Richard Ocejo on Masters of Craft: Old Jobs in the New Urban Economy

Ocejo

In today’s new economy—in which “good” jobs are typically knowledge or technology based—many well-educated and culturally savvy young men are instead choosing to pursue traditionally low-status manual labor occupations as careers. Masters of Craft by Richard Ocejo looks at the renaissance of four such trades: bartending, distilling, barbering, and butchering. Read on for insight on what led Ocejo to write the book, his research process, and why these jobs have become popular.

What led you to study and write a book about cocktail bartenders, craft distillers, upscale men’s barbers, and whole animal butchers?

RO: Like with the project for my previous book, this project started because I walked into a bar. I was studying the impact of downtown nightlife scenes on neighborhood and community life in New York City, and some of the bars I went to were specialized, speakeasy-style cocktail bars that had opened up. They had hidden doors, were filled with remarkable aromas, and offered unique cocktails with unusual ingredients. Most importantly, the bartenders, who wore uniforms of shirts and ties, vests, and even arm garters, used very precise techniques to make these drinks, were very knowledgeable about what they were serving, and clearly loved what they did. I learned that these bars were anchors for a global community of cocktail professionals and enthusiasts, and cocktail bartenders were among the main participants. They were dedicated to making cocktails the way they were made in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Furthermore, I loved the drinks. I was hooked.

After studying this community for a couple of years, I became curious about the craft distilling industry. Cocktail bartenders are always searching for new flavors to use in their recipes. Over the past two decades many small distilleries have opened up throughout the country and introduced a broad array of new products to the market. Cocktail bartenders were snatching them up and using them. I decided to become an intern at a craft distillery just north of New York City. During my time there I became very interested in the actual distillers and why they chose this job. Around then I also realized that out of everyone in the cocktail world, it was the bartenders—people who were committed to bartending and cocktails—who fascinated me the most. After a few years of collecting data without much of a focus, I decided to make the project a study about people who are transforming common service and manual labor occupations into “cool” jobs. After some thinking, I rounded out my cases with upscale men’s barbers and whole animal butchers. They both met the criteria I had established, and gave me new industries to study.

So, I never intended to write about these folks, what they do, and why they do it. A series of happy accidents and following my own curiosity led me to them all. Plus, along with yielding important insights about the nature of work today, the research was a lot of fun.

How are these jobs different from the more common versions everyone knows?

RO: They differ from them in a few key ways. First, they all require these workers to regularly perform technical skills based on a sense of craft, to understand and communicate the culture their work is based on, and to have a philosophy about what is “right” and “wrong” in what they do. That’s a little vague, so let me give some examples. Cocktail bartenders, for instance, practice mixology, a classic approach to making drinks that entails precise measurements and specific ingredients, like large chunks of ice and freshly-squeezed juices. The aim is to achieve balance in cocktails, or to have every ingredient work in harmony, and drinks that do not reach that goal fall outside of their definition of what is the “right” way to make cocktails. They then use specific techniques to carry it out. Similarly, butchers in artisanal shops hold a meat philosophy toward what is and is not “good” meat, which includes how the animal was raised and slaughtered and how far it travels to get to the shop. And they also use specific butchery techniques to break down whole animals, trying to use every piece of meat, fat, and bone. One need not know anything about the wide range of flavor profiles in rye or how long to shake a drink to achieve the right level of dilution to be a common bartender at most bars, just like one need not know how to break down a whole animal or talk to customers about rare cuts of meat to be a butcher at a supermarket or even at most neighborhood butcher shops.

Second, these workers all work in businesses that promote their craft and give them the resources they need to perform. These work performances are not accidents. People design these businesses so that workers can make and provide special products and services for consumers. A barber at a neighborhood shop, for instance, can’t work on the fine details in a haircut that give it style if they only have ten minutes to work on it. That’s why the shops I studied provide at least a half an hour for haircuts. And these shops won’t get the clientele they want—professional, creative, culturally savvy—if they don’t promote themselves as places where men can get the style they need in a place that doesn’t threaten their manhood, like a women’s salon does.

Obviously some workers in more common versions of these jobs perform the same technical skills, are very knowledgeable about their work and products and share this knowledge with consumers, and have a sense of “right” and “wrong” in their work. But the combination of these technical and communication skills, sets of knowledge, and philosophy do not define them, nor do they usually work in places devoted to these special crafts or do they get recognized as cultural producers or innovators.

Who decides to pursue these jobs?

RO: That’s what fascinated me the most from the start of my project. It’s mostly people who have other work options who choose to pursue these jobs as careers. I started with the cocktail bartenders. In New York City, the big question bartenders and other people in the service industry often get is: what do you really do? It’s common for students, actors, musicians, artists, and folks who are pursuing some other career to bartender or wait tables until they “make it.” But what I learned early on with the cocktail bartenders was that they wanted to bartend. They were pursuing it as a career in itself. They were mostly college graduates, or they attended college and/or were working in a different career, and they had a lot of cultural capital. These patterns repeated throughout my research with people in the other jobs.

These jobs provided these workers with feelings they either weren’t getting or didn’t think they would get from other types of work: meaningfulness and satisfaction, specifically in a job that required learning a craft, being creative, pursuing passions, sharing knowledge, and being respected. Furthermore, in the new versions of these common occupations these workers saw opportunities for flexibility. In other words, being a butcher means you cut meat. But being a butcher at a whole animal butcher shop also means you teach classes and give demonstrations on butchery, work at special food events, and consult for major chefs and restaurant groups. You also get exposed to the food world and build social networks within the industry in a way you wouldn’t if you worked at a supermarket. The other jobs offer similar opportunities. Young people destined for college and college students learn that work should be meaningful and fulfilling and allow you to be creative, and that you must cultivate marketable skills and be flexible in your choices. The jobs I studied meet these criteria.

Why have jobs like these become popular, and why now?

RO: These particular jobs all happen to be in industries—nightlife, beverage production, men’s grooming and style, and food—that have become very popular in today’s city. These businesses are all key attractions for young, well-educated urbanites with disposable income. Today’s urban economy is based on knowledge, culture, and a wide array of services. These jobs interestingly offer all three. They have emerged to provide very specialized products and services for people in search of unique consumption experiences.

Another big reason why they’ve become popular now is because of changes in how many people in our society consume, how they see themselves as consumers, and the important role consumption plays in their lives and in the life of the city. An important concept over the last twenty years or so among many sociologists who study culture has been the idea of “cultural omnivorousness,” or the idea that today people with highbrow tastes consume, rather than shun, low- and middlebrow forms of culture without compromising their status. But they usually only consume these lower forms of culture when they can intellectualize them in some way and distance them from their lowbrow roots. These workers play a key role for these types of consumers and for urban culture. They basically help to construct and distribute the ideas behind the lowbrow products and services. To give an example, a hot dog is a pretty commonplace, not very distinguished, food. But when it has been filled with local, ethical, and sustainable meat that has been butchered with artisanal techniques as part of a philosophy of using the whole animal, and when it gets topped with a homemade kimchi relish, it becomes a “good” food that gets discussed in the city’s elite foodie circles.

