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The Last Bohemia: Scenes from the Life of Williamsburg, Brooklyn Paperback – August 7, 2012

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: FSG Originals (August 7, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374533318
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374533311
  • Product Dimensions: 7.5 x 5.1 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #928,132 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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About the Author

Robert Anasi is the author of The Gloves: A Boxing Chronicle (North Point Press, 2002). He teaches literary journalism at the University of California, Irvine, where he is a Schaeffer and Chancellor's Club fellow. He is also a founding editor of the literary journal Entasis

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Dark City

The explosion cracked the summer evening. Light flash and then smoke rising. Another crack and flash, and another, four in all, shredding air and reverberating in the basin of the empty pool. The two camera people watched, transfixed as the sound claps faded and smoke billowed around them. From somewhere in the cloud, a voice emerged.
You guys shot all that? Great. Let’s get out of here.
The artist stepped out of the cloud.
Pack up your cameras, he said. Come on! We’ve got to move!

In 1990, a young filmmaker named Esther Bell made her first trip to Williamsburg. She’d been hired for a shoot by an artist named Stephen Bennett. All Bennett told her was that he had an art installation in the neighborhood, that it was at a local pool and that they’d need to be careful there. He also paid cash, half in advance. This was more than enough for Esther—for a twenty-year-old scraping by in New York City on odd (sometimes very odd) jobs, any chance to make money with her Super 8 was progress.
Esther had come to New York for the same reason we all did—to get away from somewhere else. For Esther those somewheres were Columbia and Charleston, South Carolina. Even though she’d spent most of her life in South Carolina, she never thought of herself as a Southerner. Her mother, Sharon, was an army brat who grew up at Mark Twain Village in Germany. Sharon was twenty-two and working as a window dresser in Heidelberg when she got pregnant on a romantic Paris trip that didn’t include prophylactics (her eighteen-year-old boyfriend was another window dresser). In a pre–sexual revolution romantic saga, Sharon’s high school sweetheart, Randy Bell, who’d also grown up on the base, found out that Sharon was pregnant. Randy returned to Germany from Harvard Law School and the three young people decided that Sharon should marry Randy and go to America. When Esther was born, Randy put his name on the birth certificate. Nineteen years would pass before she met her biological father, when he visited her in New York with his boyfriend.
Randy Bell’s career took him to South Carolina, where he became legal counsel for the governor and then, at age forty, a justice on the state supreme court. He also suffered from Fabry disease, which killed him at forty-nine. His social standing and his illness, along with his brimstone Southern Baptist heritage, made the household a stifling place. When Esther was fourteen her parents divorced and Sharon moved to Charleston. Esther lived a divided life over the next few years—sharing a rowdy adolescence with her mother in a condemned house in Folly Beach, Charleston, while in Columbia, Anglophile, seersucker-wearing Randy and his new wife tried to mold Esther into a belle.
Esther picked rebellion. Putting out a zine brought her into the indie rock world, and she got to know the bands that passed through Charleston (and managed to keep her cool when Mike Ness from Social Distortion started sucking his own dick during an interview). Music led her to feminism and a style of her own. In her senior year of high school, Judge Bell agreed to pay her college tuition, but there were caveats—it had to be a religious institution, less than $2,000 a year, not in a city, and he would select all her classes. Being a lawyer, he drew up a contract and Esther spent her freshman year at Iona College, a small Catholic school in the Westchester town of New Rochelle. (‘Idiots on North Avenue,’ Esther says. ‘They really were.’) When Randy didn’t hold up his side of the contract and pay the tuition, Esther was set free. She dropped out of Iona and enrolled in City College, smack in the middle of Harlem.
Williamsburg didn’t look anything like New York to Esther, as Bennett led her and a second photographer—this one shooting video—down Bedford Avenue, past a shabby park to a brick castle surrounded by razor wire. Brush brambled the fences and graffiti covered every span of brick. Bennett had carved a way through the obstacles. ‘What he’d done,’ Esther says, ‘was he’d taken a torch and made a hole in the fence.’
They crawled through and Bennett sealed the breach, then hurried them away from the eyes of the street. Inside the walls was a pool like no other Esther had ever seen before. Three regulation Olympic pools laid side by side would have sunk into the McCarren basin, which had a capacity for sixty-eight hundred dripping souls. Neglect had drained the pale blue interior. Debris and filth littered the cracked concrete and a copse grew out of the diving pool.
