My Brooklyn, Not Yours

Brooklyn nostalgia has done more than sell hot dogs and baseball memorabilia.

Illustration by Leslie A. Wood

Every time I go back to Brownsville it is as if I had never been away. From the moment I step off the train at Rockaway Avenue and smell the leak out of the men’s room, then the pickles from the stand just below the subway steps, an instant rage comes over me, mixed with dread and some unexpected tenderness.

So wrote literary critic Alfred Kazin at the start of A Walker in the City, his 1951 account of his return to his old neighborhood.

To the contemporary ear, the tenderness is not unexpected. From Kazin’s pickles to officially sanctioned nostalgia for the Dodgers and Coney Island; from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith’s chronicle of life among Williamsburg’s immigrants in the early twentieth century, to Crooklyn, Spike Lee’s love letter to 1970s Bed-Stuy, and Jonathan Lethem’s immensely popular The Fortress of Solitude, nostalgia has played an outsized role in the way Brooklyn has been depicted, thought about, written about, and talked about. Brooklyn nostalgia has long had a high kitsch factor, as Woody Allen acknowledged two generations ago in Annie Hall when he gave Alvy Singer a more-Brooklyn-than-Brooklyn upbringing: he didn’t just go to Coney Island every summer, he lived there, and he didn’t just live there, he lived under the Cyclone.

But Brooklyn nostalgia has done more than sell hot dogs and baseball memorabilia. As Suleiman Osman outlines in The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn, in the early 1960s a flourishing literature of what he terms “urban pastoralism” challenged developers and urban renewal through nostalgic appeals to the authenticity of “urban villages” and daily street life. These writings by artists, activists, and academics, most famously Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, inspired and shaped the views of “brownstoners,” homeowners who sought to resist the tide of suburbanization and white flight. But by the 1970s, Osman shows, coalitions between brownstoners and low-income residents had unraveled; Democratic New York City mayor Ed Koch turned this politics toward conservative ends. Koch “reveled in ethnic kitsch and cultivated a folksy image of a neighborhood New Yorker” while complaining about “poverty pimps.” It was the Southern strategy with an outer-borough accent.

More than thirty years later, the crush of development marches forward. Brooklyn is a global brand: overpriced trinkets to be sold at Brooklyn Pizza in Manila, Brooklyn Coffeeshop in Curitiba, Brazil, or one of the other global Brooklyns featured in New York magazine’s retrospective of the Bloomberg era. But hip culture in the United States has long had a deep romantic and nostalgic streak, and the hipster’s most recent incarnation, central to the current branding of Brooklyn, has been no exception.

The role of artists and hipsters in gentrification — specifically, their degree of complicity in the resulting displacement of low-income residents — has been endlessly debated. Were they the developers’ dupes, their victims, or their willing accomplices? Less often commented upon is the implicit equation behind these questions: associating artists with gentrification suggests that an artist has to be white. This is a particularly bitter irony for a borough and a city that has historically been and remains home to some of the most important African-American artists, musicians, filmmakers, writers, and intellectuals in the country. Looking at hipster culture in relationship to their work offers alternative ways of thinking about how the city changes, how we remember it, and what it might mean to oppose the march of neoliberal development without relying on a nostalgia that reflects our memories and desires more than our actual history.

For many African-American writers and intellectuals, nostalgia is first and foremost a mechanism by which white Americans deny what is obvious and readily apparent about their country’s history. In 1961, James Baldwin wrote “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy” in response to his friend Norman Mailer’s infamous “The White Negro,” which celebrated violence and sexual potency as an antidote to an overcivilized, conformist society. Under Mailer’s macho posture, Baldwin found a wounded child whose presumed sophistication belied an investment in American notions of innocence: “I am afraid that most of the white people I have ever known impressed me as being in the grip of a weird nostalgia, dreaming of a vanished state of security and order, against which dream, unfailingly and unconsciously, they tested and very often lost their lives.”