Finally, I would say these jobs also allow people to work with their head and hands as well as interact with others in a public setting. In other words, they get recognized for the work they do, by their peers, consumers, and the media. Electricians and plumbers, for instance, who also use specialized knowledge and a sense of craft and work with their hands, do not work in front of an audience. I think that’s a key difference.

What did you do to write this book?

RO: Like I said before, the research was a lot of fun. I primarily use ethnography in my research, which basically means I hang out with the people I’m studying in their own settings to learn how they see their world by analyzing their interactions, behaviors, and attitudes. Researchers who use this method try to spend a lot of time with the people in these settings to really discover patterns of meaning. They observe, and even participate in whatever activities are happening there to better understand them. So to study these folks I got to do and learn a lot of cool activities.

For the cocktail bars and upscale men’s barbershops I was simply a regular. I went to them very often, sat in places where I could observe the most action, got to know their employees well, and wrote down notes about countless interactions and conversations I saw and had. The bartenders gave me drinks to try, and answered my questions about their creative process, and the barbers let me stand next to and even photograph them as they worked, and also answered my questions about cutting hair. I didn’t become a bartender or barber, or work in these places in some other capacity, for a few reasons. These businesses would only hire people with experience, and I had none. And doing so would’ve distracted me from my data collection anyway. Bars and barbershops are also social places, where people regularly go to hang out and talk. What I was doing is therefore normal.

Studying the craft distillers and whole animal butchers was a different story. Distilleries and butcher shops really aren’t social places where people go to hang out. There is no equivalent of a bar to sit at or a waiting area. But they are both businesses with a lot of little tasks that have to get done, and it’s common for these businesses to hire interns to help out in exchange for learning how these places run (and for discounted meat and the occasional free bottle). So I became an intern at a craft distillery and a whole animal butcher shop, working alongside the distillers and butchers. Those experiences were great not just because I got to learn the basics of a craft, but also because they informed me about what it means to actually do these jobs.

Along with being informative, the people I met and activities I did were just a treat. I’ll admit, I was emotional when the project ended.

OcejoRichard E. Ocejo is associate professor of sociology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York. His books include Upscaling Downtown: From Bowery Saloons to Cocktail Bars in New York City and Masters of Craft: Old Jobs in the New Urban Economy.

Congratulations to Michèle Lamont, Winner of the 2017 Erasmus Prize

We’re thrilled to announce that Michèle Lamont, coauthor of Getting Respect, has won the 2017 Erasmus Prize, awarded by the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation

The Erasmus Prize is awarded annually to a person or institution that has made an exceptional contribution to the humanities or the arts, in Europe and beyond. The award consists of a cash prize of €150,000. Emphasizing the importance of tolerance, cultural pluriformity and non-dogmatic critical thinking, the Foundation endeavours to express these values in the choice of its laureates. The Erasmus Prize is awarded by the Board of the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation. His Majesty the King is Patron of the Foundation.

The presentation of the award will be made November 28th in Amsterdam.

RespectMichèle Lamont is the director of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Robert I. Goldman Professor of European Studies, and professor of sociology and African and African American studies at Harvard University. She is a coauthor of Getting Respect: Responding to Stigma and Discrimination in the United States, Brazil, and Israel.

The Brooklyn Nobody Knows: Flatbush

william helmreichSociologist William B. Helmreich’s urban walking guide, The Brooklyn Nobody Knows, details the beauty, diversity and history that combine to make Brooklyn what is arguably New York’s hottest borough. By simply walking around, talking to residents, and absorbing the borough’s rich history, Helmreich captures the essence and unique facets of Brooklyn. The book is filled with detailed facts and vivid imagery that will inspire a deeper look at these popular (and lesser-known) neighborhoods. We’ve been featuring a selection of these on our blog, with several more to come. Today we take a look at Flatbush.

Flatbush is made up of different subdivisions, each with a strong sense of community and its own identity. This diverse neighborhood is full of great places to shop, dine, see charming Victorian and Queen Anne style homes, and of course, shop:

At the intersection of Caton and Flatbush Avenues, I take a quick walk through the Flatbush Caton Market. It’s a small indoor mall, basically a large, high-ceilinged shed occupied mostly by specialty stores selling clothing, pocketbooks, jewelry, and what New Yorkers call ‘tchotchkes’ of every kind. Many of the stores emphasize ethnic themes, especially from Haiti, which is not surprising since there’s a large Haitian presence here.

Flatbush

The Chateau Frontenacis one of the most beautiful buildings to be found in Brooklyn

Brooklyn is home to numerous places of worship and located in Flatbush is a rare find: A Cambodian Buddhist temple.

At 26  Rugby Road, just off Caton Avenue, I discover a genuinely unusual place. It’s a Cambodian Buddhist temple in a large private home, one of only two Cambodian temples in the city, the other located in the Bronx. Religious and national flags flutter in the pleasant breeze on a bright, sunny Sunday morning…

One of the most architecturally beautiful buildings is located in Flatbush: Chateau Frontenac. The exterior and interior are visually pleasing and the building has attracted numerous famous individuals. A John Lennon documentary was filmed there and it was even the home for some of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Walking south on Ocean to Tennis Court, I turn right, stop short, and behold, a stunning building on the right called the Chateau Frontenac. Built in 1929, its exterior is one of the prettiest in Brooklyn. It’s a red brick building trimmed with white stone, with emblems of the French royal court, like the heraldic salamander, carved into it. Note the beautiful pilasters that frame the arched entranceway and the graceful wrought-iron entrance to the inner courtyard.

William B. Helmreich is an award-winning author who has written many books including The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City (Princeton), where he wrote an analysis of all five of New York City’s boroughs. The book won him the inaugural 2014–15 Guides Association of New York Award for Outstanding Achievement in Book Writing. He is the professor of sociology at City College of New York’s Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership and at CUNY Graduate Center. The Brooklyn Nobody Knows is the first of five planned walking guides, one for each borough of New York City.

Dalton Conley & Jason Fletcher on how genomics is transforming the social sciences

GenomeSocial sciences have long been leery of genetics, but in the past decade, a small but intrepid group of economists, political scientists, and sociologists have harnessed the genomics revolution to paint a more complete picture of human social life. The Genome Factor shows how genomics is transforming the social sciences—and how social scientists are integrating both nature and nurture into a unified, comprehensive understanding of human behavior at both the individual and society-wide levels. The book raises pertinent questions: Can and should we target policies based on genotype? What evidence demonstrates how genes and environments work together to produce socioeconomic outcomes? Recently, The Genome Factor‘s authors, Dalton Conley and Jason Fletcher, answered some questions about their work.

What inspired you to write The Genome Factor?

