The Brooklyn Brand

This dreary-but-pleasant Fall morning in Brooklyn, I walked my dog from our home in Bedford-Stuyvesant to Fort Greene, to where I thought would be a good use of our morning: having a coffee outside while writing in my journal. Yup, just me and my pet sidekick, enjoying our home borough as the good Lord intended.

I had a place in mind, some twenty minutes from the apartment, where we could sit, write and people-watch. No, I did not account for the $4.35 “large” cappuccino that, at first attempt, was actually flatly lukewarm. At second attempt, having returned it to the counter asking for a hotter one (much to the displeasure of the pretentious asshole who made it), was a steaming hot cup of milk. That was disgusting.

I sat on a table outside, begrudging the establishment that owned it as I sipped on my poor-excuse-for-a-caffeine-fix like the snob/addict I am, writing, when a woman and her son came up and sat across from me. Mind you, it’s a small table, and when you’re journaling, it can make you a little uneasy to have your head and heart out there, a foot away from someone’s face, for them to read.
“You have beautiful handwriting. Are you a writer?” God bless you, you lovely stranger, you.
“Well, I’m trying to be!”
“I can tell that you really love writing.”

She was a Scandinavian woman, perhaps in her mid- to late 40s, with sail-ship earrings and rich, long flowing garments. Her son must’ve been around 12, with a little afro and long, light fingers that picked at the wood of the tabletop. She wasn’t a new migrant, as I’d assumed. Most Europeans in the area moved to New York for business and settled in one of the newer, more family-friendly neighborhoods of the borough. By “new” I mean neighborhoods with a relatively recent character facelift. No, she’s been a Brooklyn resident for the past 16 years. She was in Carroll Gardens when it was more characteristically (“authentically”) Italian, and in Fort Greene when rival gangs lived across the street from one another, one of them residing in her apartment complex. She’s more ‘Brooklyn’ than most, even more so in my eyes when I learned that she used to do costume designs for Lil Kim circa The Jumpoff (one of my all-time anthems, I’ll have you know) 12 years ago. When they first sat down, she was actually trying to convince her son that it would be interesting to learn Biggie Smalls’ biography. To be honest, I don’t know how many white mothers in Fort Greene today would encourage their children to learn the biographies of the neighborhood’s rap royalty.

Nowadays, she runs her own business of custom designs from a small studio by the Naval Yards, which she shares with a collagist. We got to talking about bookbinding – if I’d ever considered book arts (I have), and if I wanted to learn how to make my own books. She told me about a course running soon, in Brooklyn, where I could learn and eventually make it my trade. “Or at least a side gig. People would pay a ridiculous amount of money for what you can do.” We exchanged numbers and email addresses, and just like that, that $4.35 seemed like a worthy purchase after all! Transactions like this happen easily and often in Brooklyn, and it’s this informal, unexpected commerce that draws so many of us to this place.

Nowadays though, the borough gets a lot of flack for having commercialized and gentrified to the point where it’s lost the flavor that gave it its name. There’s even a music festival in Paris that markets the ‘Brooklyn’ brand to its festival goers. My boyfriend is among many who laments the loss of the old Brooklyn, the real Brooklyn, faulting millennial migrants, what with their new money and obsession with kale chips, for pushing out the old and historically black community who created the brand. Being one of those migrants myself (sans kale preference), I have to disagree. To an extent. The Brooklyn brand is all that is implied with the terms ‘heritage’, ‘hustle’, and ‘creativity’. Some would then associate these words to follow: ‘pretentious’, ‘snob’, ‘gentrification’, and ‘white’, but that’s not an exclusive list of synonyms; I think people just pull them out (and I’ve been guilty of this before) because it provides the biggest contrast. But this recent influx isn’t composed entirely of the most convenient characterizations, like young, white starving artists, who aren’t really starving but pretend to be because it’s more marketable than if they admitted that they came from privilege.

I’m Asian-American, and I moved here because I have better opportunities for what I want to do here than I do in California. Economic motives, if not as dire as others’. But mostly, I wanted to feel like I belonged to the world—much like the countless others who’ve immigrated here from the Midwestern plains or Europe or elsewhere for centuries before I did—because you can’t feel any closer to the center of everything than you do in New York City. I moved to Brooklyn because I already had friends here. I’d visited the summer prior to moving and loved it – I loved being surrounded by my peers in a more breathable space than Manhattan allows, with rent I could afford. That’s about the long and short end of it.

I always feel the need to justify my place and reason for being here. But even my boyfriend, who is a born-and-raised, my-grandparents-came-through-Ellis-Island New Yorker (who, on our first date, pointed out to me where he was once pistol-whipped at a bus stop, because his 16-year-old self didn’t want to give up $16 some 19 years ago), agrees that there are some really wonderful positives to what this new wave of migration (all inclusively cultural, ethnic, and socioeconomic) brings to the borough: for one thing, a revival in small business and craftsmanship. Maybe even a few days ago I would’ve felt a little self-conscious about considering aloud bookbinding, calligraphy, poetry, or paper pressing as a potential livelihood for fear of being labeled ‘hipster’ (thereby admitting responsibility for the maltreatment and/or displacement of the community that lived here before us). But the phenomenon of real estate politics and ethnic divides doesn’t exclusively represent Brooklyn today. There have always been waves of migration, and there was an already well-founded heritage of idea or creative exchange here. And all the better that small businesses that have existed in the same spot for years are now en vogue and socially or culturally institutionalized to safeguard their survival. I actually like buying things that people’s families poured their hearts and souls into for generations. And as much as I’m embittered by people my age who are self-sufficient off selling wooden spoons as art for a living, I envy them. I admire them. The real estate in this borough is so precious because it can house so many diverse walks of life, skills, experiences, languages, crafts, and incomes. Everyone wants to—and should—feed off this mosaic organism that, if employed smartly and proactively, can help you find your fortune. There’s an air of entrepreneurialism that has always been here but takes on a new face, an appreciation for good products and work, an open-mindedness for foreign foods and customs, and a pride in community, which has always existed here if but changes composition every couple decades.

Is that not the Brooklyn brand?


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