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August 10th, 2011 12:01 am ADRIANNE JEFFRIES | Cover Story

The Portlandification of Brooklyn

Brooklyn wants to be Portland. Should we be proud—or embarrassed?

A recent game of human Scrabble on Bedford Avenue reminded him of Portland, as does the popular Brooklyn pastime of crocheting sweaters for statues and fireplugs, “which is darling,” he said. “Although apparently there is an ür-yarn bomber who started on the East Coast somewhere.”

He added, “There’s a whole culture around that sort of thing now. It says something about you. It says, ‘Yeah, I ride my bike every day, I make pickles in my basement, and I sell those myself.’ It’s funny that those were discrete things that someone would do 20 years ago in Portland, but the cultural package didn’t all come together in one nice stereotypical whole.”

It does now, thanks in part to the IFC series starring Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein.

Portlandia, as a twentysomething Brooklyn person, hit home,” said Max Silvestri, a comedian who has lived in Williamsburg for five years. “Like ‘Put a Bird On It,’ where it’s just two artists where what they do is they put a bird on things?” he went on, referencing a now-famous sketch in which two interior designers decorate everything with bird appliqués. “I feel like that’s what Brooklyn Flea is. No offense to Brooklyn Flea. A lot of things look better with birds.

“I am guilty as or more guilty than anyone of it all,” he added. “None of this comes from a place of condescension or loathing. Only self-loathing.”

Alex Basek, a freelance travel writer, recently settled in Prospect Heights after eight years in Manhattan. “I live within a five-minute walk of two bike shops that sell $700-plus bikes,” he said. “That’s the Portlandiest thing about it. There’s Glass Shop, a fancy coffee spot, like single-roaster blabbity blah, all the way on Classon Avenue. Which heretofore I thought was one of those stops you wonder about on the A train en route to J.F.K.”

And there’s Dr. JJ Pursell, a naturopath and owner of the Herb Shoppe, a botanical medicine pharmacy on Hawthorne Boulevard, who plans to open her second outpost in Boerum Hill. 

“I just read in The New York Times, maybe a month ago, some article about this warehouse party that was happening in Brooklyn,” she said when asked about the two cities. “It was definitely very much the theme that you often see in Portland for a late-outing type of event where there’s a lot of music and interactive art going on. I don’t want to use the term Burning Man, but it was that kind of feel.”

Mike and David Radparvar, who founded Holstee, an environmentally conscious apparel company after David decided pants pockets were too tight to carry a wallet and sewed a “holster” onto the side of a T-shirt, can relate. “We were really attracted to Dumbo,” said Mike. “We found that it’s an area that attracted a lot of forward-thinking, progressive people in similar types of spaces and mindsets. You’ve got everyone from leading agencies like BBMG to Etsy,” he said. “Like, it’s right next to Brooklyn Flea.”

When they started, they used 6 percent recycled fabric. Now the shirts are made with 100 percent recycled jersey knit fabric fashioned from plastic bottles and industrial scraps, and excess fabric from making the shirts is turned into “fins,” small scarves that can be worn around the neck or arm. 

“‘Are we a generation driven by hippie values—minus acid, plus funding and smart phones—that can create sustained change?” Mike read from a talk the brothers were prepping for a TEDxEast. “Or are we just a group of overprivileged, underexperienced, overconfident bohemian revivalists that are just trying to defer reality?’” He added, “You know what I’m saying?”

The Radparvars, like many Portlandy Brooklynites, have only the purest motivations. But money, native competitiveness and proximity to the Manhattan media machine are quickly escalating what would pass for endearing quirks in Portland into lucrative commercial ventures and conspicuous consumption in Proco and Bococa. 

While Portland seems destined to remain a funky cheap neighborhood for the rest of the nation, Brooklyn has been gentrifying from the Manhattan side in since long before Lonely Planet named Brooklyn “the hippest part of New York City” in 2007.

“You get a concentration of people who are visibly different in some way that’s not repulsive but kind of attractive for other people to consume,” explained Sharon Zukin, a sociology professor at Brooklyn College and author of Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places. “That becomes a kind of brand for a neighborhood, or for the city as a whole, in the case of Portland.

“Then real estate developers start jumping on the bandwagon and marketing the brand, so that what starts out as alternative culture, alternative lifestyle, laid-back, D.I.Y. or whatever you want to call it, that becomes a product and the brand of a place, and then it becomes part of a business cycle where the media pick it up and”—she threw The Observer a bone—“not you, of course, but you know it could be rock critics or lifestyle journalists, they pick it up…and then it becomes very expensive to live there because more affluent people beg to move in, because they want to be different, too.”

This process, she added, “seems to be getting more intense faster than before.”

Brooklyn is already so Portlandy that even the media appear to be tiring of the story. “It’s a little overhyped,” admitted Gothamist publisher Jake Dobkin, 34, who grew up in Park Slope. Mr. Dobkin refused to participate when his writers asked for input on a recent listicle, “100 Reasons Why Brooklyn Lives Up to the Hype,” which included Smorgasburg, Kombucha Brooklyn and the borough’s “alt-performance art party scene.”

“Williamsburg is just becoming like a circus,” he said. “When I’m there, I hear the circus music in my head. Mustaches were like 2010. We’re on to mutton chops. Everyone is walking around like the Sartorialist is about to take a picture of them. That’s not a healthy way to live.

“It’s all just becoming so precious,” he reflected. “And Brooklyn is not supposed to be a precious place.”

I don’t want to trash Portland. 

It may be precious, but the people who live there enjoy life tremendously. You can eat and drink really well without having to work very hard. I miss having to choose whether to pass the time with pub trivia, disc golf or mushroom hunting.

But I’ve been thinking of checking out Detroit. The Times says an influx of young creative types is turning it into a Midwestern Tribeca.

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