Something is brewing in the borough of Brooklyn. Or rather, has been for a while, and we’re all just catching on.
In the last few years, a wealth of food and lifestyle products have been streaming across the river from Manhattan, buoyed by the essence of “cool” that the borough seems to intrinsically bestow upon them. Brooklyn-named brands abound, covering Brooklyn Ale, Brooklyn pickles, Brooklyn chocolate, Brooklyn soap, Brooklyn hipster wear, Brooklyn maternity — even cigarettes.
It’s no longer just an address; it’s a brand and a rapidly developing one at that. The only glitch seems to be that despite adoring the area, few people actually seem to visit it.
Officials estimate that a little over 1,000 tourists pass through their visitors center each month, or 12,000 per year. By comparison, New York City as a whole brought in almost 46 million tourists in 2009.
These numbers will cease to matter as the Brooklyneer, a new bar whose menu solely features Brooklyn Brewery and Coney Island beers and “newly-emerging food artisans” from—you guessed it—Brooklyn, just opened in Manhattan.
Immediately, as the New York Times notes, the pub had its critics crying “Sell out!” — the loudest of whom was Alexander Nazaryn of the New York Daily News, who accused the owners of “killing Brooklyn.”
While this seems a slightly dramatic pronouncement, many local residents have been expressing frustration with the hype their borough has been receiving. There seems to be a growing romanticization of Brooklynites: that they sit around in a haze of skinny jeans, statement glasses and organic espresso, discussing slow food concepts and imagining up trendy jar labels.
There is, according to Taylor Erkkinen, a co-owner of Brooklyn Kitchen, a Williamsburg cooking-supply store, “this perception that we sell dreams and ideas — instead of actual, tangible objects that have a place in the market.”
However, not everyone has been converted. To Jeffrey Steingarten, Vogue magazine’s resident food critic and curmudgeon, the Brooklyn boom “recalls a previous supposed culinary renaissance.” In the 1980s, he said, “everything about the Napa Valley, even the candy bars, was considered extra special, because it was Napa Valley. Some of the early restaurants were really awful, and yet people wrote about them.”
The brand recently had New York health officials up in arms. The problem was an online contest held by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company called “Break Free Adventure,” in which participants guess where the cigarette brand’s mascot will visit during a certain week. Cities like Austin, Texas, Seattle and San Francisco have been featured. In the third week of the contest, the camel ended up in Williamsburg.
Thomas Farley, the city’s health commissioner, lamented the tobacco brand’s tactics. “It’s cynical for a tobacco company to launch a branding scheme that tries to exploit the life and energy of our streets to market an addictive product that kills roughly a third of its users,” he said.
Torn between a desire to limit overexposure and to share their culture, Brooklyn residents may find that they are no longer in control of the brand image anyway. Not since Spike Lee slapped it on an Absolut bottle and spirited it away across the East River and into the mainstream.