“Even now, a part of me doesn’t want to believe it.” Gabriel García-Cohen is in between drags of a cigarette he’s just rolled on the roof of his apartment at the corner of Norfolk and Rivington streets. It’s a gray afternoon in mid-October—an afternoon scheduled to be his last in New York “for who knows how long.” He peers ﬁve stories down into the heart of Manhattan’s Lower East Side and sighs. This is the neighborhood for which the 25-year-old T-shirt designer/aspiring documentary ﬁlmmaker/vintage-ashtray entrepreneur left the comfort of his parents’ uptown duplex just over four years ago—long enough, he says, to watch it “become totally boring.”
He takes another drag.
“It wasn’t always like this. In 1999 and 2000, especially the spring of 2000, I’d come up here for a smoke, or to sculpt, or paint, because the light can get really diffuse up here, and I’d look down toward Clinton Street and think, This is it. This is where it’s going down.” He smiles, remembering. “We might not have ever said it, you know, aloud, but we felt it. This place was . . . for real.”
It was around that time that García-Cohen opened Fu, a small storefront on his block that sold vintage ashtrays, from the forties and sixties. “We got a write-up in Paper, did a party with Courvoisier; one of the Ronsons D.J.’d, I think. A few days later, Jason Schwartzman came in and bought a piece. Nice guy.” He admits those were the salad days. “I don’t know what happened. I started doing too much blow, and six months later the store was closed.” A gust of chilly autumn wind forces him to turn up his collar. “Now things around here are just . . . different. And it’s not just here; it’s the whole city, even Brooklyn—especially Brooklyn. Right now everywhere just feels . . . tired. Cliché. Corny.” He pauses, remembering. “Deeply unsatisfying . . . over.”
He flicks his cigarette over the ledge. “It’s one of those things you think couldn’t happen here, not in New York.” A pigeon lands. He shakes his head. “But I guess I’m living proof.” The pigeon flies away.
The next day, Gabriel García-Cohen moved to Bruges.
As he might say, if he were still here and not in the fourth-largest city in Belgium: “For real.” Because it’s not just T-shirt designer/aspiring documentary filmmaker/vintage-ashtray entrepreneurs on the Lower East Side, and it’s not just Bruges. It’s D.J./blogger/illusionists in Williamsburg, sneaker model/jewelry designer/fashion PR assistants in Nolita, and independent homosexual artist/vegan-sake-bar owners in the meatpacking district. Like García-Cohen, they’re moving, or already gone, or talking about moving, even if only for the winter. They’re headed to places like Belgium and New Hampshire; Marfa, Texas, and Mobile, Alabama; to Canada, to Australasia, to Los Angeles.
“Vincent Gallo once said Williamsburg was like a giant dorm room with no homework. He was right. And now you’ve got lawyers moving here to be young again.”
If fall in New York seems somehow colder this year, maybe it’s not just that the Yankees lost to the Red Sox or the country is still ruled by the red states. For while many of us have been blithely preoccupied with baseball, or the future of America, the city has been suffering a migration that would have seemed nothing less than ridiculous as recently as August. It’s not quite that nobody’s on the roads, or on the streets, or that you can feel it in the air. It’s that the past few months have been witness to what can only be described as a quiet exodus of a certain kind of New York so-and-so the city has tended to take for granted—until now.
Call them hipsters, or human filth. They are the oft-ridiculed, if always obsessed-over, predominantly young, vaguely creative, and, more often than not, contemptuously fashionable set who have come to define entire swaths of downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn. And for as long as New York has been, well, New York, they’ve played a disproportionate role in keeping the city’s pulse pounding.
Especially since the tragic events of September 11.
From the resurgence of a largely overhyped and only marginally profitable rock-music scene to a much-needed reinfusion of unintended absurdity on catwalks and in art galleries, to the rise of isometric hairstyles and deadpan facial hair, it has been New York’s so-called hipsters who, as much as anyone, have refused to cower in the shadow of fear/death. And while there are no hard numbers yet compiled on just how many have left, or are threatening to leave, or are just complaining, interviews with those still here, and the stories of those already gone, raise questions that refuse to be ignored.
Why are they leaving? Where are they going? How are they getting there? Who’s really paying for it? What does it portend for the city as a whole? And, most important: Has the time come to ponder the once unthinkable? Is New York City in danger of being . . . over?
Is the city ‘over’? Tough to say. What I can say is that the art sucks, and I’m moving to Fiji.” Meet Tiramisu, a 26-year-old sneaker model/jewelry designer/fashion PR assistant. For the past seven years, she’s lived on Broome Street just east of Allen, or as she calls it, “Chinatown Northeast.” Her real name is Jennifer Iloilo, but like so many of the Australasians who come to New York, she soon came to believe her real name wasn’t unique enough.
“I’ve always loved Tiramisu,” she says, petting her Norwich terrier, Fiji, while sitting on one of the packed boxes strewn about her soon-to-be-vacated apartment. “Also, my dad is Ratu Josefa Iloilo, the president of Fiji, and I wanted some distance from all that.”
She, too, remembers feeling differently about the city. “Now everyone is like, oh, whatever, it was never cool. But I remember what seemed like a whole summer of these endless great nights dancing to electroclash, where everyone seemed to know someone who knew one of the Strokes, and everybody wore Levi’s Platinum Label jeans and had gone to school with someone you knew from Parsons, or Pratt, or RISD, or Dalton. You felt like you were a part of something vibrant and creative and real. Even this neighborhood. I mean, I’d go to Sunday brunch at Café Habana on Elizabeth Street every Tuesday afternoon and it felt like . . . like home. Now that guy from the Smashing Pumpkins is always there. It sucks. Like the art.”
But are overrun cafés, questionable art, and fading rock bands enough to drive the young and creative and fashionable-ish from the city long considered the most exciting in the world? Tiramisu admits that often there’s something deeper at root. She mentions García-Cohen.
“I knew Gabe. Look, he was a loser and everyone either knew it or had heard about it. He probably didn’t tell you the deal with his ‘T-shirt line,’ right? Well, his clever idea was to buy white Hanes Beefy-T’s and embroider them with tiny words—in Braille! What the hell is that? Some semi-sighted guys from Iceland beat the crap out of him.” She pets Fiji. “It’s funny, but it’s not, you know, because it does sort of get at the big picture of everything sucking.”
According to Tiramisu, at some point the city’s hipsters crossed an invisible line, a border between what could be rationally deemed hip/cool and a lawless/paranoid realm seemingly devoid of not just logic/reason but style/verve—with chilling/depressing results.