Brooklynism: The Logic of Junkspace
Despite its recent coronation as the global arbiter of Cool, Brooklyn’s real claim to fame has been its status as one the most important test sites for the urban neoliberal experiment. Contemporary Brooklyn symbolizes the post-modern shattering of the citizenry’s faith in public institutions. The 1980s collapse of political will for large-scale civil works projects corresponds with a failure of the collective imagination to envisage urban spaces as anything other than a physical mechanism to foster transactional, commodity-oriented social interactions. What we could call “Brooklynism” is defined by the death of fantasy and the narrowing of the urban imaginary; the vengeful triumph of the suburbs over the city; and an insidious corporatism that deploys the style and language of the new urban manufacturing class, “DIY artisans”, to disguise the true nature of multinational firms from a generation of people who would otherwise be critical of them. Nearly four decades have passed since Rem Koolhaas published Delirious New York, the now quasi-mythic volume in which the architect first proclaimed the theory of “Manhattanism”, a retroactive manifesto for the island of Manhattan. Although DNY has remained authentically relevant since first appearing, it is the nature of New York City that has drastically changed since its convulsions of the 1970s; the socio-spatial landscape of the city has become too multi-polar to be described by a manifesto for Manhattan alone. Koolhaas himself was aware of these developments between the first publication of DNY in 1978 and the present moment, publishing pertinent texts on the “Generic City” in S, M, L, XL (1996) and “Junkspace” in the Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping (2001). Examining New York in 2016 requires new frameworks, and I would propose a more contemporary addition to the theory of Delirious New York: Brooklynism.
DNY advances the thesis that from 1850 onward, Manhattan became an arena in which a combination of explosive human density and the quick succession of newly invented technologies (the elevator, in particular) produced a type of experimental socio-geographical laboratory “for the invention and testing of a revolutionary lifestyle.” It was through this lifestyle and its attendant architecture that the city would become “a factory of man-made experience, where the real and natural ceased to exist”. This new hyper-reality would be realized by Manhattan’s architects through the development of a new urban culture, the Culture of Congestion. This culture becomes the foundational element of Koolhaas’ all-encompassing theory of New York urbanism, Manhattanism, and which he asserts is the single most definitional culture of the 20th century.
Manhattanism is simultaneously an architectural and urban planning theory as much as it is a sociological one. The implementation of the Commissioner’s Plan of 1807, dividing the island of Manhattan into an ordered grid of 2028 equally sized blocks of developable space, made all “previous conceptions of urbanism irrelevant”. Koolhaas sees the grid as a conceptual speculation; the future of Manhattan would be based on equal sized plots of land, no one block significantly more distinct than another, forcing “Manhattan’s builders to develop a new system of formal values, to invent strategies for the distinction of one block from another.” The block itself becomes the final arbiter of both built-form as well as urban experience. The physical restriction of the grid means that Manhattan can no longer be dominated by a single architect — the block signifies the physical and ideological boundary conditions of the building; it imposes a imposes “a maximum unit of urbanistic ego”. The perimetric limitations caused by the grid forced architects to radically re-conceive of Manhattan’s spatial orientation. Unlocked by the invention of the elevator by Elisha Otis in 1853, for the first time in history, a city would grow upwards, instead of outwards. Drawing on detailed historical records of Manhattan’s planning documents, and importantly, the imagined architectural futures of the city contained in written proposals as well as speculative paintings and drawings, Koolhaas develops a theoretical model for Manhattan based on the Culture of Congestion.
[Congestion] proposes the conquest of each block by a single structure. Each building will become a “house” — a private realm inflated to admit houseguests but not to the point of pretending universality in the spectrum of its offerings. Each “house” will represent a different lifestyle and different ideology. On each floor, the Culture of Congestion will arrange new and exhilarating human activities in unprecedented combinations. Through Fantastic Technology it will be possible to reproduce all “situations” — from the most natural to the most artificial.
