On a cold day in late January, Paul LaRosa, an author and CBS producer, and his wife, Susan, were shopping for cheese at the Park Slope/Gowanus Indoor Winter Farmer’s Market at Third Avenue and Third Street when they struck up a conversation at one of the stands with a tall, clean-cut yoga instructor who had just returned from studying meditation in Thailand.
He had discovered the most marvelous cocoa there, he enthused, and offered them a tiny, wrapped sample of stone-ground, small batch “virgin” chocolate, which he sells in four flavors including Blueberry Lavender and Vanilla Rooibos.
“I had just seen Portlandia,” Mr. LaRosa told The Observer, referring to the indie sitcom. “And as this nice guy began telling us all the trouble he’d gone to to make this chocolate, my head went straight to the first episode, where a young couple cannot order the chicken on the menu without knowing the chicken’s name and whether it had any friends.
“In his eyes it wasn’t a simple chocolate bar, it was this whole thing, it was all wrapped up in Thailand and meditation and yoga and beautiful paper,” Mr. LaRosa went on. “This is a guy you could imagine would be a young Wall Street exec or something but he’s making artisanal chocolate bars in Brooklyn.”
Earlier that month, Brooklynites were passing around a clip of Brian Williams riffing on the ironic glasses frames, homemade beads, shared apartments and gourmet grilled cheeses of their home borough, and the New York Times’s marveling at them. “I’m leaving here to get to an artisanal market that just opened up today!” the anchorman snarked. “It’s a flash artisanal market! The newest thing!”
How often the Connecticut commuter actually gets to the better borough is unknown, but the bit killed. “It was dead on,” said Eric Cunningham, a Carroll Gardens-based comedian, who was inspired to start a website calling on Mr. Williams to run for president.
Heroic though it was, Mr. Williams’s intervention may have been too little too late. Brooklyn’s overwrought mustaches and handmade ice cream in upcycled cups are now well-established facts of life. It’s as if the tumor of hipster culture that formed when the cool kids moved to Williamsburg had metastasized into a cluster of cysts pressing down on parts of the borough’s brain. Around the militantly organic Park Slope Co-op, for example, or Brooklyn Flea in Fort Greene, where you can buy rings glued to typewriter keys as well as used, handmade, vegetable-dyed, vintage Oriental rugs for $1,000. Brooklyn is producing and consuming more of its own culture than ever before, giving rise to a sense of Brooklyn exceptionalism and a set of affectations that’s making the borough look more and more like Portland, Oregon.
“Would you like one of my cool little bags?” the chocolate vendor asked after Mrs. LaRosa bought a few bars to use for baking. No thanks, she said.
So it wasn’t until later, when he passed by again, that Mr. LaRosa noticed a sign above the bags. He took a picture because he was afraid he wouldn’t be believed: “Raaka’s packaging is designed by his friends and printed with soy inks on 100 percent postconsumer-recycled, chlorine-free, processed paper that was made from wind-generated energy.” He put the picture on his blog in a post titled “Brooklandia?”
Portland was “Brooklyn before Brooklyn was Brooklyn,” as NPR correspondent Ari Shapiro once quipped. His colleague Kurt Andersen, host of the public radio show Studio 360 and co-founder of Spy, put it more starkly: “Brooklyn without black people.”
Mr. Andersen co-founded the Portland Brooklyn Project, a “loose sister-cityish entity” to unite what the organization calls “creators of culture … with an interest in the connection between Portland and Brooklyn,” in 2010; it’s since changed hands. “Both suffered from an urban inferiority complex that during the last decade or so has become a superiority complex,” he explained in an email. “Brooklyn at its best today is in lots of ways probably like Manhattan at its best in the middle third of the 20th century, although with less hard-core, playing-for-keeps, drunken, druggy, up-all-night Bohemianism.”
I lived in Portland for two years after college. It’s a delightful place with plenty of drunken, druggy Bohemianism. But, dear Brooklyn, you do not want to go there.
This cautionary tale begins in December 2008, when your unemployed college graduate reporter wrote a post on Couchsurfing.com looking for a place to stay. “I’d love to show you around (currently underemployed) so weekdays are just fine for me,” replied Laura, a filmmaker who became my first friend in town. She lives with three or four roommates in a vast former church in Southeast Portland, across from New Seasons, Portland’s pricier answer to the pricey-enough Whole Foods. “I can teach you how to properly wipe your tush with just one square of toilet paper,” she promised on her Couchsurfing profile.
I never took her up on that offer, but she gave me a copy of the Zinester’s Guide to Portland—this was before I knew about zine culture, when I thought “zinester” rhymed with “sinister”—and loaned me and my then-boyfriend bikes so we could ride with her to the Green Dragon, a warehouse-turned-bar known for a rotating selection of 50 microbrews and geeky gatherings such as Beer and Blog. We rode back tipsy and crashed on a pile of mattresses in a corner of the church.
We wound up sharing a house with a yoga instructor and an underemployed deejay. Our rent was $195 each; we spent about four times that on food and beer. I bought a bike immediately and talked about it a lot; I developed a highly discerning palate for gourmet coffee and I.P.A.’s. We bought local and composted impeccably. I carried around a Kleen Kanteen to which I’d affixed a map-of-Oregon decal with a green heart over Portland. We were irreproachable environmental stewards with one guilty exception: the gallons and gallons of water we used to fill and refresh a 12-foot inflatable pool in the front yard, a gift from the Israeli backpackers we were hosting during the summer heat wave of 2009. We had a video projector in the living room for movies and Nintendo. Pot was $30 an eighth and very potent. We indulged frequently on the front porch, splayed on the full-size couch we got for $25 on Craigslist.
One of Portlandia’s catchphrases is that it’s “where young people go to retire,” but that doesn’t fully capture it. Rather, think back to the moment when you realized you were grown up enough to buy candy whenever you wanted. Then imagine extending that phase indefinitely, for years.