As an incoming freshman at Brooklyn College in 1987 I was required to be screened for inclusion into a speech course. The testing procedure was quite simple. A copy of The New York Times was given to me and I was asked to read the lead article. I confidently breezed through a newspaper that I had been indoctrinated to while attending Andres Hudde J.H.S., also in my native Brooklyn. Upon finishing, I gathered my belongings and headed for the door under the impression that I would not have to take the speech class. Much to my surprise I was handed a card that had a check mark next to Speech 3. Feeling like a batter in a baseball game that thought he would be issued a walk and instead was called out on strikes, I approached the screener and asked for an explanation.
“It’s your accent dear. It’s very Brooklyn.”
Much has changed in Brooklyn over the past twenty-five years when I was subject to that speech class screening. I am proud to say that my accent is not part of those changes. However, some changes, including the very recent rise of wealthy transplants to Brooklyn, have created not only a culture clash, but also an overall feeling that there is a dwindling number of native Brooklynites left in the borough. As one of the “natives,” I often question how and why the changes have occurred, as well as where do I, and those like myself, fit in?
As a free-lance session drummer, I have always found myself navigating within different networks of musicians from all walks of life. The language of music is universal, especially drums and rhythm. Fortunately, I have been blessed to play with many homegrown musicians as well as with those that have found their way to Brooklyn from around the world. These encounters have often led to interesting musical interpretations and mash-ups. It has also led to some strange personal experiences as the population of Brooklyn has seemingly shifted from a predominately working class demographic to an influx of transplants from the Midwest and Europe, with not only a dream to make it in New York City, but the wealth to make it happen.
I first started feeling like an outsider in my own town back around 2005 when I was attending a rooftop loft party thrown by a prominent Swiss musician. When I picked up my friend, a German ex-pat, to go to the party she said the building was in East Williamsburg. East Williamsburg? I had never heard of such a thing! The address she gave was clearly Bushwick. Maybe there was something lost in translation? Arriving at the party we were greeted by her friends that were from various European countries. I was the only townie, the lone Brooklynite. The introductions finally found their way to me and a young woman asked where I was from.
“Brooklyn,” I replied.
“But where are you really from?” she questioned.
“Well, I’m a native Brooklynite.” I answered.
“Can’t you tell? He drinks cawfee and parks his cawr!” said my friend as she mimicked my accent.
The ice was broken! Everyone laughed and in a strange way I felt like an ambassador for Brooklyn. The mood was light and people asked what it was like to be raised in Brooklyn. Their curiosity was endearing and we shared a mutual interest in the music that night, bridging the gap between cultures. There was also a shared sense and understanding that I was a Brooklyn native and they were guests and transplants in my town. While my radar definitely indicated that things in Brooklyn might be changing (rooftop loft party’s in Bushwick?), I felt that night as if I was “breaking bread” (or beats for that matter) with working class yet artsy people such as myself.
My 2005 experience lays in stark contrast to a recent encounter where my accent was once again thrust into the spotlight. I was playing a show in Williamsburg backing an artist with whom I greatly admire. Most of her fan base reflects the new Williamsburg/Bushwick demographic – mid-20’s to late-30’s, mostly white, transplants, and in all likelihood, high money earners or trust fund babies to which the working class Brooklyn ethos might appear foreign. I have played in a lot of different projects over the years and must say that the current Williamsburg music scene is a great one for musicians. The fans are earnest, support their artists by coming to see them live and are enthusiastic at shows.
On this particular Tuesday night, the room was full and the energy was live. So, here I am, a lifelong “dyed in the wool” Brooklynite amongst the “newbie” transplants that call Williamsburg “Billyburg.” On two separate occasions that night I was asked not only where I was from but where was my accent from? I thought they couldn’t be serious but I soon realized that they were. For a second I was nervous. Did I lose my accent somewhere along the way, amidst my travels and contact with non-Brooklynites?
Because of some outward markings my oldest and closest friends often joke that I am a hipster but the dead giveaway that I am not is my accent. However, the two people I spoke with thought I was like them, a transplant from another place but they couldn’t figure out from where. I was a bit shocked that these two individuals didn’t make the connection. In a very nice way I explained that I was from Brooklyn. Really from Brooklyn! I felt compelled to not only bring their attention to the fact that they were in the presence of a life long Brooklynite but also that our numbers were beginning to dwindle as transplants such as themselves began to populate Brooklyn and change the culture – for better or worse. It was too much for the both of them. The gentleman nodded and walked away as if the conversation was leading to a place inappropriate for a light social gathering. The young women smiled and stared at me blankly like a deer caught in headlights. She did not seem to understand where I was coming from. If there is one obvious quality that the new Williamsburg residents share, other than their obsession with distinctions, it is that they do not like to have their good time interrupted.
