I love reading books, so I was excited to check out classic SoHo booksellers McNally Jackson’s new store in Williamsburg. I hadn’t been on Bedford Avenue (Williamsburg’s Champs-Élysées) in a few years, and man… it’s changed. Back in 2013, when I used to hang out there, there were a bunch of fancy stores selling overpriced artisanal stuff and half-finished condo buildings on every corner. Now, there are more stores selling more overpriced artisanal stuff, and the condo buildings are all finished. I guess I should’ve seen that coming, the logical conclusion of a generation of gentrification.
The new bookstore is lovely, located in an industrial loft space called the Lewis Steel Building. A genuine, playful-yet-purposeful remixing of the industrial for our post-industrial world — this is what being a hipster is all about. Just check out this faded-ass sign on Google Maps:
But then you look closer at the sign. It’s too perfect, the temporal distress too uniform. Thanks to the terrifying power of Google, we can see what that same building looked like before it became condos:
Indeed, the building was never called the “Lewis Steel Building.” It’s not that there was never a steel mill there — there was — it’s just that it was called The Lewis Steel Products Building. But Toll Brothers Inc., a massive real estate development company with several buildings in and around New York City, decided to renovate the name along with the building itself.
Mark Greif, in his essay “What Was The Hipster?” (originally published in New York Magazine 2010, reprinted in his 2016 essay collection Against Everything), separates the hipsterdom of the 2000’s into two distinct epochs. The first, in which artsy urbanites ironically adopt the signifiers of the previous generation’s working-class masculinity (think PBR, trucker hats, and boot cut jeans), began in 1999, when VICE Magazine moved from Toronto to the Big Apple. Around the time of the Iraq War, it became supplanted by a wave of anti-war/primitivist “green” hipsterdom that preferred skinny jeans, only listened to bands named after animals (Animal Collective, Wolf Parade, Band of Horses, etc.), and was frequently parodied on Portlandia. These two trends are often conflated in discussions of hipsters — a term which Greif says no longer has any meaning — but they are in fact quite distinct.
Because real estate moves at the speed of decades, the Lewis Steel Building is designed as a reference to the first era of cultural pastiche — more “House of Jealous Lovers” than “Adobe slats for my girls,” if you will. The yuppies who live in this place definitely think living in a renovated steel mill from the 30’s is cool, but they don’t think it’s cool because they want to cosplay as a super-poor factory worker from the Great Depression. What’s actually happening is that rich millennials who work in finance and/or tech and/or advertising are buying themselves a license to pretend to be poor, artsy young people in 2001, when Williamsburg was actually cool. (This is a joke. Williamsburg was never cool.)
The Lewis Steel Building is a copy of the hipster’s cultural pastiche, an example of what Baudrillard would call a simulacrum, a fact that would’ve mattered a lot to me in college.
If you want to live in the Lewis Steel (Products) Building, it’s going to cost you. One-bedrooms start at $3,000 per month, two-bedrooms start at $4,500 per month, and, confusingly, studios start at $3,500. With the exception of the weirdly cheap one-bedroom, those prices are roughly a thousand dollars more than the average Williamsburg apartment, and if you’re paying that much for a studio, you could just as easily live in SoHo or TriBeCa. But just take a look inside the place! The hallways feature salvaged wood joists! All the rooms feature potentially cosmetic old-school radiators! The “one-bedroom with intact elevator door” literally has a 90-year old industrial door in it! None of the bedrooms have closets, but fuck it, they built shelves into the walls! It’s almost as if the reason that today’s yuppies want to live in renovated steel mills is because the previous generation’s artists wanted to live in unrenovated steel mills. The Lewis Steel Building is a copy of the hipster’s cultural pastiche, an example of what Baudrillard would call a simulacrum, a fact that would’ve mattered a lot to me in college.
It’s not a fact that matters to a generation too young to remember the hanging chads that led to the election of George W. Bush, though, so 15 years after Miranda moved to Brooklyn, bros are moving from Murray Hill to Williamsburg, and they’re moving to the Lewis Steel Building. There’s no reason to assume that neighborhood, already saturated by similarly corny, ruggedly sterile high-rises, has reached some sort of saturation point. More buildings will be renovated. Even if the L train does shut down, many of the highest-tier cultural jobs have relocated to Brooklyn, and the arrival of Amazon to Long Island City will continue to drive the economic center of New York eastward. For those poor souls damned to commute to Manhattan, well, there’s always the ferry.
After not buying any books at McNally Jackson — I have too many books already, and it would have been a pain to schlep them back to my apartment in Philadelphia (like any good hipster, I left New York for Philly) — I walked past a classic Williamsburg watering hole (i.e., one I first went to in 2013), Skinny Dennis, a dive bar that takes pains to refer directly to the 1970s white working class culture that hipsters later remixed. This is not just my opinion; the bar’s website refers to it as “New York City's premier honky tonk bar.” It’s corny, but the drinks are cheap and they have a jukebox full of classic country and southern rock that it’s okay to like ironically. The New Yorker’s Goings On About Town section raves about its authenticity, so you can be sure that it is exactly what a bar critic for The New Yorker thinks Nashville was like in the ’70s.
