‘The Last Bohemia’: nostalgia isn’t what it used to be

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The combination of aging and gentrification can do a real job on young city dwellers.

Artists who fell in love with Greenwich Village in the 1950s found themselves pushed out by rising rents in the 1960s and 1970s.

Many of those folks moved north to Chelsea and south to SoHo to find a new affordable bohemia. A decade or so later they were squeezed out of their new haunts by an explosion of galleries and shops that sent rents soaring.

On to the Lower East Side the artists moved and then when the inevitable gentrification began, there was nowhere else to go but Brooklyn if you were young, broke and adventurous.

This is where journalist Robert Anasi came in, more than 20 years ago, when he set up camp in what was then the dangerous rundown neighborhood of Williamsburg.

Older New Yorkers with a broader view of real estate and history knew what would be inevitable after Anasi and his peers made the locale seem hip and liveable in their lowdown way.

“The Last Bohemia: Scenes from the Life of Williamsburg, Brooklyn” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is Anasi’s love/hate letter to the place where he was young and foolish before the arrival of turn-of-the-century folks who only wanted to pretend they were down and out.

Although the book is specifically about the changes in Williamsburg — and Anasi — over the past 20 years, it tells a story that can be related to by anyone who was ever young, poor and ambitious.

“The Last Bohemia” is all about the joy that can be found in your 20s when the absence of money and expensive diversions can make you look deeper into yourself and pay more attention to those who are struggling around you.

Even if gentrification doesn’t come along and kick you out of your funky, post-college environs, aging has a way of bumping people up to nicer homes, safer neighborhoods, and domestic responsibilities that leave little time for hanging out talking about how you will change the world.

Anasi delivers a series of portraits of the characters he knew in Williamsburg before and during its transformation into today’s pricey New York City trend center.

We meet the bums, the artists, the musicians, the baristas who filled out the cast of the fervent city life that Anasi was living.

Anasi is honest about how rough the area was in the late 1980s and the early 1990s — and admits that the arrival of coffee shops and restaurants and bookstores improved daily life — but he is also saddened by the area’s decline into an expensive stage set of bohemia in which only trust fund babies and slumming, hipster-costumed businesspeople can afford to live.

The title “The Last Bohemia” is probably a misnomer — kids will always find new cheap places to crash and set up shop. But with the changes in the economy it might be a while before another New York neighborhood as rundown as Williamsburg circa 1990 will be so completely transformed in such a relatively short period of time.

Joe Meyers

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  1. RA says:

    Thoughtful review. Most of the media attention for the book has addressed it as a political subject, rather than a portrait of a time and a place. I think it’s more interesting to look at as a piece of writing, and I’m glad you did.