Seven years ago, Jonathan Van Meter, the writer and Vogue contributing editor, published an essay in New York magazine called “I Hate Brooklyn.” Here is how it begins:
“No, no, no,” I said. “Never.”
“Why would you think such a thought?”
“Something about the way you said… Brooklyn… like you’d gotten comfortable with it.”
“No,” I said, “it’s just that I’ve had to say it a lot lately because that’s all everyone ever talks about. Brooklyn, Brooklyn, Brooklyn. I hate Brooklyn.”
From there, the piece proceeds to many places you’d expect (hipsters, gentrification) and, happily, to several places you wouldn’t. Van Meter’s recollections from his own upbringing are beautifully written, and the passages on turning away from Brooklyn for class-based reasons still hit home. I came across the essay again a few weeks ago and, after rereading it, I couldn’t help but wonder what Van Meter thinks of Brooklyn in 2012. We had this exchange by email.
Matthew J.X. Malady: For those who didn’t read it back then, could you sum up a few of the main points you made in the “I Hate Brooklyn” essay?
Jonathan Van Meter: The title of the piece was purposefully misleading. In many ways it was an essay about my gathering hatred for Manhattan, a place that had become ruinously expensive during the boom years, which meant that everything and everyone I held dear—all the things I’d moved to Manhattan for in the late 80s—left for Brooklyn: urban flea markets, outlaw parties, young smart people, unplanned grooviness, a certain glamorous decrepitude… not to mention all of my best friends. But I stubbornly refused to join the exodus for reasons that still keep me in Manhattan: the sprawling low-rise aspect of Brooklyn; my squeamishness about being a gentrifier; the sense that there is no center, no beating heart that I could find on the rare occasions when I crossed one of the bridges.
But perhaps the most vexing aspect of that whole 2005 moment—and therefore that essay—had to do with class: I am from a blue-collar Jersey/Philly Irish Catholic clan, and I came to Manhattan to escape the dreariness of that hoagies-and-sewda existence. Moving to Brooklyn, which I came to know through 70s TV shows like “Welcome Back, Kotter,” was simply not an option for a class jumper like me. It seemed to me at the time scarcely different than Northeast or South Philly, or Atlantic City, where I had lived for three years.
I did not want to live in a place where little old ladies sat on the sidewalk in beach chairs all summer, just like they did in the Philadelphia neighborhood where my mother grew up. In retrospect, I see now that I was writing with a broken heart. While I was busy partying too much and being ambitious, Manhattan made new friends, people I neither liked nor cared to get to know. (Makes me think of the excellent Suzanne Vega song, “New York Is A Woman”: “She’ll make you cry/And to her, you’re just another guy.”) One day I woke up to discover it wasn’t my city anymore.
Of course, that essay was also a bitter send-off, a piece about aging, about the moment you realize nothing stays the same. My father always says, “Life is a series of adjustments,” and that piece was clearly a howl from an acute growing pain.
In the seven years that have elapsed since you wrote that essay, how many times have you gone to Brooklyn, and for what purposes? Did anything about those visits impact your overall assessment of the borough?
I have been to Brooklyn many more times in the past seven years than I had in the 15 years that preceded that essay—but that’s not saying much.
From 1988, when I moved to Manhattan, till 2005, I figured for the sake of that piece that I’d been to Brooklyn less than 10 times. Since 2005, I am guessing (for the sake of this piece) that I’ve been there maybe 20 more times, almost always for a dinner party at a friend’s house or to join a group for a friend’s birthday party at a “surprisingly great” new restaurant in Fort Greene or Carroll Gardens (never Williamsburg!). There were, of course, new babies to meet, renovations to admire. And, for a while there, suddenly lots of boozy backyard parties. With kegs! (Something that never happens in Manhattan, and, to my knowledge, never did.)
It must be said: Many of those visits, post publication, were greeted with, “Oh, look who dares to show his face,” or “You better watch your back,” or “They actually let you in?” Everyone in my life—in particular, all those pussies who couldn’t handle the rat race and bailed on Manhattan—had read that piece with a certain eyebrow-raised avidity. Is he talking about me? It took years to live it down.
But then there was a period not long ago—2009?—when I started joking, half seriously, that I was going to write a follow up, an I (Sort of) Hate Brooklyn, Part 2, titled, “Oh, Alright!” Because, yes, I did become susceptible to Brooklyn’s wily charms during those visits, and at the same time felt a not-so-subtle peer pressure. Indeed, I began to feel like a stubborn fool—that crotchety old man who simply will not come to his senses and take the developer’s more-than-generous offer for the worthless shit-house he clings to out of wounded, misplaced pride. Who wants to be that guy? And so, startling even myself, I seriously looked at some real estate: Fort Greene, Prospect Heights, that nice stretch of Atlantic Avenue where my partner, Andy, and I would take a spin through the not-preposterously-expensive antique shops—an experience no longer available in Manhattan, as it had once been along Lafayette Street in the 80s, for example.
