It felt good to get back to Mono-Lagering. With the freedom a teacher enjoys in the summer, I can visit bars more difficult to get to than the usual Park Slope or Williamsburg affairs. So last week I decided to start exploring Bed-Stuy. The first bar I chose was Black Swan, right near the G train.
I had a theme in mind. I had a bag full of nerdery (comics and a brand-spanking new copy of Dance with Dragons), and I spotted some Dr. Who villains lurking on the molding opposite the bar. This was going to be the post where I talk about being a nerd, and everything that means.
It isn't. It might actually be far nerdier than that, as this is the Mono-Lagering where I get serious.
For non New York readers, some background is in order. Bed-Stuy is, like my neighborhood of Bushwick, a part of Brooklyn for decades known as a rather crime-ridden slum. Whereas my Bushwick is largely a Latino stronghold, Bed-Stuy has been home to blacks, be they southern transplants, Jamaicans, or old school Brookynites. Both neighborhoods have of late begun a gentrification process, a process I have watched since its infancy in Bushwick.
In Bed-Stuy, for whatever reason, it seems to be moving more quickly. Cafes, galleries, micropubs, high-end restaurants and lots of new young professionals have gathered in just a few short years.
In New York we don't like to talk about race. Americans in general shy from the topic, but here up north we're used to just assuming that's a problem for those rednecks down south. We weren't the slave-based economy, after all. But that does not change that race is still a Huge and Horrible problem here. New York is one of the most segregated cities I've ever seen. Here in Bushwick I can point you to which streets are Mexican and which are Puerto Rican. The school where I teach has around an eighty percent Latin population, whereas a friend's school a few blocks away has an eighty percent black population.
Now, it makes sense for immigrants to prefer living around people from their country of origin. However, the way New York real estate works, it's difficult for recent immigrants to ever earn enough to either own their own place or move somewhere with more economic mobility. Hence why Bushwick and Bed-Stuy became what they became.
But now it's gentrifying time and here come all these young white kids (to be fair, some Asians as well) with their dreams of becoming New Yorkers. They find a neighborhood cheap enough for them and invade. Next thing you know, landlords start driving up prices. Soon these young whites are all that can afford to live there anymore; the suburbs of America are colonizing our inner cities, and they're winning.
Now, not even I am self-loathing enough to think this is Simply A Terrible Thing. I've been around Bushwick long enough to know some residents are thrilled at the changes. Crime is on the decrease, the streets are safer for their kids, and, frankly, some of the new business are great, welcome additions. As a former secretary at work once said to me when I first moved to Bushwick some ten years ago, "I like it when you whites move in. You pick up your dog's shit!"
BUT, where are the people that used to live here going? I live alone in an apartment; every other unit houses a family of at least three or four. Where did the family in my apartment go? There are nights I spend more on booze than one of my neighbors might spend on food for a week.
Gentrification is inevitable in this American society. And it will always have positive and negative repercussions. Which direction it leans in is for smarter people than me to say. I simply know it makes me extremely uncomfortable when young gringos open up a Mexican restaurant across the street from a tortillaria that's been there for generations, but it makes me really happy to see young tattooed artists helping neighborhood kids plant a garden or paint a mural.
America's strength has always come from the variety of people that call it home, New York more so, and Brooklyn EVEN MORE SO. But it works best when these different folks do things together; not ignoring the differences, not erasing identities, but combining. In a Bushwick Bahn Mi, I want to taste the jalapeño and the foie gras and the cilantro.
So I walked to Black Swan apprehensive. Here was a high-end-ish pub with fancy food and a huge beer list right in the middle of an area warned against just a few years ago. I walked in and it's a beautiful place; stark black and white walls, good wood. Nice long bar with a copper top; books and accoutrements tastefully appointed. I ordered a Reissdorf Kolsch, and it was perfect for that hot, humid day: crisp with just a hint of creamy sweetness.
Their bourbon selection was impressive, and their cocktail list drew me in. I had a "Hensley," which is bacon-infused bourbon with maple syrup, orange bitters, and a flamed orange peel. Good Lord it was delicious. I sat and I drank and I noticed the Daleks and I thought about this nerdy post I was going to write. A girl sat near me marking up a book with a highlighter while wearing some of the shortest shorts I've seen yet this year (thank you, summer). They even had the captions on the ESPN talking-heads programming (I've long been irritated by bars that put on talking head shows and neither turn it up nor offer captions; I do not want to simply look at Woody Paige's face). It was nerd time.
But then I noticed something else. This was the most racially diverse group of patrons I had ever seen in a bar. The food offered something for everyone; Jamaican jerk chicken alongside a tuna nicoise salad wonderfully prepared. This was a local bar where both new and old locals sat together. A dozen different accents talked about sports, work travails, and sex.
I won't say we were no longer whites and blacks and Asians and young and old and immigrant and native; of course we were still all these things. But we were also all Brooklynites, we were all at the Black Swan, and we were all drinkers, drinking together.
The Black Swan is doing it right, and I'll be back as soon as I can.