that sometimes she gets embarrassed about her place in the class system—she couldn’t even say out loud what kind of plants she was going to grow in the garden—but wonders whether kids in the past were really that different. Won’t BroBoism be romanticized in the future the way we romanticize San Francisco in the ’60s and, yes, New York in the ’70s?

“Objectively speaking, I don’t think it’s a bad time to be someone our age,” said Ms. Hambleton. “I like it. I feel guilt about being so completely part of this movement, but then again, I don’t really, because I think it’ll be interesting to look back and be like, ‘Everyone in the late aughts or whatever rode a bike and wore skinny jeans.’”

Later that afternoon, at the outdoor Brooklyn Flea Market in Fort Greene, which was trending on FourSquare at the time with 19 check-ins, proud BroBos roamed about picking through jewelry, antiques and records and partaking of the luxury popsicles on offer at the People’s Pops stand. A young woman remarked to a friend, “I only like sour ales,” and Neutral Milk Hotel blared from a boom box set up in a booth selling vintage toys. Matt Kirsch, the creator of an excellent Web TV show set in Brooklyn, called Duder, searched for owl trinkets to add to the collection he has in his Kensington apartment. “I guess it’s pretty typical, but I like owls,” he explained.

“If this isn’t real New York, then why would you want the other New York?” said a Flea enthusiast named Evy, who lives in Fort Greene. “Why wouldn’t you want this?”

But choosing to make one’s home in Manhattan—to reject BroBoism—has become a contrarian, possibly even subversive gesture for any New Yorker who doesn’t work at a bank, a consulting firm or a hedge fund.   

“I mean, I didn’t move to New York for the parks,” said Liesl Schillinger, a regular contributor to The New York Times Book Review who lives in the East Village. “I can’t go to Cousin John’s to get coffee and a muffin and then go to some mid-level Mexican place on a corner with a lot of strollers, but that’s not what I came to New York for.”

Not that Ms. Schillinger is blind to the appeal. She loves visiting Brooklyn and taking a break from the fast pace of Manhattan.  

“In parts of Brooklyn, you feel like you’re in Beacon Hill in Boston,” she said. “You can decompress a little from the city, if you want to.” Ms. Schillinger said in an email later that when she thinks of Park Slope, she remembers a morning in 1990 when she saw “a golden retriever loping across the sun-splashed, dewy grass of a Prospect Park hillside, followed by a young father in corduroys.” She says she sees it practically in slow motion.

Lizzie Widdicombe, an editorial assistant for The New Yorker in her 20s who lives in the East Village, said that while some aspects of BroBo life—the organic food stores, for instance—are appealing, she feels that overall, the outer borough is not for her.

“Sometimes I’ll go to a bar there where people are playing bocce and feel like I’m missing out on something, and then I remember I don’t really care,” Ms. Widdicombe said over the weekend. “This crazy pseudo-bohemian circus life sounds pretty fun, but I don’t really have time to be part of it right now. It takes a certain amount of energy to do all these fabulous Brooklyn things. … I’d rather just sort of go to the Gap and come home. I’m not really engaged by, like, playing Frisbee and riding bikes.”

While some Manhattanites portray their choice to stay out of Brooklyn as a purely pragmatic one, others take pride in their addresses in a way that some BroBos view as delusional and naïve. On Friday, May 21, a media couple in their 20s, a blogger and an architecture writer, invited friends over to their Harlem apartment for a gathering of what they referred to jokingly as the Century Club, meaning only people who live above 100th Street.

“Living here is an accomplishment of some kind,” said one of the guests, a young woman who recently graduated from N.Y.U. and considered moving to Kensington before deciding she just couldn’t leave the island. “It says something about my ability to navigate the world, and exist in a competitive, elite, special place.” 

Her grandfather, she said, lived in Greenwich Village “above a Laundromat where he shared a bed with his brother.” He was always proud that he wasn’t in Brooklyn, and so now is she. “People live in Brooklyn because it’s cheaper. It’s not a money thing or a class thing, but it’s sort of admitting defeat—an inability to be in New York,” she said. “Living in Manhattan presents an interesting challenge: to always be confronted by people who have really won.”