JF: Our book discusses how findings and theories in genetics and biological sciences have shaped social science inquiry—the theories, methodologies, and interpretations of findings used in economics, sociology, political science, and related disciplines —both historically and in the newer era of molecular genetics. We have witnessed, and participated in, a period of rapid change and cross-pollination between the social and biological sciences. Our book draws out some of the major implications of this cross-pollination—we particularly focus on how new findings in genetics has overturned ideas and theories in the social sciences. We also use a critical eye to evaluate what social scientists and the broader public should believe about the overwhelming number of new findings produced in genetics.

What insights did you learn in writing the book?

JF: Genetics, the human genome project in particular, has been quite successful and influential in the past two decades, but has also experienced major setbacks and is still reeling from years of disappointments and a paradigm shift. There has been a major re-evaluation and resetting of expectations the clarity and power of genetic effects. Only 15 years ago, a main model was on the so-called OGOD model—one gene, one disease. While there are a few important examples where this model works, it has mostly failed. This failure has had wide implications on how genetic analysis is conducted as well as a rethinking of previous results; many of which are now thought to false findings. Now, much analysis is conducted using data 10s or 100s of thousands of people because the thinking is that most disease is caused by tens, hundreds, or even thousands of genes that each have a tiny effect. This shift has major implications for social science as well. It means genetic effects are diffuse and subtle, which makes it challenging to combine genetic and social science research. Genetics has also shifted from a science of mechanistic understanding to a large scale data mining enterprises. As social scientists, this approach is in opposition to our norms of producing evidence. This is something we will need to struggle through in the future.

How did you select the topics for the book chapters?

JF: We wanted to tackle big topics across multiple disciplines. We discuss some of the recent history of combining genetics and social science, before the molecular revolution when “genetics” were inferred from family relationships rather than measured directly. We then pivot to provide examples of cutting edge research in economics and sociology that has incorporated genetics to push social science inquiry forward. One example is the use of population genetic changes as a determinant of levels of economic development across the world. We also focus our attention to the near future and discuss how policy decisions may be affected by the inclusion of genetic data into social science and policy analysis. Can and should we target policies based on genotype? What evidence do we have that demonstrates how genes and environments work together to produce socioeconomic outcomes?

What impact do you hope The Genome Factor will have?

JF: We hope that readers see the promise as well as the perils of combining genetic and social science analysis. We provide a lot of examples of ongoing work, but also want to show the reader how we think about the larger issues that will remain as genetics progresses. We seek to show the reader how to look through a social science lens when thinking about genetic discoveries. This is a rapidly advancing field, so the particular examples we discuss will be out of date soon, but we want our broader ideas and lens to have longer staying power. As an example, advances in gene editing (CRISPR) have the potential to fundamentally transform genetic analysis. We discuss these gene editing discoveries in the context of some of their likely social impacts.

Dalton Conley is the Henry Putnam University Professor of Sociology at Princeton University. His many books include Parentology: Everything You Wanted to Know about the Science of Raising Children but Were Too Exhausted to Ask. He lives in New York City. Jason Fletcher is Professor of Public Affairs, Sociology, Agricultural and Applied Economics, and Population Health Sciences at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He lives in Madison. They are the authors of The Genome Factor: What the Social Genomics Revolution Reveals about Ourselves, Our History, and the Future.

The Brooklyn Nobody Knows: Boerum Hill

william helmreichSociologist William B. Helmreich’s urban walking guide, The Brooklyn Nobody Knows: An Urban Walking Guide details the beauty, diversity and history that combine to make Brooklyn what is arguably New York’s hottest borough. By simply walking around, talking to residents, and absorbing the borough’s rich history, Helmreich captures the essence and unique facets of Brooklyn. The book is filled with detailed facts and vivid imagery that will inspire a deeper look at these popular (and lesser-known) neighborhoods. We’ve been featuring a selection of these on our blog, with several more to come in the next few weeks. Today we take a look at Boerum Hill.

Boerum Hill, a small neighborhood east of Cobble Hill, hit a decline marked by poverty that started in the 1960s and lasted well until the 1980s. Today, the neighborhood is thriving and is now considered to be an “upscale community,” not to mention, a literary inspiration:

From the 1960s to the early 1980s the area was in decline. An outstanding novel by Jonathan Lethem, The Fortress of Solitude, tells the story of what it was like then and how it gradually gentrified.

Boerum Hill

Susan Gardner is an art professor and artist who turned the outside of her home into an art project

Like many of the neighborhoods that make up Brooklyn, Boerum Hill features a number of can’t-miss buildings. One is a home exquisitely decorated with mosaic tiles. The homeowner, Susan Gardner, a college professor of art, explained that she was inspired to decorate her home after 9/11, as a way to combat depression.

The home is undoubtedly striking: the entire first floor is covered with a dazzling, riotous mosaic of bright colors—red, blue, yellow, purple, black, pink, orange, and green. The interior is encrusted with tiles, beads, shells, buttons, and mirrors, mostly small, of all shapes and sizes. They cover the walls, iron bars, gate, ground, and even a pipe coming out of the ground. The tiles are all arranged in an incredibly complex series of designs featuring people and angels, some of them silhouetted in windows; animals, street scenes, flowers, tree, butterflies, the sun, and all manner of shapes, some of which cannot be readily identified.

During his walk around Boerum Hill, Helmreich came across another memorable building, this time the Brooklyn Detention Complex, which features a striking mural.

On the back of the building, on State Street, there are some beautiful murals along its white brick wall, supported by a not-for-profit group, Groundswell, which partnered with the prison to create this mural. One mural features the Brooklyn Bridge and a Manhattan skyline with some young people and an elderly man standing in front of it, all with a look of sadness or worry on their faces. This was done by teenagers possibly thinking about the prison, whose barbed-wire topping hangs over these depictions at several points. The exhortations urge passerby to exhibit ‘Responsibility,’ ‘Respect,’ to show ‘Love.’

Boerum Hill is home to a diverse group of nationalities and cultures. If you fancy a delicious French pastry or cuisine, take heart:

There’s a French presence in Boerum Hill, with several French-inspired food shops and restaurants, including a great bakery, Bien Cuit, on Smith Street, between Pacific and Dean Streets. Each year, on July 14, there’s a Bastille Day celebration on Smith, which includes a pétanque tournament. This game is similar to the Italian and British games, respectively, of bocce and bowls, all of which derive from sports popular in ancient Roman times. 

William B. Helmreich is an award-winning author who has written many books including The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City (Princeton), where he wrote an analysis of all five of New York City’s boroughs. The book won him the inaugural 2014–15 Guides Association of New York Award for Outstanding Achievement in Book Writing. He is the professor of sociology at City  College of New York’s Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership and at CUNY Graduate Center. The Brooklyn Nobody Knows is the first of five planned walking guides, one for each borough of New York City. 