Six years earlier the Northside fathers had solved their integration woes by breaking the toy rather than sharing it. In Williamsburg, Poles and the Irish, Jews and Italians, could swim together, but when brown people wanted in, the water was drained and the pool closed for good.
This was pre–cell phones, Esther says. And I started thinking about how nobody in the world knew I was there with this strange artist guy.
As she waited near the deep end, she didn’t see anything that looked like an art installation. You couldn’t spook Esther easily—she was fit and brave and German solid, with a defiant mane of bright red hair. Still, she wondered what she would do if something went wrong.
Her anxieties didn’t ease when two disheveled men approached her and the video guy (Bennett had disappeared). They all started talking. The men told Esther that they were Vietnam vets and on their way home from work. Home? Home was under the pool, in a subterranean maze of corridors and pipes. And they weren’t the only people who found the catacombs useful. ‘Sure,’ the vets told Esther. ‘The Mafia dumps bodies down there.’ They claimed to have seen the corpses.
As the sun set the vets moved on and Bennett was still missing. Esther wondered if she would have enough light to shoot the art, whatever it was. She didn’t plan to stick around after dark.
Just then Bennett came running toward them, shouting, ‘Turn your cameras on! Turn your cameras on!’
Before he reached them, there was an explosion. And then another one. Four powerful blasts from the top of the keep that guarded the entrance, brilliant flashes and the smell of powder and gray smoke flowing over them.
Thankfully I had kept my finger on the trigger, Esther says, because it was a huge explosion and scared the shit out of us. The other guy didn’t keep his finger on the trigger, so I was the only one who actually documented it. These weren’t M-80s or firecrackers—the explosions were huge.
When the smoke cleared, Bennett pushed them toward the street. ‘Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s go!’ They ran to the fence and Bennett closed the gap behind them. As they walked away, angling for invisibility, Esther expected sirens, police cars, fire engines to confront the swimming-pool Armageddon. Instead, there was silence.
It was as if four explosions going off was normal, Esther says. Just another day in Williamsburg.
Bennett would use Esther’s footage in a performance piece at ABC No Rio, a Lower East Side art space. On the train ride back to Manhattan, Esther worried about the effect of the explosions on the vets making dinner in the catacombs.
How decadent, Esther says. That was what I was thinking. How decadent. Here are these guys who need a real home and they’re probably having flashbacks while this guy is making his art show.
*   *   *
Getting off the L at the Bedford stop put you on guard. From First Avenue the train took forever to pass under the tidal strait, too much time to worry about the tons of seawater and mud waiting overhead to crush you. The Bedford station was a bleak hole. The shit-brown paint was cracked and peeling. Rats scurried between the rails and dashed across the platform. Foul water dripped. Upstairs, Bedford Avenue wasn’t any better. At seven p.m. you felt fear in the gloom and rightly so. Old New York hands donned their city armor. The street was quiet but not with the sprinkler hiss of summer lawns: no, Williamsburg was a ghost town. The other folks who got off the subway with you, most of them blue-collar men, hurried down the street, slipped around corners, disappeared. If you were curious, though, if you couldn’t help yourself, you slowed down. You liked the jolt, the city edge; you wanted to see the ruins. Except for the flashing Christmas lights of the Greenpoint Tavern, Bedford Avenue was dark. Shutters masked the storefronts. Some had folding lattice gates instead of metal shutters so you could look inside. Behind the shutters, dust coagulated on display platforms. Merchants had locked their shop doors one day and never come back.
Three guys I knew moved to a Williamsburg loft in the summer of 1988: Stephan Schwinges, Kai Mitchell and Andrew Lichtenstein. They were perfect fodder for a rough neighborhood—young and cocky and willing to live on scraps. Drew and Kai had graduated that spring from Sarah Lawrence College just outside the city, and Stephan was a louche German expat who’d left his homeland under a cloud and bounced from Berlin to London and then to the East Village.
A Mexican American illustrator told Stephan that he was giving up the loft he shared with his wife in Williamsburg, a big space, two thousand–plus square feet for a thousand bucks a month, if Stephan was interested.
Stephan’s response: ‘Where the fuck is Williamsburg?’
But he went out and looked at the loft: two floors on the west side of a warehouse at the corner of Metropolitan and Driggs, right on the border between Northside and South. The back windows looked out onto an even bigger warehouse and a weed-strangled lot. Catty-corner on Driggs was a stoneyard with winches and cables to hoist blocks of marble and granite. An Italian mason occupied the first floor of th...

