From Iceland — We Live to Be Radical

We Live to Be Radical

Published April 7, 2006

Four years ago, when I lived in Brooklyn, Williamsburg was losing its cool, which is to say it was cool and everyone knew it. To indicate how mass hip the neighbourhood was, it’s best to refer to one incident: In 2001, a graffiti artist from Williamsburg stole a friend’s photo from a gallery opening as a joke, and escaped in a getaway car… along with his buddy, Ryan McGinley, the photo editor of Vice and the youngest photographer to ever have a solo show at the Whitney. When the New York Times reported on it, the number of band members, magazines and graffiti crews boggled the mind.
Other signs were things like a tiny blue paperback called The Hipster Handbook, describing, in hilarious detail, the tiny style points that everyone in the neighbourhood was pushing on the world when they were doing indie film, indie music or commercials.
Even as the world was noticing Williamsburg, locals realised the neighbourhood was done for. Rent doubled and more, local bars got on national television and then drew clientele that wanted to be on national television. The Williamsburg cultural magazine the Brooklyn Rail, dedicated to the local galleries and deep thought, didn’t have a member of staff who lived in Williamsburg by the end of 2003. It was enough to make a body move to Jersey.
Less Pacino, More Swayze
Point Break LIVE!, a stage production of the 1991 Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze blockbuster, is exactly the thing that  the hipster Williamsburg would have shunned. The play is profoundly entertaining, well-acted (on our night, even by the guest actor, a volunteer pulled from the crowd to recite Keanu Reeves’s wooden lines) and it has a fundamental message: mainly, if you think you’ve grown up and gotten book smarts, realise that you still likely connect with Keanu Reeves’s leading man ideology and come off every bit as much as an ass as he does. Somewhere along the production, as 250 people were laughing hysterically at an indie actor imitating Patrick Swayze and stating, “We live to be radical,” more than a few of us in the crowd caught the double-edged irony.
For this reason, Point Break LIVE! Wouldn’t have survived when Williamsburg was full of overly serious artists who were desperate for work. Daily, you had to acknowledge that art and independence were the highest possible callings. Now that money has fully crept into the neighbourhood and the artists have left, the art can ease up on trying to be genuine and start connecting, which is the scary part.
Point Break LIVE! Connects most strongly with the frat boys in the audience, people that the show’s co-creator, Jamie Hook, tells me are “complete dicks who ruin the experience.” They don’t. But this doesn’t stop Mr. Hook, still dressed in drag from the show, from interrupting our interview to approach the group of severely inebriated men on dates and telling them, “You guys are total assholes and you really bothered us.” A hurt frat boy responds first by showing money, then with various statements of admiration, all starting with “Dude, listen.”
It is not the kind of artist-to-receiver experience Mr. Hook probably dreamed of when he was putting on August Wilson to empty theatres, but it is the kind of interaction that goes on in every other art form – hearing it in live theatre is, in a way, refreshing.
On parting, Hook explains that pulling someone at random from the audience and having them read Keanu Reeves’s dialogue is not intended to mock. “Not everyone can be Al Pacino,” he says. “And not everybody needs to be. What this play demonstrates is that Keanu Reeves is the most generous actor of his generation.”
Williamsburg now has a lot more of the “generous” types, people who don’t expect to be called geniuses, and who are in little danger of being labelled as such. Because of the non-geniuses, an independent play is making more money than it ever would have were it playing for artist-friends. The hip neighbourhood is now a place where people can be artists and make a living… and then flee to be around a cooler crowd, one that doesn’t open sentences with “dude”, or mention money as a primary critical judgement, nor openly display enthusiasm.
No Rock in Brooklyn
“They advertise you can smoke whatever you want. Don’t worry at all,” Josh Loar, the sound guy from Galapagos, tells us, a hand-rolled cigarette between his teeth and a Macintosh in his lap.
Mr. Loar, a composer from Los Angeles, isn’t so down on Williamsburg, Brooklyn – he makes a good living scoring independent films and local commercials, and his band, Electric Light, has a number of clubs to play at. It’s not California. There is no chance of getting a place to live and record in, but, with a few concessions – Loar and his wife live in a fourth-floor walk-up in which, with some frequency, dead rats appear – you can get by decently. For $60, he regularly rents three hours in a large studio, outfitted with amps, drums, PA systems and a bathroom with a shower but no lock, to do Pro Tools magic. On the night we join him, a racket comes from all four rooms.
We tell Loar that we want to hear the next Yeah Yeah Yeahs. A classically trained percussionist, he responds that Brooklyn is not what you’d expect if you only knew it from record stores and music videos.
“There really isn’t any rock coming out of Brooklyn anymore. Ever since the Bravery, people who liked music just had enough of retro-rock. All you see now is experimental jazz or people looking for ultra-traditional, something like The Two Man Gentlemen Band. You hardly ever see a drum set anymore. Even the hip-hop is about retro drum machines.”
Pressed to name any rock bands, he admits there’s a retro-90s movement out of Montreal, and he’s heard that the next Wolf Parade is in the space next to us.
We bring the management of Sweatshop into the discussion. He’s never done better business – the studio is looking to buy another floor, as so few people are allowed to make noise in their newly upgraded buildings.
Some musicians are afraid to even store their equipment at home. He waves at himself, displaying jet black hair, piercings, tight pants a little too low. “If you look like I do, you can’t rent anywhere. Nobody wants to rent to a musician. You know what I say when I have to talk to a landlord? I say, ‘I sell guitars to musicians.’ That’s the only way they’ll rent to you, if you tell them you take money from musicians. That’s my secret. Don’t ever print that,” he tells me.
