Chasing the Bubble

A poster hanging in a coffee shop window on Smith Street promotes yet another Walt Whitman event. My friend Michael, a Whitman scholar, told me there is some kind of Whitman commemoration going on in Brooklyn every month.

In terms of square miles, Brooklyn is New York’s second-largest borough, after Queens; in terms of population, it is first. If Brooklyn were a city, it would be the fourth most populous in the United States. If Brooklyn were a country, its chief exports would include artisanal pickles, eco-friendly yoga wear, Red Hook-made Saipua soap (responsible for every store smelling like clove geranium) and books written by men named Jonathan.

In Brooklyn, material goods matter, but other things matter more.

Proteus Gowanus…in a former box factory, is the kind of place whose founder could get a MacArthur genius grant. Loosely speaking, it is a museum. Here are some of the things you will find in its labyrinthine rooms: an exhibit of neo-shaman art, ephemera having to do with morbid anatomy, a Reanimation Library that houses odd books (“Sex Lives of Animals Without Backbones,” “the Gun Digest of Exploded Fireworks Drawings”), and, every Thursday night, a meeting of the Fixers Collective, whose members will attempt to repair any broken thing you bring in…Proteus Gowanus has the best gift shop in the world. There are banned-book bracelets, orange glow-in-the-dark bicycle vests that say “UNINSURED,” and a CD of songs whose lyrics are taken from the journals of Lewis and Clark.

These excerpts are from “Borough Haul: Are you hip enough to shop in Brooklyn?” by Patricia Marx, a must read survey of the material world that is Brooklyn (The New Yorker, March 8, 2010.)

Everyone says it was the art galleries and edgy performance places that were drawing the public. But I think it was the consumption spaces—the stores, bars, and cafes where you could look through plate-glass windows and see people living a kind of aspirational life, but in a low-key, affordable way. Brooklyn came to be understood as a place of creative consumption.

Sharon Zukin, author of Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places (with a chapter called “How Brooklyn Became Cool.”

Brooklyn in 2010 has more like the ambience of Lower Manhattan (Soho, Tribeca, LES) that I found so intoxicating when I arrived in the early 1970s than any other place I know. Like a bubble under the tablecloth, the best stuff just keep moving around. But for right now, it has lodged itself southeast of Manhattan.

5 Replies to “Chasing the Bubble”

  1. I enjoyed this a lot. According to my only, who has now taken up residence on Henry St. on the Lower East Side, “Brooklyn’s cool but just too far away and too expensive.” He found out how far away one early morning when he missed the last train and decided to walk home.

  2. Are you kidding? Henry Street? That’s where I lived for years! The building was 142 I think, right on the corner of Rutgers and Henry. Once a slum, it has now been dolled up and has an upscale home furnishing store where Jimmy used to sell fried fish (inter alia, if you get my drift….) But that was long ago and far away.

    Way way WAY too small a world…

  3. Bronwen Murphy says:

    Hi Deborah! I remember that Patricia Marx article — it was Borough Haul, get it, shopping/haul rather than Borough Hall, as I recall. I love Slow Muse. Nadine B told me about it —

  4. Bronwen, Thank you for the typo catch! Yeah, I get it!!! Stop in again.

  5. He’s at 243 Henry. I will have to tell him.

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