On a recent beautiful Saturday afternoon, Merrell Hambleton, 24, set out with her roommate for Pintchik’s Discount Hardware on Bergen and Flatbush to buy some soil for their roof garden. It wasn’t a long walk from their place in Boerum Hill, where they have lived for the past six months. “We have a two-floor apartment,” Ms. Hambleton said. “We live around some nice dogs. There are lots of trees—that’s nice. Nice parks. Good restaurants. Everything’s cute. Everything’s really cute.”
Ms. Hambleton, a Columbia grad employed by Creative Time, a nonprofit arts organization in the East Village, said she rarely goes to Manhattan except for work, finding the crowds, traffic, noise and high prices there vulgar and uninviting. Sometimes she can’t believe how good her life in Brooklyn—her lifestyle—is. “It’s like, wait, shouldn’t this be harder?” she told The Observer, pausing outside a restaurant serving “100% organic, fresh, nourishing raw food” as well as juice, kale and vegan baked goods.
Perhaps you remember the New York Times columnist David Brooks’ coinage BoBos—short for Bourgeois Bohemians? Those latte-slurping, SUV-driving, Pottery Barn-shopping, NPR-listening creatures of the Clinton era? Ms. Hambleton and her ilk represent a new variation on the species: Brooklyn Bourgeois Bohemians. BroBos! Young, comfortable and inclined toward creativity, they enjoy a utopian-seeming existence marked by strolls down tree-lined streets, carefully chosen foods and leisurely weekends spent in coffee bars and parks. An existence only occasionally marred by the realization that this is not the hopped-up New York they came to conquer.
It didn’t use to be this way, after all. James Atlas, the president of the publishing house Atlas & Co., lives on the Upper West Side, and until relatively recently, when his daughter moved to Fort Greene, he didn’t really know Brooklyn existed. Last week, he sat in his office in the Flatiron district and recalled a time when college kids intent on becoming novelists, actors, journalists, screenwriters, painters, dancers and editors came to the city knowing it would beat them up and deciding it was worth doing anyway. Back then you had to weigh your options, Mr. Atlas said, and wonder: “Is it worth putting yourself through this marathon ordeal to survive here in order to be in the most interesting place in the world?” Living in a cramped apartment, sharing a bathroom with everyone on your floor and a bed with your roommate who worked the nightshift—all this was “part of the deal” in 1977, when Mr. Atlas moved into his sublet on West 79th and Columbus.
“Expecting that you’re going to be poor for a while is just not part of the literary culture now,” said Mr. Atlas, who is 61. “There is a sense of entitlement, that the period of apprenticeship and relative deprivation can just be skipped. Everyone wants to belong to the culture of Condé Nast while at the same time writing their first novels. The messiness and even squalor of the early years of the creative life are seen as insults rather than preconditions.”
‘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.”
‘ANYONE WANT ANYTHING?’
IT’S POSSIBLE TO back away from BroBoism, of course. GQ editor Mickey Rapkin, whose book Theater Geek publishes June 1, moved to Carroll Gardens in 2007. He did it because he was 29 and wanted to buy an apartment, and doing so in Brooklyn made the most financial sense. Plus, a lot of his friends in the media lived there; if they liked it, he figured, chances are so would he.
“I hated it. From day one, I hated it,” Mr. Rapkin said. “I would get out of the subway at Carroll Gardens at 9 o’clock at night, and it would be dead. It was so sleepy. I felt too young to be in a place that was so sleepy.”
The commute killed him. Not only was it long, it was full of social hazards. “The F train is like the publishing express,” Mr. Rapkin said. He sounded traumatized! “You think you’re gonna get reading done on the train until you run into everybody you interned with 15 years ago.”
In October, Mr. Rapkin decided he couldn’t take it anymore. He sublet his apartment and resolved to sell it as soon as the market rebounded a little. Now he’s in the West Village. “I love it! I feel like myself again,” he said. “Manhattan has changed a lot, but it’s still noisy and it still feels electric and there are still people around all the time. I hear people screaming outside my window at 4 a.m. and I find that comforting.”
But the most committed BroBos insist their kind of comfort is not a mark of having given up, but simple progress.
As Saturday afternoon dragged into evening and the flea market died down, an actor named Ryan Mills was tending bar at the super-friendly Fort Greene watering hole Moe’s and thinking about whether, as a bona fide BroBo with a backyard, he was somehow worse off than the New Yorkers who came before him. Mr. Mills moved to Manhattan in 2003, where he couch-surfed for a while. The night of the blackout that year, he walked across the Brooklyn Bridge with some friends and wound up at a party in Dumbo. There were throngs of people crossing over into Brooklyn that night, he recalled, and on their way in, they were greeted by Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, hanging from the suspension wires and yelling into a bullhorn: “Welcome to the greatest city on earth, ladies and gentlemen! Brooklyn!” Everyone on the bridge roared, and Mr. Mills was delighted. “I was like, ‘This is where I want to live.’”
Mr. Mills said he knows all about the romantic idea of making it New York, wherein “you might have to live in squalor and live in a shithole with a ton of other people but you’re in New York.” But that kind of urban roughing—it is just not a feasible option anymore. “Those spots now go to people who are willing to pay for that idea.”
Mr. Mills had an occasion to rough it not long ago, when a friend asked him to house-sit for six weeks on St. Mark’s Place. “It was hell on earth,” Mr. Mills said. The porn stars who lived upstairs controlled the heat and kept it boiling hot all the time. It was December, and they had to keep the window open. At the end of the six weeks, Mr. Mills asked his friend how much he paid for the place. The sum—$2,000 a month—made him laugh.
“I feel like that idea about how people ‘gave it a shot in NY’ is completely inconceivable now. It’s just over. It can’t be done,” Mr. Mills said. “I don’t need a ZIP code to prove anything to anybody.”
By nightfall, the flea market had quieted down and Moe’s bar had filled up. The fellow from Harlem who hosted drinks for his uptown friends the previous evening was rushing to a party in Boerum Hill, and was standing outside the Hoyt-Schermerhorn subway stop trying to figure out which way east was. Nearby, a pack of BroBos in their mid-20s drank beer and wine on a rooftop on Smith Street, right above an establishment called the Nutbox and across the street from a butcher shop. One of them ordered sushi using an app on his iPhone, the consummate BroBo device of ease and pleasure.
“Does anyone want anything?” he asked. Of course someone did.
Reader, the sushi was delicious.
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