Joanna Ng, Intern
Sharon Zukin is Professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. In her new book Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places, Zukin shows how a high demand for “authentic” urban life, embodied in aging buildings, small boutiques, and ethnic restaurants, has actually forced out the people who make New York City neighborhoods so unique. Rising real estate prices have driven away immigrants, artists, and the working class. In the following excerpt, Zukin takes a look at Williamsburg, a Brooklyn neighborhood known for its hipster community.
It’s one o’clock in the morning of a warm October night, and the streets of northern Brooklyn are eerily deserted. The hulks of warehouses and the chimney of the old Domino sugar refinery stand guard along the waterfront, while grim industrial buildings hunker down in the shadow of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Steel gates hide the windows of small plastics and metalworking shops. Nearby tenements are silent and dark.
You’re wide awake, though, driving through the darkness of Kent Avenue, bumping over warped asphalt and steering around potholes. You’re circling Williamsburg, looking for the neighborhood that made Brooklyn cool.
First you pass the Northside, the original center of Brooklyn’s hipster culture, a cluster of art galleries, cafés, bars, and boutiques around the subway station at North Seventh Street and Bedford Avenue.
Then you pass the Southside, where French bistros and Japanese hair salons have recently joined yeshivas and bodegas, and artists and graduate students are a noticeable presence on the streets. Ahead of you stretch neighborhoods that have been predominantly black since after World War II but are now rapidly gentrifying and becoming socially and ethnically more diverse – that is, richer and whiter: Bedford-Stuyvesant, Fort Greene, Clinton Hill. The old Brooklyn Navy Yard sits vast and uninhabited just one block to the west. A few blocks beyond that, brownstone townhouses sell for a million dollars and up.
Navigating solo through this dark landscape, you don’t see any sign of life. But when you turn onto the wider roadway of Flushing Avenue, you meet up with men and women walking in couples and groups of four. They are Hasidic Jews, women with heads covered in wigs and scarves, skirts below their knees, and black-hatted men wearing long black overcoats. Sabbath began at sundown. Because driving is prohibited then, any believers who are out on the street at this hour must find their way home on foot.
After you pass the Hasidim, you find a few more people walking on the street; these men are wearing tight jeans and the women are in short skirts. But one of the young men wears a cowboy outfit, and one of the young women is dressed as a witch. Music begins to rumble in the distance.
You park the car and continue on your way on foot. Soon you discover a group of young men and women standing and talking outside the beat-up garage door of a two-story factory building. Their faces gleam in the light coming from the windows of the top-floor loft. Loud rock music thuds through the air.
You knock, a reinforced steel door swings open, and suddenly you’re face to face with a robot, a Black Panther, and an Arabian sheik. Two large men stand guard, outfitted as bouncers, clearly for real: shaved heads, neatly trimmed goatees, long black leather coats, and earpieces. They usher you up a staircase lined with plastic skulls and Christmas lights. When you reach the second floor you hand the doorman a crisp ten-dollar bill, and he waves you into the crowded front room where a band is playing and dozens of revelers drink and dance. Flashing colored lights are strung across the ceiling on bare sprinkler pipes. People stand around a table at the far end of the room picking through piles of paper, feathers, wire, and glue, showing each other the masks they are making.
It’s Halloween, and you have found the underground party called Rubulad.
Rubulad is one of those new neighborhood institutions that inspired Lonely Planet’s 2007 Blue List to name Brooklyn “the hippest part of New York City.” It’s on a circuit of illegal and semilegal music shows, occasional parties open to the public and one-time-only events like raves that are held in the deserted warehouses, lofts, and Polish bars of Williamsburg, Poles being the gradually disappearing ethnic group in this part of the city. You find out about these events on Internet websites, email newsletters, and individual blogs, and also by word of mouth.
Knowing about Rubulad is one marker that you are cool. Another is actually finding the party, though when the party promoter Todd P was written up in the Village Voice, some people said the publicity killed the underground vibe. They also said that another party promoter’s landlord canceled his lease because of the attention drawn to what was, after all, an illegal use of the space. (“Legal or illegal is really an imprecise subject,” Todd P says. “It’s a matter of different degrees of police enforcement.”) But the media keep covering these events, and despite, or because of, the fuzz and the buzz, they manage to keep going….