Q&A: Robert Anasi on The Last Bohemia, Gentrification, and Williamsburg in the '90s

The average rent for one-bedroom apartments in Williamsburg right now is $3,300. In 1994, when Robert Anasi found a spot on the corner of Union and Grand, he paid 300 bucks a month for a bedroom. He scraped by, doing a variety of odd jobs—from art handler to legal assistant to working for a slum lord. During that time, he witnessed Williamsburg transform from a working-class factory neighborhood to its current state, a gentrified, cleaned-up example of New New York. He left in 2008 for the University of California, Irvine, to get his doctorate. Looking back on his time in Brooklyn, in his eyes, "The place I knew completely disappeared."

Through his latest book The Last Bohemia: Scenes From the Life of Williamsburg, Brooklyn (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, pp. 230, August 7), a memoir collection of both his own and various residents' tales from the neighborhood, he hopes to "tell stories about that lost world, a world that you wouldn't believe existed in that place, [because] so little of it remains." Last week, the Voice chatted with Anasi at his temporary residence in the city, a former professor's West Village apartment, about what happened to the neighborhood, what gentrification does to cities, and what it was like to live a genuine bohemian life.

When did you realize a book about Williamsburg could be a thing?
When I started coming back, I saw the transformation. That the time I'd been there was a bookended era, and that time had passed. It hadn't been written about, really. Williamsburg, even out on the West Coast, was getting mentioned in the media, and you saw the way the developments were going, and you saw how it was becoming this national hipster hotspot. And the hipster became a figure of ridicule across the world. My experience with the place was so different from what I was reading about. I was also working with some professors at UCI who do theoretical stuff on cities, and post-modernism, the changing nature of what cities are for. I saw my own experience jiving with this theoretical framework, so it all came together. I wrote to my editor and was like, "Maybe I should do a book about Williamsburg?" And he said, "Yeah!"

When I picked it up, I feared that it was going to be a lot of "This was cool before you got here," but the prose—though there are some bitter parts—doesn't really echo that. How did you avoid that cliché?
Well, it's not only a book about me. The idea of writing a memoir is utterly self-aggrandizing, even though it's being done more and more by people who are 25. I wasn't interested in writing a book about myself, and I didn't think my life was that important. But my life in the context of a place, and the people I knew there, seemed much more interesting. While using my life as a reference point, I wanted to address the bigger issues that were affecting Williamsburg, neighborhoods like this throughout the country, so there are large sections of the book that are other people's stories. It becomes more of a story about the place and the time, rather than myself. That helped me stop being bitter.

Anasi moved to Williamsburg in 1994.
Nadia Lesy
Anasi moved to Williamsburg in 1994.

There were plenty of crappy things about Williamsburg and New York in the '80s and '90s. In a lot of ways, it was better back then, but it's not better getting mugged, you know? Getting mugged is not better. Getting your house broken into is not better. But I wanted to present a picture of a place and make it available, rather than just rejecting the people who came later, and have this nostalgic [view] that we had it so much better before you. Artists are victims of gentrification, but they're also contributors. So you have to understand how your playing into the game yourself. My hands aren't clean.

I worked at a pizzeria in Greenpoint supporting myself for my first couple of years in New York, and any time I would chat about the neighborhood with regulars, I'd feel like I was overstepping my boundary because I'm not a native. How did you walk that line?
I thought that everyone had their own story of Williamsburg. My book is certainly not this overarching oral history view of everything that happened. Given the time constraints I had [nine months], I thought it'd be good to focus on people I knew first-hand. So everyone I talked in the book was someone I knew from that time period. It gave me a way to draw a certain social network. This is my version of the neighborhood.

I include a local guy who grew up in Greenpoint, and he has the perspective of, in his words: "I thought I was growing up in the worst place in the world and I wanted to be an artist. Here I am, in this dying industrial town right across from the U.N., nobody knows we exist, everyone here says it sucks. How am I going to be an artist and get out of here?" But then the artists came to him. So for him, it was a super positive experience. Or for someone like Napoleon, who's a south side Dominican guy also with an artistic temperament, it's surely a positive experience. He went from gang-banging on the south side to opening the first lounge in the neighborhood—being someone who was able to navigate both those worlds, having the intelligence and the talent to make an opportunity out of that.

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