Robert Anasi remembers a different Williamsburg. A resident during the height of its bohemian reputation in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Anasi, a published author and journalist, put together a memoir of the hipster enclave, The Last Bohemia: Scenes From The Life Of Williamsburg, Brooklyn (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) that reads like an oral history of a now-glamorized pocket of the City.
Anasi, currently a professor of writing at the University of California at Irvine, made an appearance at Word, Tuesday evening, for a reading and signing of The Last Bohemia, an event that quickly escalated into a larger discussion on the socio-economic implications of a gentrified Williamsburg.
“I remember coming out [to Williamsburg] for a housewarming party and friends would say, ‘come in the daylight, walk as fast as you can from the Bedford L, make sure you have someone with you’,” recalled Anasi. “So when I actually moved here I was a little worried.”
That initial unease turned into an infatuation. Anasi opened Tuesday’s talk with a short video presentation. Snapshots of pre-Bloomberg Williamsburg were accompanied by voiceovers from local residents delivering statements like, “There was an atmosphere of being hopeful and unhopeful,” and “It was decaying, but still beautiful”. The words and images served as dusty Polaroids of a largely industrial neighborhood that was still uncharted territory for mainstream New York, and showed the seeds of a movement beginning to take root.
Anasi continued with an excerpt from his book revolving around Kokie’s, an infamous bar on Bedford Avenue where locals came to indulge in the trendy drug of that era: cocaine. Anasi explained the protocol when it came to acquiring Kokie’s heavily-stepped on product, joking, “I knew they couldn’t be doing anything illegal, because what they were selling wasn’t coke.”
He described the gaudy plush booths in the back of the bar meant for snorting the drug, the “hubris of Kokie’s Place on the awning”, the uneasy tension between the bar and nearby residents, the nine-piece salsa band blaring into the wee hours of the morning, all while narrating in a voice that’s almost wistful for his old “urban saloon”. He detailed the demise of Kokie’s in post-9/11 New York, a victim of a landlord fed up with having a coke bar as his tenant, a harbinger of Williamsburg’s shift from an artist’s haven to a marketable neighborhood.
When Anasi stopped for questions, the audience peppered him with questions and concerns about the future of North Brooklyn. Asked whether artists are partially responsible for the mass-gentrification, Anasi gave a nuanced response saying, they “are as much an agent of change as victims of mass gentrification.” He noted that many friends of his put thousands of hours into renovating lofts only to be kicked out when their leases expired. Interestingly, Anasi also warned artists not to be exploited when putting down roots in a neighborhood.
“It’s hard for me to blame some 24-year old artist who’s working 60 hours a week and looking for the cheapest place he can live and he ends up in some place like Williamsburg and a few of his friends move in,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s a bad idea for young artists to become savvy with how they’re used by developers. That’s the model of how gentrification works.”
The Last Bohemia is in stores now.
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