Monday, November 24, 2008

There is a distinctly West European flavor to the social calendar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, these days, as affluent buyers from France, Germany, Italy and Britain are transforming a neighborhood better known for attracting hipsters, Midwesterners and Polish immigrants.

...Many of the immigrants say they have chosen Williamsburg partly because it is cheaper than Manhattan, but also because it is reminiscent of the cities they left behind. They say they like its cafes, its more muted displays of wealth (well, more muted than Manhattan’s) and an artistic vibe that reminds some of the Marais neighborhood in Paris, or Brighton, England. The sense of community has softened their pain of being far from friends and relatives.

“Most of my friends actually are French,” said Scheyla Carriglio, a transplant from Barcelona who bought her Williamsburg apartment two years ago and is a part owner of Mamalu, a coffee shop with an indoor playground on North 12th Street. “I hardly have any friends who are not European.”

..When Mr. Patel longs for HobNobs biscuits or Branston Pickle relish, he heads to Marlow & Sons, a Williamsburg restaurant. When he wants to watch soccer matches, he hangs out at Spike Hill. Four sets of his British friends are moving to Williamsburg, and he is pleased that the friends he has made in the neighborhood talk less about work when they’re off the job than do most New Yorkers.

“There isn’t that same kind of talk about money and jobs,” he said. “People leave work at work. It’s more like friends back home.”
NY is a great place for immigrants to meet one another; and it's not hard to avoid Americans in social life. Left unmentioned is the fact that the Polish immigrants have been bourgeoisifying their neighborhood in similar ways, ways Americans are incapable of. And even if their sensibility is more vulgar than the new and wealthier western Europeans they have much in common. The statement of preference of Europeans for Europeans as opposed to other non-Americans may be more anomalous than the author realizes.

Marion is, by her description, “a big black woman,” and hardly a retiring type. But when she walks into the new French café in her neighborhood — a place dominated by thin, pale, chic people — nobody sees her. It’s not that she’s being ignored, she says; it’s that “I don’t exist.” In Williamsburg, Brooklyn, her longtime neighborhood, she has become an invisible woman.
On the other hand, theatergoers who attend “Taking Over,” the fiery polemical portrait gallery of a play that opened Sunday night at the Public Theater, will find Marion impossible to overlook and hard to forget. She is embodied by a big white guy named Danny Hoch, the play’s author and sole performer.

...That’s the hard-core group of New Yorkers in Williamsburg, of varying ethnicity and slender means, who have come under siege from a growing army of upper-middle-class invaders. In the segment that begins the show, set during a Community Day celebration, an angry young man of Polish and Puerto Rican descent named Robert takes microphone in hand to denounce the “yuppie alternative-rocker, post-punk white people — and black people too,” who are effectively running him and his family out of town. “Why are you here?” he screams into the audience. “Nobody wants you here!”

For all his flashy rage, Robert, it turns out, is one of the less interesting characters portrayed by Mr. Hoch in “Taking Over,” which zigzags between peaks of brilliance and plateaus of preachiness. Yes, Robert tells it like it is, in the bluest language this side of David Mamet. But he’s still a man on a soapbox, delivering a speech. And when, toward the end, Mr. Hoch shows up as Danny Hoch, a Brooklyn playwright in a fighting mood, you realize that he and Robert have a fair amount in common.
I used to claim that the US didn't have a bourgeoisie, only a lumpenproletariat with extra cash. And as I said above the new Western and Eastern Europeans have a lot in common, the westerners representing in many ways what the easterners aspire to. But there are divisions and tensions within the Polish community as well, between "new people" and "old people," immigrants from the cold war era and their descendants, and those who came more recently not to escape but to climb. The recent arrivals to Greenpoint view this country with the same irony as Mexicans and Ecuadorians, or newer immigrants from anywhere. The Puerto Ricans are a different issue, they're the Chicanos of the east coast, and Hoch's Polish-Puerto Rican character would most likely descend from earlier immigrants on both sides of his family.

And here we get to a discussion of poetry and sincerity. Read the reviewer's critical response to Robert as a character of art. Danny Hoch prides himself on his skills with mimesis, his ability to make characters "true to life."  If you ran into Robert on the street you wouldn't critique him as unpoetic; in the context of Williamsburg he's as articulate or inarticulate as many people in his situation, and his anger is as justified as theirs. To a theater critic Robert the character is "a man on a soapbox, delivering a speech."  He is just being political.

What Hoch and many others before him don't understand is that art made to reinforce political conviction also undermines it. Self-conscious "sincerity" and art don't mix well.
Danny Hoch, Primo Levi and William Ayers. More later.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous8:20 PM

    Chocolate HobNobs are worth seeking out. Branston Pickle- not so much.

    I have no idea how you guys survive without decent chocolate. The brownies and ice cream are good though.


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