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Customer Reviews

A useful and very readable piece of recent social history.
Martha Plotkin
What book written by someone who can't write isn't depressing?
Stewart Nusbaumer
It was a great place to live, but only for economic reasons.
B. Wolinsky

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Uber Reader on August 9, 2012
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
As a person who grew up living in Williamsburg Brooklyn, I can really relate to the way Robert Anasi describes the unique rawness of living in Williamsburg in the 80 & 90's had to offer. It was a hidden gem, extremely affordable, close proximity to Manhattan a haven for future artist, yet dark and dangerous at times making you develop a tough thick skin about you. Now with all these new developments and high priced real estate moving in like the Edge, Wholefoods, Duane Reade's, and original burg people like me dodging over crowded Bedford Avenue sidewalks with Yuppy outsider types pushing expensive stollers ready to knock me over in a second, I feel as though Williamsburg is sadly losing its charm and what made it so special. If you want to go back in time, see what care fee living was like living in the Burg before all this gentrification happened then I suggest you read Robert Anasi's The Last Bohemia.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful By BartGoldNYC on August 26, 2012
Format: Paperback
I saw a mention of this book in the ny post and since i know someone who lives in billyburg and have visited there a number of times and thought it a very uninteresting place thats been getting too much hype especially in the ny media i decided to get the book. Anasi's not a bad writer but tries too hard and it gets a little too boringly memoir-y about his life. I also find or rather suspect that some of his adventures and macho talk are invented. He has sort of a john rechy writing style and thats cool. Okay -- whats missing. A MAP OF WILLIAMSBURG. So we know the street locations he's wrting about. Its like a biography without photos. Hard ti believe this book was produced without a MAP of the subject. Just a quick follow: he basically tells his story of williamsburg through profiles of people he knew there. After a while, those profiles become boring and tedious. Its almost as if he lost the theme, williamsburg. I figure i'll slog through the rest of it and raise or lower my ranking.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Stewart Nusbaumer on July 17, 2014
Format: Paperback
Not a bad book -- considering the writer is clueless about how to write a story. Incredibly, the author teaches on the college level, and his subject is Literary Journalism. Is this a joke? If not, I suggest you have "realistic" expectations about this country's literary future.

The descriptions of the endless bars is shallow, ideal for skimming. (If you're on scag, it's a good time to nod out.) The characters are comic strips, we never get to know anyone -- the author a little, but that's it. Anasi, however, did give us a few worthy lines to ponder. For a minute, or two. They are breaks from the sleep-inducing prose.

"For the new hipster, enthusiasm about anything 'serious' was forbidden." Being serious, outside your job and getting laid, is absolutely forbidden by hip dogma. India is nuked off the planet, don't get serious. This is the comic book culture in generational low grade mind. It's graphic novel intellect on the slow plunge. It's -- well, it's certainly not worth what I paid for this book, which I prefer not to remember.

In all, this is a depressing book. What book written by someone who can't write isn't depressing? I guess this is the price we pay for our dumded down and diversity stripped culture. Instead of art and intellect and going out on the bending limb we have "hip" -- which, as history shows, is another word for "fad." So fashion reigns and authenticity retreats into smaller and smaller pockets. And Williamsburg, the subject of this book, transforms itself into the latest commercialization of the hip. It would have been great to learn about pre-destroyed Williamsburg, but you won't here. Well, not much.

This critical review was not easy for me to write, although you may have thought differently. You see, Anasi and I have a deep connection, a bond that cannot be broken. I'm also a former junkie. And I also can't write a book.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Jake on September 14, 2012
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
As a Bostonian, I am drawn to New York. There in no denying it's greatness. But I also feel disloyal to Boston if I enjoy NY too much. I think of Manhattan when I think "New York." Anasi's descriptions of Williamsburg were so powerful that I now feel that I "know" a bit about Brooklyn as well. His phrasing is wonderful. He can tell you a great deal about a location or even a person with few well chosen words. One quick example.... he describes an old roommate as a girl, who in college, majored in "Art History and Substance Abuse." What a formidable portrayal. This is a thoroughly enjoyable read.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By pensionfund on October 1, 2012
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
great book - great writer! loved reading it. i lived in williamsburg from 1998 - 2002. how lucky i have been to have lived there back then!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By robyn on September 18, 2012
Format: Paperback
I'm a third generation Greenpoint/Williamsburg resident and reading this book brought back so many memories. Anasi reiterates the same stories my dad and uncles have told me, and recreated the images that shaped my childhood. To those who said this book is all about drugs, you're mistaken. It was happening, I knew exactly what it meant when I dropped a heroin addled uncle off on Bedford and North 7th in the early 90s. But Anasi also describes the character of the old neighborhood as well, from the industrial landscapes that adorned Williamsburg, to the natives who defined and shaped the neighborhood. With Williamsburg losing more and more of its soul every day, it's wonderful to have that little chunk of remembrance.
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