This period of reconsideration didn’t last long, mostly because I was instantly gripped by terror; that moving to Brooklyn would be like heading toward the danger, like going into the basement in the slasher film—or, to quote Anthony Lane in a New Yorker review of The Ring Two, moving across the river into “a howling wasteland of intolerable fear.” An intolerable fear brought on by the idea of—as a freelance writer—being even more isolated than I already feel nearly ever day of my life because writing is so fucking lonely and totally sucks. I did not want to risk finding myself, up and alone in the middle of the night and on deadline, living in a beautiful townhouse filled with beautiful things on a beautiful tree-lined block—that is utterly dead by 11 p.m.—obsessing over whether it was my night to move the car. Put more simply: I didn’t want to be afraid of the dark.
But there is another reason why my Brooklyn hallucination didn’t last long: Andy and I bought a house in Woodstock, which is, in a sense, not unlike moving to Brooklyn, as there are so many people who grew up in Woodstock whose parents moved here many years ago from outer borough New York City. And now, there are so many ex-Manhattanites here, too—gays! artists! Jews! hippies!—people who could no longer stand the onslaught of Marc Jacobs stores, four-star pizza restaurants, and over-designed hotels. Many of them just up and left for the beauty and freakiness of this town, a place with a population so lousy with aging partiers that I now find myself—when I am up here (as I am now, answering your questions)—with a far more zesty social life than I think I ever had in New York City. The Catskills are my outer borough!
What else has changed for you in the seven years since writing the piece that may have impacted your feelings about Brooklyn?
What really mellowed my hateful feelings toward Brooklyn is that Manhattan got even suckier. Do I even need elaborate? The Bowery; Meatpacking; the High Line; Chelsea; the West Village—all now dense with an unbearable nightlifey-ness and/or faux old-worldy-ness and/or modern-designy-ness that I abhor. I hardly ever go to any of those places anymore.
In fact, two years ago, we sold our loft on Great Jones Street and moved to Avenue B, because Noho, where I was once so happy, turned into a perfectly tiny microcosm of all that is sad about Manhattan: cobblestone perfection with hedge fund managers living large in what were supposed to be artist-in-residence lofts. At least the East Village still looks like the East Village, where the only chains that dare to open—Duane Reade, Dunkin’ Donuts—are there to serve the people who live in the housing projects on Avenue D.
Alphabet City will never become desirable—ever—because of said projects on Avenue D and because the housing stock is mostly walk-up tenement buildings. It can’t be made cute. Tompkins Square Park, no matter how many oakleaf hydrangeas they plant, is still a stinky clusterfuck of drug addicts, scoundrels, broke sunbathers, and the pierced and tattooed walking fucked-up little dogs. I love it there. All of which is to say that the parts of Manhattan that I actually like being in have shrunken to a tiny dot. It is for that reason alone that I am now engorged with envy over Brooklyn’s sprawl and ad hoc fabulousness—Bushwick, for crying out loud! There are so many neighborhoods, like Alphabet City, that will always resist the near total fancification that has befallen so much of Manhattan.
As a side note, Andy and I actually considered swinging all the way in the other direction and moving to the Upper East Side, a part of New York that my friend Carol likes to call “God’s Country,” because, well, why not? At least there’s “old money” there, people who at least give the appearance of being interested in preserving character and history. They don’t have to make up fake private clubs to join—Soho House!—because they have been members of real ones their entire lives. Andy and I came this close to buying a fixer-upper penthouse, on Park Avenue no less, in a white-glove building with a maintenance fee that would make your grandmother cry. It was a tiny little gem of a one bedroom—a cottage plopped down on the roof—with a huge wraparound balcony. But we simply could not pull the trigger on something so potentially bankrupting to be ironic. Where would we eat? Nello?
So, all that being said, and given your current feelings about the state of Manhattan, is the good news in all this that at least you don’t hate Brooklyn as much? Would it be accurate to say that you hate Brooklyn less now?
Near the end of the New York piece, you discuss various development plans for the waterfront in Brooklyn and construction of the new basketball arena. Have you followed those projects since? Does that stuff interest you at all?
I am obsessed with any and all development anywhere in greater New York City and follow much of it with horrified fascination. Governor’s Island is a perfect example. I can’t read enough about it. But I know I will be appalled by some aspect of it, so I have never been. Everyone’s crazy about the High Line. I think it’s bullshit. Too much design. Too much planned fabulousness. Architects and landscape “artists” have been given way too much of a say over how we want our city to look, and how people actually move in and around it, and where people congregate.
Are there any recent developments in modern-day Brooklyn (the artisanal pickle craze, the predominance of food fairs, the Wythe?) that you would’ve scoffed at in 2005, but that your 2012 self can better appreciate?
