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.
Portland, a city of about 600,000 residents (compared to Brooklyn’s 2.6 million), is, according to various lists, the “greenest,” most bike-friendly and most-tattooed city in the nation, in addition to boasting the highest concentration of food carts. It’s also the 11th-most alternative city in the nation, according to a “Weirdness Index” commissioned in 2006 by the Chicago-based nonprofit CEOs for Cities; weirder than Austin, Texas (17th), and New York City (14th) but not as weird as San Francisco (first).
The city has embraced the idea, and for good reason. Without the weirdness, Portland would be little more than a dreary, down-and-out, virtually all-white town in the flyover between San Francisco and Seattle. It inspires a weird pride: more than 18,000 “Keep Portland Weird!” bumper stickers are said to be in circulation (they sell for $2 apiece). “Keeping Portland Weird ought to be the theme of our economic strategy,” Portland economist Joe Cortwright wrote in an editorial in The Oregonian. “As Hunter S. Thompson advised, when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”
But Portland’s weirdness is hard-won. The place was settled by pioneers who had the guts and grit to schlep across the country and then ford rapids to traverse the Cascade Range. More recent factors contributing to the city’s popularity with independent spirits—and its lack of appeal for more typical American hustlers who might have provided a countervailing force—include economic stagnation that set in after the collapse of timber industry; redlining and other manifestations of racial discrimination that persisted into the 1990s; and lush soil and unrelenting rain (a boon for local produce of both the edible and smokeable varieties). Hippies, hipsters, homosexuals and other deviants moved to town in waves until weird started to look normal. Consequently, those who wanted to keep defining themselves as weird had to worry about being more alternative than the Joneses—which explains people like Dingo Dizmal, a 30-something clown of my acquaintance who rode around on a tall bike made of two frames fused together while rocking a top hat.
At the same time, the generally lousy economy meant that, like kids in a poor neighborhood bouncing on an old mattress, Portlanders had to make their own fun. Hence the thrift store industrial complex that keeps ’80s blouses circulating until they fall apart or get made into pillows; the competitive sport of coffee connoisseurship; and the Sunday tradition of midnight “zoobombing,” in which participants unlock a fleet of kids’ bikes piled high around a bike rack downtown and head west to the top of an 800-foot hill at the Portland Zoo.
Brooklynites seeking a vision of the future need only visit Portland’s Casa Diablo, which claims to be the nation’s first vegan strip club, then pop into Voodoo Donut, which sells doughnuts covered in Froot Loops or shaped like a phallus with cream-filled balls (the shop also officiates weddings). And don’t miss the regularly scheduled Adult Soapbox Derby or the food carts. Portland’s food carts have their own iPhone apps and trade journal, FoodCartsPortland.com. They are organized into food-cart “pods,” with names like Cartopia, Good Food Here and Cartlandia, a “bike-centric food cart superpod.”
Last month Portland held its Eighth Annual Naked Bike Ride, a beery, movable party that doubles nominally as an environmental awareness event. The police sent out a press release reminding everyone that it is legal to be nude in public in Portland, but to please wear a helmet.
The city’s effect on people goes beyond the urge to strip. Emi lived three houses down from us. She’d arrived in Portland, age 24, a gorgeous, perfectly manicured Gucci- and Prada-clad rich-girl princess. A friend of mine dated her for a while. Then she went full-on Portland. She shaved her head, gave away her iPhone, started wearing flowy dresses and spending weeks at a commune she called just “the farm.” She and the couple next door conspired to rip up all the concrete between their houses. Then it rained and her basement flooded.
Such dramas kept things entertaining, but after nearly two years, it became clear that none of my three very part-time jobs were going anywhere, and I started to feel trapped in Neverland. In September, I crash-landed on my mom’s couch in Manhattan, which meant I was spending most nights in Williamsburg and Bushwick. But it wasn’t until I walked out of the Bedford stop during the cold light of day for the first time and saw 40 bikes stuffed into the racks on the sidewalk and a frozen yogurt truck and thrift store racks in the street that it really hit me: I’m in Portland. But this Portland was in an alternate universe, where people have money and ambition!
“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?”
The Radparvars, like many Portlandy Brooklynites, have only the purest motivations. But money, native competitiveness and proximity to the Manhattan media machine are quickly escalating what would pass for endearing quirks in Portland into lucrative commercial ventures and conspicuous consumption in Proco and Bococa. While Portland seems destined to remain a funky cheap neighborhood for the rest of the nation unless someone discovers oil, Brooklyn has been gentrifying from the Manhattan-side in since long before the Lonely Planet named Brooklyn “the hippest part of New York City” in 2007.
“You get a concentration of people who are visibly different in some way that’s not repulsive but kind of attractive for other people to consume,” explained Sharon Zukin, a sociology professor at Brooklyn College and author of Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places. “That becomes a kind of brand for a neighborhood, or for the city as a whole, in the case of Portland.
“Then real estate developers start jumping on the bandwagon and marketing the brand, so that what starts out as alternative culture, alternative lifestyle, laid-back, D.I.Y. or whatever you want to call it, that becomes a product and the brand of a place, and then it becomes part of a business cycle where the media pick it up and”—she threw The Observer a bone—“not you, of course, but you know it could be rock critics or lifestyle journalists, they pick it up … and then it becomes very expensive to live there because more affluent people beg to move in, because they want to be different too.”
This process, she added, “seems to be getting more intense faster than before.”
At this point, Brooklyn is already so Portlandy that even the media appear to be tiring of the story. “One of the things I’ve found is that as a reporter it’s getting harder for me to pitch Brooklyn stories that start like, ‘Hey, there’s a group of guys in Brooklyn or a group of young people in Brooklyn who—’” Mr. Smith said. “You can sort of feel the eye-roll of the editor, like, yeah, there’s a bunch of people in Brooklyn who, you name it, are constructing a huge skyscraper out of used coffee cups! They’re learning how to butcher pigs in their own kitchen!
“I’m not trashing Brooklyn folks who try things,” he hedged. “God love them. They’re making it a more interesting place.”
“It’s a little overhyped,” admitted Gothamist publisher Jake Dobkin, 34, who grew up in Park Slope. Mr. Dobkin refused to participate when his writers asked for input on a recent listicle, “100 Reasons Why Brooklyn Lives Up to the Hype,” which included Smorgasburg, Kombucha Brooklyn and the borough’s “alt-performance art party scene.”
“Williamsburg is just becoming like a circus,” he said. “When I’m there, I hear the circus music in my head. Mustaches were like 2010. We’re on to mutton chops. Everyone is walking around like the Sartorialist is about to take a picture of them. That’s not a healthy way to live.
“It’s all just becoming so precious,” he reflected. “And Brooklyn is not supposed to be a precious place.”
I don’t want to trash Portland. It may be precious, but the people who live there enjoy life tremendously. You can eat and drink really well without having to work very hard. I miss having to choose whether to pass the time with pub trivia, disc golf or mushroom hunting.
But I’ve been thinking of checking out Detroit. The Times says an influx of young creative types is turning it into a Midwestern Tribeca.
Correction: The original version of this story reversed the “distinctiveness” rankings of New York and Austin in the City Vitals study. New York is 14th weirdest and Austin is 17th weirdest. The Observer regrets the error.