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.
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.
Even though this book was written in nine months, its subject matter suggests that it was brewing for much longer in your head.
Thank god for journals. They're old fashioned, but they work. Things were going on all the time around me that I just had to write down. It's amazing when you're looking back at a journal after 10, 12, 14 years, and the way you remember things is not the way it happened. The kind of details you record, looking back, would have been totally lost if I didn't have that record. In a way I was writing the daily life of Williamsburg for 15 years.
You write quite a bit about Kokie's, a bar that's been a bit of a legend when people talk about Williamsburg. You could buy and purchase cocaine there no problem.
It was like the Wild West!
How did you use that to illustrate what was happening in the neighborhood? Kokie's is definitely an extreme example, but also a bit of a metaphor for how open things were. And the waterfront, too. The waterfront was this magical, open playground for adults. Kinda scary playground, but you really couldn't believe you'd be out there in this wasteland, with a band of factories around you and homeless people living in dumpsters, a homeless tent city on a former loading dock, and a marsh, and you're just there in vast, empty field. Yet right across the river are the shining towers of Manhattan. How could you not write about that kind of magic? And that you could have it for just $500 a month rent.
Your rent was $300 a month when you moved to Williamsburg, right?
When I first moved out there, people were like, "Whoa, that's dangerous. How can you live there?" And it just shows you how badly abused and misused the city was in the '50s and '60s, and the shortsightedness of city administrators, urban planners, developers—they couldn't see what was of value here. The thing that still is great about New York is, you know, the range and variety of talented smart people you can meet here. And that's something I could only really see after I left here. A few years back, I did a panel on A.J. Liebling, a New Yorker writer in the '50s and '60s. He was a guy who had money, but he was really interested in writing about people on the street, writing about eccentric New Yorkers who were involved in weird fields. And they let him write. A lot of times when you read The New Yorker these days, whenever they write something about someone who isn't a lawyer, or doctor, or has a trust fund, it's like they're reporting on these bizarre, exotic aliens from outer space. It's like, look at these quaint freaks, which is the rest of America. Phillip Lopate was there, too, and he turned to me and asked, "Robert, whatever happened to the man on the street?" Why is the strangeness of the normal person, the wonder and beauty of their lives, why does it go completely unrecognized and unreported? Why are we only interested in writing about these elites? And, I mean, why? That's where the whole media attention is, the whole social attention is. And New York was a place where that wasn't the case. And yet, now these writers who are from these backgrounds don't know any other worlds or societies. That's what interests me as a writer. In Williamsburg, it wasn't just artists living there. It was a whole range of human types and social classes and bizarre behaviors.
Doesn't the Internet have something to do with all of that? A generation has grown up with themselves on public display, so is the narcissism you're talking about a surprise?
That's part of it. I also think there haven't been any major social movements since the '60s that have had a broad-based perspective and some kind of idea of economic justice.
What about Occupy?
Well, Occupy is the great hope, right? Who are cities going to be for? Will they be for the one percent, or will they be for the 99 percent? For Bloomberg, you're only a citizen when you're a millionaire. These are the people who matter to him. One thing New York does not have is a shortage of luxury housing. We're going to build 20,000 units in Williamsburg, and 80 to 90 percent of them are going to be for rich people. How does that help anyone else? The world of the future, the world that they project, is that you're either going to be Mitt Romney or a servant for him, if you're lucky. Who are cities for? Why not build 20,000 working-class and middle-class projects on the waterfront? It's been done in New York in the past, but there's no mass working-class, middle-class political movement. And these people in that narcissistic echo chamber just don't have any other inputs into their bubbles.
What's it like living temporarily in the West Village?
There's nothing for me here. It's expensive boutiques, expensive coffee shops, and jackasses coming out of the clubs at two in the morning screaming. It's so blah. One of the things that made big cities interesting is that you had such a range of people—and of course, you have it still in New York, there's still plenty of working-class, ethnic neighborhoods like Jackson Heights that have their own vigor and style. But the larger, bigger sections of the city don't. You might as well be in the suburbs. How bleak is it walking down Kent past the Edge? It could be anything. It could be Miami Beach. That's happening to all modern cities. They're becoming museums and playgrounds for the rich. They're losing all their vitality.
Did you have any fears with writing about a subject that was so localized and specific?
New York is a city that is famous for destroying its past. This is a city that regenerates itself, sloughs away old skin. Melville and Edgar Allan Poe talked about the way that New York is always wrecking its past and building something new on top of it. It is the city of modernity, so nothing stays in New York. That's part of the city since they erected the grid plan on it. I never really worried about it. But what's happening in Brooklyn is happening in cities all over the world. The same thing's happening in San Francisco. In Paris. In London. In a way, what they did with the Olympics is basically destroy a working-class neighborhood and try and turn it into Williamsburg waterfront condos. Every city planner working for some ambitious mayor has this paradigm in mind where I'm going to get some artists in here, this crappy neighborhood that is just a bunch of working people, and they're going to be the manure for gentrification.
The reason why I called the book The Last Bohemia—why in a certain way that Williamsburg was the end of a tradition of bohemia that goes back to Paris in the 1830s—is because the role of the artist has been too integrated into corporate culture now. Artists aren't going to have time or a chance to establish a niche and make a neighborhood have an identity. As soon as the word gets out about one of these places, the land rush starts. The developers come in. The tourists come in. As soon as something starts, it gets buried. I think the nature of what an artist does is changing so much that we're not going to have these places anymore. Something better might come along, but it's going to be different. A bohemia is not what a bohemia was even 25 years ago. You can't come to New York and just scrape by on odd jobs and make weird art and survive for 25 years and have a little career and reputation and a place to live. It's just, no.
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