Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Is It Really Necessary to Pick on Brooklyn?

I have noticed a small flurry of articles lately, in the New York Times and elsewhere, whose main purpose is to remind the post-college Bohemian crowd that has settled in Brooklyn in some numbers over the past few years, and inform anyone in the outside world who takes an interest in and was beginning perhaps to be confused by such matters, that they aren't cool, as apparently some of them were beginning to give the impression that they thought they were. The main offenses precipitating this chastisement as far as I can tell were the publication of some books, the opening of a few bars and coffee shops catering to middle income college graduates with modest hipster aspirations, and even some quaint bourgeois coupling and breeding while staying in an urban setting which, judging by some of the artistic works starting to emerge from this crowd, seems to inspire some annoyingly cuddly feelings in people of this type. The truly cool people of the generations now dominating cultural criticism have always been influenced by the idea that cities ought primarily to be edgy and dangerous or if safe at least ruthlessly competitive, preferably to the point of being unliveable for generic middle class people, who are deadly to vitality anyway. Most of the Brooklyn-bashing articles make a great point of insisting that nearly all of those settling in the borough did so out of financial necessity, not being able to afford Manhattan, which, while probably true, is presented almost in itself as a sin against good taste. The point in itself however seems rather stupid, for while these people are attracted to New York City and all that it represents, they are not necessarily attracted to specific parts of Manhattan that in 2007 no one who is remotely like themselves can afford to live in so much as the proximate experience of the atmosphere that has made New York the main wellspring of the country's more elevated imaginations and thoughts, even able to affect those from humble or philistine backgrounds, for 200 years. It is not as if Brooklyn has not been an important source of artistic or other cognitive activity in the past either, though formerly the practitioners tended to make the move across the river when they reached adulthood. It is also not as if the bohemian centers in places like Paris and London did not shift around from one neighborhood to another in different generations as older ones became too expensive or stagnated or otherwise withered in energy. Brooklyn is a legitimate part of New York City, perhaps more legitimate nowadays than Manhattan as far as the texture of the actual day to day lives led by those within it. If Manhattan is to become exclusively the domain of rich cosmopolitans it will hardly be able to sustain itself as the vital organism it prides itself on being.

One might ask, what is this dispute to me, who lives approximately 212 miles from the Empire State Building, and 15 or so more from Coney Island? Well, I feel a certain affinity with the interloping Brooklynites. They are the most sympathetic characters appearing on a regular basis in the pages of the Sunday Times, the writers of which take the attitude that they just don't quite do anything right ($3 Budweisers at the pool hall? On Saturday night?) I could sort of see myself there, albeit just kind of hanging around, not really connecting with anyone. In the kid's book I linked to above, for example, the parents are too groovy for me--even my wife, who usually rolls her eyes when I begin to talk about how cool people who live in great cities are, confessed that the parents are awfully groovy--I imagine that the little groovy Brooklyn girl in the book, with her coffee shops and immigrant grocery and multicultural friends in the park, is going to be the kind of girl that my sons, if they are decent students, will run into when they get to college, and that they'll want, and might not be quite groovy enough to get just on account of me, which would be very bitter for them. I am not actually very whimsical, as the Brooklyn authors are said to be, but I am sympathetic with that attitude, probably because I live in a town full of very serious professionals--insurance, health care, legal, political--who don't seem to have much of an awareness of it, and I think it is a necessary ingredient in the life of any community, to temper the extreme seriousness of serious-minded people if nothing else. Not to go all postmodern but fiction writing is at bottom a game in which the ultimate object is to seem more real and true, as well as much better for being so, than actual life. Whimsy, if executed well, is certainly capable of achieving this, and more I think than expressly dark and disturbing works. (Obviously in some of the examples given in the above article, it was not executed well, or at least not properly).

I have to go to bed now. If I think of a way to conclude this more tidily I will edit it at some later date.

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