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Boho Blues: What To Do When Your Brooklyn Neighborhood Loses Its Edge

ROBERT ANASI LEFT Williamsburg in 2008, which makes his new memoir of the neighborhood a work of very recent history. Proximity defines The Last Bohemia—both its author’s perspective and his book’s appeal. I have sat in a Williamsburg restaurant reading The Last Bohemia, with the girl next to me also reading The Last Bohemia. Anasi’s old neighborhood now houses a built-in audience of navel-gazers. And while it’s easy to fault those ever-Tumbling and Tweeting millennials for a surfeit of narcissistic self-awareness, Anasi has the inverse problem: a fatal lack of self-awareness, an unexamined regard for himself and his experience, which constitutes its own brand of narcissism.

The Last Bohemia chronicles the fourteen years Anasi spent in Williamsburg after moving there in 1994. In those years, it was home to gangsters, hookers, sprawling lofts, a brigade of artists, a bar called Kokie’s that sold cocaine, a post-industrial waterfront wilderness, and swoony, crazily low rents. This was, of course, a world that was disappearing even as he inhabited it. Anasi quotes a New York magazine story from June, 1992: “In the seventies, it was SoHo. … In the eighties, the East Village. In the nineties, it will be Williamsburg.” And so it was. And now we speak of the neighborhood with knee-jerk jokes about skinny jeans and artisanal pickles and condo towers with names like The Edge.

It’s clear Anasi has a story on his hands: the neighborhood has changed, and changed fast enough that every mention of an intersection, bar, or subway stop offers a disorienting thrill for the present-day Williamsburger. “Getting off the L at the Bedford stop put you on guard,” he writes. “Upstairs, Bedford Avenue wasn’t any better. At seven p.m. you felt fear in the gloom and rightly so.” It’s the rush-hour crowds that now scare commuters at the Bedford stop; potential hazards of the Avenue are generally limited to missing a dinner reservation. The waterfront where you can now find a park (and, on summer Sundays, the Brooklyn Flea) was once a landscape “for the daredevil,” where Anasi cleared razor wire to gaze over the East River. Anasi favors Manifest Destiny, untamed-frontier analogies to describe the development that he witnessed, but I found myself imagining him as less a pioneer than a pilgrim. “Writing was my religion,” he says, and Williamsburg was the hard shore where he sought the freedom to practice it.

What’s less clear, though, is whether Anasi is the best one to tell this story. The book’s subtitle—“Scenes from the Life of Williamsburg, Brooklyn”—is fair warning that the portrait will consist of quick sketches and emphasize immediacy. But in this case immediacy seems to preclude critical distance, and without it, the sketches are Rent kitsch: the girls are sexy, the landlords are crafty, the junkies are desperate. Everybody is an artist.

Neighborhood nostalgia does not have to mean sentimental cliché. But for stories of life as a young writer in the city to transcend this formula, the narrator needs a clear sense of his own youthful foibles. In Kafka Was the Rage, his posthumously published memoir, Anatole Broyard warmly portrayed the Greenwich Village of the 1940s while describing feats of youthful pretension that would put Anasi and his peers to shame. But—looking back across decades—Broyard observed those antics with wry sensitivity: he wins the reader’s trust with his self-awareness.

Anasi, on the other hand, appears disinclined to admit he had youthful foibles. A sense of humor would help, but his chief gestures in that direction are to recount jokes he has previously made—jokes that, one feels, perhaps did not get the reception he had hoped for. Of the Bedford bookstore Spoonbill & Sugartown: “I called it ‘Spoonfed & Sugar Tit’ because I couldn’t afford their titles.”

He will occasionally venture a joke at his own expense, but won’t really let his guard down. The late ’90s, he explains, brought a new breed of hipster to the neighborhood, for whom “enthusiasm about anything ‘serious’ was forbidden.” Walking home from a party with a poet friend (“as successful as a poet can be—he’d been a Stegner Fellow at Stanford, his poems were published in The New Yorker”), Anasi shows him a volume of Lucretius. “Now, I wasn’t in school, I didn’t have a fellowship anywhere, but I loved books,” Anasi writes. “I was hoping for insight or at least a conversation.” The poet does not oblige. “Kind of pretentious to have that book,” the poet says. “Don’t you think?”