Maybe my reaction was not the most diplomatic approach but I was also mired in the difficult process of searching for a new apartment rental and I let my frustration get the best of me. The house in which I was renting an apartment in Kensington was sold, I had to find a new place to live and it was my first experience being a housing seeker in a sea of gentrification. I quickly found that as a working class musician I was not only priced out of the more desirable Brooklyn neighborhoods, but I was also on the verge of being unable to stay in Kensington, my “hood” since 1992. The price on Brooklyn rentals increased close to 7% in 2011, which does not sound like a lot but to a freelance musician, it is.
I was working with several realtors during the search and they all relayed the same story – Brooklyn is a hot commodity and the transplants have the capital to acquire it. I can understand their desire. There is something about Brooklyn sensibilities and roots that translate worldwide. I have traveled as far away as Japan and people always seem to recognize my accent and Brooklyn “attitude.” When you are from Brooklyn you carry a certain “street cred” and cultural capital that is both sophisticated and down to earth.
During my search, a very dear friend and his girlfriend were in the process of buying an apartment in Williamsburg. They are hard working children of immigrants who were transplanting from New Jersey. They had scrimped, saved and borrowed to get the down payment together for a beautiful apartment right on the edge of the East River. The building (ironically enough called The Edge when the “edginess” that Williamsburg once had has since faded) was located a block away from a studio and artist space that I used to rehearse in during the late nineties. Back then the neighborhood was still a Polish and Puerto Rican enclave with only a smattering of artists who had emigrated from the Lower East Side. It was literally on the same plot of land that used to be an abandoned dock, where a girlfriend and I climbed through a fence and watched the wreckage of the Twin Towers smolder on September 12th, 2001. Now, about ten years later, a gleaming amenity-laden high rise stood triumphantly, surrounded by overpriced boutique shops and restaurants frequented by a class of people that a Brooklynite like myself used to only see when in Manhattan. The same people that likely would have been frightened to be in Brooklyn alone ten years ago now jog fearlessly at night along Kent Avenue.
My friends gave me a tour of the apartment and building and I expressed how happy I was that they got the place that they wanted. They work hard and deserve it. The conversation turned to me and how my apartment search was going. I informed them that it was not going too well, that I was having trouble finding a decent apartment, in a decent neighborhood and in my price range. Musicians learn early how to keep lifestyle expenses low so we can survive but renting an apartment for $900 a month with a bathroom ceiling that is caving in is a stretch. My friend’s girlfriend then suggested moving to Jersey City, which would be more affordable. WHAT?!?! I know she was genuinely offering a suggestion intended to help but – Jersey City? I’ve been there many times. It’s a nice place but Brooklyn is in my blood. How ironic was it that my good friends moved into Brooklyn and one was now suggesting that I, a native Brooklynite, move out?
The emerging Brooklyn lifestyle has come with a financial and cultural “price-tag” that is extraordinarily hard to bear. It appears that the rapid changes Brooklyn is undergoing were not implemented with native Brooklynites in mind. Instead they are geared to the “nu-Brooklyn” vanguard that have no interest in adding to the established Brooklyn cultural nuances but instead have a desire to create their own fantasy version of what Brooklyn should be. A utopia of trendy, bearded and bespectacled tastemakers circa the eighteen nineties. Yes, Breucklandia!
My gut is telling me that a lot of native Brooklynites have either chosen to move or have been forced to move away over the past ten years because they can no longer afford the borough. Brooklynites have never been ones to stand in the way of progress but it is quite sad that all the recent changes seem geared toward the affluent. For years I would complain that I had to go out of my neighborhood or into Manhattan to enjoy some things like sushi or a great bar with live music. Well, now my neighborhood is filled with fashonistas sporting designer dogs, a proliferation of Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians baseball caps, new live music venues whose programmers stay as far away from urban music as possible and several sushi and gourmet restaurants where the price of the average dish is comparable to Manhattan. The fact that The New Yorker magazine had a Brooklyn hipster recently grace its cover in a Eustace Tilley tribute has me hoping that Brooklyn has finally reached a tipping point. I for one hope that Brooklyn’s nagging hipsterism will go the way of other superficial trends and be relegated to a cheap clothing line at Target.
Brooklyn had always been a town that has welcomed transplants and immigrants looking for a better way of life. It was a town that, at its best, accepted people for who they were. When I was growing up in Brooklyn there was the feeling that despite any differences that were evident, such as race or ethnicity, the commonality of being from a working class family leveled the playing field. Now it seems as if the working class is struggling more than ever and Brooklyn is for sale to the highest bidder. Well, you can buy Brooklyn but you can’t buy the accent. In fact, you will have to get a C in a speech class if you want to own it.