I hate nostalgia, though; when I go back to places I’ve lived, I try to go to new spots, to see how they’ve grown. Around the corner I saw a new bar with a great name: Horses and Divorces.
I was through the looking glass. Horses and Divorces was another simulacrum, a copy of Skinny Dennis. All of the latter’s clutter and actually old beer signs had been replaced by Design-y lights and a hand-painted, large-scale recreation of Burt Reynolds’ famous nude Cosmopolitan centerfold. Promotional fliers on tables encouraged patrons to take a picture with the painting; these patrons also seemed to be mostly French.
The presence of these Frenchmen demonstrates just how global (and darkly funny) postmodern cultural exchange can be. Visiting Paris last summer, I was amused at Parisians’ desire to be “très Brooklyn” — apparently there’s some debate about whether this is real, but seriously just walk around the northeast part of the city. When I Airbnb’d my bedroom on the LES to pay for conference travel in grad school, I was surprised by how many of my guests were French. Most of them wanted to see Times Square (a simulacrum of capitalistic excess in its own right, but at least it’s been like that since they got rid of all the porn theaters ), but many also wanted directions to Williamsburg. For the record — you should always walk over the bridge, it’s definitely more “auth” than anything you’re gonna do on the other side.
Bedford Avenue has become Disneyland for Europeans. Enamored of our media, they come and consume bizarro copies our decades-old cultural pastiche, with even less understanding of the layers of cultural referents than the residents of Lewis Steel. To ease their transition, the Lewis Steel Building even has an outpost of G-Star Raw, the Dutch clothing company that makes the hideously ugly jeans preferred by Europeans. Don’t believe me? Just look read the Google Maps reviews of the Lewis Steel building (scroll past the ones left by the disgruntled residents).
Of course, this has been going on in NY forever; the city is the modern world’s greatest palimpsest, the sandy shores of its culture erased and rewritten by waves of immigration, crime, industrialization and creation. The writer Luc Sante (himself a European!) describes beautifully the effervescence and ultimate destruction of the scene on the LES in the ’70s, which followed roughly the same trajectory: squares trying to muscle in on a slice of the authenticity that comes with cultural production and especially live music:
What was formerly given up to the street for common scavenging is now being put up for sale on flattened cardboard boxes on the sidewalk. People are flooding into the set just to gape. People are paying money to sleep in closets and backyard sheds and doctors' examining rooms. People are selling T-shirts advertising the neighborhood, or bands that have already broken up [...]
Therein lies salvation, I suppose: young people never have a full knowledge of history, and age necessarily entails distance from authentic experience. Sante describes walking around the LES and being able to see when everyone “stopped” (that is, gave up):
This one with the death's-head rictus 1973, that one in the Perfecto jacket 1977, her friend in the vinyl T-shirt 1979, those people looking like drunken ballroom dancers on an ocean liner 1980 — and that's when you realize you have a year written on your own forehead and it's not the one that tops the current calendar. You have aged out of the struggle just in time for the struggle to be done with you.
What makes 2019 so different and bad, I think, is a lack of youthful renewal — the kids really aren’t alright. Many of the people Sante describes are 19 and 21-year-olds who are willing to endure urban squalor in exchange for cultural effervescence; that generation might look at today’s kids, who are more likely to live at home and not do drugs or have sex, and see a bunch of squares.
But the economic situation has changed. Housing is more expensive, and it’s far more difficult to ensure access to middle-class stability without the expense and time of a college degree. The 25-year-old bohemian in 1978 who decided to “stop” could realistically expect to be able to play economic catch-up with their uncool peers who’d headed straight into their careers. To today’s kids, that’s not really an option.
Another explanation (and it’s basically impossible to say which of these has a bigger impact) is the rise of the dreaded smartphone and the hyper-connected lifestyle that such devices imply. Kids have simply accumulated so many cultural references and social cues. This accretion leads to sclerosis — spontaneity and true creativity are harder when the past weighs you down more heavily. Today’s “creatives” are always engaging in mini-broadcasting, always aware of their audience. Everyone who might’ve been congregating to do drugs and be weird and ultimately produce the type of creative work that defines generational attitudes is no longer doing so in a hermetic environment. Instead, they’re doing these things while simultaneously trying to build up their own clout. The capitalist interlopers that Sante says are the death knell of any scene are always already there.
So we’ve all agreed to skip right to the part where we accept some meaningless signifiers of authenticity handed down to us by old people. It’s easy to be nostalgic for nostalgia, meanwhile, because we know exactly what that looks like. It looks like a reclaimed joist.