In the fall of 2005, I moved to Brooklyn. After living in relative obscurity deep in Queens, I’d now be squarely within the notorious L Train corridor—along with other urban, artsy, college-educated white kids like myself. The first area this demographic (yes, those much-maligned “hipsters”) populated en masse was, of course, Williamsburg.
But I certainly didn’t move to Williamsburg. No, I became a resident of its neighbor to the southeast: Bushwick. At least this is what my new roommate Jane told me. She’d been living nearby in BedStuy for a few years, so I trusted her. We were within walking distance of Williamsburg’s bars, cafes and art spaces, but there was no way our dilapidated, minimally gentrified blocks could be put in the same social strata as trendy Williamsburg.
Simply happy to move monumentally closer to friends and the “action,” I wasn’t quite ready to carry the neurotic burden of living in Williamsburg. And I found satisfaction in telling friends and family I’d soon be moving to Bushwick. The name had an undeniable ring to it, and the air of freshness that accompanies any word, idea or neighborhood that hasn’t already been bludgeoned into banality by the flesh-eating NYC media. I felt entirely content with my new neighborhood; Bushwick would be home.
One day, I lingered in my new subway stop at Montrose Avenue. Trying to orient myself to the unfamiliar lands around me, I studied a close-up MTA neighborhood map on the wall. “You Are Here” highlighted my stop, but immediately to the left of this marker was a word I did not expect to see next to my home: Williamsburg.
Williamsburg? Is that where I’d moved? The map left little reason for doubt. The label of Bushwick appeared well east of my apartment’s location on the map. I seemed comfortably within the boundaries of the ‘Burg.
As my first Brooklyn weeks passed, and the question of where I lived came up in more and more conversations, the mere mention of the hazy line between Williamsburg and Bushwick elicited strains of anger and passion. The token exchange went something like this: “And I just recently moved to Brooklyn,” I’d say. “Oh really,” Young-Person-In-The-Know replied. “Where in Brooklyn?”
“I live right on the L, a few stops into Williamsburg.” At this point, character with cool pants becomes visibly curious and vaguely aggressive, presumably because “a few stops” sounds suspicious.
“Which stop is it?” she’d ask.
And I answered,“Montrose.”
“That’s Bushwick,” she’d resolutely state. “You live in Bushwick.” And while she began to snicker and laugh to herself about how silly it was of me to think I lived in Williamsburg, I would eventually interject, “Well, I thought I was moving to Bushwick, but the subway map at my station pretty clearly states it’s Williamsburg.”
“Was the map made by a real estate company?” the smirking, well-coiffed person in question continued. “That neighborhood definitely used to be called Bushwick. Or is it,” especially mocking here, “East Williamsburg?”
After enduring a handful of these exchanges, frustration took hold. Not being able to confidently state, or know, what neighborhood I lived in annoyed the hell out of me. Why did telling someone where I lived have to consistently spark a discussion in which the other person found it necessary to tell me where I “actually” lived? I resolved to figure this out.
At first, most evidence pointed toward my neighborhood being Williamsburg. For one, the subway map. Secondly, Williamsburg Houses public housing was only one block north of me. On the other hand, and repeatedly thrown in my face by the Bushwick camp, I lived just a half block west of an avenue named Bushwick. Not conclusive by any means, but it sounded damning.
The Not For Tourist (NFT) guide had its own section for East Williamsburg, which I lived soundly within. According to NFT, the boundary between East Williamsburg and Bushwick was Flushing Avenue, nine blocks south of me. Flushing appeared to form the southeast border of Williamsburg, with its northeast border being Queens.
I had two maps saying I lived in some form of Williamsburg, but I couldn’t help question NFT, if only because it’s a commercial publication, not an official one. Maybe the maps were outdated or plain wrong? Or maybe the creeping gentrification had led to the renaming and expanding of Williamsburg to where Bushwick had once stood proud?
I considered these questions on my walk home, walking south down Graham Avenue toward the supposed border of Flushing. And along Graham, well south of Grand Street, I passed a community center, the Williamsburg Community Center.
