The Intimate Local History Hidden in ‘High Maintenance’

The portrait the show paints of Crown Heights is less than complete.

High Maintenance The Guy tends to his new plot at Maple Street Community Garden in Crown Heights
Season 4, Episode 1, “Screen” — The Guy tends to his new plot at Maple Street Community Garden. The resident-made garden was subject to real estate “deed fraud” in 2014 when developers stormed the property, ripped down handmade signs, tore up a vegetable bed and warned the gardeners who were present, “You’ll leave when the backhoes get here.” In late 2015, a Brooklyn Supreme Court judge ruled that the garden would remain. HBO

Observation Points is a semi-regular discussion of key details in our culture.

On High Maintenance, both in its Vimeo web series and first three seasons on HBO, you used to see “The Guy” and his customers smoke weed all over Brooklyn. Bushwick was a recurring character, satirized in season 2, episode 2 when a French-language street art walking tour traipses through the formerly hip neighborhood. (Before Lena Dunham was hanging out there circa 2013, Bushwick was a neighborhood where half its residents lived below the poverty line.)

Season four on the other hand, which aired its finale earlier this month, is largely filmed in the central Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights, the JFK airport cameo aside. The portrait it paints of the historically complex neighborhood is less than complete. In the ’90s, Crown Heights was known across the country for a sensationalized three-day riot between Black and Jewish residents. Today, alongside a tight Caribbean community on the north end and a Hasidic population further south, it’s where seemingly every 20-something media professional transplant lives with their three roommates—myself included.

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Marty stumbles across Despers USA Steel Orchestra High Maintenance
Season 3, Episode 2, “Craig” — Marty stumbles across Despers USA Steel Orchestra practicing in an empty lot. The band, formed in 1976 by members of the world-famous Trinidadian steel orchestra who immigrated to New York, are often interrupted by the “Steel Band Grinch,” a lady who calls the fire department to complain about the noise from their practice sessions on Dean Street. HBO

Crown Heights is a neighborhood mid-gentrification. From 2000 to 2015, the northern side of Crown Heights and Prospect Gardens saw a 205% increase in white residents, and a 23% decrease in the number of Black residents. The number of businesses in Crown Heights went from about 1,000 to 1,970. These changes are more visible on certain blocks than they are on others. Reported shootings are fairly common, as is police activity. The feeling of all this is one of incredible diversity: all ages, all walks of life, incomes that vary by hundreds of thousands. On Nostrand Avenue, a sleek cocktail bar sits next to a $4 Chinese take-out window that’s next to a lotto store.

High Maintenance After hitting it off on set, Kym and Evan walk back to his place, passing under the Franklin Avenue Shuttle
Season 4, Episode 2, “Trick” — After hitting it off on set, Kym and Evan walk back to his place, passing under the Franklin Avenue Shuttle. The above ground train has two cars, one track and four stops—an entire trip lasts seven minutes. In 1918, the train smashed into a tunnel wall, killing nearly 100 passengers in what remains New York City’s worst subway accident. Today, members of a Facebook group called “D.A.R.E. to not say mean things about the Franklin Avenue Shuttle” post homemade memes and news updates about the beloved line. HBO

Aesthetically, this makes for a great metropolitan scene to put on TV. In real life, it’s not sustainable. Landlords prefer expensive businesses for higher-paying tenants with expensive taste. In a 2015 New York Times article, journalist Vivian Yee reported that “tenant advocates and lawyers believe that landlords in gentrifying areas like Crown Heights often withhold repairs or basic services from lower-paying tenants, hoping they will get frustrated enough to leave.”

backflash mayfield high maintenance
Season 4, Episode 4, “Backflash” — A Buffy the Vampire Slayer lighter changes hands from a slow-moving server to the boyfriend of a food blogger. The real-life restaurant, Mayfield, was one of the first businesses to “cue the gentrification dance” in Crown Heights. The white chef defended himself for opening a fancy place on a Black street and naming it after Curtis Mayfield (the soul funk singer whose hit album was about a cocaine dealer) by saying he’d lived in the neighborhood for seven years. HBO

