When did Williamsburg stop being ‘weird’?

Keep Slogans Boring. Photo by Tim Donnelly.

Keep Slogans Boring. Photo by Tim Donnelly.

I spotted this sign about two weeks ago under the BQE in Williamsburg, right down the street between Rocka Rolla and the Capital One bank. I don’t know how long it’s been there but I do know it’s the first time I can recall seeing the “Keep Williamsburg Weird” slogan on display in the neighborhood. This slogan, it needs to be said, is bad. It’s not interesting or unique or particularly helpful, and its arrival is more a sign of a neighborhood’s cultural weirdness entering hospice care than chemotherapy to save it.

Williamsburg is overall not “weird” these days. It is the land, as we learned yesterday, of blonde 20-somethings making reality shows about their brunch plans that seem even too mundane for the calmer quarters of Manhattan. It’s glass-window-lined megabuildings making way for Whole Foods on Bedford Avenue instead of new dive bars. The slogan makes the neighborhood seem desperate, clutching at a civic rallying cry already used in Austin, Portland and elsewhere, but its arrival is understandable. 

The “Keep [city] Weird” slogan might seem locally borne in each of the cities where it’s popped up, but really it has the cachet of a small chain like Buffalo Exchange. I do not like it. It is used too many places and seems too pre-packed and exportable. It’s the “Keep calm and ____ on” T shirt of attempted bohemian rallying cries.

By all accounts, the slogan was born in Austin in 2000, then arrived in Portland, Boulder and Louisville. Last year, Indianapolis adopted a “keep” slogan. Keep Indy Weird’s Facebook page describes it thusly: “The Webster dictionary defines Weird as: ‘of strange or extraordinary character.’ That’s how we see ourselves, and our greater tribe of creatives & local business owners….people of extraordinary character.” They went to the dictionary, guys.

I am not saying these cities are not weird. Austin is a great town full of bonkers cowboy punks the likes of which we can’t even dream about in the deepest Skinny Dennis bender. Portland made a cottage industry out of its lovingly mockable eccentrics. I attended one very unexpected bachelor party in Louisville that ended at amateur night at a strip club, which I would definitely qualify as “weird.” Indianapolis, I know nothing about! That is weird!

These cities are not boring, but that slogan is. It is by definition very un-weird, the antithesis of what it stands to be. Its premises are good: support local businesses, celebrate the gorilla-suit wearing person riding a unicycle who delivers fresh bread down the block; have fewer Starbucks and more bike shops that serve coffee and make their own nut milks.

But locally, it reeks of a death knell of the very thing you’re trying to save. If your campaign is down to a #hashtag sign under the BQE — that is, if you feel the need to use the word “weird” to describe what you want to save about your neighborhood — you’ve probably already lost. When we see this kind of “weird” in Brooklyn these days, it’s suspect anyway: maybe it’s viral marketing, or a prank for a late-night show, or some try-too-hard kid who wants to go viral. “Weird” becomes a product, another thing that is the same from city to city. Williamsburg is certainly plenty weird in parts (bless you, Jo Firestone, for throwing a comedy festival in a car wash), but that’s hardly the default hue of the neighborhood now.

For what it’s worth, a grand total of two people are all that seem to be using this hashtag on Twitter, and only few more tagged it on Instagram; this is the only post of the lot that qualifies as “weird:”

#art #performance #conceptual #coup #keepwilliamsburgweird

A video posted by Celine (@celine_dijon) on

Rehashing the transformation of Williamsburg from outer-borough artsy outpost to bridge-and-tunnel Manhattan real estate garrison pricing out natives and long time residents isn’t particularly novel or interesting any more, so we won’t bore you with the history of it (although seriously have you walked down Kent Avenue lately?).

But dig on this time capsule from the old neighborhood, which we came across in a Daily Beast interview with Metric’s Emily Haines from late October. She talks about what might be to our generation what Woodstock was to our parents: everyone will claim to have been there, “there” being living in a loft in Williamsburg with members of five different 2000s-era indie breakout bands.

“It’s a love affair that I’ve found hard to end,” Haines says of NYC living, before reminiscing about the days when it was her and Metric guitarist James Shaw, along with members of the bands Liars, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Stars, and TV on the Radio, all sharing the same two-bathroom Williamsburg loft in the late ’90s. “Cat piss aside, it was a special time.”

The loft has since been torn down to make way for a hotel; now Haines lives in the West Village, though she’s being forced out of that place soon too. So that “special time” she talks about is gone, and now even the rest of the world is catching up with the fact that Williamsburg is no longer one big hipster joke; instead it’s a land of professional brunch goers like in that too silly to get mad about reality show, of bros causing fights at Crown Victoria, of aching to live among the Brooklyn cool while wishing there was a SoulCycle just a little bit closer to your apartment.