Books for Understanding: A Reading List

In the aftermath of the election, here are some books for better understanding the current political climate:

White Backlash
Marisa Abrajano & Zoltan Hajnal

White

The Rise and Fall of American Growth
Robert Gordon

Gordon

Democracy for Realists
Christopher Achen & Larry Bartels

Achen Bartels

Expert Political Judgement
Philip Tetlock

Tetlock

Against Democracy
Jason Brennan

Brennan
Free Trade under Fire
Douglas Irwin

Irwin

Waiting for José
Harel Shapira

Shapira

Polarized
James Campbell

Campbell

Red State Religion
Robert Wuthnow

Wuthnow

How Propaganda Works
Jason Stanley

Stanley

Good Neighbors
Nancy L. Rosenblum

Rosenblum

 Myth of the Rational Voter
Bryan Caplan

Caplan

On Bullshit
  Harry Frankfurt

Bullshit

The Brooklyn Nobody Knows: Cobble Hill

william helmreichSociologist William B. Helmreich’s urban walking guide, The Brooklyn Nobody Knows, details the beauty, diversity and history that combine to make Brooklyn what is arguably New York’s hottest borough. By simply walking around, talking to residents, and absorbing the borough’s rich history, Helmreich captures the essence and unique facets of Brooklyn. The book is filled with detailed facts and vivid imagery that will inspire a deeper look at these popular (and lesser-known) neighborhoods.  Today we take a look at Cobble Hill.

With its tree-lined streets and beautiful brownstones, Cobble Hill is a desirable, picturesque neighborhood, and a favorite strolling destination for visitors. The neighborhood also offers affordable (and historic) housing options for residents. Along Hicks Street are distinctive condos that have been a part of the neighborhood for many years. Now renovated, these residences capture the spirit of the past at a reasonable price:

In the 1870s, a sturdy, well-designed group of buildings were constructed for lower-income residents on Hicks Street between Warren and Baltic Streets. About 140 years later, we see that they have withstood the test of time. In their renovated state, with beautiful brick exteriors and inner walkways, they are for sale, with an as outside the building proclaiming, “Landmark Condos for Sale.” Known as the Columbia-Hicks Buildings, they are an excellent example of how well-built housing can be renovated and improved to provide mixed income housing, containing both open market and affordable housing.

Cobble Hill also happens to be a popular destination for filmmakers looking for townhouses that capture the “quintessential New York City” backdrop. Helmreich chatted with one resident who provided his home:

New York City is a major venue for filmmakers, and those looking for elegant townhouses to use as settings in their films can usually find them with the help of location scouts. Cobble Hill is a place where those townhouses can be found, as I learn from a conversation with Raphael Linder, a Brooklyn College graduate and software engineer. He made his home at 53 Cheever Place available for a film: ‘They used my home for a 2015 film starring Robert De Niro, Anne Hathaway, and Renee Russo called The Intern...’

Another way in which areas acquire cachet is when famous people are associated with them. A good case in point is 426 Henry Street, a four-story brick Greek Revival structure, nice but not especially distinctive. Its claim to fame is that it was formerly home to Jennie Jerome, Winston Churchill’s mother… Churchill visited the Henry Street homein 1953, at age seventy-four, amid some fanfare by appreciative locals.

Brooklyn’s oldest functioning Jewish house of worship, the Kane Street Synagogue, can be found in Cobble Hill:

Founded in 1856, it has undergone various incarnations, from traditional, to Reform, to Conservative-Egalitarian, serving congregants from all over north Brooklyn. Music history buffs might be interested to know this is where Aaron Copland was bar-mitzvahed.

If you’re looking for a great place for a bite to eat, Sam’s is an Italian restaurant known for its delicious cuisine along with its history and atmosphere:

For those who like their dining experience to include a touch of history, Sam’s on Court Street, near Baltic Street, serves mostly inexpensive Italian food. The setting features red and white checked tablecloths and matching red leather booths; it takes you back to the post-World War II period. The place has been around for more than ninety years, and I found it fun to hang out with the old-time Italians who eat there regularly.

And, if kids are coming along for the trip, they won’t be disappointed:

Cobble Hill has six toy stores (as of 2015), quite a few for an area this small. One of these establishments is Mini Max Toys and Cuts, at 152 Atlantic Avenue, owned by four mothers. It’s a rather unique place that offers haircuts for kids and also toys.

Toys and haircuts under one roof? This could catch on.

William B. Helmreich is an award-winning author who has written many books including The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City (Princeton), where he wrote an analysis of all five of New York City’s boroughs. The book won him the inaugural 2014–15 Guides Association of New York Award for Outstanding Achievement in Book Writing. He is the professor of sociology at City  College of New York’s Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership and at CUNY Graduate Center. The Brooklyn Nobody Knows is the first of five planned walking guides, one for each borough of New York City. 

Cross-Cultural Responses to Discrimination

This post originally appeared at Harvard University’s WCIA Epicenter website and is reproduced with permission.

A Q&A with Michèle Lamont

Racism and discrimination are daily realities for members of marginalized groups. But what does it look like at the ground level, and how do individuals from various groups and countries respond to such experiences? Drawing on more than 400 in-depth interviews with middle class and working class men and women residing in the multi-ethnic suburbs of New York, Rio, and Tel Aviv, and representing five different racial “groups,” a team of sociologists examine how people deal with and make sense of the various forms of exclusion that are ever present in their lives.

Getting Respect: Responding to Stigma and Discrimination in the United States, Brazil & Israel opens up many new perspectives on the comparative analysis of race and identity.

Lamont

© Martha Stewart


Q: What inspired you and your colleagues to write Getting Respect, and how does it connect to your past scholarship?

A: Back in 2000, I published a book called The Dignity of Working Men: Morality and the Boundaries of Race, Class, and Immigration. It was based on interviews with African American and white workers in New York, and native white workers and North African workers in France. I asked questions about what makes people equal and was surprised to discover that in France workers never talked about money making people equal, whereas many white and black American workers believe that “if I can buy a house, and you can buy a house, we’re equal.” There is very little in the literature about “everyday” conceptions of racial inequality. We wanted to get at how people in different parts of the world understand similarities and differences and to learn about what kind of thinking racism is based on.

Q: In writing Getting Respect, what new insights have you learned about racism in the United States?

A: One of the main findings is that African Americans use confrontation (speaking up or calling out someone’s behavior) in response to discrimination more frequently than any of the other groups studied—black Brazilians, and Ethiopian Jews, Mizrahim and Arab Palestinian citizens in Israel. Asking why it is that they confront so readily made us understand African Americans through a different lens. We found that black Brazilians confront as well, but they’re equally as likely to stay silent.

Among African Americans, not responding to a discriminatory incident is half as frequent as confronting. So our question became: What are the conditions that legitimize this confrontation in the United States?

Another finding was that African Americans are more likely to “name” racism than the members of other groups. This speaks to how readily available narratives or scripts about group discrimination are in the United States, compared to Israel and Brazil. In contrast, Brazilians were far more hesitant to say that they experienced racism.

Q: How did you select groups for the study?

A: When we first started, we thought we’d pair black Brazilians, for whom group identity has traditionally been described in the literature as not salient, to a group with strong boundaries, Arab Israelis. We weren’t sure where African Americans would fall yet. Then we added the Mizrahim (Jews whose families immigrated to Israel from Middle Eastern and North African Muslim and Arab countries) and black Ethiopian Jews who are even more recent immigrants. It transformed our project, because now we had two groups who had very strong group identification (African Americans and Arab Israelis, and to some degree, Ethiopian Jews) and two groups with weaker group boundaries (black Brazilians and Mizrahim). So this really brought home the issue of how the sense of ‘groupness’ influences the experience of racism.