The nostalgia of white liberals like Kazin was more measured, but perhaps not as reasoned as they thought. Osman argues that laments like Kazin’s upon visiting his old neighborhood represented a new strain in liberal thinking about the city. Elegizing the slums where they grew up or with which they felt ethnic solidarity and recognition, they theorized that the problem with the “new slums” — that is, neighborhoods that were no longer white — was that they lacked the social cohesion of earlier slums. They embodied atomization and alienation, the very things gentrifiers associated with suburban life and were hoping to escape by creating a suitable urban middle-class alternative. Because this was a moral argument based on subjective measures, it was impossible to tell how the pull of one’s own childhood might affect the analysis. As Osman notes, the great urbanist Marshall Berman took pains to distance his anti-development classic All That Is Solid Melts Into Air from this sort of nostalgia, emphasizing the crimes that Robert Moses had committed against Berman’s boyhood home in the Bronx, rather than mourning for it.

This yearning for a lost sense of community lives on today in the most potent political formation of hip culture: the highly nostalgic, romantic strain that Mark Grief calls “neo-primitivism.” Bike culture, local food culture, and artisanal culture attempt to connect hipsters to the neighborhoods they’re accused of gentrifying. Relentlessly local even as Brooklyn becomes a global brand, this strain has much in common with the earlier, civically minded generation of brownstoners. In New York, Annie Novak, founder of a Greenpoint rooftop farm, asserts her bona fides: “People can make fun of hipster culture as much as they want, but at the end of the day, it’s a lot of people who are doers.” Where brownstoners had tried to defend city life at a time it was presumed to be in decline, neo-primitivists look to the city for ways to respond to looming ecological catastrophe.

If Kazin, Berman, and Jacobs wrote political arguments that drew on the emotional resonances of expressive literature, Jonathan Lethem’s 2003 novel The Fortress of Solitude was in turn a kind of civic project, positing an imagined and usable past that could offer a sense of investment in the borough to which many had recently arrived. It tells the story of Dylan, the son of early brownstoners in Gowanus, and his friendship with Mingus, the son of a once famous musician. Dylan’s mother embodies the contradictions of white liberalism; Dylan attends a public neighborhood school with Mingus through junior high, but their paths separate when he attends the public but exclusive Stuyvesant High School and the fictional Camden College, “one part lunatic preserve for wayward children of privilege, those too familiar with psych counseling and rehab to follow older siblings to Harvard and Yale.” Fortress returns obsessively to Dylan’s childhood, recreating a wondrous and fantastical experience of boyhood. Children in this pre-helicopter-parenting world are excused from productive labor and market logic, devoting endless hours to consuming music and popular culture. The boys even find a ring that allows them to fly, a particularly ingenious solution to the problem of Brooklyn real estate. Their artistic fathers are not so lucky: Mingus’s father is an almost-famous soul singer who, like so many musicians in the hip canon, suffers the tragic fate of the pure artist, while Dylan’s father slaves away on his experimental film and endures the praise of science fiction fans obsessed with the cover art he hates. Dylan’s obsession with his childhood is not only the hipster’s neverending quest for authenticity, but a desire to evade the material realities of adult life, racial and economic divisions that can’t be overcome by the right cultural signifiers.

By the time Lethem’s novel came out in 2003, Dylan’s self-conscious whiteness was no longer just a quirk of his fictional character but an obsession of hip culture. Since at least the 1980s, black music and culture have become so prevalent in the mainstream that their embrace no longer signals rebellion or outsiderness. Yet rather than reflecting a new multiracial ethos, much of the hipsterdom of the 2000s has become obsessed with its own whiteness. At its most insidious, there were manifestations of so-called “ironic racism,” which looked a lot like the real thing. In “What was the Hipster,” Mark Grief quotes Vice founder Gavin McInnes, who told the Times in 2003, “I love being white, and I think it’s something to be proud of.” In its more tepid forms, what John Leland called “Caucasian Kitsch” closed the nostalgia circle: where once immigrants and their children pined for the old neighborhoods they had fled, now the sons and daughters of the suburbs returned with T-shirts commemorating Midwestern state fairs, resembling less the dropouts of hipster lore than E. B. White’s famous description of “a boy arriving from the Corn Belt with a manuscript in his suitcase and a pain in his heart.”

