So this morning we woke up to chatter about how British superstar novelist Martin Amis is apparently growing tired of Brooklyn.
When Amis moved to the borough from his native London two years ago, New York’s literary intelligentsia acted as if they had scored some sort of trans-Atlantic coup. An adulatory article in The New York Times featured Amis, who has ripened from enfant terrible to elder statesman in the English literary scene over the past 40 years, waxing poetic about his new home in the landmarked district of Cobble Hill:
On a late afternoon in May, Martin Amis gestured toward the tall, sun-filled parlor windows of his Brooklyn brownstone.
“Out there, it’s Arcadian,” he said. “It’s prelapsarian. It’s like living in the ’50s.”
Now, according to the London Evening Standard, Amis has seen another side of Brooklyn, somewhat less prelapsarian, shall we say. And he seems to think it’s rather distasteful.
“He finds it terribly transactional and, ironically given he was viewed as a literary hipster, he views the Brooklyn hipster scene as populated by conventional posers,” says my man on the street corner. “He doesn’t go out as much as he did and has developed a reputation as a curmudgeon.”
If the reports are true, Amis is just one of many to complain about how Brooklyn does or doesn’t measure up to some platonic ideal. The Times itself is notorious for its kneejerk stereotyping of the borough’s hipster aspect, ably chronicled by Emily Badger here last week.
Here’s what I'd like to say to Amis and everyone else who seems to have so much to say about what is and isn't "Brooklyn": this place is a lot bigger than you seem to realize, and it is for damn sure a lot more interesting.
I've lived in the borough for 13 years (just a few blocks from Amis's house) and I grew up in Manhattan (I also did a two-year stint in Queens). But I am still discovering neighborhoods in Brooklyn that I don't even know the names of. I ride my bike and buses and subways to all different parts of this vast place on a weekly basis, and I have yet to be bored. I will never get to the end of it all.
Brooklyn is not (merely) the sepia-toned nostalgia factory of Amis's fantasies. Nor is it (simply) a breeding ground for "hipsters" (a label that has become meaningless through overuse) who do nothing but produce artisanal mayonnaise and cheap punch lines for Times writers.
Brooklyn is and remains much bigger than either of those stereotypes – much bigger than any of the stereotypes that have dogged it over the years. It is not just "do or die" Bed-Stuy, nor is it all about entitled Park Slope stroller-pushers. It cannot be reduced to the unsophisticated land of "dese and dose" that Barbra Streisand strove to escape (and where she declined to perform until the opening of the Barclays Center last year).
Brooklyn is the golf courses of Marine Park and the garish Christmas lights of Dyker Heights. It is the Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods of Midwood and Borough Park, the Russian nightclubs of Brighton Beach, and the Trinidadian roti shops of Nostrand Avenue. It is the slaughterhouses under the BQE on Third Avenue and the horseshoe crabs spawning on the shores of Jamaica Bay. And so much more.
Brooklyn covers 71 square miles and is home to 2.5 million people who speak dozens of languages. There are rich folks like Amis, who reportedly paid $2.5 million for his 5,300-square-foot house on a quaint and tree-lined street. And there some of the city's poorest residents living in places like East New York, where violent crime rates remain unconscionably high, and disenchantment with the "transactional" nature of the city's culture likely takes a different form than in Amis's circles.
The lazy clichés about Brooklyn, recycled ad infinitum, are symptomatic of a larger problem among boosters of cities around the country. Cities are not commodities to be consumed. If we think of them that way, we will always be disappointed. Far worse than that, we also risk shaping urban policy to promote a city’s "brand" rather than its genuine, organic well-being. You don't get a great city by deciding on an identity and then reinforcing it through marketing campaigns and cute T-shirts – by "putting a bird on it," so to speak.
You get a great city by providing economic opportunity, a socially tolerant atmosphere, and solid infrastructure to all of its residents, and then letting them take it from there.
Brooklyn has actually done that reasonably well over the years, which is why it is prospering today, and attracting people from all over the world to live here. Martin Amis is just one of many thousands of those people. If he dared to exit his gentrified bubble and started exploring the Brooklyn beyond his multimillion-dollar doorstep, he'd discover that "Brooklyn" is much more interesting than his ideas about it.