The final blow to my hopes of figuring out where I lived came from The New York Times in an article published about a music venue/art space called Asterix, which sits three blocks away from my home. In the article, the writer referred to Asterix’s location as “a neighborhood sometimes called East Williamsburg.”
Sometimes called? Even The New York Times was waffling on this. And if they couldn’t figure it out, or display any form of confidence on the matter, then what chance did I have? I’d been in my apartment for a full year and I still didn’t know where I lived. This worrying couldn’t go on forever. So, I gave up. In this same period I’d left my Manhattan literary agency job to work at a coffeehouse in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. As I was sucked further into the Brooklyn scene, I started hearing the name Bushwick bandied about more often than Williamsburg. All the underground parties and new art spaces seemed to be “in Bushwick” now. But when I asked where these parties actually took place, my friends or customers either had no idea, or they cited the artist lofts on McKibbin Street, which falls a couple blocks on the supposed Williamsburg side of Flushing. To those who have particular ideas of Bushwick, these lofts—along with the coffee shops, bars and thrift stores on the Morgan stop—constitute the heart of Bushwick. Or somebody’s Bushwick.
Alas, my second year in Brooklyn passed without any new neighborhood revelations. Nearly all the evidence pointed to me living in Williamsburg, while those I raised the subject with merely pointed. Soon enough, the question faded almost entirely from my mind.
Recently, on a day off from work, I strolled down Bushwick Avenue to the aforementioned McKibbin Street lofts and to Potion. I walked through the coffee shop’s glass entrance to find the walls covered in note cards. My eyes wandered to a table where a craft station was set up with a small stack of note cards with “Bushwick Is” typed on each one. The patrons were invited to write or draw anything they liked on the cards. The finished ones covered the walls with alternately sarcastic, sincere and obtuse expressions—all inflected with a deep sense of community and love for Bushwick. And if this hadn’t already aligned Potion with Bushwick, then the 7-foot-high banner hanging from the ceiling that read “Bushwick Open Studios” surely did.
I bought my coffee and sat down with my computer, but had a difficult time focusing. The neighborhood quandary had been shoved right back in my face by the most potent Bushwick believers I could ever hope to encounter. They seemed so sure of themselves. A friendly-looking man with a beard, who I assumed to be an owner or manager, and a young, female barista were speaking with a customer, so I waited for a pause in their conversation.
“Can I ask you guys a question?” I said to the three of them.
“Sure,” they replied.
“As far as you’re concerned, is this definitely Bushwick?”
“Yes!” the female employee shot back.
“Well,” the bearded one began, “Technically this is East Williamsburg.”
This silenced the employee, who walked away and said nothing more.
He continued, “Bushwick is across Flushing, actually. I can show you a map online if you want to see.”
I didn’t need to see. It was enough just to hear a dispassionate voice of reason. His standing as a McKibbin Street barista only solidified the validity of this second opinion. My mind was finally settled. I lived in East Williamsburg, or at the very least Eastern Williamsburg.
Still at the coffee shop, I asked this same bearded man behind the counter why all the Bushwick note cards and the giant banner if he knew full well we weren’t sitting in Bushwick?
“Well, we feel here that we’re more Bushwick in spirit,” he said with a smile.
While this statement initially seemed harmless, it also meant absolutely nothing. Worse than nothing, it’s a shallow, selfish myth. That the “spirit of Bushwick” has anything at all to do with a bunch of white art school grads is, beyond delusional, a little offensive.
But I suppose those so keen on calling East Williamsburg “Bushwick” can be forgiven. Through the years, millions have moved to this city tempting the possibility of making a new life for themselves, aided by the endlessly creative possibilities only New York City can offer. And this fresh group of young “immigrants” is only out for that, their own slice of the Big Apple. Even if the slice is pretty moldy and rotting from the inside out, that’s OK as long as they can believe it’s theirs. A bunch of kids got to claim Williamsburg years ago, but that’s old news now. Bushwick waits for the new ones, right there for the taking. Even if it doesn’t really exist.