Fortress’ obsessive nostalgia and its idealization of childhood as a utopian pre-political space also found analogues throughout hip culture. Like Lethem, filmmaker Wes Anderson takes childhood not only as a subject but as an aesthetic. Similar impulses can be found in writers like Dave Eggers, Michael Chabon, and Jonathan Safran Foer, whom Melvin Jules Bukiet disparaged as the “Brooklyn Boys of Wonder,” using this obsession with childhood and unearned transcendence over historical traumas: “Take mawkish self-indulgence, add a heavy dollop of creamy nostalgia, season with magic realism, stir in a complacency of faith, and you’ve got wondrousness.”

For earlier generations of immigrants and their children, the longing for the old neighborhood was inextricably bound up with the great migration of African Americans to cities and neighborhoods throughout the north. For African-American artists, however, the neighborhoods shaped by this migration would themselves become objects of nostalgia, especially as the ravages of deindustrialization, the Reagan era, and the drug war took their toll. Most famously, Spike Lee’s depiction of Brooklyn offered a vision that was both nostalgic and critical. In Do the Right Thing, Sal’s pizzeria embodied all the ways that the localism of the “urban village” could be oppressive rather than quaint, overworking and underpaying its black employees while disrespecting its black customers. Nevertheless, Lee showed the same affection for the community elders and for those trying to carry on the civil rights legacy that Kazin shows for the ladies on the stoop and the old leftists toughing it out through the fifties. Five years later, in Crooklyn, Lee returned to the Bed-Stuy of the seventies, reveling in the details of street life celebrated by generations of chroniclers of Brooklyn childhoods; he opens with a montage of kids playing classic city games. Both films suggest that one need not offer a naively romantic view of the neighborhood in order to understand it as something vital and worthy of preservation, something largely ignored when the media hype around gentrification uses ahistorical visions of “urban decay” to suggest there is no alternative to neoliberal development.

At the same time, other black artists have suggested the extent to which, in the neoliberal city, the neighborhoods offer less and less protection from the real engine of the city: not real estate per se, but capital. Although set in many of the same Brooklyn streets, Michael Thomas’s 2007 novel Man Gone Down departs as radically as one could imagine from Lethem’s fantastical twist on the pastoral. While the narrator evokes his childhood, his focus is on the relentless present of Bloomberg’s city. As crushed by adult cares as Dylan is immune from them, Thomas’ protagonist is a writer who can’t finish his book, can’t pay the rent, and can’t resolve his relationship with his wife and children. Thomas writes about the city in a way that cuts against the urban pastoral’s romanticism and the nostalgia of so many depictions of the borough. Working construction, his narrator sees buildings as sites of drudgery rather than labors of love or promising investments. And he laments the renter’s constant insecurity:

I’ve seen too many apartments in New York City. Single or married with children, I’ve looked at too many, met too many brokers, tried to appease too many racist landlords, negotiated with too many slumlords while looking for that special something. They were all too small, too dark, too dangerous, and certainly, all too expensive.

Gently skewering the pieties of brownstone culture, he notes he prefers Starbucks to the local independent coffee shop because there at least there’s a chance a black person will be working the counter. As he navigates the city, scrounging money for rent and tuition, the aspects of street and neighborhood life celebrated by Jacobs and her contemporaries — and by current boosters of “revitalized” neighborhoods — look like a trap. It is not “the old neighborhood,” or any neighborhood, that draws him in, but the steel and concrete of the highways and bridges, and the in-between spaces where he can be anonymous:

I cut across the shadow realm because I cannot stand it right now. I walk in lightless Brooklyn, where the sun never seems to reach, between the jail and Fulton Mall, where strays run, miscreants, gypsy cabs, nannies released from bondage, fry joints, usury shops — they will never “fix” this part of Brooklyn. And of course my response is dichotomized, but I’ll take a petty criminal over a suck-ass any day.