For now, Crown Heights is a 21st-century cultural “melting pot,” a moniker often used to describe New York City as a whole. It’s the perfect set for High Maintenance season 4 and its newfound cadence: feel-good stories about connection across lines of difference that lean so heavily on identity politics that they fall flat. Almost eight years after launching as a scrappy web series on Vimeo before graduating to HBO’s prestige TV ranks, it feels like the show has simply lost its edge. In season 4, we watched a young woman’s quiet anxiety about getting an abortion, a polyamorous couple having a barbecue, and a gay escort get hired for a “boyfriend experience.” Sweet but not memorable.

Julie hosts a client at coworking space and former car garage Nowhere Studios High Maintenance
Season 2, Episode, 5, “Scromple” — Julie hosts a client at coworking space and former car garage Nowhere Studios on Atlantic Avenue. The Long Island Rail Road rumbles overhead, a commuter line established in 1834 that once had its own police department and a “parlor car” that served martinis for $1.05. HBO

The most recent season of the show so successfully puts each character at the center of their narrative, it’s a shame the stories have no teeth. In earlier seasons, the show imagined the lives of Brooklyn inhabitants as way weirder, from a lonely dog smitten with his Wag! walker to an asexual magician’s attempt to teach at an “inner city” high school. The strongest scenes in season 4 involve snippets of The Guy’s quandaries, which feel less strained than the pains the creators (Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair, who plays The Guy) take to tell stories of “otherness.”

Crown Heights brownstones between Franklin Avenue and New York Avenue High Maintenance
Season 1, Episode 4, “Tick” — Several characters, including uptight new mother Quinn, live in Crown Heights brownstones between Franklin Avenue and New York Avenue, on Prospect Place and Dean Street. There are at least eight religious institutions within this radius, including the Hebron French-speaking Seventh-day Adventist Church that serves a large Haitian community, and Washington Temple, which held Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) meetings during the Civil Rights Movement. HBO

The conflict of place, an ever-present concern for New Yorkers, is mostly missing from the vignettes. For all the meta references in season 4—to HBO’s on-set “intimacy coordinator” or to the coastal-elite adjacent podcast This American Life—Crown Heights remains anonymous. This feels like a missed opportunity. Not only is the High Maintenance production office located in the neighborhood, and filming permits papered our streets for months, the camera is drawn to imagery unique to Crown Heights in this historical moment. In b-roll footage of feet on pavement, a distinctly Crown Heights scene unfolds: black flats and stockings on Orthodox Jewish women, Black teenagers in Jordans, Birkenstocks on middle-aged white women pushing strollers. By not acknowledging where their tales of morality take place, High Maintenance has constructed a make-believe Brooklyn that sees the socio-economic diversity of Crown Heights as natural, warm and fuzzy. Oh, and The Guy charges $60 for an eighth, which is definitely not the Brooklyn way.

The images interspersed in this article are an exposé of scenes shot in the neighborhood formerly known as Crow Hill—a 19th-century name either stemming from a derogatory term for Black people or from the black and white striped uniforms worn by inmates at the nearby prison. If you look closely, they reveal a history that High Maintenance doesn’t broach.

Miriam complains about her daughter hiring a private chef for Passover dinner on the steps of the Brooklyn Museum High Maintenance
Web Series, Episode 9, “Elijah” — Miriam complains about her daughter hiring a private chef for Passover dinner on the steps of the Brooklyn Museum. The art museum was the center of a free-speech fight in 1999 when Mayor Rudy Giuliani and the Catholic League led a campaign against a “gruesome” show of work by provocative British artists like Tracey Emin, Chris Ofili and Damien Hirst. The museum won, but not without some horse manure thrown on its facade. HBO

The Intimate Local History Hidden in ‘High Maintenance’