By STEPHEN METCALF, T Magazine, New York Times, March 17, 2013
How the borough — with its local, back-to-the-basics lifestyle — morphed from landmass to global phenomenon.
BETWEEN BROOKLYN’S heavy-industrial past and the slinging of its first craft cocktail, about the only item in the world branded “Brooklyn” was an Italian chewing gum, called, brilliantly, “Brooklyn,” and subtitled “La Gomma del Ponte.” (Its long-lasting taste supposedly brought to mind the borough’s famous bridge.) Now, of course, you can’t travel to the bottom of the South China Sea without first passing through “the Brooklyn of the Malacca Strait,” or some equivalent nonsense. A preliminary list of places championed for (accused of?) “Brooklynizing” includes sections of Nashville, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Los Angeles, and somewhat more alarmingly, Paris, London, Stockholm and Berlin.
What could this even mean? One of the first uses of the term “Brooklynize” I dug up came from a 1920 Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce Bulletin. There, to “Brooklynize” was an Orwellian euphemism, for fitting young immigrant labor to stultifying factory routine. These days, of course, it indicates precisely the opposite: the conversion of nature into use value on the daintiest scale possible. Raw stuffs are now distilled, brewed, butchered, jerked, creamed, chutneyed, waffled, taffied, chocolatiered, all by hand, all within the confines of Kings County. For every Vert de Massy waiting to be brined, a steampunk stands at the ready.
To the extent “Brooklyn” now designates more than a mere landmass, it means: small-batch production, urban husbandry, period facial hair, a fixed-gear bicycle, “Girls.” But “Brooklynizing” is different from “Brooklyn.” “Brooklynizing” is the exportation of these culture-pages clichés to fresh landmasses. This would be mildly intriguing if the phenomenon were limited to, say, the Gulch section of Nashville (which, let’s face it, was probably not the Bozart’s fertile crescent before the first baristas arrived). But previously well-credentialed hipster enclaves are now “Brooklynizing” as well. I swear I’ve been hearing about the raffishly un-Californian charms of the Silver Lake neighborhood in Los Angeles for 20 years. Surely Silver Lake featured locally sourced mâche, and remotely sourced Oberlin grads, long before Brooklyn began rebranding every semi-employed young person in its own image.
And the phenomenon hardly stops there. Brooklyn is “the center of cool for Swedes right now,” according to a recent blog post, which reported on young Nordics’ obsession with anything Brooklyn-branded — cycling caps, beer, indie rock ‘n’ roll, you name it. In fact, the 25-year-old Brooklyn Brewery plans to open its first international outpost overlooking the Stockholm harbor this year. Paris, meanwhile, has kept up its capacity to inspire incredulity, this time by embracing anything that can be plausibly labeled “très Brooklyn,” particularly food trucks. There is a Brooklyn Diner in Dubai, a Brooklyn Restaurant in Malaysia, and Gorky Park in Moscow features a trendy snack kiosk with the word “Williamsburg” emblazoned across its top in the Latin, and not the Cyrillic, alphabet.
The point being, many areas currently undergoing “Brooklynization” — Canal-St. Martin in Paris, the Kreuzberg section of Berlin — were teeming and weird, justly magnetic urban neighborhoods already. Isn’t there a simple issue of chronology here? The scrambled lineage becomes considerably less baffling once you realize that “Brooklynizing” is a state of being wholly liberated from the mundane inhibitions of space and time; a fact driven home by the observation that everything we now associate with the word “Brooklyn” actually originated 10 years earlier, in Portland, Ore.
It may strike you as improbable, but I am not trying to be snarky (“snark” still being the only thing locally sourced in Manhattan). “Brooklynization,” after all, represents a serious attempt at repudiation: of Manhattan, of course, whose nosebleed real estate prices pushed the creative class out to Brooklyn in the first place; but also of the logic of globalization, and its elevation of an international elite with no ostensible connection to either specific places or the making of physical things. If the old battle cry of youth authenticity was once Never Sell Out, the new one is Never Scale Up. Here, though, is where the story gets a little complicated, for standardization and homogenization are the gods of capitalism, and they are jealous indeed.
One especially rapier critique of the phenomenon came from Justin Moyer, a musician whose article in the Washington City Paper decried Brooklyn’s ability to suck bands away from far-flung regional music scenes, and toward Williamsburg. Moyer likes Brooklyn well enough — but, as he sees it, Brooklyn has created an atmosphere of creative convergence so intense, so self-aware, so encyclopedically pop-literate, that all its resulting music begins to sound the same. When everyone speaks Brooklynish, everything takes on the accent of Brooklynish.
Brooklyn is no longer the home of Luddite dignity within an urban context; it is the very idea of Luddite dignity within an urban context. Brooklyn, the specific landmass, is where The Local goes to be sanctified, and made ready for export: to Nashville, the Mission and Silver Lake; to London, Paris and Berlin. It is the sound of Local going Global. Such are the wages of contemporary life, I suppose. We reach out for reality, and no sooner do we brush it with our fingers than it turns into a brand.