Manhattanism, based on the Culture of Congestion, is a theory that defines the metropolis as a constellation of unique spaces, layered on top of each other, vertically within the skyscraper. The skyscraper is itself a utopian device built to create a frontier in the sky for “the production of unlimited numbers of virgin sites on a single metropolitan location”. These sites could be produced, shaped and directed in any conceivable manner, but the primary mode of socio-spatial interchange within these spaces themselves would be an experiential one. The construction of a situation was paramount in Manhattanism. If, according to Koolhaas, “Manhattan has consistently inspired in its beholders ecstasy about architecture”, then Manhattanism is the extension into the psychological, “to exist in a world totally fabricated by man, i.e., to live inside fantasy”, or, to experience the same state of ecstasy within the buildings as much as from without. Manhattanism is the apotheosis of a metropolitan life-style, which although intensely transactional in nature, is based on a certain type of ever-increasing experiential delirium, one that draws its psychological strength from a utopian framework of mediating social relations through technology.
Albert Pope, in his 2008 essay we are all bridge-and-tunnel people recounts the somewhat clichéd history of the post-WWII white city-dweller’s suburban flight through a more intriguing lens of urban planning and roadway design. In doing so, he establishes a dialectic between the pre-war urbanism of gridiron design and the car-centric sprawl that followed, based on the “closed cul-de-sac, which has marked urban development to this day”. In Pope’s view, the history of the metropolis ended when the “urban periphery exploded horizontally, washing forward with a powerful wave of urban sprawl and backward with an even more powerful wave of urban blight”. The features of this emergent form of urban organization were labeled by Jean Gottman in 1961 as the “Megalopolis”, which, according to Pope is
inversely defined against three of the Metropolis’s principal characteristics: centralization, verticality, and congestion. The Megalopolis is not centralized and concentrated like the Metropolis but is a distributed agglomeration of preexisting centers. The Megalopolis is therefore defined as a polycentric rather than a monocentric urban organization, taking its cue from the horizontal organization of the interurban freeway rather than the tall buildings or canyon streets of the Metropolis.
In addition to the politico-economic havoc megalopolitan development wreaked on the inner-core of metropolitan cities, the suburban, and eventually ex-urban sprawl became, according to Pope, “impossible for architects to reverse… Throughout the 1960s, the trajectory of the Megalopolis seemed historically inevitable: resistance was futile”. Indeed, opposition would become impossible from an urban planning and architectural perspective — the book had definitively closed on the creation of any new Metropolis. (The blighted, yet certainly inhabited, inner cores of existing Metropolises would experience a “re-birth” by the revanchist children and grandchildren of those who had initially deserted it, as articulated by Neil Smith in The New Urban Frontier.) Explanations for the demise of Metropolitan — that is to say, concentrated, mono-centric and large-scale — planning are myriad and traverse an enormously wide array of rationales. I will focus only on those aspects that combine the political economy of spatial organization with the rise of neoliberalism and post-structuralist notions of authorship in the late-1960s and 1970s.
Large-scale planning at the state-level with the use of public funds (for projects unrelated to war) has essentially become obsolete. It is generally inconceivable today that something akin to the 1807 Commissioner’s Plan for Manhattan could be conceived of, let alone implemented. Rem Koolhaas’ own firm, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, is planning one of the few projects presently functioning at such a scale. OMA’s Waterfront City plan for Dubai is in their own words, is “a masterplan of enormous scale and ambition”. Housing a proposed 1.5 million new residents, the centerpiece of the project will be a new island in the shape of a perfect square, created out of sand dredged from the shelf of the Persian Gulf. OMA calls it The Island, which is divided into “25 traditional city blocks that permit a rational, repeatable, and exponential urbanism redolent of Manhattan”. Unlike Manhattan, however, there will be a single architect of record (or at least one firm) responsible for master planning the entire urban geography — the block on The Island is not an effective boundary condition for the architects, as there simply are no other architects. Rather, OMA is focused on the idea of creating an “icon”, which as Albert Pope suggests, “the metropolitan skyline of Central Island creates an image, far removed from the processes that historically established the Metropolis as an urban form”. The notion of image is of critical relevance to Waterfront City, particularly as it relates to questions of scale. Beyond The Island, the UAE has commissioned a series of “communities” whose spatial representation only makes sense from low Earth orbit. The Palm Jumeirah (designed by HHCP Architects, Florida), one of the few projects to achieve completion, is a visual representation that could only baffle and perplex its residents and visitors at sea level, yet is carefully designed composition that form a cohesive image of a palm tree when seen from the International Space Station.
