There are many Brooklyns. There’s the Brooklyn you get when you walk the streets of Williamsburg with a map in your hands. There’s the Brooklyn down by the Smith Street bars. The Brooklyn along the Promenade. The Brooklyn at the McKibbin lofts. The Brooklyn that is Little Russia by the Sea. The Brooklyn on 9th Street. Anyone who comes here for a day or for a lifetime has their own Brooklyn—their own café, bar, park, deli, and party that they insist you must try. “The best,” they claim, “in Brooklyn.”
“But, how can they be so sure?” you wonder. “Have they tried all the other places?” Cultural hipstorian and author Oriana Leckert has—or it seems like it in her new book, Brooklyn Spaces: 50 Hubs of Culture and Creativity, which dips into boat clubs, biology labs, supply stores, art galleries, raves, and collectives of all kinds across the borough. Greenpointers recently caught up with Leckert on the eve of the book’s launch to ask the important questions.
GPers: Where do you live in Brooklyn?
Oriana Leckert: I live right on the border of Williamsburg and East Williamsburg.
GPers: Where have you lived in Brooklyn?
OL: My first Brooklyn apartment was in Park Slope in 2004 for a year. We moved to right by the Morgan Ave L stop after that. We didn’t live at the McKibbin lofts, but around the corner from the McKibbin lofts for three years. We got priced out and actually moved closer to the city because that [part of Bushwick] had become the most in-demand ten-block radius in all of Brooklyn. But, so I’ve been in north Brooklyn for ten years.
GPers: Do you see yourself living here for the next five years?
OL: Yes. Unless somebody gives me a book deal to write Detroit Spaces or Oakland Spaces or New Orleans Spaces, I would like to never leave this apartment and I would like to stay here forever.
GPers: At what point did Brooklyn start to feel like home for you?
OL: I think once I left Park Slope and moved into that loft. But New York has been feeling like home to me since long before I lived here. I grew up in northern Virginia, but my mom was born and raised in Queens and her brother never left New York. He’s been living in the West Village since like the ‘60s.
GPers: His rent must be insane.
OL: Let’s just not talk about that. [laughs] Yeah, he got grandfathered in, so he’s essentially on a lease that’s been going since like the early ‘50s. I’ve been coming to visit since I was a kid, and I always knew that I just had to get to New York as soon as I could.
We lived in the East Village for five or six years, but it was already starting to feel like it was being taken over by NYU dorms and finance people, and all of the really bizarre culture and creativity that I had been looking for was getting harder to find.
As soon as I started to feel integrated into the north Brooklyn community—the Danger Parties and the House of YES and all of the wild things that were happening—I was like, “Yes, this is what I was looking for. This is why I came here.”
GPers: How did you pick the spaces that ended up being included in the book?
OL: I wanted to give a broad range, kind of like a cultural snapshot of what’s happening right now. I wanted it to be really diverse with the types of spaces, and I wanted to cover as many neighborhoods as possible.
There are several spaces in the book that are closed and that were closed when I started, like Rubulad and Red Lotus Room, but I think that they are so important to this scene or whatever has evolved that it would be an incomplete compendium if I didn’t have that.
There were a lot of factors, but I wanted to show what makes Brooklyn “Brooklyn today”—this part of Brooklyn that is really internationally renowned for its creativity and its craziness.
GPers: When you were finding these places on your own, how did you initially find them? Word-of-mouth?
OL: Nonsense NYC [compiled by Jeff Stark] has been most people’s window into what is weird and wonderful about the underground in Brooklyn and New York City in general, so that was definitely my first source. His list has been completely crucial to everything that I know about my New York.
On my site, I have a public calendar, and that’s really the best way to know about things—to read all the mailing lists, to list all the events, and to see what everyone is doing. I kind of started at my computer just knowing about things and just making little lists.
When I was starting the [Brooklyn Spaces website profiles in 2010], definitely the first spaces that I covered were friends’ or friends-of-friends’ because I was like, “I don’t have a journalism background. I don’t know what I’m doing. It will be a lot less pressure to go talk to someone who I know or someone who is friends with my sister or friends with my roommate than to just go start contacting strangers.”
GPers: You started writing the book in the summer of 2014. How long did that process take?
OL: I signed the contract at the very end of May last year, and the manuscript was due in August, so it was an incredibly fast process. I was able to do it that quickly because I’ve been doing the blog for so long and I’ve been very immersed in the scene, so I kind of already knew what I was likely going to want to put in.
I’ve been a freelancer for a long time, so when I signed the contract, I was like, “This is crazy, but I am confident in my abilities. If I need to stay up all night and sacrifice my social life, I know that I can do that.”
But I kind of hadn’t taken into account that this was a project with a huge amount of logistics. It’s one thing to say that I can make myself do whatever I need to. But, I was working with fifty spaces. I did eighty interviews. I went back maybe one hundred times for photo shoots, not to mention research and writing, so it was a really wild summer last summer.
GPers: Since you saw the East Village changing and now Brooklyn’s changing, where do you see the changes going?
OL: I think it’s hard to talk about Brooklyn as a cohesive entity, and that’s something I struggled with in writing the book also. Like I said, I’ve tried to make a cultural snapshot of Brooklyn but Brooklyn is vast and contains multitudes, and making it into one consistent thing is a woefully inaccurate thing to try to do.
I feel like Williamsburg has been lost in the battle between culture and commerce. Many other neighborhoods are following suit. It’s becoming harder and harder to be an artist here, to live a non-conventional lifestyle. But, again, “here” being the sort of gentrified corridor on the coast of Brooklyn that goes from Greenpoint down to Red Hook. There are still a lot of opportunities for creativity and culture—Brooklyn is enormous.
OL: I think that people will still find a way, but it will just require a little bit more gumption and staying power, and also creative ways to engage with the city in a more legal way. I think it’s a really fascinating moment for DIY because spaces are getting second acts, which is kind of unheard of.
When I was writing this book last summer, I felt like we were at this crisis point where there was no hope and everything was ending and crashing down around us. I don’t feel like that anymore. It is hard and it is very expensive, and it is very difficult to be underground anymore. But it is still so inspiring to see what people are doing and how people are finding ways around that, and still creating these magical things anyway.†
Oriana Leckert is an author and cultural hipstorian. You can buy her new book on Amazon here. She also keeps a free, kick-ass events calendar filled with quirky, fabulous, and fascinating things to do in Brooklyn. Among her many favorite places in Greenpoint, there’s the “marvelous Word Bookstore” and also “the Sunview Luncheonette, which is doing really wonderful programming.”
This Saturday, May 30th, attend the Brooklyn Spaces launch party at Gowanus Ballroom (55 9th Street in Gowanus), 7pm until late, featuring brass bands, aerial performances and a group show of Brooklyn Spaces photographers. Suggested donation $10.