Excerpted from the Prologue of The Last Bohemia: Scenes from the Life of Williamsburg, Brooklyn by Robert Anasi, published in August 2012 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2012 by Robert Anasi. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.
Summer of 2011: Friday, August 12, 2011
Sonic Youth is headlining a show at East River State Park, a three-block span of waterfront on the Northside of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It’s the latest in a concert series that started back in June and stretched through a July heat wave that broke almost nine thousand temperature records across America, ‘causing pavements to explode, railroad rails to buckle, and insects to invade homes in search of shelter and water.’ So far, August has been blissfully temperate and a mellow breeze sidles in from the river. The gates opened at 5:30 and two and a half hours later the first distorted guitar riff and drum thuds bring a delighted bellow from the crowd. Since I don’t have a ticket, I’m stuck outside.
The Last Bohemia: Scenes from the Life of Williamsburg, Brooklyn
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux; US: Aug 2012)
I’ve donned a hipster disguise for the occasion: black-and-white shell-toe Adidas, red Toughskins jeans, a black T-shirt from a strip club, large mirrored sunglasses and two death’s-head earrings. The Adidas are replicas of shoes Run-DMC rapped about in ‘My Adidas,’ and part of a breakdancer’s uniform—the shell toes help with spins. The Toughskins date to the late 1970s and have a subtle light blue weave that gives them the afterimage shimmer of complementary colors. They’re a sentimental choice: I wore Toughskins as a boy in the seventies. The T-shirt, from a strip club further east in Williamsburg, reads ‘Pumps exotic dancing.’ In a white circle above the lettering, the silhouettes of two naked women revolve around a stripper pole. Their figures are cartoon preposterous. The back of the T-shirt reads ‘There goes the neighborhood, BROOKLYN, New York,’ along with the address and phone number (718- 599-2474, FYI). I’ve been to Pumps, but I’m wearing the T-shirt ironically, because of course an English PhD couldn’t wear it any other way. The sunglasses are Rocawear, Jay- Z’s brand. The death’s-head earrings are the kind of thing a seventeen-year-old metal head from Fontana would wear. So that’s funny. It’s an outfit designed to make me conspicuously inconspicuous in America’s coolest zip code. Williamsburg was my home for fourteen years but I left in 2008 and everything I see reminds me that it’s not home anymore.
Five minutes outside the concert are enough for me to realize that I picked the wrong disguise. Today it’s an older crowd for, let’s face it, an older band (like, AARP card old). The women wear various takes on sundresses or blouse-skirt ensembles. Most of the guys wear logo’d T-shirts, relaxed-fit jeans and sneakers—American men dressing like American boys. Waistlines and hairlines show that they’re closer to forty than thirty. Three decades have passed since Sonic Youth launched from the Lower East Side postpunk scene. I was seventeen when I first saw them in my hometown of Providence. They’d just started touring Bad Moon Rising and I’d fake ID’d my way in to join fifty other people in a concrete bunker called the Living Room. I spent the entire show leaning against a pillar as tuneful dissonance tore a hole in the space-time continuum, defeaning and clear, the gateway to something new. Tonight in some small club out in Bushwick or Bed-Stuy a nervous teenager is getting his head blown apart by a sound that will alter American music. But that teenager is definitely not here.
Outside the fence the sound is mud, the vocals muffled. An aging fan rushes by me, dragging a woman and talking in a rush, trying to infect her with his passion. His free hand waves the air in time to the drum rumble. I recognize the intro to ‘Death Valley ’69’ and catch the enthusiasm myself, swept up in a thrill of music I love played live in a new location, the Manhattan skyline a perfect backdrop, sunset seething purple, orange and violet.
But it is not really a new location for me, and my ennui stems from its usual source—the gap between what was and what is. This is not the waterfront as I remember it, as I still want it to be. I take a walk around the park and run into barriers no matter where I go. Pine green plastic sheets hang from the fences. The sheeting has a .org address for an ‘Open Space Alliance.’ Semicircles have been cut out of the plastic at regular intervals to keep the sheets from flying loose in the wind. An ancillary effect is that you can see inside—see the crowd and the big sound stage, the concert speakers and construction trailers. Of course fans are taking advantage, knees bent, peering through. But it’s still a fence and the price of a Sunday in the park is thirty-five dollars, if you bought a ticket before they sold out.
I wind up sitting on a crumbling wall next to the fence on the last block of North Seventh before it hits water. Pavement has replaced cobblestone there, cobblestones and trash. The L subway rumbles right under my feet and at the end of the block there’s a ventilation unit for the subway tunnel. It looks like what it is—the world’s biggest floor fan. Orange security barriers block the road a couple dozen yards up from the squat ventilation structure, the barriers manned by men wearing yellow polo shirts and black pants. Lettering on the shirts reads ‘Event 565 Staff.’ Opposite the park is the far end of the Edge, a complex of condo towers that went up over the last five years on the site of a ‘waste transfer station.’ Something approaching fifteen hundred units pack the insta-city of colored glass and steel. On a few of the blue-railed balconies, residents peer down at the ruckus.
I leave the wall and walk to Kent Street. Cop uniforms stand out in the swirl of bodies, walkie-talkies crackling. I almost get run over by a bicycle—‘It’s a two-way bike lane,’ the cyclist sighs—as I watch touts trying to sell tickets even this late in the game. They don’t seem very concerned about the cops and the sour honey of marijuana bastes the air. Toward the park entrance I pass the one building within the park boundaries—an old brick ware house. Fifteen years ago the span between North Sixth and Ninth held seven warehouses and factories. All the buildings were occupied, but only the squatters in this one warehouse managed to navigate the labyrinth of New York City housing law and gain title. Most of the other squatters were vagrants, drug addicts and prostitutes in need of a place to hide their shame. From luxury boxes, the proud new homeowners watched the other buildings on the lot fired and demolished.