There’s nothing wrong with a genuine interest in Lucretius. But there’s also nothing wrong with feeling like the walk home from a party isn’t the time to prove intellectual seriousness, and this seems like the kind of human subtlety to which Anasi’s defensiveness blinds him. The glint of hangdog humor in the anecdote (“I left De rerum natura at home after that,” he concludes) is lost amid Anasi’s scramble to produce earnest-intellect bona fides. A book lover who is not a student or fellowship recipient: perhaps this is not as rare a breed as he imagines. Elsewhere he describes the King James Bible as subway reading, and wistfully recalls picking up a German model over Phenomenology of Spirit, and even a reader who found the poet a little curt begins to sympathize with his exasperation.

Class is a central concern, as it has to be in a book that is fundamentally about real estate. But Anasi’s perpetually defensive posture rules out any but the bluntest treatment of the questions class raises—questions about how groups of people define themselves, signal belonging, regard one another, and exercise power. Anasi gives us obvious talking points—the crass opulence of glass towers on the waterfront, the spectacle of hipsters in trucker hats playing white-trash dress-up, the maddening fact that some people are born wealthy—and no fresh insight, beyond the fact that he does not like these things. “Rich kids” especially seem to vex him, and while this is an understandable displeasure for the 22-year-old he once was, it’s a tiresome fixation for the 46-year-old he is now.

The hostility would be less off-putting if accompanied by a clearer acknowledgment of his advantages. He brings dates to the waterfront (“a test for the women”), but he doesn’t seem concerned that blithely roaming an abandoned industrial zone by night is a distinctly male privilege. He writes that today’s Williamsburg residents “are as likely to have graduated from Yale as the University of the Streets”—but his own alma mater, Sarah Lawrence, is not exactly the liberal arts college of hard knocks. He distinguishes between his cohort and those that followed only in the broadest of strokes: real vs. fake, poor vs. rich.

So Anasi’s impassioned nostalgia for the neighborhood where he lived once and I live now frustrates me. But here is my predicament: I can’t counter with an impassioned version of my own. Williamsburg for me is not a wild frontier, but it’s not a corrupt luxury dystopia, either. Williamsburg is just a place to live. It requires no romance. Such is the plight of the post-bohemian, expertly described in 1934 in Malcolm Cowley’s Exile’s Return, a Lost Generation coming-of-age history. Cowley traced the notion of “Bohemia” from the 1830s on, distinguishing between two successive generations to invade early twentieth-century Greenwich Village. “‘They’,” Cowley writes, were the pre–World War I holdovers—“rebels, political, moral, artistic, or religious”; “we” were the postwar newcomers, those who “got what we wanted in a quiet way, simply by taking it.” 

“We were content to build our modest happiness in the wreck of ‘their’ lost illusions, a cottage in the ruins of a palace,” Cowley writes of his cohort. “The truth is that ‘we,’ the newcomers to the Village, were not bohemians. We lived in top-floor tenements along the Sixth Avenue Elevated because we couldn’t afford to live elsewhere.”

This is the same logic that brought me to a top-floor tenement in South Williamsburg. (For what it’s worth, my six flights of stairs and my roach problem offer daily proof that at least some crummy living persists in Williamsburg.) Unlike Anasi, I never even had the chance to get priced out of Manhattan—Williamsburg wasn’t “a dog whistle that people like me were starting to hear”; it was the obvious point of entry for a post-college life in the city.

Neighborhoods change; they age and get expensive, and young people eventually flock elsewhere. Undoubtedly there is a case to be made against this pattern—though it’s a case that should be made on behalf of overrun low-income enclaves, not on behalf of the college grad who wants to support his art by watering plants two days a week. But perhaps Anasi’s biggest lapse is misreading the quiet, predictable shift in personality that accompanies a neighborhood’s development, a tendency of places to pass from a first generation of fiery pilgrim-rebels on to mild and presumptuous young strivers. There’s a perverse self-aggrandizement in Anasi’s assumption that the forces to overtake his neighborhood were large and sinister rather than small and boring.

We have built cottages in the ruins. Lost illusions, it turns out, are as good as any cheap building materials, and they go OK with Ikea couches.

Molly Fischer is a writer in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The New York Observer and n+1. Follow @mollyhfischer.