The un-Manhattan

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Many of the people I graduated college with shared similar aspirations of big city living. “The City” with all its “opportunities” created a sense of solace for the aimless senior—and the looks on people’s faces upon hearing you were Manhattan-bound!

But when asked where I was planning to live, “Williamsburg” often caused looks of befuddlement. It didn’t ring like “The Village” or “Soho”.

Two years later, I still haven’t fully grasped what being a Brooklynite, specifically a Williamsburger, means. What is the Brooklyn brand? What does it do for my personal brand?

Most jump to the “Hipster” epithet, envisioning a tattooed, chain-smoking, plaid- wearing, fixed-gear-riding, cheap-beer-drinking, contrived contrarian. While these characters certainly have a presence, that stereotype hardly defines the culture. “Hipster” has simply become a derisive label for what’s essentially a fashion trend—a manifestation of something underlying.

To me, Williamsburg’s culture is the collective reaction of a consumer generation to push-marketing tactics. Fundamentally, people don’t like to be told what to do—it implies you’re not capable of making your own decisions. Williamsburg’s businesses have capitalized on this cognitive dissonance by becoming the “un-Manhattan”—the refuge. If Manhattan is big, loud and commercialized, Williamsburg is unsuspecting, unimposing, eccentric and eclectic.

Restaurants embrace a rustic, fancy fundamentals style and offer traditional dishes served by traditionally dressed wait staff. Bars play folk or gypsy jazz and are modeled after the 1920’s speakeasies. Flea markets and second-hand clothing stores abound. Coffee shops flaunt exposed brick along with local and latte art.

Despite being unquestionably curated, everything has a quaint subtlety and charm that invokes nostalgia for simpler times. Socially, it’s refreshing knowing that people are there for a reason—not just drawn like moths to the Manhattan flame. Amidst the daily barrage of tourists and media channel noise, Williamsburg offers a respite—a moment to take a mental breath, marvel at the details and revel in each other’s company. It’s comforting.

Yet still, for most outsiders, “Brooklyn” and its neighborhood sub-brands like Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Bushwick and DUMBO don’t carry nearly the same cachet as “Manhattan” and its neighborhood sub-brands.

For visitors, it seems to be an awareness and proximity issue. I can’t remember ever giving a foreigner directions to Brooklyn—it just doesn’t seem to be on their radars, and, with the exception of a misguided subway ride, the chances of stumbling into Brooklyn are slim. For those dubious Manhattanites, it’s likely the outsider effect—“They dress funny! It’s too far! I don’t know how to get around!” While perceptions are changing with improved public transit, acclaiming restaurant reviews, cheaper housing, etc., Brooklyn is still often regarded as the place cabs won’t take you.

As a brand strategist, it’s a fascinating phenomenon. Brooklyn has so much appeal to those who know and live it, yet causes such bewilderment to those who don’t—and I think that’s exactly it. The allure of Brooklyn is its mystique—its secrets—its wonderful habit of surprising you with things you thought only existed in times past. Brooklyn’s businesses have aptly tapped into a latent yearning we have for what’s essentially simplicity—something that’s been muddled in the chaotic and unyielding digital evolution of our society.

So, it’s not just about “sticking it to the man” or being different. Brooklyn is about an unexpected experience and culture that takes pride in being a bit unconventional and dated—if for anything, to maintain that vestige of sanity we still have at the end of the day. Despite my own reluctance to embrace Brooklyn, I’ve come to accept my inner hipster, fedora and all.

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