The ground floor of the warehouse semaphores a stint as a restaurant or café, furled black-and-yellow patio umbrellas with the Żyweic logo and heavy iron furniture lining one wall behind yet another fence. The cheap row of mailboxes in the lobby heartens me—at least some early neighborhood settlers managed to hold out. Security and more barriers block the park entrance.
Bags open, the guards say. Ladies have your bag open. No food and drink. Have your tickets out. As per usual, security is mostly black and Latino, heavy men who pump a lot of iron and eat a lot of pizza. They can’t be loving the uniforms—in black and yellow they look like bumblebees and even XXL adheres to man-boobs like spray-paint. Across the river, window lights flash in the dark mass of the cityscape. I’ve had enough of the new Williamsburg and head off to meet a friend.
Beth and I get socially lubricated at an enoteca on the corner of North Seventh and Wythe. The enoteca encapsulates the contradictions of Williamsburg: outside you have a flimsy three-story house with faux-wood shingles, inside, Sardinia. It’s been at least six years since Beth and I have been on the Northside together. Back then she worked for a sports book, boxed competitively and was an occasional stripper. We drank at Black Betty. We drank at Rosemary’s Greenpoint Tavern (which isn’t actually in Greenpoint). Now she’s a writer whose first book is about to be released as a Hollywood feature film. She’s given up boxing for yoga but still looks great in her cutoffs.
Out on the street the show is over and we struggle upstream through a mob eager to keep the party going. A barricade at the bottom of North Eighth manned by cops turns us back and we head south down Wythe. A block away from the waterfront condos the housing stock speaks of a very different past, four-story rows sided in vinyl or tar paper. It could be a blue-collar enclave in any old industrial town except that the occupants of these railroad apartments are as likely to have graduated from Yale as the University of the Streets.
I’m trying to explain how things used to be on the Northside but it’s not working. ‘This used to be’ is not the easiest game to play. That upscale seafood restaurant? It used to be a Jewish bakery with two-dollar loaves of heavy rye. The boutique window featuring a headless mannequin in funeral black? That was a friend’s apartment, the windows painted over so that it was always midnight inside. By the time we make it back to the Edge, Beth is as tired of the game as I am. Broad walkways lead out to two new piers, metal clattering brightly to our footsteps. The disconnect from the old waterfront is overwhelming. A ferry service opened this summer on the East River and for the first time in over a century you can water-commute from Williamsburg to Midtown. Signs all down Kent Avenue announce the ferry arrival with one of the worst catchphrases I’ve ever read: ‘Relax, we’ll get you there,’ straight verbal Valium. Four dollars takes you wherever the ferry goes—Long Island City, Wall Street, Governors Island. Stray concertgoers wander or sit on the patches of well-tended lawns. Dog walkers jabber into iPhones as their purebreds urinate on the well-tended lawns.
The Edge was built by the Stephen B. Jacobs Group, an architecture firm responsible for big Manhattan projects like the Hotels Giraffe and Gansevoort. In Manhattan, the Jacobs Group liked to supersize some classical form—Italianate, Federal, Georgian—and wrap it in a New Age glitter of mirrored glass and pulsing neon, mansard roofs mating with flying saucers. In Williamsburg, with no historical societies to placate, they could dispose of tributes to the olden days. Welcome to Abu Dhabi! (Or Key West, where Jacobs erected a white elephant of a hotel.) It was pointless to hate a large chunk of concrete and steel but I tried. Why? I mean, why build this thing? It didn’t have anything to do with the place where it had been planted. You had the views, sure, but the East River isn’t the Gulf of Mexico—no sandy beaches and swimming only for iron men and suicides. When you walked out of the Edge you were still in the world of the Edge—street-level version—a dull chain of franchise stores and overpriced restaurants. The blessing of New York congestion was that when you left your house you were tossed into all those other people. People in the streets and in the stores and walking their dogs and running errands. Life. But when you walked out of the Edge you walked into nothing. Cars and trucks running down Kent and a few pedestrians but no city life and blocks to go before you found any. Outside even the plushest Upper West Side manor the city enveloped you. But at the Edge you had all the boredom of the suburbs without any of the trees. Only a methodical calculus could explain the choice to buy there—a certain kind of person with a certain income could afford to buy a certain number of square feet more at the Edge than he could on Water Street, and, after subtracting for the longer commute, you still had a reasonable investment opportunity. The views and the cool zip code were just throw-ins.
In the wake of another couple, we pass the last Edge tower on a walkway that wraps a former warehouse. Unlike the Edge, the warehouse wasn’t designed by Jacobs, et al. The Austin, Nichols & Company Warehouse building is a stolid white cube that was built in 1915. Austin, Nichols has been disemboweled since I left the neighborhood, a ‘gut reno,’ and now offers loft rentals. Five thousand a month will get you eight hundred square feet.
This used to be all artists’ lofts, I say. They had these amazing parties, over entire floors. There was a seawall here too with an iron gate. In the old days, boats could dock right at the building. We used to crawl underneath—it was just a huge open space—and then walk out to what was basically a forest.
I wave out at the remodeled piers.