We found that, because you belong to a strongly bounded group, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are more confrontational. Although they are “strongly bounded,” Israeli Palestinians living in Israel are not very confrontational because they have little hope of being recognized. They are often viewed as the enemy within, suspected of being allied with Hezbollah or Palestinians living in the occupied territories, and they believe their treatment is ultimately tied to this larger conflict, so are much less likely to speak up, as it would be pointless. After all, they are an unassimilated minority living in conditions of deep segregation within the Jewish state.

As to the weakly bounded group, the Mizrahim, they clearly suffer from underrepresentation in academia, institutions of high culture, top political circles, and so on, while being over represented at the bottom of the social scale. That is, they are clearly discriminated against by all standards. However, in contrast to the other groups, they are the demographic majority in Israel’s Jewish population. They have strong sentiments of belonging to the Jewish state and often downplay discrimination and prefer to tell stories of how well integrated they are.

Q: Your book suggests that black Brazilians differ from African Americans in that they don’t zero in on race as a basis for exclusion, but rather on their presumed low socioeconomic status, or poverty.

A: That’s the traditional observation about concepts of race in both countries. However, our Brazilian collaborators bring a lot of wrinkles to this story. Their respondents identified themselves as being black, and by blackness they point more to skin color than to a shared culture. In part this is because black Brazilians are half the population of Brazil, but also because they don’t think they have a distinctive culture because their culture is the majority culture. So that’s a very big difference from how ‘blackness’ is understood in the United States, where our African American interviewees experience their shared identity as having a strong cultural component. It’s also very different from the Israeli groups we studied.

Q: So, if you want to eliminate segregation based on skin color, wouldn’t the best path be to promote intermarriage? Is this what happened in Brazil?

A: Well, historically that was what happened in Brazil; that’s one of the reasons why group boundaries are so much weaker there. The old ideology of the “moreno,” which was part of the Brazilian national ideology of racial democracy, celebrated intermarriage as the origins of the country. Moreover, spatial segregation in Brazil is based more on socioeconomic class than race. Even if the few upper-middle-class neighborhoods are nearly all white, the working-class and poor neighborhoods are much more racially mixed. In the United States a number of middle-class blacks live in lower-middle-class and working-class black neighborhoods partly out of choice, but also because the spatial racial segregation is extremely strong here.

Q: How did you select for skin color in Brazil?

A: In selecting our black respondents in all three countries we did not take into consideration actual skin color. But we did ask people if they identified themselves as black. In Brazil, we chose people who self-identified as pretos and pardos (black and brown). There are many other words in Brazil that indicate pale blacks (e.g., morenos) and those people were not part of our study. This broad color spectrum is present all over Latin America. They have many categories and words to talk about skin color, many more than we do in the United States, where the ‘one drop’ rule continues to prevail in the minds of many whites. Nevertheless, we found that our Brazilian interviewees increasingly identify with the political term “negro,” especially among the middle-class respondents.

Q: You describe the Arab Palestinians in Israel as being the most “excluded” of the groups you studied. Why is this the case?

A: The situation for the Arab Palestinian citizens of Israel today is problematic because they are so clearly segregated as a group. They are excluded from many job opportunities, have separate schools, housing discrimination is rampant, and most live in segregated villages or towns separate from the larger society. However, we should keep in mind that they are an unassimilated minority. The strong social boundaries between Palestinians and Jews are maintained by both. In other words, we are not talking about a shared civil space where Arab Israelis, the majority of whom are Muslims, are interested in crossing national and religious boundaries. A simple example is that intermarriage is inconceivable on both sides. The Arab Palestinian citizens are not drafted into the military, which is a known path to upward mobility and social integration. There is a growing middle class and upward mobility within the Arab sector, but ultimately they will always be excluded in a state where symbolic belonging to the community depends on whether or not you’re Jewish. This makes it harder for them to respond to stigma and exclusion by focusing on individual self-improvement.

Q: All the groups your team interviewed experienced unfair treatment and responded in different ways. One type of response you label “individualistic.” Can you explain what this means?

A: It means “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” “work harder,” “get your education,” “be upwardly mobile,” et cetera. It’s the individual’s behavior that’s considered a determinant for success. A more collectivist response is oriented toward social change, as illustrated by the amazing outcomes of the civil rights movement in the United States, where people agitated and lobbied and actually changed the law. In our interviews, when we asked, “What are the best tools that your group has had at its disposal to improve its situation?” the majority talk about individualistic solutions. And the group that most frequently answered this way was the African Americans, second were Ethiopian Jews, then Mizrahim.

The individualistic response implies: “Don’t blame other people and don’t blame racism. You should do your thing and try to be upwardly mobile.” African Americans all experience discrimination; it’s very much part of their daily lives. But at the same time a large number think the (normative) solution is not necessarily to moan and to decry injustice, but to try to create the conditions for personal advancement. This response is particularly present in the United States, but also among the Mizrahim and Ethiopian Jews, despite neoliberalism being more influential on this side of the pond than in Israel. But it’s also an indication of having a sense of national belonging: it’s easier to feel self-improvement is a viable strategy when you feel like you belong.

Q: Because African Americans have the cultural history of the civil rights movement, wouldn’t you expect them to say collective mobilization is the best tool for their group?

A: There’s a real tension there because the great gains of the 1960s were achieved through collective mobilization and have come to be largely taken for granted, even if some are contested at the level of the United States Supreme Court. But at the same time the generations that we interviewed had a lot of experience being told that to blame racism is to make excuses. And we all know that many white people decry reverse racism. Therefore a number of our African American respondents believed there’s only so much you can gain by denouncing injustice. It’s in line with the American dream, the main tenets of which are if you work hard you will “make it,” and that’s how you gain social membership. So that’s the sacred value of this society—not all societies are organized around the same notions.

In addition, neoliberalism has had a much greater impact in the United States than it has in Israel and Brazil. And by neoliberalism I mean the idea that market mechanisms should guide all forms of social arrangements, government should remove barriers to the circulation of goods and people, limit the impact of unions, et cetera. This is connected to the widespread notion that our value as human beings is tied to how successful or competitive we are. Such views may seem quite absurd outside the United States, whereas here they are largely taken for granted by a huge portion of the American population.

Q: You found that intergroup relationships were quite different in the United States compared to Brazil.

