The first time I complained to the guy who lives in the apartment above mine about his music (at 3 a.m.), he lectured me at length about how people like me were ruining the neighborhood (Williamsburg). “This neighborhood used to be all artists. I was one of the first people to discover this neighborhood. Dude, I had a knife pulled on me right out front. It just isn’t the same anymore.”
I have thought about this conversation a few times while reading The Last Bohemia: Scenes from the Life of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The writer, Robert Anasi, is similarly glowing about the opportunities for getting mugged in 1990s Williamsburg. In a hyperbolic style reminiscent of Hunter S. Thompson, he fondly recalls the mean streets lined with boarded-up shops, the necessity of winning the good will of crack-dealer neighbors, and doing lines of dirty coke in a bathroom.
But he seems to find a special charm in the industrial wreckage of Williamsburg, and in the drifters who he found in abandoned factories by the waterfront.
People lived on the waterfront: the ‘deinstitutionalized’ insane, those prostitutes–and their pimps–who worked near Kokie’s, migrant Mexicans who broke down old freight containers by hand and sold the aluminum scrap. …I knew art-school kids who crashed there because they were new to town and broke or losing their minds.
–Robert Anasi, The Last Bohemia: Scenes from the Life of Williamsburg, Brooklyn
Reading this very much reminded me of industrial wreckage in Denver in the 90s, when I was a teenager. My friends and I used to break into an old, abandoned brick factory and some kind of silos in the railyards. There we encountered guys huffing paint, eyes vacant, muzzles covered in blue paint, spray cans and bags in hand. And it’s not hard to think of watering holes on the north side of town where outsiders and artists and druggies camped out, places that have since shut down, just as Anasi’s beloved Kokie’s went out of business.
In fact, the more of this I read, the more 90s Williamsburg sounds like 90s America. In Denver, the abandoned factories were demolished to make high-rises for an influx of young, highly educated professionals. The gentrification of Williamsburg is similar.
I’m interested in the broader significance of this. Does it represent an increase in the number of professionals in the country (and a greater demand for high-rises)? It’s tempting to think that the kind of Bohemia that Anasi so admires is just what happens in the gaps between economic development. Williamsburg and Greenpoint were once relatively healthy communities centered around industry, as were parts of Denver, and it took some time for creative occupations to take the place of the failed industry. In the long quiescence between those events, there was plenty of time for Anasi’s Bohemias to thrive. The same thing may be happening in parts of Philadelphia (the Northern Liberties, for instance), Baltimore, Detroit.
I don’t believe that 90s Williamsburg was the last of Anasi’s Bohemias. Not by a long shot.