Palm Jumeirah is an interesting representation of large-scale planning that contributes nothing to the metropolitan vocabulary, and is pure expression of image over urban situation. That the literal image can only be seen in the same manner in which it was figuratively devised — from the top-down — creates a beautiful symmetry. The only large-scale, “metropolitan-style” planning under construction today is happening in authoritarian states, such as China and the UAE. One notable case is the proposed Colombo Port City project, a highly controversial development in Sri Lanka’s capital city, which is being financed and constructed exclusively by the China Communications Construction Company. The project was initially conceived of by the authoritarian former Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, Mahindra Rajapaksa, as one element in a series of vanity-based, corruption-laden construction projects built in the immediate post-conflict period, financed almost entirely by Chinese loans. Colombo Port City faced fierce local opposition, however it moved forward almost entirely through the autocratic will of the former PM. After the 2015 Parliamentary elections, when Rajapaksa was defeated by the reform candidate Maithripala Sirisena, the future of Port City was immediately thrown into doubt. Looking at particular examples in both the UAE and Sri Lanka, Authoritarian rule cannot be dismissed as a primary causal factor in a state’s ability to execute large-scale design and construction.
In their critical text from 2003, Alan Altshuler and David Luberoff tackle the history of large-scale planning in the United States through a detailed examination of what they call Mega-Projects. The authors define these projects as a “fundamental expression of public authority”, one that entails the creation of structures, equipment, prepared development sites, or a combination of those factors, which costs at least $250 million (2002) dollars. Examining history from the end of the Great Depression through the turn of the millennium, the authors divide the 20th century into four major political eras of mega-project construction. These political eras are marked by an overall trajectory starting with a period of high public support of mega-project construction to one marked by strong opposition. The timeline concludes in our present political era, in which, despite the great need for them, very few mega-projects are constructed at all. Altshuler and Luberoff entertain the common perception that the shift in primary US production from a manufacturing economy to a service economy might require less public infrastructure per unit of economic output, however, this possibility is dismissed with ease, and the authors argue instead that “certain forms of large-scale public investment became vastly more expensive, time consuming and politically difficult after about 1970.” In the context of these four political eras of mega-projects, this argument maps onto the third and fourth periods, which they call the “era of transition”, lasting from the mid-1960’s to the early 1970’s, followed by the “do no harm” era, ranging from the mid-1970s until the present. Preceded by the “great mega-project era” (1950-late 1960s), they describe the “era of transition” as one marked by growing opposition to large-scale projects based on the disruptive effects they had both on communities as well as the environment. Citizen protests lead to cancellations of planned mega-projects and greater environmental impact studies. The “do no harm” era, which defines our present condition, is articulated as a period in which public investment in mega-projects is still ongoing (although total U.S. state and federal infrastructure investment has declined sharply in comparison to the great mega-project era), but the “dominant project types and implementation strategies are quite different… it is now essential to avoid or fully mitigate any significant disruption”. While this approach has slowed mega-project construction, it is difficult to argue against the partial democratization of mega-project design, or at least a basic level of community input in the planning stages. Looking back at Dubai, it should seem obvious that the lack of democratic accountability is one significant factor in the U.A.E.’s ability to execute mega-project construction. Questions of authorship are pertinent in this context, both in terms of autocratic decision-making, as well as the expression of political ideology through design choices and built aesthetics.
When Robert Moses’ Lower Manhattan Expressway — which was more than just a highway but also a massive plan of more than 1000 units of new, super high density housing — was cancelled in 1969 amidst massive community opposition it began a new dialectic between authorship and large-scale planning in the West. Referred to unofficially as New York City’s “Master Builder”, at the apex of his power Robert Moses simultaneously held 12 city and state level positions — all un-elected — and in spite of the fact that he was never the architect or civil engineer of record, he is unquestionably viewed as the sole author of his mega-projects. After unprecedented community opposition defeated the expressway plan (also referred to as LOMEX), a Moses-like figure could no longer simply draw lines on a map and execute them without expecting serious local resistance. Moses saw the Metropolis as a wild jungle of tangled aesthetic and economic threads, a form of chaos that had to be overcome, conquered into a tidier Modernist rationalism of which he was the author: “when you operate in an overbuilt metropolis, you have to hack you way with a meat ax”. The citizen-group opposition to LOMEX demonstrated that authorship of large-scale planning could no longer centrally located within a single figure.