A: In Brazil the dominant myth, has been, historically, that of racial democracy. Even if few of our respondents believe Brazil is a racial democracy, there’s a strong emphasis put on racial coexistence. My collaborators found that many of their interviewees believe that being in people’s faces confronting racism all the time is an antisocial behavior that is very destructive to society. They prefer to gently “educate the ignorant.” Even as we were putting our interview schedule together, this affected which questions we could ask. In the United States one of our questions was, “Do you have friends of another racial group?” which is an obvious question to ask. And surveys show that roughly 75 percent of Americans don’t. My Brazilian collaborators argued that we could not ask this very same question in Brazil as our respondents would view it as a deeply insulting question. Most people there claim to have friends from a range of racial groups. This is based not only on preference but is also tied to one’s chances of meeting people from other racial groups in their neighborhood, at work, and in public spaces, especially when you come from a working-class background. Interestingly, however, a few middle-class black Brazilians said most of their friends are white, and point out the small number of blacks in their work and educational environments. This also challenges any absolute understanding of Brazil as racially mixed and the United States as racially segregated. In professional work environments, it seems to be the other way around.

Q: Is there anything in your personal background that drew you to the study of inequality?

A: I am a Québécois, and I grew up during the peak of the nationalist movement there, a time when we saw massive political mobilization, and at the cultural level, assemblies with folk singers and people working to celebrate and transform Québécois identity. And having worked with a number of African American students, I was taken by the many similarities in the quest for equality across national contexts—even though in Québec, of course, the stigma is language and culture, whereas in the United States it’s skin color.

After the English conquest, the French population was controlled by a small French Canadian elite made up of members of the liberal professions (doctors, lawyers, professors). The majority of the French population was not educated—they were farmers and blue collar workers. The English Canadians had a strong sense of their superiority over the colonials, and the French, of course, fed that as well. The Québec movement for independence turned out to be an important and very successful social movement aimed at transforming both intergroup power relations and the meaning associated with being Québécois. I was born in 1957, so my youth was shaped by this social mobilization. It is interesting to me that while anticolonial and antiracist discourse about Latinos and blacks are widely available in the United States, such is not the case for French Québecois identity.

Q: What impact do you hope Getting Respect will have?

A: The book should make it more obvious what stigmatization is about. It argues that stigmatization is a crucial dimension of inequality that is often ignored, as economists and sociologists so often focus on the distribution of resources. People experience stigmatization deeply and it affects their sense of self, certainly as much as being deprived of resources does. I think that claims for recognition should be taken very seriously by policy makers and social scientists. We have yet to understand how inequality and stigmatization articulate with one another.

Policy makers of all kinds should be much more attuned to how the policies (such as welfare) and laws (such as gay marriage) they pass can be stigmatizing or destigmatizing. It’s also important to think carefully about each form of redistribution both in terms of impact on material resources and also in terms of construction of the self. My hope is that by reading this book, white people—and other non-minority members—will gain a much better understanding of the wear and tear that comes with living as the nonmember of the dominant group. It’s important to realize that dealing with this kind of challenge and assault on your worth all the time takes a toll. And if we look at massive racial disparities in health in this country, that foundations like Robert Wood Johnson have documented and addressed, our book is totally in conversation with the agenda they are setting. It’s necessary to look at the daily experience and cost of dealing with exclusion on people’s lives.

Q: Reflecting on your decades of work on inequality, can you draw conclusions about which social or institutional conditions lead to more equitable societies?

A: How do you achieve a society that is equitable? Well, the classic approach has to do with the politics of recognition and redistribution. Take the Nordic response for example—let’s have a strong state that taxes wealthier people and redistributes resources. That works very well for Nordic societies, which have oil money and all kinds of other resources, and historically have had a fairly homogeneous population. But it doesn’t work across the board.

Another response is the politics of recognition. Canada and to a lesser extent the United States do this better than other countries, by proclaiming very loudly that diversity is a strength and resource, and that it is something that we value as a society. Many societies don’t do this as well (France and Israel, to name two examples). Through this message of diversity, those countries have achieved greater equality through the legal process for women, people of color, and other groups. The rapid legalization of gay marriage stands out particularly starkly.

Q: It sounds like you believe collective movements are the most successful way to effect change.

A: In the United States, there’s no doubt that the determinant of social change is the fact that Americans can activate the legal process to redefine rules of coexistence for greater social justice. This is how they have imposed new rules on people who were resistant (e.g., Southerners who refused racial desegregation in schools). And this has been extremely powerful over time, but it also has many limitations.

In the French context there’s been far more resistance to recognizing diversity by the state. In contrast to the United States, France promotes secularism to reject any form of expression of religious identity in public life. The recent incidents with the government’s attempt to ban burkinis (a full body unitard that Muslim women wear at the beach) are constant reminders to minority Muslim groups that they have to lend themselves to the rules of the majority, which is quite different than what we’re experiencing in the United States.

In Canada, the ideology of multiculturalism has had a very positive impact in pushing immigrants to be much more emotionally and cognitively invested in their society, and even to run for political office. Today, Trudeau has a number of Muslims in his cabinet, which is quite different from the American political context.

So, I believe we can create inclusion in the context of the law, through narratives, through social policy, and by using institutional tools and cultural repertoires together to create shared notions of solidarity. In some ways it starts at the top, but then change is also produced by ordinary people responding to racism. Does a country create a climate for people to organize and to be heard? That is the crucial question.

—Michelle Nicholasen, Communications Specialist, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs

Getting RespectWeatherhead Center Director Michèle Lamont is the Robert I. Goldman Professor of European Studies and professor of sociology and of African and African American studies at Harvard University. A cultural and comparative sociologist, Lamont studies culture and inequality, racism and stigma, academia and knowledge, social change and successful societies, and qualitative methods. She is the coauthor of Getting Respect: Responding to Stigma and Discrimination in the United States, Brazil, and Israel, with Graziella Moraes Silva, Jessica S. Welburn, Joshua Guetzkow, Nissim Mizrachi, Hanna Herzog, and Elisa Reis.

 

The Brooklyn Nobody Knows: Coney Island

william helmreichSociologist William B. Helmreich’s urban walking guide, The Brooklyn Nobody Knows, details the beauty, diversity and history that combine to make Brooklyn what is arguably New York’s hottest borough. By simply walking around, talking to residents, and absorbing the borough’s rich history, Helmreich captures the essence and unique facets of Brooklyn. The book is filled with detailed facts and vivid imagery that will inspire a deeper look at these popular (and lesser-known) neighborhoods.  Today we take a look at Coney Island.

From classic roller-coasters to a nice boardwalk along the beach, Coney Island is one of Brooklyn’s most historic and well-known neighborhoods. It was the site of three famous theme parks that were all affected by fires (many are now used for other purposes, such as housing.) Some old rides remain with the addition of new ones, but the history of Coney Island lingers in the air:

Beautiful artwork by sculptor Deborah Masters is a must-see while walking around Brooklyn, and Coney Island has a piece that shouldn’t be missed. A terra-cotta relief of patrons enjoying Coney Island graces the surface of a supporting viaduct under the tracks of the Ocean Parkway, embodying the fun spirit of the peninsula.

I came face to face with a large, unglazed, brownish-red, terra-cotta-colored relief made of cast concrete, dubbed “Brooklyn…” It consists of a group of people, some standing, others seated in a roller-coaster. Most are wearing bathing suits. To the left on a separate pane is a bare-breasted mermaid.

