The best stories in the New York Times are not technically news. For example, Florent Morellet, the founder of the Florent bistro in Manhattan’s meatpacking district, is moving to Bushwick essentially to be cool. The meatpacking district was industrial and vaguely dangerous when Florent opened in 1985, just like Bushwick is or was at one time. But when? Much as the meatpacking district is now as far from the mean streets as it could be, with its bridge-and-tunnel nightclubs and Apple store, Bushwick is of dubious currency. It’s definitely not as gentrified as Little West 12th Street, but it is not the same place it was in, say, fall of 2000. That’s when I lived in Bushwick, in a two-bedroom walkup that rented for $750. If you direct your attention to page three of the Times article, you will see that the average rent for a one-bedroom in Bushwick in 2013 is $1,950.
Some caveats: That average comes from AptsAndLofts.com, which is a great place for people who don’t know a neighborhood to get fleeced by the high end of the rental market. I found my place in Bushwick through a friend of a friend whose girlfriend’s mother was the landlord.
Also, it was terrible. The heat worked sporadically, certain areas of the linoleum floor seemed to have been replaced with sand, and the neighborhood was mean. I lived in south Bushwick, which then and now is the more poverty-stricken and less fashionable part. Once, in Manhattan, a homeless man stopped me and asked if I was the white kid who lived on Bushwick Avenue.
The north side of Bushwick, on the other hand—L train Bushwick—was for years billed as east Williamsburg. It was industrial and empty when south Bushwick was industrial and overcrowded. With the exception of one very bad evening of live performance in 2007, I have not been back to south Bushwick since I moved out in 2002. I kept returning to north Bushwick, though, because more and more of my friends lived there.
All of these reminiscences will seem stupid and irrelevant to those of you who still live in New York, which is the whole point. The new city is built on the wreckage of the old, and only the ideas remain fixed. I invoke this little history, however, to point out how fixed the idea of a young person’s bohemia in New York is, even when a 60 year-old millionaire restaurateur has to go to the outer boroughs to get it.
Fact: Morellet did not move to Bushwick to open a performance art space or music venue, or even a bar. He plans to do something like that in the future, but for now he is mostly interested in dancing and hanging out with young people. The restaurateur has become the restauranted. And for all his talk about young people being “pioneers in neighborhoods [who] make them livable,” Bushwick verges on Manhattan prices. The saxophone-playing performance poet I saw in 2007 is long gone.* In his place—at least in the places Morellet goes—are fun bars and eateries.
A curmudgeon like myself or David Byrne might argue that this transformation is the same one that has defined the larger city since the late seventies. New York culture started as street life—in the violent decay depicted in The Warriors or When Harry Met Sally—became art and ended as nightlife. I came to the city in 1999 to learn about performance art, and I left knowing a lot about food.
Is that anomalous? Probably not. I don’t know enough about the history of the city to say whether the richer, more hedonistic and less creative New York is an unprecedented deviation from its fundamental character, but I bet not. Probably, New York’s fundamental character is a bunch of rich people whom everyone else hates. But the rich seem a little more numerous lately, and the so-called vibrant young neighborhoods execute a little less convincingly the theme of being everyone else.