A Twee Grows In Brooklyn

The Portlandification of the increasingly bourgeois borough

“I get all the press releases from, let’s say, Third Ward,” said Robert Smith, an NPR reporter based in New York who went to college in Portland, referring to the crafty collective in Williamsburg that hosts art installations and offers classes in glass blowing and medicinal herbs. “They’re doing it on a sort of almost Manhattan kind of scale. When they do D.I.Y., they have the giant building and press releases and marketing opportunities and that’s great, but it seems a little too proud of itself.”

A recent game of human Scrabble on Bedford Avenue reminded him of Portland, as does the popular Brooklyn pastime of crocheting sweaters for statues and fireplugs, “which is darling,” he said. “Although apparently there is an ür–yarn bomber who started on the East Coast somewhere.”

He added, “There’s a whole culture around that sort of thing now. It says something about you. It says, ‘Yeah, I ride my bike every day, I make pickles in my basement, and I sell those myself.’ It’s funny that those were discrete things that someone would do 20 years ago in Portland but the cultural package didn’t all come together in one nice stereotypical whole.”

It does now, thanks in part to the IFC series starring Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein.

“Portlandia, as a 20-something Brooklyn person, hit home,” said Max Silvestri, a comedian who has lived in Williamsburg for five years. “Like ‘Put a Bird On It,’ where it’s just two artists where what they do is they put a bird on things?” he went on, referencing a now-famous sketch in which two interior designers decorate everything with bird appliqués. “I feel like that’s what Brooklyn Flea is. No offense to Brooklyn Flea. A lot of things look better with birds.

“I am guilty as or more guilty than anyone of it all,” he added. “None of this comes from a place of condescension or loathing. Only self-loathing.”

Alex Basek, a freelance travel writer, recently settled in Prospect Heights after eight years in Manhattan. “I live within a five-minute walk of two bike shops that sell $700-plus bikes,” he said. “That’s the Portlandiest thing about it. There’s Glass Shop, a fancy coffee spot, like single roaster blabbity blah, all the way on Classon Avenue. Which heretofore I thought was one of those stops you wonder about on the A train en route to J.F.K.”

And then there’s Dr. JJ Pursell, a naturopath and owner of the Herb Shoppe, a botanical medicine pharmacy located on Hawthorne Street, the double-bike-laned main drag of Southeast Portland, who plans to open her second outpost in Boerum Hill. “I just read in The New York Times, maybe a month ago, some article about this warehouse party that was happening in Brooklyn, I think it was even under a bridge,” she said when asked about the two cities. “It was definitely very much the theme that you often see in Portland for a late-outing type of event where there’s a lot of art and music and interactive art going on. I don’t want to use the term Burning Man, but it was that kind of feel.”

Mike and David Radparvar, who founded Holstee, an environmentally conscious apparel company after David decided pants pockets were too tight to carry a wallet and sewed a “holster” onto the side of a T-shirt, can relate. “We were really attracted to Dumbo,” said Mike. “We found that it’s an area that attracted a lot of forward-thinking, progressive people in similar types of spaces and mind-sets. You’ve got everyone from leading agencies like BBMG to Etsy,” he said. “Like, it’s right next to Brooklyn Flea.”

When they started, they used 6-percent recycled fabric. Now the shirts are made with 100-percent recycled jersey knit fabric fashioned from plastic bottles and industrial scraps, and excess fabric from making the shirts is turned into “fins,” small scarves that can be worn around the neck or arm.
The brothers were speaking to The Observer from a cafe where they were prepping for a TEDxEast talk. Mike read from a slide: “‘Are we a generation driven by hippie values—minus acid, plus funding and smart phones—that can create sustained change? Or are we just a group of overprivileged, underexperienced, overconfident Bohemian revivalists that are just trying to defer reality?’” He added, “You know what I’m saying?”