Of course, Coney Island is famous for its amusement park rides, and Helmreich reflected on his time as a young boy visiting the park with his family. Though some of the park has changed, there remains a sense of the past:

For me, everything about going there, and we went there numerous times, was memorable. Some of the rides, especially the bumper cars, where you could crash into other cars with gusto but with no consequences except for a dirty look or minor retaliation in kind, are indelibly imprinted on my consciousness. The same for the boardwalk, where we delighted in staring at the waves as they crashed ashore, and consumed all manner of delectable treats—potato knishes, hot dogs, and ice cream in crisp, dark sugar cones.

Some of the old rides are still operating, but they exist in a setting that’s a cross between venerating the old and embracing the new.

Coney Island is home to the original Nathan’s Famous hot dog stand, which celebrated its 100th birthday in 2016. If you find yourself craving delicious franks and salty crinkle-cut fries with a dash of history, be sure to stop by this famous eatery.

Nathan’s, which turned one hundred in 2016, is still there, the signage recognizable as well as the menu, offering many of old standbys—the crinkle-cut fries and hot dogs, frog legs, ears of buttered corn, and Chow Mein on a bun, but not the real glasses in which orange drinks were once served.

At the end of Coney Island is one of New York City’s oldest gated communities, (one of only four in the city.) Sea Gate is the destination for those seeking a quiet area with private beaches.

Sea Gate, which begins on W. 37th Street, is part of Coney Island, but, as the name implies, it’s a gated community, one of four in the city. The others are Silver Beach Gardens and Edgewater Park, in the Throgs Neck section of the Bronx; and Breezy Point in the Rockaways portion of Queens. Sea Gate is the oldest, established in 1898, and the most integrated of the four. It has the feel, if any case, of not being a part of greater Coney Island. It’s quiet, has its own beaches and a visitor needs permission from a guard to gain entry. People who live here have an opportunity to feel they live in an exclusive community…

William B. Helmreich is an award-winning author who has written many books including The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City (Princeton), where he wrote an analysis of all five of New York City’s boroughs. The book won him the inaugural 2014–15 Guides Association of New York Award for Outstanding Achievement in Book Writing. He is the professor of sociology at City College of New York’s Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership and at CUNY Graduate Center. The Brooklyn Nobody Knows is the first of five planned walking guides, one for each borough of New York City. 

Rogers Brubaker on understanding “transracial”

Brubakers Mainstream society has grown increasingly accepting of various ways of reimagining gender. But what about someone who identities as a different race? Is the concept of “ancestry” losing its authority? In Trans: Gender and Race in an Age of Unsettled IdentitiesRogers Brubaker explores the controversial idea that one can be transracial and the ways ethnoracial boundaries have already blurred. Recently, Brubaker took the time to answer some questions about his book and shed light on what transracial means.

This book has taken you into new territory. What drew you to the subject?

RB: In the summer of 2015 I became fascinated by the intertwined debates about whether Caitlyn Jenner could legitimately identify as a woman and Rachel Dolezal as black. The debates were dominated by efforts to validate or invalidate the identities claimed by Jenner and Dolezal. But at the same time they raised deeper questions about the similarities and differences between gender and race in an age of massively unsettled identities. I had planned to spend the summer months working on a completely different project, but this “trans moment” afforded a unique opportunity to think systematically about sex and gender in relation to race and ethnicity as embodied identities that are increasingly – yet in differing ways and to differing degrees – understood as open to choice and change.

You begin with the pairing of “transgender” and “transracial” in the debates about Jenner and Dolezal. One common trope in the debates was that transracial is “not a thing.” Do you disagree?

RB: Of course transracial is not a “thing” in the same sense as transgender: there’s no socially recognized and legally regulated procedure for changing one’s race or ethnicity comparable to the procedures that are available for changing sex or gender. But I do think the term “transracial” usefully brings into focus the ways in which people do in fact move from one racial or ethnic category to another or position themselves between or beyond existing categories.

The second part of your book is called “thinking with trans.” What do you mean by this?

RB: The idea is that one can use the transgender experience as a lens through which to think about the instability and contestedness of racial identities. I distinguish three forms of the transgender experience, which I call the trans of migration, the trans of between, and the trans of beyond. The trans of migration – the most familiar form – involves moving from one established sex/gender category to another. The trans of between involves defining oneself with reference to both established categories, without belonging entirely or unambiguously to either one. The trans of beyond claims to transcend existing categories or go beyond gender altogether. I argue that each of these can help us think about race and ethnicity in fruitful ways. Racial passing (including “reverse passing” like Dolezal’s) exemplifies the trans of migration, the multiracial movement the trans of between, and indifference or opposition to racial or ethnic categorization the trans of beyond.

Doesn’t sex have a deeper biological basis than race?

RB: Exactly, but this presents us with a paradox. Morphological, physiological, and hormonal differences between the sexes, although not as marked in humans as in many other species, are biologically real and socially consequential. Nothing remotely analogous can be said about racial divisions. Yet as the debates about Jenner and Dolezal showed, it is more socially legitimate to change one’s sex (and gender) than to change one’s race.

How do you explain this?

RB: The distinction between sex and gender – a distinction that has no analogue in the domain of race and ethnicity – has made it possible to think of gender identity as an inner essence that is independent of the sexed body. Yet according to the widespread “born that way” narrative, this inner essence is understood as natural – as unchosen and unchanging. Changing one’s sex or gender does not mean changing one’s identity; it means changing the way one is recognized and classified by others. This usually involves changing one’s self-presentation and may also involve transforming one’s body to bring it into alignment with one’s identity. We have no cultural tools for thinking about racial identity as an inner essence that is independent of the body and knowable only by the individual. A key part of what is understood as constituting racial identity – notably one’s ancestry – is located outside the self and is open to inspection by others. An individual who identifies with an ethnic or racial category to which she is not entitled by ancestry cannot intelligibly make use of the “born in the wrong body” narrative to justify changing her racial classification.

The broad sympathy toward Jenner seemed to suggest that transgender, unlike transracial, had achieved a remarkable degree of mainstream public acceptance. Were you surprised by the more recent controversy over transgender access to bathrooms in schools?

RB: Not really. The shift toward public acceptance of transgender has been astonishingly rapid, but it has been uneven across regions, generations, institutions, and milieux. As transgender claims have moved from insulated settings like liberal arts colleges to mainstream settings like public school systems, and as courts, civil rights agencies, and legislatures have taken action to establish broad transgender rights, it’s unsurprising to see a backlash. Controversy has focused on access to bathrooms and locker rooms, tapping into public anxieties about vulnerable children, sexual predators, and the presence of people with penises in girls’ and women’s spaces. It’s also worth noting that to cultural conservatives, especially religious conservatives, preserving sex and gender boundaries is much more important than maintaining racial and ethnic boundaries. So while Dolezal’s claim to identify as black provoked fiercer opposition than Jenner’s claim to identify as a woman, transgender rights are likely to be far more controversial in the coming years than practices associated with choosing or changing race.

