Last Call in Bohemia

2013 April 2
by Ando Arike

The Right Bank Café -- New York Magazine, June 22, 1992

Ten years ago, on April Fool’s Day, 2003, the Right Bank Cafe served its last drink and, for the final time, closed its doors to business. Some eleven years before, New York magazine had featured this legendary watering-hole on its cover as an icon for “The New Bohemia” — a reputation which would soon curse Williamsburg with an invasion of  real estate developers and other such predatory creatures. Indeed, future Brooklyn historians may well mark the closing of the Right Bank as a key moment in Williamsburg’s transformation from a low-rent, multi-ethnic haven for working-class artists, anarchists, and other misfits into a “bohemian” theme park for New Age yuppies and twenty-something IT workers. Another “temporary autonomous zone” was about to be smothered by the machinations of Kapital.

Two years after the Right Bank closed, Mayor Bloomberg’s rezoning plan for the neighborhood opened vast swaths of the Brooklyn waterfront to redevelopment and gentrification, aided and abetted by generous tax breaks. A boom in condo building gathered steam as rental prices in the neighborhood skyrocketed. As in so many earlier episodes of gentrification — Soho, the Upper West Side, the East Village, Park Slope — both the original inhabitants of the neighborhood and the newer “bohemians” found themselves besieged by rising rents and a crackdown on living spaces that were suddenly found “illegal” by the authorities. The skin complexion of the neighborhood changed virtually overnight; the average income bracket was soon to follow.

In hindsight, it’s clear that the gentrification of Williamsburg is only the latest front in an ongoing war to rid central NYC of its last vestiges of ethnic and cultural diversity, and to convert the city into a theme park called “the Urban Experience.” What is planned is a sort of cultural wax museum wherein an upscale clientele can have the vicarious sensations of partaking in the authentic culture that this city once produced (but it does no longer). The international bourgeoisie can send their children to NYU where they can re-enact moments in the cultural history of the West and East Villages: the “Folk Era,” “the Punk Era,” etc. Sensitive yuppies can affirm their “colorblindness” and “post-racial politics” by moving to Harlem and enjoying museum-quality jazz in high-priced nightclubs. Investment bankers can live in Soho and imagine themselves as patrons of the arts, while mingling with fashion models. Young neoliberal capitalists can find a home in lower Manhattan, where the Ground Zero theme park reinforces their beliefs in the supremacy of American capital. In Williamsburg, young yuppies can feel “edgy” — indeed, there is a high-rise development called “The Edge.” And everybody will be “safe.”

But “back in the day”, what a madhouse of misfits and malcontents and wild-eyed visionaries filled the Right Bank! This was a crucible of creativity, much of it insane, but all of it critical of the Powers that Be. And as crazy and disjunct as we were, the solidarity of being united against the juggernaut of Kapital made us all friendly equals, and happy to spend some relaxed time in drunken  joyousness, celebrating our momentary freedom. This was a bar of slackers, where slacking was a political statement. Imbued within the bar was a working-class consciousness that neccesarily scoffed at anybody’s  pretensions.

What I remember most is swimming in the East River — the incredible astonishment of being in the water at night with the whole skyline of Manhattan spread before me. One or two summers, it was a regular thing for people at the bar to go across the street and swim in the East River. I can’t imagine this happening anymore. Are there hipsters with the courage to swim in the East River? What we’ve lost is inexplicable.

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