Oriana's Reviews > The Last Bohemia: Scenes from the Life of Williamsburg, Brooklyn

The Last Bohemia by Robert Anasi
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's review
Aug 09, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: read-2012
Read from August 22 to September 16, 2012

This was kind of a tough book for me to read. The thing is, Williamsburg is my neighborhood too. I live about four blocks from where Anasi spent the majority of his time here, and I did and do hang out in and around many of the places paeaned in this book. No, I never went to Kokies (the notorious cocaine bar profiled in Vice) or Verb (one of the first cafés in the new Williamsburg) or Gargoyle (a crazy performance space where the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus used to entertain). But I was going to Galapagos back in 1999 (before it grew up and moved to Dumbo); in 2002 I hopped a razor-wire fence and tiptoed along broken stones to see the 4th of July fireworks from the abandoned shore, and I watched "Double Dirty Dancing" (the Bollywood version & the original played at the same time on facing screens) in the back room of Monkeytown when they still sold pot brownies behind the bar.

Not to mention, I do the archival art project Brooklyn Spaces, where I aim to make a record of as much of Brooklyn's creative class as I can before we're all forced out to Bensonhurst or Far Rockaway or Kentucky. Anasi befriends and interviews junkies, prostitutes, performers, bar owners, photographers, and videographers. I do the same with circus performers, soapmakers, fire spinners, party throwers, curators, musicians, gallerists, and on and on. So although Anasi beat me here by a half-dozen years, this is also my story, and the story of all my friends.

Here's an anecdote, which, though it may seem pretty clichéd, is 100% true and 500% illustrative of the crux of living in Williamsburg right now. Last fall I wrote about some of the artists and denizens of Monster Island, an art collective and performance venue that was one of the few remaining holdouts from the raucous early days of Williamsburg, and which was slated to be demolished shortly thereafter. (Despite all the artists having been evicted, the graffiti-encrusted building is still standing, nearly two years later.) About a week after I interviewed those guys, I was wandering in South Williamsburg, scanning the all-new condo-clustered neighborhood horizon and thinking how I've lived here long enough that these changes are real and personal to me, that this isn't like hearing about the bad old days of Times Square or the punk renaissance in Alphabet City or SoHo's bohemian paradise, all of which happened long before I stumbled, bright-eyed and awe-filled, into New York City. Now I'm old enough to have actually watched the Williamsburg era come and go, and I was self-pityingly wondering why, why, why, whom all these skillion-dollar glass palaces and staggeringly overpriced clothing boutiques are even for, when around a corner came toddling these two over-the-top, impeccably dressed and coiffed Eurotrash ladies, the sort of women who are so fancied up they look like drag queens, with the tipped nails and the ironed frosted hair and the teeny skirts and the platform stilettos. They were just laden with shopping bags and clinging to each other for balance, and one of them asked me, in a heavily accented whine, "Can you tell us which is the way to Williamsburg?"

Friends, I nearly wept.

I did not direct them to walk directly off the newly burnished South 3rd pier into the East River, but my finger was definitely shaking as I pointed them north toward Bedford Ave.

So anyway, The Last Bohemia. Anasi does fine, he does well, it's a nice book. For someone who's never lived here or thought about what Williamsburg really is beneath the hipster chichés, this might be pretty hard to care about too much. But for me it's not enough. The book touches just the tiniest corner of life here and now, or there and then, and because, as I said, this is my story too, Anasi's feels woefully incomplete. It's a series of anecdotes and personalities woven more or less well into a cogent narrative, but there is so much more, so much left to be plumbed and exposed and honored before it's too late, before it's all lost to history and buried by this absurdly shifty neighborhood which, everyone knows, has already become a parody of itself.

Look, I love it here. Most of the time I think I'd be happy to live here the rest of my life. But, as Anasi says of his decision to defect to California after fifteen years here, it becomes easy to leave Williamsburg when you realize that the Williamsburg you're clinging to left you long ago.


before reading: Here is an excerpt from Brooklyn Mag to whet your appetite. I didn't make it to Williamsburg until 2002. Is it possible to be nostalgic for something that was never yours?
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Comments (showing 1-8 of 8) (8 new)

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message 1: by Don (new)

Don Are there stories about the Satmars?

Oriana IDK but I'm inclined to doubt it.

Margrethe Lauber Yes. I was enamored of the industrial working-class history of the neighborhood and the waterfront while living there from 1991-2004. I felt that I had an inkling of my immigrant family's experience in the time warp and ruins that were Williamsburg at that time.

Oriana Thanks Margrethe, glad I'm not the only one who feels it.

message 5: by A (new) - rated it 1 star

A Hey, I was at the Double Dirty Dancing at Monkeytown, too! Agree that this book felt like it touched on just the tip of an iceberg that I feel lovingly proprietary about.

Your own site seems much more interesting, excited to explore it further.

Oriana Haha awesome!! That's one of my favorite "OMG Brooklyn I <3 you" evenings. And thank you so much, I'm thrilled you like Bk Spaces.

message 7: by Paquita Maria (new)

Paquita Maria Sanchez Come visit again soon! Austin has some cool stuff, too!

Oriana Aww, I know it! I actually did a writeup on Brooklyn Spaces for the Cathedral of Junk. (I called it "honorary Brooklyn"; I hope that's not condescending?)

That was such a fantastic trip, I'd love to come back.

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