Albert Pope, in his critique of OMA’s Waterfront City, claims that “the city is built building-by-building, block-by-block, by many people of a long period of time. In contrast to the authorship of the master plan, gridiron urbanism does not attempt to control a final form: it has many possible final forms.” As Jane Jacobs was leading the charge against Robert Moses, Roland Barthes was simultaneously composing The Death of the Author, in which he sees the text as “a tissue of citations, resulting from the thousand sources of culture”. How else could large-scale planning be conceptualized today except as a tissue of (local) citations, with a thousand voices of community, design, engineering, and environmental input? Beyond this shift from Modernist to Post-structural discourses on authorship, another factor in the scaling down of mega-project planning has been the rise of neoliberal economic practice, most famously characterized by David Harvey as the transition from a managerial model of urban governance into an entrepreneurial model, in which municipal, state and federal levels of government turned toward privately run models of urban economic growth, rather than centrally planned programs. The combination of these forces has generally resulted in an inability to enact large-scale public planning in North America, especially in urban environments, in which government serves strictly as a kind of post-authorial enabler of small to mid-scale private development.
World Trade Center
First proposed in 1943, the last act of public mega-project planning began in Altshuler and Luberoff’s “era of transition”, as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey acquired the land in 1964, began site preparation in 1965, and construction of the Twin Towers started in earnest in 1968. Publically funded by the PANY/NJ at a cost of nearly one billion dollars, the first World Trade Center is the last mega-project in Manhattan. Upon their completion, Koolhaas writes in a 2003 piece, Delirious No More, “1972 is a turning point: The towers are delivered at the exact moment New York’s passion for the new is spent. Along with the Concorde, they are modernism’s apotheosis and its letdown at the same time — unreal perfection that can never be equaled.” One of the more brilliant theoretical turns of DNY is the way in which Koolhaas anthropomorphizes Manhattan’s skyscrapers, as evinced by two prominent visual metaphors. The first is Madelon Vrisendorp’s famous painting, Apres l’Amour, in which the Empire State and Chrysler Building share an intimate moment together in bed, next to the detached arm of Lady Liberty‘s bed-side torch “lamp”, and under the spotlight of a voyeuristic Rockefeller Center.
The second is a photograph called “The Skyline of New York”, taken at the Fête Moderne in 1931, a costume ball in which the architects of Manhattan’s most prominent skyscrapers were dressed literally as their own buildings, including the Empire State and Chrysler. These images provide the visual component of a larger theoretical formulation in which Koolhaas projects a re-scaling of Manhattan’s skyscrapers into the “human” realm. His manifesto of Manhattanism does not argue for a return to Modernism, or even a return to Metropolitan planning, but instead it retroactively returns a quality of human exuberance into the distant and impersonal Modernism of the Skyscraper. Manhattanism permits the psychic life of the skyscraper to be a representation of human forces, both externally, at the scale of the building, as they become anthropomorphized themselves and form a “ballet” of the skyline, as well as internally, through what Koolhaas calls a “Constructivist Social Condenser: a machine to generate and intensify desirable forms of human intercourse”.
With respect to the first World Trade Center then, Manhattanism allows us to see the buildings in a very literal lens that serves two functions. The Twin Towers complex was the last monument ever built in Manhattan. Monuments themselves are a form of architecture which is constructed as a reflection of (state) power in order to control public functions of memory; they commemorate and recall, producing collective experience and binding social forces together with no requirement for objective fact. In the case of the W.T.C., the the buildings happened to be a monument to monumentality itself: after the mid-1970s, the state would cease building monuments. The Twin Towers are the monument to monument construction. Moreover, by embodying the Skycraper with a representation of human forces and energy, the eventual destruction of the Twin Towers in 2001 serves another double function. Their collapse metaphorically signals the final end of the Metropolitan aesthetic and the Culture of Congestion, but it also literally erases its function as a monument. The codes of memory have been permanently altered so that future generations will no longer experience the monument to large-scale public works. The horizon of the past is now forever closer to the present, or in the words of Rem Koolhaas:
New York will be marked by a massive representation of hurt that projects only the overbearing self-pity of the powerful. Instead of the confident beginning of the next chapter, it captures the stumped fundamentalism of the superpower. Call it closure.