All of it. For sure. The practitioners of these foodstuff trends are so self-parodying that it would be redundant to make fun of them. But I guess to be fair to my own point of view on this topic, that is the part of Brooklyn that I loathe the most: the whole twee/hipster/foodie aspect. But anything I have to say about it will surely taste like an old kale salad, no? Surely everyone we know feels this way. Right? Don’t we?
I’m sure you’ve seen the recent Wall Street Journal story asserting that Manhattan has become the “new Brooklyn”—with people moving out of Williamsburg and into Manhattan to save money on rent. Here’s a quote from that article by a 27-year-old that I’m sure you’ll get a kick out of: “I love Brooklyn. It’s adorable, with great places to eat, but they also have that in Manhattan.” What’s your take on that? I mean, among other things, the use of the word “also” there is pretty interesting/telling.
Praise Jesus! But: Could it be true? Did the WSJ offer up anything other than anecdotal evidence that people are actually moving back to Manhattan for cheaper rents? Empirical, at the very least? Doubtful. But the thought of it warms my bitter heart. I love the Hunger Games-like image this inspired, one of a self-selected handful of twenty-somethings swarming Manhattan to pick off douchebags and bankers for sport—telecast! live!—all in an attempt to take back at least one loft, one small corner of the city, and begin to reclaim their rightful place at the center of the world.
Regarding the notion of Manhattan as the nexus for everything, in the essay, you described living in Manhattan as “like unrolling your sleeping bag in the world’s largest commune, a year-round camp for similarly neurotic, vain, lonely, ambitious grown-ups.” Is that a good or a bad thing? And, in your view, how is Brooklyn different on that front?
Not so different anymore, except for one thing, discussed earlier, which has to do with density—the stacked-on-top-of-each-other aspect of Manhattan living. The fact that, unlike much of Brooklyn, most of us Manhattanites reside above the very bars/nightclubs/shops/restaurants that we frequent (or don’t), which is part of what makes life so… compelling? No. Distinct! That is what makes Manhattan feel like no other place in the world. Or, in this country, at least. I mean, that’s what I came here for: that ski in/ski out condo feeling that I described seven years ago. That will never be true of almost all of Brooklyn—unless they tear it all down and build skyscrapers, which wouldn’t surprise me. It’s too dispersed. It’s too lateral. Too horizontal. Quentin Crisp once said, “Los Angeles is just New York laying down.” That may now very well be true of Brooklyn, too.
In closing, there’s one passage from your essay that I’d love you to discuss in more detail. And it’s one that you’ve told me people contact you about because it resonates deeply with them. It relates to the issue of class that you spoke about earlier. Here’s the key part:
I was struck by the fact that the strip of Atlantic Avenue looked just like the working-class Philadelphia neighborhood where my mother and her parents were born. What troubles me when I go to Brooklyn, I suppose, is that I see my former self and I see my family’s blue-collar struggle. By the mid-eighties, my friends from the suburbs of Philly and Jersey were moving into the run-down neighborhoods in Philadelphia that people like my grandparents had left after the Depression. In South Philly, a townhouse with a cement backyard on a shitty block could be had for a song—a jingle!—in 1985. But I wanted no part of it, for the same reason that I don’t want to live in Brooklyn today. Instead of seeing the cute real estate in, say, Carroll Gardens, I see the old Italian grandma in her beach chair on the sidewalk. And she is not romantic to me. She is sad—and far too real. That old lady is my late friend Rita Marzullo, a woman who lived in an apartment in South Philly until she died at 75 last year, alone and broke. She sat in her beach chair on her block and talked to the rotten little bastards who sold drugs on the street because she had no one else to talk to and nowhere to go.
Why do you think that’s such an important point?
I think what’s at the core of my disappointment, if not anger, about all of this is that Manhattan was, in a sense, gentrified, too. When residential Manhattan real estate became all about investment—a place for rich people from all over the world to park their money (not really a place to live but a place to toy with)—it forced out not just the lower and middle classes but great swaths of the upper middle class as well, including the over-leveraged strivers like myself. This sort of thing has been happening in Manhattan for decades, mind you, but for a long time it was contained to certain rarified neighborhoods: midtown and upper Manhattan. But now, even the most marginal parts of the island must be raped and pillaged and renovated into Sub Zero havens where people don’t really live. No stone shall be left unturned! (And remaining stones must be re-imagined and rebranded as a better and different kind of stone.) I refused to be pushed out, across the bridge, because that would be giving up—or giving in to something I think is terrible for the city. So, to acquiesce and join the exodus and, in turn, do the very same thing to the folks who have lived in Brooklyn for generations—which is to say, change the character of their cherished neighborhoods and ruin their well-deserved sense of place and belonging—just feels wrong. Living in Manhattan has never been for the faint of heart. It’s not a comfy existence. (If you want comfy, move to North Carolina.) You have to fight for your right to live in Manhattan. And you have to struggle to afford it, to make sure no one steals your spot. It keeps you on your toes. Moving to Brooklyn is just too easy.