CITIES JULY 1, 2013
Café Grumpy, thanks to its recent star turn in "Girls," is as decent a symbol as any other of this century’s version of Brooklyn. The Greenpoint coffee shop, as was reported today, will in all likelihood replace a Starbucks in Grand Central Station, as part of a concerted effort by the MTA to reach out to smaller, locally-owned business. (Shake Shack will also open up a location in the terminal.) This follows close on the heels of the news that there will soon be a Café Grumpy in Times Square. It’s hardly the first Brooklyn establishment to cross over the East River: Brooklyn stalwarts like Fatty ‘Cue have opened Manhattan outposts in recent years. There is a place called Pop’s of Brooklyn … in Greenwich Village, the same neighborhood where you can also find a theme-restaurant called The Brooklyneer. But Grand Central and Times Square are the most Manhattan of Manhattan locales, crowded and busy and iconic and unconcerned with maintaining an aesthetic relationship to bohemian culture, unlike the Village. Does Café Grumpy’s imminent arrival in both places mean that Manhattan is getting Brooklynized?
Sure, in the sense that large swaths of the style-conscious world is, from Moscow to Paris. There’s plenty of evidence that Brooklyn has become a highly marketable brand. It is one that calls to mind, as Stephen Metcalf put it in T Magazine recently, “small-batch production, urban husbandry, period facial hair, a fixed-gear bicycle, 'Girls.'” But, he continued, “Brooklynizing” is different from “Brooklyn.” “'Brooklynizing' is the exportation of these culture-pages clichés to fresh landmasses.” Including, of course, a very close, very famous island, one where suddenly the onslaught of chain stores is being rejected by the powers-that-be for a different ethos, one that seems very in favor or "small-batch production."
Manhattan-goes-Brooklyn is not a phenomenon that’s totally new. In 2011, the blog Vanishing New York skewered the recent glut of Brooklyn-based establishments moving across the river with the observation that “this is Greek-sized stuff, the mythic story of maternal cannibalism, only in reverse. Manhattan’s cast-off children are getting big enough to eat the mother that rejected them. No wonder so much of this phenomenon comes obsessed with food and pleasure.” It’s a fun interpretation, but I’m not so sure it’s the right one. Metcalf, again:
“Brooklynization,” after all, represents a serious attempt at repudiation: of Manhattan, of course, whose nosebleed real estate prices pushed the creative class out to Brooklyn in the first place; but also of the logic of globalization, and its elevation of an international elite with no ostensible connection to either specific places or the making of physical things. If the old battle cry of youth authenticity was once Never Sell Out, the new one is Never Scale Up.
What is a store in Times Square if not an attempt to scale up, though? Manhattan isn’t getting Brooklynized; Brooklyn is getting Manhattanized, and not just in the way that longtime Williamsburgers like to complain about. Brooklyn the brand is becoming more ambitious, more aggressive. Paradoxically, that might make Brooklyn the brand more authentic. After all, as has been pointed out elsewhere, Brooklyn didn’t invent the twee sensibility that pervades so much of its cultural output. But a knitter or artisanal cheesemaker in Portland isn’t staring every night at a glittering skyline that functions as an internationally-recognized visual metonymy for success. His counterpoint in Brooklyn is, just as generations of King’s County dwellers have been. So Brooklyn stores want to make it in the big city, want to be the toast of the town? That doesn’t make them sellouts. Rather, it does something else for “Brooklyn”: makes it a heritage brand.
I hear those sell well in Brooklyn.