In the end of that Emily Haines interview, she gives in to that old New York pastime of looking back on The Way Things Used to Be — and blaming Taylor Swift for part of the problem.

…New York is Taylor Swift. The feeling of landing in New York and, after having worked with Lou Reed and my personal mythology of the city, having it be Taylor Swift welcoming you to New York is just so emblematic of the era. This is whose New York it is. Nothing says it better. This is why I’m getting evicted!

Lou was a throwback to weird New York.
We gotta make sure we don’t all become homogenized. People need to remember what it’s like to be a weirdo. Weirdly, I think doing the Imagine Dragons tour made us feel more like artsy freaks than ever before.

So do you need a sign to remember what it’s like to be a weirdo? Actually weird people don’t worry about being weird, they just make sure to be #interesting.

#KeepTimWeird: @timdonnelly.

12 Comment

  • I can only hope that everyone who tries to talk about late 90s/early 00s Williamsburg like it was Woodstock will see their tongue turn to ash in their mouth so they can’t tell their tales, and see their fingers turn into hot dogs so they can’t write or type their horrible lies either.

    • Ben, what the fuck does that even mean?

      Honestly I don’t know why I’m choosing to get into this conversation because it seems clear that you all are the type of people whom I wouldn’t ever see eye to eye with, but goddamn this article is corny as fuck. I wanted to let it be, because everyone is entitled to their opinion, but shit man, you see an invitation to an open community art collab and decide to try and discredit it because of a fucking hashtag and some grossly over estimated sense of importance and ability to write? Then you talk in circles about how the hashtag contradicts Williamsburg’s weirdness, but that it isn’t weird anymore anyway, which, who knows what you are trying to say? I think in the end it seems clear that you and entire new generation of self important, unoriginal, certainly unweird, attention seekers wouldn’t know organic, authentic attempts at expression if it beat you over the head with whatever device you are currently taking a selfie with. You can’t even see it. All you see is the hashtag. That’s it. You’re a community of fucking hashtags. Fuck me that’s corny. Excuse me for trying to offer a moment of difference, spontaneity, and community in an otherwise colorless walk down Metropolitan Avenue full of people starring at their phones, likely trying to update their blogs on sites like brokelyn in hopes of being cool in the emptiest sense of the word. It’s people like this and culture like this that inspires such a hashtag as keep it weird, original or not, because I can’t fucking stand this judgey, thoughtless, try-hard culture that is taking a stronghold on a once decent area. And yeah. Tim? Weird people just know their weird and keep it interesting? Well by that logic you are shit out of luck mon frer, because this basic, watered down, masturbatory attempt at social commentary leaves you far out of the ballpark of interesting or weird. Just not very good at making points or seeing your own point when it’s staring you right in the face. But since I doubt you and your three followers understand anything not expressed in hashtags you can #gofuckyourself.

  • This was actually a really well-written / insightful article.

  • I was the person who put that board up. To be fair the hashtag might have been unoriginal or not entirely accurate of the purpose, I don’t know or care. I was making an attempt at giving the project a chance at gathering an online personality (it didn’t). The actual purpose of the “project” was simply to put a blank slate in a once creative neighborhood and see if it might challenge or inspire something fun and unique. Equal parts a test of the culture, a snapshot of it, a drunken idea in motion, and something to do with my Monday. In the end it was less beautiful or creative than I had hoped, but it had glimpses of interesting and creative contributions, and, if nothing else, it filled up three boards, which means people were at least willing to be engaged and interact with it. What that means I couldn’t tell you. But I would say, to the notion that Williamsburg has not been weird for a long time, the board might actually give some insight to that, which is that the weird and creative nature is few and far between, but not altogether gone from the neighborhood. It all depends on where and with whom you spend your time, but you can still find it if you are willing to look. However, I would agree that it is being suffocated which was the point of that hashtag in the first place. But thanks for shitting on my Monday.

  • The guy who put up these #weird boards belongs in upstate New York not Brooklyn… Great article

  • #keepwilliamsburgjudgmental

  • I find it interesting that a blog like this feels they can publicly demean honest efforts to liven the community up. Jude and slander and jerk themselves off. That you would write an article implying that you understand what is and what isn’t weird, but when someone writes a comment questioning your integrity, ability, and authentic weirdness you don’t allow it up. But I thought you were so Brooklyn and cool and weird and interesting that you could take a little criticism. No? No. I didn’t you are corny as fuck.