If 9/11 marks the symbolic end of Manhattanism, then it also finally reveals and crystallizes a movement which had been growing in intensity for the past decade. If Manhattanism can be partially revealed through certain types of imagery, coupling Midtown skyscrapers one of the best examples, then the photograph taken by Thomas Hoepker on September 11th, 2001, of five, middle-aged white Brooklynites cavalierly relaxing as Manhattan burns in the distance ought to be emblematic of the emergence of Brooklynism. A place of refuge from the Culture of Congestion, removed from the arena of Event, Brooklynism has transformed the borough from the proto-Manhattan into the anti-Manhattan. The Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping asserts that the “city has twice been humiliated by the suburbs: once upon the loss of its constituency to the suburbs and again upon that constituency’s return. These prodigal citizens brought back with them their mutated suburban values of predictability and control.” Neil Smith elucidates this idea in his theory of the Revanchist City, where he outlines an updated model, based on a similar pattern in the French Third Republic, when the retaking of urban centers by the expelled traditionalists who had fled to the urban periphery resulted in the re-making of Paris in a vengeful and reactionary way. Manhattanism was a transactional phenomenon based on experience, a way to live inside fantasy, to generate and intensify forms of human intercourse, perhaps best illustrated by the wildly fantasmatic, multi-level complex of the Downtown Athletic Club where one could, for example, eat oysters with boxing gloves in the nude. Koolhaas is more prescient in DNY than he realizes, however, where he claims that the Skyscraper has announced the segregation of mankind into two tribes:
“one of Metropolitanites… who used the full potential of the apparatus of Modernity to reach unique levels of perfection, the second simply the remainder of the human race. The only price its locker-room graduates have to pay for their collective narcissism is that of sterility. Their self-induced mutations are not reproducible in future generations.”
Brooklynism announces the triumph of the non-Metropolitanites over the metropolis. A combination of historical factors is responsible for this phenomenon, including the attenuation, if not total cessation, of large-scale public works construction and their replacement by small to medium-scale, privately-led projects. The end of the epic, Modernist utopian urban planning ideals, combined with the death of the Author, has created a small-scale, limited horizon of the urban imaginary. If Manhattanism was about living inside of fantasy, then Brooklynism signals the death of fantasy. The transactional nature of the city is still present, but it no longer defined by an experiential quality, it is now defined by consumption. The Guide to Shopping claims that “shopping is the last remaining form of public activity” and Brooklynism celebrates this through a particular form of post-modern logic.
If Manhattanism celebrated the collective sublime, then Brooklynism is the anti-expression: the individual, reified in neoliberal consumptive splendor. The death of the Author also announces the ubiquity of the Author. High Modernist forms of exclusionary practices denied access to the inner sanctum of authorhood, guarding traditionalist cultural practices and white male supremacy, but also a set of technical abilities that had to be learned over time through dedicated study and practice. In Brooklynism, the artist has become the artisan: the rarified techniques required to produce high culture have been sublimated into a more generalized form of craftsmanship, used not in service of the ecstatic, but for artisanal, high-quality goods. Likewise, a cultured audience has instead become a connoisseur class of consumables. Manhattanism was driven by the push to build new structures to create self-contained universes of inter-subjective, experiential spaces. Brooklynism asserts the opposite: utopia is over because it failed, fantasy is an illusion, and only the tangible matters. Manhattanism celebrates the Culture of Congestion, a chaotic arena of experiential situations. Brooklynism celebrates a Culture of Curation; it celebrates both the embrace of consumption-based experiences as well as the death of the author, and silently acknowledges the inability to plan at a large-scale. As a result, situations can no longer created, they can only be arranged. Cultured audiences who once had no authorial ambitions have now become curators in the matrix of decentralized authorship, prompting art critic David Balzer to write about what he calls curationism: “a play on creationism, with its cultish fervor and its adherence to divine authorship and grand narratives… it is “the acceleration of the curatorial impulse to become a dominant way of thinking and being”. Brooklyn as a brand has taken on epic international scope. When an “artisanal” food truck drops anchor in Paris, the locals say “Très Brooklyn”. The name of the borough itself has been slapped on just about every type of low-tech product that can be manufactured, from pickles made by Brookyln Brine, toiletries from Brooklyn Soap Co. (which is actually a German company based in Hamburg), or eyeglasses made by Brooklyn Spectacles, who promise to “bring a little bit of Brooklyn to everyone!” The name Brooklyn itself has become a signifier for smallness: an anti-corporate, hand-made, “human” quality. Its identity is problematic, however, as Koolhaas writes in The Generic City, that the concept of identity centralizes, insisting on an essence, and Brooklyn exists in a troubling dialectic with Manhattan:
Inevitably the distance between center and circumference increases to the breaking point… the recent, belated discovery of the periphery as a zone of potential value… is only a disguised insistence on the priority and of and dependency of the center: without center, no periphery… Conceptually orphaned, the condition of the periphery is made worse by the fact that its mother is still alive.
