Robert Anasi moved to Williamsburg in 1994 and spent more than a decade watching the neighborhood transform from an isolated and novel bohemia into the fully gentrified cultural monster that it is today. His new book, The Last Bohemia: Scenes from the Life of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is a first person chronicle of the neighborhood's character (and characters), and of its changes.
He's here today to answer questions about the Brooklyn neighborhood that has, more than any other, become a signifier for sociocultural trends far grander than itself.
The fact that the Williamsburg waterfront stayed open, well, that was a historical accident. Our playground had come within a couple of borough council votes of being a Wal-Mart or a garbage dump. The Manhattan skyline made you appreciate the waterfront even more: you were in a quiet place away from crowds and noise and struggle. Of course the waterfront belonged to somebody-somebody biding his time-and that somebody had put a fence around it. There were plenty of ways around the fence but we cut holes in it to make a point. And when the fences were repaired, we cut new holes. You never saw a cop down there. It wasn't necessarily safe. If I went at night I'd carry a heavy stick.
All kinds of wannabes and freaks and romantics who'd been priced out of the East Village went to the waterfront. Impromptu sculptures made of paving stones rose over my head. I remember the word-of-mouth outdoor screenings, films projected against the back wall of a warehouse. One of the factories had a sculpture garden in front of it with welded metal and massive broken columns. The sculptor was a black cowboy-ten-gallon hat, boots and all. He told me that he lived in the factory and that the owner tolerated him because he deterred looters. An old truck sheltered under a tin awning next to the factory. The truck was at least thirty years old; you could tell by the antiquated grille. It looked like it had been parked there on the last day of work and forgotten. Brush grew over the cab windows.
I brought dates to the waterfront because there wasn't a better place to drink a bottle of wine. It was a test for the women; they had to trust that this stranger wasn't a psychopath. All of them said yes. Over the years, I broke into all the abandoned buildings. In one I found gigantic metal cylinders and chutes. The stairwell of another was so jammed with desks and chairs that you could only get through by climbing over them. In another building, neatly made cots lined the clean-swept second floor. It looked like a dormitory-a dormitory with broken windows and million-dollar views. For me the waterfront was the hinterland of the only neighborhood that I'd ever thought of as mine. Exploration turned me into an amateur archaeologist. I wondered what the metal cylinders were for-grain, cement, oil? I tried to understand the impulse that led to the chairs and desks cramming the stairwell-they must have been piled up to keep people out. I considered the cots, sitting there like a peasant camp on the floor of the Colosseum in the eighth century A.D.
Robert will be answering any and all questions beginning at 2 p.m., so put your questions below!
Photos courtesy Robert Anasi/petroleumjelliffe on flickr.