Man Gone Down draws heavily on Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison’s 1952 classic novel. Like Ellison’s, Thomas’ narrator is unnamed, and like him, he is in exile. Ellison’s narrator flees the South after a confrontation with the leader of a college based closely on Morehouse College. In Man Gone Down, the protagonist takes us between his current life and scenes from his childhood in Boston, depicting the racism of that city and the burdens placed on a highly educated African American raised in the legacy of the Civil Rights movement. Like Invisible Man, Man Gone Down asks what it means to tell a coming-of-age story without nostalgia, to try to enter the adult world without the fantasy of a home or childhood to which we might return. Ellison’s protagonist arrives in Harlem during the Great Depression. In one particularly famous scene, he witnesses a protest against an eviction. His spontaneous speech leads to his involvement with “the Brotherhood,” the novel’s version of the Communist Party. As Barbara Foley recently noted, Ellison’s depiction of the party gave fodder to the Cold War line that communist support for Civil Rights was wholly opportunistic and may have been crafted to disguise the depth of his own experiences with the Left. Reading the novel today, however, what is striking is the hyper-politicization of the New York it portrays. Ellison’s defense of individualism, the sense that his protagonist must escape society in order to evade the various factions attempting to use him for various political and social ends, seems nearly quaint in comparison to Thomas’ novel. Thomas’ protagonist breaks with an academic mentor and with childhood friends. In the adult world, connections are inevitably transactional, tenuous, and dependent on one’s ability to keep treading water. At the end of one section, he ends a run by looking across the water to Brooklyn. A memory of his mother comes and goes. For Thomas, there are no villages to be preserved, even in memory: “The dead are quiet now, soon they will be gone, for that is the price of empire.” A similar vision appears in Colson Whitehead’s The Colossus of New York, a collection of short essays which, despite frequently appearing on cheerful bookstore displays next to coffee-table books about the Brooklyn Bridge, presents the most horrific portrayal of the city as a machine fueled by human labor and suffering this side of Metropolis. For Thomas’s narrator, the possibility of politics is cut off by the overwhelming power of the city’s unseen elite and the weight of the Civil Rights movement on his formative years.

Perhaps the most vivid meditation on the politics of nostalgia and race is one that’s not set in Brooklyn at all. Medicine for Melancholy, a low-budget film from 2007, flips the script by depicting black hipsters. As the film begins, Micah and Jo wake in a sunny loft in San Francisco after a one-night stand neither remembers. Micah cajoles Jo into spending the day with him, and the two wander around the city. For Micah, a gear-head biker who makes his living selling aquariums, indie-ness is not a style but a problem. “Everything about being indie is tied to not being black,” he laments to Jo, who views his race-consciousness as passé and self-indulgent. Micah’s bedroom sports a poster quoting a planning commission’s recommendation for the redevelopment of Fillmore with the word “Lies” silkscreened across it. In a New York Times article, director and screenwriter Barry Jenkins described the origins of the film in his experience moving to San Francisco. Development and gentrification have reduced the city’s African-American population to 7 percent, half of what it was in 1970, a figure Micah cites in the film. In one scene, the couple stumbles into a community meeting of San Francisco residents bemoaning the lack of affordable housing in the city. Medicine reflects the contradictions of hipster culture not only because of its interrogation of race, but because of Micah’s challenge to individualism. Jo wonders why he can’t take what he wants from hipster culture and leave the rest — a mirror of the question asked by those who have historically defended their appropriations of black culture. But Micah stubbornly — perhaps unfashionably — intuits that some collectivism is needed to make city life bearable: race is one way to speak to that need.

Now that discussion of last decade’s hipsters has settled comfortably into its farcical stage, instead of anticipating its inevitable rediscovery, we should consider how the association of cultural production with economic and social status not only determines who is permitted to become an artist; it distorts our understanding of the art we already have.