Brooklyn cannot exist without Manhattan, even today, with all of its international name recognition, it still relies on the immense capital generating power of the center to finance its methodology.
Brooklynism cannot be better represented by any one building, 1000 Dean, than Manhattanism is by the Downtown Athletic Club. Jonathan Butler, a former vice president for hedge fund development at Merryl Lynch, along with his business partner Eric Demby, are responsible for various Brooklyn-oriented projects, including the Brooklyn-centric renovation and lifestyle blog, Brownstoner, the Brooklyn Flea, and Smorgasburg, a high-priced weekly food extravaganza in Williamsburg (and now other locations throughout Manhattan). 1000 Dean comes out of Smorgasburg conceptually, but centralizes a host of other “post-industrial” industries that have come to represent the New Brooklyn, largely based on extreme high-end manufacturing of food and other luxury products. The building itself is not new construction, but an adaptive-reuse project of a 150000 square foot former Studebaker service station. (Brooklynism generally precludes the possibilities of meaningful new construction) Rather than expressing any meaningful opposition to corporate culture however, the building is actually the literal embodiment of it. Funded to the tune of $25.5 million by the Goldman Sachs Urban Investment Group, 1000 Dean openly and proudly states this association, while at the same time advertising itself as “the 21st century home for Brooklyn’s creative community”. Alicia Glen said about the project in 2013 that “this is exactly the kind of thing we [Goldman] like to invest in”. As of January 2015 Ms. Glen is now the Deputy Mayor of New York for Housing and Economic Development, who has been personally tasked by Mayor De Blasio for implementing his plan of growing New York City’s base of affordable housing by 200000 units in ten years.
On the first floor of 1000 Dean is Berg’n, an enormous food hall specializing in craft beer and artisanal foods. The logic of Junkspace emanates from 1000 Dean in vast quanities, perhaps none more so than in the name of its Palace of Consumption. “Through Acronym, unusual importation, suppressing letters, or fabrication of non-existent plurals, they aim to shed meaning in return for a spacious new roominess” Berg’n is located on the south side of the building, facing Bergen Street, which has too many prior associations, too much historical baggage to attach to its post-industrial chic minimalist interior, which is designed “not to approximate the sublime, but to minimize the shame of consumption”.
