Cincinnati-centric iSPYCINCY recently published the article OTR Is to Williamsburg as Northside Is to Bushwick, and yours truly was one of the interviewees. As someone who grew up in Brooklyn and now lives in Over-the-Rhine, I’m glad that I got to weigh in, though answering the questions was tougher than I’d expected.
This was in response to Gawker‘s What’s the Williamsburg of Your City? and subsequent This Is the Williamsburg of Your City: A Map of Hip America. It’s all click bait, to be sure, but it’s fun. Who’s not curious, if only in expectation of annoyance and eye-rolling?
I only had a few hours to answer the questions but spent all my time revising my answers to try to stay relevant to the intent of the article, yet honest to my own views and experiences. I wanted to avoid the hilarious vitriol of Die Hipster and the enraged nostalgia of Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York. I agree with both views but, if I’d grown up in Bumblefuck, Nowheresville instead of Bumblefuck, Brooklyn, I might have become one of those mock-worthy, wide-eyed rubes who’s drawn to the bright lights of the big city like a fly to shit. Who knows?
Since college, I’ve known plenty of people who dreamed of moving to New York, and many who did. Some left after proving their chutzpah. Some are still there, building their lives and, for all intents and purposes, I consider them New Yorkers at this point. We don’t talk about my Brooklyn; I just listen quietly as they discover the place for themselves. They have no baggage or history. I’m the one with the ghosts, but Brooklyn is theirs now, and they have a hand in shaping it just as it’s shaping them.
As for me, life has taken many weird turns over the years, and I haven’t lived in Brooklyn since 1999. The previous millennium! My Brooklynness is a crucial part of who I am, but it’s firmly rooted in the past and just happens to be what shaped me early on. Like my Brooklyn friends, I moved to Cincinnati almost 8 years ago with no baggage or history and have been discovering this place for myself since then.
Anyway, let’s not kid ourselves: these comparisons are a load of nonsense. Poseurs will never be cool kids. But you know what’s cool, Cincinnati? When you stop looking over your shoulder and just focus on being a better you. With all that in mind, below is my full interview for OTR Is to Williamsburg as Northside Is to Bushwick.
1. When did you live in Brooklyn?
a. Which neighborhood did you live in?
b. How did you choose this neighborhood?
I grew up in Brooklyn in the 80s and 90s, long before it was a destination for outsiders other than immigrant groups. So, my understanding of various neighborhoods takes into account a longer trajectory than others may consider. I lived in Greenpoint when it was primarily a Polish enclave and attended junior high school in Williamsburg when it was a working-class neighborhood. When my sister was born in a hospital in Bushwick, she was the only Caucasian baby in the ward.
I’ve lived in several neighborhoods that aren’t part of the current Brooklyn hype; they’re just where the locals live. The “destination” neighborhoods are fun to visit, but they’ve never held interest to me as places to live. In many ways, I view the idea of “Brooklyn” that’s currently on the radar as an outsider, because I never aspired to that place or considered living there a symbolic point of arrival. In fact, I left as soon as I could, just as many people leave their hometowns and, by the time I considered returning, it seemed out of reach when I assessed my own personal and professional priorities.
On my most recent trip home a few weeks ago, I attended an opening in a gallery in Bedford-Stuyvesant and kept thinking of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, which was set there in the late 80s. This is still my historical reference point for that neighborhood, but it was a long time ago, the neighborhood has been changing, and many current Brooklyn residents don’t have that kind of history or relationship to the place.
2. How does Brooklyn compare to Cincinnati?
Keeping in mind that Cincinnati is a city of roughly 300,000 and Brooklyn has a population of about 2.5 million and is only part of a larger city, any comparisons are necessarily limited. Each has its own Central Business District and a variety of neighborhoods and outlying communities with distinct personalities, demographics and smaller business districts. Both Cincinnati and Brooklyn have, at times, had chips on their shoulders, but each in its own way has tried to come into its own.
a. A Gawker poll recently asked people to vote for the neighborhoods in their city that are the most like Williamsburg and Bushwick in Brooklyn. For Cincinnati, Northside and OTR tied for Williamsburg and Northside and Clifton tied for Bushwick. Do you think those are accurate? Why?
Painting with awkwardly broad strokes, I would compare Over-the-Rhine to both DUMBO [because of the coordinated neighborhood transformation] and Williamsburg [due to its change from working-class to artsy to a more professional/upscale demographic].
Northside would be Cincinnati’s Bushwick/Ridgewood, because it’s got its share of artists and hipsters but, in many ways, it’s still a working-class neighborhood with a variety of older and newer businesses catering to its various residents as well as visitors.
Clifton-Gaslight would be Park Slope — an area filled with both professionals and families and a mix of upscale and bohemian businesses, some of which have been in the neighborhood for a long time. The part of Clifton that’s more student-centered doesn’t have an exact Brooklyn comparison.
b. Why did you choose to live in OTR when you moved here?
OTR/downtown is the one part of Cincinnati that really feels urban — we can fill all of our day-to-day wants and needs on foot and have easy access to public transit. So, from a practical perspective, this was the only part of the city we could have seriously considered. On a more personal level, we love the architecture and appreciate the complex history of the area. It really feels like the core of the city.
c. What’s your favorite part of OTR? Why?
In a neighborhood that’s transformed drastically in my almost 8 years of living in Cincinnati, I have to go with the one place that has more or less remained a constant: Findlay Market. It’s been an anchor for a vast cross-section of shoppers, serving the neighborhood and beyond. Whether you’re a gourmand, or looking to eat locally with the seasons, or searching for specialized ingredients, or just doing your weekly grocery-shopping, everyone has to eat, right?
When I interviewed you for CityBeat, you mentioned that it was more financially viable to make a living as an artist in OTR, than larger metropolises like New York City. Do you still feel that way. Why do you think that is?
As self-employed creatives, we have to juggle two main criteria when considering where to live: the cost of running our business versus the professional opportunities offered, and the cost of living versus the quality of our lives. In a perfect world, I would love nothing more than to move back home and live in a low-key Brooklyn neighborhood that, thus far at least, has not been discovered by outsiders. Realistically, though, although that place offers more potential opportunities for our business and certainly more cultural opportunities for us personally, I worry that we would have to make sacrifices we don’t want to make right now in order to afford living there. Obviously, it’s always a compromise and a balancing act.
We’ve been lucky to have found many professional opportunities outside of Cincinnati, and I think that’s the case for a lot of local artists and designers. In this way, Cincinnati is a great home base whose lower cost of living allows us some breathing room in order to genuinely feel creative. We enjoy living here without feeling entirely limited by it because we’re able to travel frequently, which exposes us to cultural phenomena and inspiration that we may not be able to find locally.
If you’d like to learn more about my glamorous, urbane Brooklyn adolescence, I invite you to read L’Amour, Rock Capital of Brooklyn [my old hangout], Ugliest Building in the World? [my high school], Summer in the City [Coney Island], and On Olfactory Memory [the one way in which OTR compares to Brooklyn].
You can also meet a few interesting people from my neck of the woods, or just check out Ill Bill’s Glenwood Projects video:
For all you self-righteous New Yorkers out there, you can peruse my NYC Survival Guide and tell me that I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about.
If you really can’t get enough of my verbal wanderings, feel free to read American Beauty, on my brief stint as a Californian, and No Sleep ’till Hamtramck, about a place that might have become my home but never did.