Sometimes I think about money. But what about money? Last night I went wheat pasting in Williamsburg. I was with two girls in their twenties. I said I hoped they weren’t still hanging posters on construction sites with homemade glue when they were in their late thirties.
I used to stay in Williamsburg when I was in New York six or seven years ago, then my friend moved and now I stay in Union Square. But there’s something in Williamsburg, something that is dismissed as trust fund children displacing the poor. It could be that. But there’s something else. The streets are radically alive. Everyone is in their twenties. The strollers have not yet arrived. They will.
There’s more to Williamsburg. Like most New York neighborhoods Williamsburg has a fascinating history and diverse heritage. But when you step off the subway at Bedford, that’s not what you see.
What you see is that people have set-up tables and sell books on the sidewalk. Awful buildings are being constructed. I’ve never seen so much construction. It’s like those magazine articles about Dubai. Except those articles are meaningless, even the best of them, gawking at the rich Arab city built by exploited foreign laborers living in camps. The articles are glistening with the sheen of cranes puncturing clouds, awe-inspiring wealth, and social stratification. Shocking! Fun!
But Williamsburg? I saw a musician the other night tell an audience that she was the one who made the neighborhood safe for the realtors. It got a good laugh from the crowd who paid $15 a person to see the show. How can you be an artist, a beggar, and not be at least a little in love with your own poverty? But the artists are also followers. Who made the neighborhood cheap enough for them?
That doesn’t explain what’s happening at the last L stop before Manhattan, or the first L stop when you escape the island. These children I was with (I think I can say that now because when I was their age there were no automated blogging tools, not that I’m anybody’s example of an adult) had moved to Williamsburg. Why? Because it was where it was at. Things were happening. But what “things”? This was a purely Gen X scene with the kind of population density Gen X never came close to achieving in its own time. Blame it on a low birth rate, or a lack of motivation. But everybody on Bedford Avenue agrees the Pixies were not properly appreciated in their time.
So what kind of a gathering is that, thronging The Verb Cafe, standing in the street smoking outside the clubs on 6th? Well, it’s literary for one thing. That’s interesting in itself. While books and bookstores are dying/scattering/morphing into something else, bookstores are opening in Williamsburg. Rockers in flannels and thick glasses are selling paperbacks from folding tables, their customers paging through Khalid Hosseini’s latest and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Shoplifting From American Apparel tote bags hang from the walls of Spoonbill & Sugartown. I saw it with my own lying eyes.
“Would you live here?” Meaghan asked me, thirty posters for The Adderall Diaries draped over her arms. I was carrying the bucket and the brush.
“I would have,” I said. In other words, not now. Or maybe now, but only because I forgot/refused to grow up. I was never given a choice. I was 25, her age, the last time I seriously considered spending my life with someone, the last time I looked ahead and recognized something resembling a future.
Ah, but here’s the thing. And it’s not a bad or unhappy thing, but it is an absolutely true thing. No movement, no matter how loose and undefined, can survive that much construction along the waterfront. The Duane Reade on 5th and Kent is nothing. The condos are coming, and they are legion. The children will also grow, and change, and breed, leaving only a few behind. Every time I’ve ever heard someone talk about Williamsburg it’s been pejorative, heaped with scorn, and with no forgiveness for the demographics of shifting populations. The “hipster” label, always meaningless, always used to connotate a group the speaker despises and doesn’t think she belongs too, is plastered so thickly over the neighborhood that it’s almost impossible to look past it, except with irony, and occasionally humor.
Williamsburg’s time is now, as absurd as that seems, and as beautiful as it was five and ten and twenty years ago. All I can think is that the older generation was already disillusioned and the new arrivals didn’t feel empowered enough, or maybe there was just nothing that could be done, or the factions were so engaged in their own simmering civil war that they were unable to prevent all of those new buildings from blocking their views of the river. The sky in Williamsburg is the gray and brown scaffolding, The future is somewhere else. But how could it be any other way? No one, and nothing, stays young forever.
(Editor’s note. this was originally sent out as a Daily Rumpus. This short essay is meant to talk about a specific movement that is not truly defined yet. I do recognize that most residents of the neighborhood are not part of this movement, though they are impacted by it. Just like most boomers weren’t hippies and most people born between 1961 and 1977 do not consider themselves part of Generation X.)