Rogers Brubaker is a sociology professor at the University of of California, Los Angeles. He also is the UCLA Foundation Chair at the University. He focuses on topics such as social theory, ethnicity, citizenship, immigration and nationalism. Brubakers is the author of the books Ethnicity without Groups, Nationalist Politics and Everyday Ethnicity in a Transylvanian Town and Grounds for DifferenceHis most recent book is Trans: Gender Gender and Race in an Age of Unsettled Identities.

The Brooklyn Nobody Knows: Williamsburg

william helmreichSociologist William B. Helmreich’s urban walking guide, The Brooklyn Nobody Knows details the beauty, diversity and history that combine to make Brooklyn what is arguably New York’s hottest borough. By simply walking around, talking to residents, and absorbing the borough’s rich history, Helmreich captures the essence and unique facets of Brooklyn. The book is filled with detailed facts and vivid imagery that will inspire a deeper look at these popular (and lesser-known) neighborhoods.  Today we take a look at Williamsburg:

What was once a largely industrial site in the nineteenth century, a diversified neighborhood in the early twentieth century and a considerably dangerous area in the ’90s, Williamsburg has become a highly sought after and trendy neighborhood.

Once considered a dangerous part of Brooklyn, the neighborhood has gone through a “rebirth” in the northern and eastern sections, with apartment prices “skyrocketing.” It is perhaps the largest rejuvenated neighborhood in New York and one with easy access to Manhattan.

Williamsburg

Porkpie Hatters epitomizes Williamsburg’s “hipster culture.

Many neighborhoods have murals that decorate the buildings along the streets. While walking, Helmreich found stunning murals at the intersection of Meserole and Waterbury Streets:

Those in the know come from all over the world with cameras to view and photograph the murals, many created by well-known graffiti artists like Shepard Fairey, Dasic Fernandez, Werc, Icy and Sot, and Giant Robot. The murals change quite frequently, but they are almost always interesting.

Williamsburg is home to one of the best-known motorcycle shops in the country, Indian Larry Motorcyles, located on Union Street. The shops owner Indian Larry, born Lawrence DeSmedt, was famous for his chopper creations.

His nickname came from a chopper brand that he rode… his creations were featured on the Discovery Channel and in Easy Rider Magazine, and he won all sorts of awards and was therefore widely known to cycle enthusiasts. Inside are beautiful bikes, including two very expensive choppers with stupendous, intricate designs that sell for $350K and $750K. The second one, featured in the Neiman Marcus Christmas catalog, is known as his “Wild Child”.

Williamsburg 2

St. Vincent De Paul Church was built 145 years ago and now houses condos.

Famous for being an industrial site, Williamsburg has preserved the history of its once industrial neighborhood:

Williamsburg’s industrial area is a perfect place to discover what the city looked like in the early twentieth century, when heavy industry and manufacturing dominated — streets like Waterbury, Stagg, Morgan, Ten Eyck, Gardiner, Scholes, and Meadows, among others.

William B. Helmreich is an award-winning author who has written many books including The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City (Princeton), where he wrote an analysis of all five of New York City’s boroughs. The book won him the inaugural 2014–15 Guides Association of New York Award for Outstanding Achievement in Book Writing. He is the professor of sociology at City  College of New York’s Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership and at CUNY Graduate Center. The Brooklyn Nobody Knows is the first of five planned walking guides, one for each borough of New York City.

The Brooklyn Nobody Knows: Greenpoint

william helmreichSociologist William B. Helmreich’s urban walking guide, The Brooklyn Nobody Knows: An Urban Walking Guide details the beauty, diversity and history that combine to make Brooklyn what is arguably New York’s hottest borough. By simply walking around, talking to residents, and absorbing the borough’s rich history, Helmreich captures the essence and unique facets of Brooklyn. The book is filled with detailed facts and vivid imagery that will inspire a deeper look at these popular (and lesser-known) neighborhoods. Over the course of the next several weeks, we will be running features on some surprising facts about each of Brooklyn’s neighborhoods.

Don’t miss Bill Helmreich at the Brooklyn Book Festival this Sunday, September 18! If you visit our booth and tell him your street, he’ll tell you something you didn’t know about it. Our booth is #406 and Bill will be there 11-12:30 (There may even be ice cream.)


Helmreich begins with a look at the neighborhood known as Greenpoint, which sits at the northern-most part of Brooklyn:

Greenpoint was once heavily populated by Polish immigrants, and some of the streets of the neighborhood are lined with Polish stores and restaurants. Although the Polish influence has grown less concentrated, one can still get a sense of the Polish cultural influences.

The area was already home during the (the nineteenth century) for Polish establishments. The Polish-owned establishments are dwindling, slowly receding into the history of the neighborhood as it gentrifies. Yet one still sees Polish men, likely immigrants, trudging home in their work boots, wearing faded shirts and trousers, at the end of the day, and carrying their knapsacks, usually filled with the tools of their trade. Their weather-beaten faces are creased with the lines of hard work and perhaps the assorted worries and even disappointment that have marked their tansition from the old world, an ocean away.

If some parts of Greenpoint look familiar, that may be because parts of the neighborhood have been used in TV shows and movies. While Helmreich was walking, he saw where The Good Wife was currently being filmed.

On nearby Diamond Street, I pass by Blue Bloods Productions. There’s a trailer that’s been driven here all the way from Universal Studios, California. Right now they’re filming The Good Wife. But in a week or a month it could be another series or film. Greenpoint has, in fact, become a popular location for film/TV studios, and there are quite a few scattered throughout the area.

Helmreich takes note of a garden that is full of a variety of flora. What makes this an interesting garden is its location near the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE). The juxtaposition of the garden’s scenic environment against the expressway contributes a unique feel to the atmosphere of the park.

(Lentol Garden is) named after former assemblyman and state senator Edward Lentol. The garden, surrounded by an eight-foot-high black steel fence, features juniper and holly trees, a Chinese dogwood, roses, tulips, black-eyed Susans, and other flora and fauna. Inviting looking, wooden benches line a landscape path where you pass by a birdfeeder and a birdbath. I notice that one side of the park border is literally attached to the Brooklyn Queens Expressway… It’s an oasis in a metropolis where every inch of green space counts, even if it’s hard against a major expressway.

Along Hausmann Street, Helmreich noticed that every house, exactly 73 of them, had American flags flying in front of them. A woman he met while admiring the homes explains the reason why:

“The flags have been here since after 9/11, honoring those who fell there, especially Catherine Fagan, who lived here. We keep them up until they get dirty and then we replace them. Most of the owners have lived here for many years and they just decided to do it.”

William B. Helmreich is an award-winning author who has written many books including The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City (Princeton), where he wrote an analysis of all five of New York City’s boroughs. The book won him the inaugural 2014–15 Guides Association of New York Award for Outstanding Achievement in Book Writing. He is the professor of sociology at City  College of New York’s Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership and at CUNY Graduate Center. The Brooklyn Nobody Knows is the first of five planned walking guides, one for each borough of New York City.