Albert Pope describes OMA’s reconciliation between metropolitan theory and post-metropolitan practice “with the rhetorical tipping over of a skyscraper” as the Downtown Athlectic Club would become the 1982 plan for the sprawling Parc de la Villete, constructed alongside the Boulevard Périphique in Paris’ under-built 19th Arrondissment. If the Skyscraper was, as Koolhaas conceived of it through Manhattanism, a utopian device to create new frontiers in the sky then the post-metropolitan planning of Brooklynism gives us our frontiers on the ground. Neil Smith’s theories of gentrification frame the political economy of spatial organization in terms of urban frontiers. Frontiers, broadly speaking, represent the erasure of history. When it comes to its original inhabitants, Koolhaas represents Manhattan as a theatre of progress, a move from North American barbarism into European refinement. Berg’n, with its missing vowel, has shed meaning in return for a new roominess, aiming to erase an element of history. Situated in the center of Crown Heights, a neighborhood marked by decades of inter-ethnic conflict, high poverty and crime but currently the epicenter of South Brooklyn gentrification, the erasure of Bergen Street from its context establishes a neoliberal, commodity-based frontier. The building itself, 1000 Dean, is a polyvalent engine of economic, as well as historical displacement. Brooklynism is anti-monumental: the rehabilitation of the former automobile service building erases the physical monument of the painful memory of the demise of Fordist patters of urbanization and economic development and the redistributive patterns of the Keynesian welfare state. The abandoned, blighted building stood as a monument to the neoliberal restructuring of the global economy and its deleterious impacts on local communities. That memorial has disappeared, replaced by a version of itself which can only serve to drive the frontier’s original inhabitants further away.
It is no co-incidence that the use of the frontier concept has infiltrated the far psychic reaches of the post-Metropolitanites, who proudly consider themselves urban pioneers. Current fashion trends are perhaps best epitomized by the Mast brothers, as described in a February 2014 interview from bonappetit.com:
To look at Michael and Rick Mast, two lanky, bearded thirtysomethings with a thing for pioneer-chic clothing, is to gaze on a food movement personified. The brothers behind Mast Brothers Chocolate may be Iowa-raised, but Brooklyn — with its entrepreneurial, artisanal-everything vibe — is their spiritual home.
These two men, who own an ultra-luxury, artisanal chocolate company, selling 2.5oz bars at $9 per, have a fashion sense that could only be best described as antebellum, westward-ho prospectors. One establishment in Brooklyn that sells their products is shop called BKLYN Larder, which advertises themselves as a cheese and provisions shop. Again, the missing vowels create a certain sense of historical vacuum, which is happily recreated by the shop’s deep commitment to supplying its customers with all the elements needed for the challenging frontier lifestyle.
Brooklynism is seen as a benevolent force for good, empowering local economies and creating conditions of environmental sustainability. This myth has largely been propagated through the celebration of so-called D.I.Y. culture and “doing what you love”, where the sublimation of authorship is into craftsmanship has presented as a historical American value, replete with frontier echoes. However, in a recent ethnographic analysis of the local-food movement by Donald Nonini, it is clear that “many of the upscale consumers who support the high-end local and organic food markets may belong to… the new global “cosmopolitan” elites, who are enthusiastic about and benefit from “globalization”. Similarly, in her recent travels to the occupied West Bank, Anne Meneley met Palestinian farmers who saw their agricultural efforts as a form of non-violent resistance to the “constant threat of encroachment by Israeli infrastructures of control, co-option and containment” Let’s examine instead the description of the Brooklyn restaurant Roberta’s by Eric Ghenoui, who is a professor at the prestigious Pratt Institute in Brooklyn (which uses its geographical good fortune to advertise itself as being “located in the most innovative part of the most interesting part of the most important city in the world”). Roberta’s is a multi-million dollar restaurant venture in East Williamsburg that recently hosted the Clinton family for dinner, which Ghenoui declares to be, on account of its rooftop garden, “the center of a many-faceted network of DIY food production”. He continues, writing that “it uses its blank street façade to create a courtyard in which the utopian idea of its branch of Brooklyn culture is given free rein”. (emphasis added) When faced with an actually authentic political resistance movement, such as the “guerilla gardeners” of the West Bank, it is clear that this post-authorial, DIY culture is simple mythmaking in order to, as Rem Koolhaas puts it, cover up the shame of a neoliberal consumption habit run wild.
Fine dining in New York has become a particular nexus for the lived experience of real existing Brooklynism. In her take-no-prisoners piece for the September 2015 issue of Harper’s, Tanya Gold reviews four of New York’s most prestigious eateries, including Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare, “Brooklyn’s only three-starred Michelin restaurant”. Her revulsion to the entire enterprise is amusing and well described, but she touches somewhat incidentally on the dining experience — the situation at Chef’s Table, as it were — with the following:
There are five chefs and three waiters: one to serve the food, one to arrange the cutlery, one to serve the drinks. We all eat the same food at the same time, but there is no camaraderie between the diners; in fact, we avoid one another, which is preposterous in a room this size. For, at these prices, who would risk marring their experience with an uncontrolled — and uncontrollable — interaction with a stranger who was not in the business of serving you? I quickly realize that to attempt a noncurated social encounter here would be equivalent to asking a fellow diner for some deviant form of sexual intercourse, or a bite of his squid.
