It has been a long time coming, creeping ever closer with each new luxury condo and $8 million townhouse sale, every $17 bowl of ramen, $10 latte and cup of cold-pressed beet-and-kale juice, but now the end is finally upon us: Brooklyn is over. Done. Finished. Brooklyn as brand has overtaken Brooklyn as place, turning itself over fully to the project that was always its greatest work in the first place: the cultivation of a luxury lifestyle.
Last week, The New York Times profiled a so-called artists’ commune in Ditmas Park that would seem, at first glance, to be just another group of idealistic twentysomethings willing to forgo the solitude and serenity of a studio apartment for the stimulation of living with other like-minded individuals. The 29-year-old founder of the Clubhouse, as it is called, tells the Times that he had dreamed of recreating the kind of artistically fertile space described by Gertrude Stein in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. “Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas created this environment where artists empowered each other to be more creative.” The cooking of vegetarian meals, edgy hairstyles and friends crashing on the couch all receive prominent mention.
Only, what the artists of the Clubhouse are producing is not work that aspires to the heights of Hemingway, Picasso or Stein, but branded content for their corporate sponsors—a new media company called BKLYN1834 “dedicated to selling the borough’s image beyond its borders.” BKLYN1834 seeks to skim the cream from the residents’ “artistic” collaborations, a relationship that the residents refer to as a “mutually beneficial partnership.”
Or in the distinctly dystopian phrasing of one woman: “If you give to the Clubhouse, it gives to you.”
Of course, corporate America has long been adept at co-opting the radical, the revolutionary and the cool, using the anti-establishment chic of countless social movements to sell everything from jeans to SUVs, but BKLYN1834, so named for the date the borough was incorporated as a city and the target demographic that the company is seeking to reach, is something altogether different—not a co-optation of a lifestyle, but a collaboration, a state of affairs that has long been fermenting in the county of Kings.
Yes, Brooklyn has been a brand for some time now and a global one at that, with Bedford-Stuyvesant cafés in Amsterdam and food trucks in France (très Brooklyn!) but there has, at least, been a distance between the thing and the representation of the thing, some kind of authentic existence underpinning the aesthetic, even if the authenticity of that experience has, of late, been in question. But the point at which the experience is lived expressly to create the brand, rather than the other way around, is the point at which the jig is up.
The exact nature of the relationship between BKLYN1834, whose Loews Regency power breakfasting founders and backers hold not insignificant investments in Brooklyn real estate, is somewhat vague—a handful of the residents work directly for the company, as marketing, art and creative directors, while others just enjoy the expensive goodies the company doles out, such as a 3-D printer that one resident keeps connected to an Xbox and a rotating platform in her room, “which acts as a 360-degree body scanner.” (An apt metaphor, perhaps, for the invasive process of merging of one’s life with marketing campaigns?)
Founder Glenn Markman’s goals, however, seem to be fairly straight-forward. Though his association with the Clubhouse came after it had already been established, he hopes to fund others arts communes whose denizens will produce content, like a Converse ad that the company recently created, subsidizing and fostering a lifestyle that can sell stuff—”Brooklyn is cool now. If you go to a department store in Europe, they are selling Brooklyn T-shirts.”
Of course, the foundation on which the Brooklyn brand is built has always been a somewhat problematic one, resting as it does on an artistic legacy more rumored than real. The borough’s creative class has long focused its talents and energies on producing pickles and artisanal doughnuts, bespoke blue jeans and exquisitely renovated brownstones rather than a creating definable school of art of literature, music or social movement. And though Brooklyn can claim artists like Jay-Z, Biggie Smalls and Spike Lee, who have all, in some fashion, been used to bolster the Brooklyn brand, the borough’s famous sons grew up under conditions which are no longer much in evidence—conditions so vastly different from Brooklyn as we now know it that they inspired Mr. Lee to go on his now famous rant about gentrification, saying of the dog-filled Fort Greene Park: “It’s like the motherfuckin’ Westminster Dog Show.” This is now Brooklyn, the brand—not Spike Lee, but the motherfuckin’ Westminster Dog Show.
Not to discount the work of many talented artists who live and have lived in Brooklyn, but over time, art has ceded more and more to craft (not unsurprisingly, given craft’s more reliable pay schedule) and the more radical social views to stolidly bourgeois values. Williamsburg, Greenpoint and Bushwick have, one after another, become difficult places for working artists to live, with studio spaces yielding to luxury goods purveyors and actresses like Zosia Mamet.
And the borough’s cafés and bars, rather than serving as public spaces where artists and writers exchange ideas, have become ends unto themselves, temples of consumption where the conversation revolves around the provenance of the product being sold: the brewery, the roaster, the bitters. It is a celebration of consumption for consumption’s sake, consumption as an art, more fitted to the court of Louis XIV than the woodsmen and hillbillies from which Brooklynites take their stylistic cues.
But a brand, like any parasite, requires a healthy host. Members of the Clubhouse might not be concerned with questions of authenticity; they might even see their arrangement as akin to a record label or publisher paying an artist, but a lifestyle that sells art and art that sells a lifestyle are two different things. Sooner or later, people will catch onto the difference, even in a world in which the boundaries between culture and corporations have become increasingly blurred, a situation that few people seem particularly concerned about.
The Brooklyfication of Brooklyn—the process whereby the borough’s neighborhoods are one by one subsumed by the brand, transformed into an aesthetically coherent whole—has also undermined the things on which the brand is based, chief among them: diversity. Neighborhoods that best exemplify the Brooklyn brand have become markedly less diverse in recent years, with the percentage of white residents in the zip codes encompassing Fort Greene, Clinton Hill and parts of Bed-Stuy and Williamsburg increasing by nearly 30 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to a recent essay in Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York. At the same time, those neighborhoods have also become more economically homogenous, with newcomers pushing up prices there to the extent that the borough is now the second most expensive place to live in the U.S., even as the borough’s poor have only become poorer.
Economic bifurcation has increasingly divided a borough known for its vibrant blend of cultures, classes and races into two different worlds, each with its own set of schools, stores, restaurants and bars, with those at the bottom receding from the larger consciousness of Brooklyn identity to the degree that The Wall Street Journal recently labeled Bed-Stuy’s “underserved” those who could not, until now, find a craft beer for under $7. (This criticism cannot be applied to residents of the Clubhouse, which the writer of the Times story told us, are quite racially and economically diverse.) Brooklyn as a concept has never really encompassed the greater borough and the many people who live there, in neighborhoods like Brighton Beach or Bensonhurst. And in some cases, the standard bearers of the Brooklyn lifestyle have even tried to oust the kinds of craft operations that do not fit the brand. To wit, D’Amico’s coffee roasters in Cobble Hill, whose new neighbors objected to the smell of the coffee that had been roasted on premises since 1948 and kept calling the fire department until D’Amico agreed to spend thousands of dollars on odor-capturing equipment.
The Times calls the odd arrangement at the Clubhouse “an expression of today’s entrepreneurial age,” and, indeed, it does seem the natural successor to that which came before, the final stage in the cultivation of a lifestyle that has exulted, and excelled, in creating and consuming beautiful luxury goods. Brooklyn has been an alluring and extraordinarily successful brand, but its days, like all things that reach the point at which they cease to produce anything more meaningful than their own mythologies, are numbered.