Nov 30, 2010

Brooklyn: Retro Authenticity

While staying in Park Slope for a few weeks last summer, I became
intrigued by Brooklyn’s retro culture. It started with the furnished apartment we rented. A veritable retro shrine, the apartment housed everything from grandma’s furniture to 1960s crockery, kitsch 1950s movie posters to a huge collection of vinyl records. Aside from a computer and television, there was scarcely anything new in the place. On the same block as the apartment, there were two second-hand clothing stores. But my Brooklyn retro experience culminated in an afternoon at Brooklyn Bowl in Williamsburg (around the corner from the Brooklyn Brewery), followed by shopping at Brooklyn Industries, and finally, sharing a growler of Bierkraft beer with friends. Of course, it is impossible to identify a borough as diverse as Brooklyn with a single culture, but retro seems to me to be somehow essential to a particular Brooklyn cultural experience.

Retro clothing store, 5th Avenue, Brooklyn

Retro is the revival, idealization and consumption of the recent past. While antique culture is fixated on fine objects of the distant past, retro is fixated on everyday, often kitsch, objects or experiences of the late twentieth century. However, while “retro embodies a communal memory of the recent past” (Guffey, 2006: 26), this experience is “also implicitly linked with loss of faith in the future” (Guffey, 2006: 22). Retro thus implies identification with a lost era and its (real or imagined) values. As the recent past is consumed as a series of images or discrete objects, history is both celebrated and forgotten: retro is a culture of selective memory.

A more specific analysis of Brooklyn’s retro culture appears in Sharon Zukin’s latest book, Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places. In her analysis of the cultures of gentrification in New York, Zukin describes both the Brooklyn Brewery and Brooklyn Industries as part of the 1990s reinvention of Williamsburg (Zukin, 2010: 49-50). Founded in 1987, Brooklyn Brewery began brewing in upstate New York before shifting to an abandoned Williamsburg factory in 1996. Two years later, fashion brand Brooklyn Industries was founded by artists Lexy Funk and Vahap Avsar. After working in design-related industries, they began making messenger bags from recycled vinyl billboard materials in a former Williamsburg factory. And before proceeding any further, it is worth adding a disclaimer at this point: I own both a Brooklyn Industry messenger bag and a t-shirt, and have consumed plenty of Brooklyn Lager.

Brooklyn Brewery's signature beer, Brooklyn Lager

Brooklyn’s recent past is central to the image of both brands. The “B” on the Brooklyn Brewery’s logo and labels, designed by Milton Glaser, references the late Brooklyn Dodgers’ lettering, a suitably retro nod to the borough’s former sporting glory days of the 1940s and 50s (see photo above). The brewery itself is a revival of Williamsburg’s illustrious brewing past that stretched back to the nineteenth century, although the last brewery from that era closed in 1976. Similarly, the Brooklyn Industries logo highlights the neighborhood’s industrial past, through its image of the Manhattan skyline from a Williamsburg perspective. Their respective brand positioning also highlight local character: Brooklyn Industries is a resolutely urban fashion brand, opposed to both suburban mainstream chains and haughty couture, while Brooklyn Brewery’s “local” beer is opposed to both the national mass brands and boutique foreign imports.

Brooklyn’s retro culture, Zukin argues, is closely aligned to the borough’s newest population wave: young, educated professionals. The success of brands like Brooklyn Brewery and Brooklyn Industries initially rested on the claims to local heritage and character by this new urban middle class. During the 1990s, industrial-era Williamsburg emerged as a retro theme, but remains for the most part a surface aesthetic, without reference to Williamsburg’s German brewers, Polish and Puerto Rican factory workers, or Hassidic population. In the absence of these diverse histories, “Williamsburg’s new entrepreneurs crystallized the neighborhood’s “authenticity” into a product with cultural buzz and shaped their own new beginnings into a powerful story of origin” (Zukin, 2010: 50). Retro culture gives this authenticity material form – from local beer to renovated brownstones, industrial-themed fashion to retrofitted warehouses.

Above: Brooklyn Industries store, 5th Avenue, Brooklyn

Below: Brooklyn Industries bag

While Brooklyn Brewery and Brooklyn Industries continue to market commodities self-consciously branded by Brooklyn, they now distribute nationally (and even internationally). Initially opposed to mainstream brands and chain stores, their particular local identity and authenticity are in danger of becoming mainstream. Presumably, the retro appeal of both brands coincides with a popular, global image of Brooklyn reinforced by cinema and television. However, while these two have already surpassed their Brooklyn base, the other two examples of Brooklyn retro I began this post with, the Brooklyn Bowl and Bierkraft, are experiences that cannot be exported.

Above: entrance to Brooklyn Bowl.

Below: band posters, while not exclusively retro, the Talking Heads tribute fits the bill.

At the Brooklyn Bowl, a somewhat unfashionable pastime has been reinvented with a retro makeover as part of a complete entertainment experience, including nightclub-style lighting and sound system, banks of digital project screens, and loud music. Located in a former iron works, the Bowl features a sixteen-lane bowling alley, a stage for live bands, a restaurant, and two bars. The interior design, by Tristram Steinberg, includes a wealth of retro detailing – from the dark, deep-buttoned Chesterfield couches and hand-painted signage, to the bar inspired by a Coney Island shooting gallery. Even the diner-style menu, featuring Fried Chicken platters and Egg Creams, has a retro flavor. While self-consciously retro, the Bowl also has solid environmental credentials, as its recycled flooring materials, low-impact lighting, and wind-powered electricity have resulted in the country’s first L.E.E.D. certified bowling alley.

A Bierkraft growler

Lastly, the growler of Bierkraft beer topped off my Brooklyn retro afternoon. While Bierkraft is a boutique which stocks literally hundreds of beers, the experience (for me at least) was in purchasing a growler. A growler is a large brown bottle, something like an old-fashioned moonshine jug, 64 ounces in this case, into which beer is poured directly from a tap in the store. After consuming the contents at home, the empty jug is returned to the store and refilled. While I am not convinced that this is a uniquely Brooklyn experience, I suspect the growler revival is particularly strong in the borough. A range of gourmet cheeses and chocolates complements Bierkraft’s beer range, but the particular retro emphasis here is on the locally produced beer brewed using various old-fashioned methods (that staff are keen to converse about in depth). However, like a day at the Brooklyn Bowl, it is not a cheap experience.

As the taste culture of Brooklyn’s new middle classes, retro is available to those with the disposable capital to consume it. At its worst, retro’s romanticisation of the past is a form of collective amnesia in which wealthy newcomers can forget the displacement and ongoing disappearance of diverse neighbourhoods. At its best, retro’s romanticisation of the past might revive lost histories, skills or knowledge, as it did for me with both a new found appreciation of both bowling and beer. Ultimately though, Brooklyn retro’s culture may be simply symptomatic of our age of uncertainty. As Zukin puts it: “Though we think authenticity refers to a neighborhood’s innate qualities, it really expresses our own anxieties about how places change” (Zukin, 2010: 220). A retreat into a comfortable, seemingly stable past may be less fearful than the rapidly changing present.


Elizabeth Guffey, Retro: the Culture of Revival, Reaktion Books, London: 2006.

Sharon Zukin, Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places, Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York: 2010.

Brooklyn’s most recent retro contribution: Jacques magazine's retro porn.

All photographs by D. J. Huppatz

Update, 15 December: And now, the Brooklyneer, for all things Brooklyn. & it's in ... Manhattan.