As Gold’s evening at Chef’s Table neared completion, she inadvertently cut her self on a sharp piece of metal sticking out from somewhere in her path. She screamed, with commotion and pandemonium ensuing amongst the diners and staff alike, at which point, rather than attending to her injuries, she was asked to leave by a male waiter “with a big, fake, horrifying smile. “Goodbye!” he sings. We exit the flaps. We were not grateful enough, you see; we did not prostrate ourselves before the brand.”
Last Exit to Brooklyn
As Slavoj Žižek addressed the crowd of Occupiers in Liberty Square in October 2011, he said that it is easier to imagine the end of life on Earth than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. Truer words have never been spoken. Rajesh Venugopal, a professor at the London School of Economics describes neoliberalism in bleak terms. “It is found to be everywhere, but at the same time, nowhere. It is held to be the dominant and pervasive economic policy agenda of our times… Perry Anderson describes it as ‘the most successful ideology in world history’… Yet this powerful global hegemon is also one that dares not speak its own name.” The unofficially official neoliberal project has been waging an unrelenting war on democratic institutions, public health and education and local communities for the past 40 years. At some point, this ideology was bound to reify in the public sphere beyond policy outcomes only affecting the welfare state and other macroeconomic factors. Brooklynism is the cultural residue created from the endless neoliberal drift. Our present cannot conceive of a future, there is nothing beyond the current socio-economic model. As Koolhaas writes in Junkspace, “Change has been divorced from the idea of improvement. There is no progress; like a crab on LSD, culture staggers endlessly sideways.”
In many respects, where else were we supposed to go? The coming of age of the Millennials coincided with the mid-life crisis of Gen X, colliding the toothless rebellion of a neutered generation with the existential moment of a generation that was never truly allowed inside the power hierarchy. The search for authenticity and meaning in the post-Hippie, Postmodern world would never yield anything substantive, and so the culture that developed was only echo of the 1960s: dropping out and living off-the-grid really means living a lifestyle of dropping out; crafting a historicized image, like that of Sarah Chrisman and her husband, Victorian-era recreationists who apparently feel more comfortable in that time period, despite their reliance on contemporary technologies. It means getting more plugged into the grid, partaking in the hunt for consumables that denote aspects of individuality, rather than living a live which expresses a unique subjectivity. In 2015, Häagen-Dasz partnered with “six unique artisans” to release a speciality line of “Artisan” products., each with its own inspirational video. One flavor, the Applewood Smoked Caramel Almond, was “crafted” with Mr. Cruz Caudillo of the Praline Patisserie in San Diego, and the product is described with loving language on the company’s website:
A commitment to craft and precision go into every jar of Cruz’s caramel, and inspire every carton of Applewood Smoked Caramel Almond ice cream we worked together to create.
Häagen-Dasz is a subsidiary of General Mills, a multinational consortium of branded foods which had a 2014 global revenue of $17.9 billion, and also donated more than $1.5 million in 2014 to fight the Oregon Proposition 92 “Right to Know” initiative which sought to make GMO-labeling mandatory state-wide. The ballot measure failed by a count of 50.03% to 49.97%, a difference of only 837 votes across the entire state.
Frederic Jameson argues that Modernism is a condition of incomplete modernization. Junkspace, however, is “what remains after modernization has run its course… Modernization had a rational program: to share the blessings of science, universally. Junkspace is its apotheosis, or meltdown.” Brooklynism is the cultural reification of the logic of Junkspace. It is the coagulate of corporate interests masquerading as a so-called artisanal movement; the development of a fake culture of individual empowerment with concern for ecology and social development wrapped up in consumer choice. It is the knives’ edge of a renewed settler colonialism, being perpetrated by well-meaning liberals who authentically believe that the act of putting themselves first will actually help other people.