Defending from Whom?
“I love Brooklyn, but you just have to grow up and move on,” my former roommate, an advertising copywriter who moved from Brooklyn to the Lower East Side of Manhattan tells me. “You can only fight it for so long, but now Brooklyn costs as much as Manhattan, and people have the same kind of jobs, it just takes longer to get home.”
Even a friend who broke through her writing slump by publishing City Baby Brooklyn: The Ultimate Guide for Parents has mentioned getting out. That they are moving out is nothing new: one-quarter of all Americans are descended from people  who lived in Brooklyn… and moved out. The amazing thing about people who move away from Brooklyn now is how bitter they are over what they’re losing by moving.
Our guide for a good portion of our visit was Details magazine’s Senior Writer Bart Blasengame – a man every bit as hip as his name. Dodging the sell-out culture of Manhattan, and the overhyped areas like Williamsburg, he settled down in Greenpoint five years ago. A ruggedly handsome Polish neighbourhood stocked with excellent used-clothing stores, camera shops, record shops and Thai restaurants, to say nothing of local bars run by displaced Southerners, to hear Blasengame tell it, Greenpoint was paradise a few months ago. By sheer coincidence, over brunch, the producer of Point Break LIVE! Walks into the restaurant, registering only casual surprise that we would be in this neighbourhood, and joins in on the gentrification discussion and tells us he’s happy to be away from Williamsburg, safe in the haven that is Greenpoint.
Blasengame splits from us: we walk the Brooklyn Bridge and check in on Williamsburg galleries, he spends the ideal day going to the Laundromat, then buying used shirts and records. That night we decide to check the difference – if everybody is moving back to Manhattan, especially the Lower East Side, Manhattan must have gotten cooler, surely, by now, as New York Magazine suggested in a cover story back in 2003, “Manhattan is the new Brooklyn.”
Following the best advice we can get, that of New York gossip and night life columnists, we charge through the Lower East Side, hoping to come into contact with genius, intelligence or at least cool indifference. We get fitted jeans, sport coats and exposure to the lines, “Excuse me, big guy, I’m gonna scoot by you,” and “I wouldn’t kick her outta bed for eatin’ crackers.”
Bitter and drunk, we crash a party of New York journalists. Before we can explain to the hosts why we feel we should have restitution for our crappy night out, our guide, Mr. Blasengame, is accosted for wearing a sweatshirt with the slogan “Defend Brooklyn.” A gossip columnist is bitter to see such a shirt.
“Who are you defending Brooklyn from, exactly?” the columnist asks, his own shirt unbuttoned to expose as much toned chest as possible.
“From people like you!” Blasengame shouts, launching into a lengthy tirade, heavy on the f-bomb.
Mercifully, the loudest man at the party decides that he likes our photographer, and he segues all feuding into a discussion of what our photographer would like to drink, and how big our photographer’s lens might be.
We are eventually led to a secret bar in the Lower East Side called Milk and Honey – a bar so hip that it has no sign, no line and you must get a secret phone number to gain entrance. The sublime beauty of the staff and patrons is enough to cool down Mr. Blasengame. Sadly, I am unable to consider anything but the waitress’s enormous hair for the hour of our visit, until said fear, combined with retro-cocktail-induced vertigo, forces us all from the building.
Brunch without the Agent
“Oh my God am I a douche bag! I am going to tell an entire restaurant about my agent and my acting career!” Blasengame moans the next day at a small café in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
“It is not acting, it is crafting, the stage and screen are craft and art, as I always tell my agent,” I say, doing my best James Lipton.
The object of our loathing is a big-haired, high-domed, saggy, small-bodied, mid-thirties actor who has been lecturing two equally saggy and small-bodied, mid-thirties women about the way people misunderstand his acting career, his craft and his various gifts – most sentences beginning with, “I was saying this to my agent the other day.”
“This is why I wear that sweatshirt, that one I wore last night in Manhattan,” Blasengame says, again, much louder than he  needs to. “Because assholes who come into brunch restaurants and talk about their soap commercials in the hope to get some depressing sex, because these douche bags are moving in from the bridge and tunnels and taking over Brooklyn.”
It all seems funny enough, but when we leave, Blasengame actually apologises for the saggy actor. “I’m sorry you had to hear that. This neighbourhood is usually so much nicer. I can’t believe it’s getting this bad.”
He points out a string of ten-storey, slipshod apartment buildings going up to accommodate the newest wave of Brooklynites. The picturesque, working class Polish neighbourhood with the Russian Orthodox cathedral is losing its charm. “This place will be as bad as Williamsburg soon,” he says.
Our photographer, who takes a few seconds to frame a shot of the God Bless deli, and who started ignoring gentrification talk two days ago, shrugs and whispers to me, “I’d kill to live here.”
I ask Mr. Blasengame if he and the many other Brooklynites who are complaining about the change aren’t overstating the problem – rich people throwing money around, even if they’re annoying actors, can’t rate that highly in things that ruin your quality of life.
“When you know what’s being ruined, it matters,” he says. We go back to his apartment and read about Portland, Oregon, which, according to the Willamette Week, doesn’t suck yet.
Mentioned in this article:
Vice Magazine,
Brooklyn Rail,
Brooklyn Baby,
Willamette Week,
Two Man Gentlemen Band,
Electric Lights,

The best way to get to Brooklyn:
icelandair flies direct Flights from Keflavík to new york.
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Icelandair provided tickets and a stipend for this travel piece.

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