“I’m sure it’s not a gun”, I reassure my mother who had just shattered the sleepy late-summer haze of our Bushwick street after an (admittedly ominous looking) black package arrived on our doorstep. We are about to call the New York Police Department when my brother, who is spending the summer working at an art gallery in Brooklyn, calls to see if we found the sugar cane that he had left for us as a welcome gift.
To be fair to my mother, Bushwick is a district suffering from a borderline personality disorder. The streets are lined with shops selling kefir sorbet and $11 iced oat-milk lattes, but simultaneously at the corner of every block Puerto Rican street-vendors huddle around pans of sizzling plantain, an apt reflection of a neighbourhood that smacks of gentrification despite a quarter of its residents still living below the poverty line. It is precisely this vibe – unpolished but unmistakably millennial – that drew my brother and his art-school friends away from Manhattan and all the way past Brooklyn Heights and Williamsburg (the mortifyingly trendy home to the girls from Girls) and to Knickerbocker Avenue, Bushwick’s achingly cool aorta that I’m not entirely sure I would feel safe walking down alone at night.
I meet said friends later that evening at ‘House of Kava’, a bar dedicated not to the almost-champagne but to the 3000-year old Polynesian drink that looks – and tastes – like mud and makes me feel slightly high and very unwell. Much to my brother’s embarrassment, I quietly excuse myself and head home.
On my walk back, Bushwick seems like any other neighbourhood in the first trimester of its gentrification: its streets hide underneath sprawling urban art and reek of raspberry kombucha mixed with rubbish left by underpaid binmen to rot under the August sun. You could be forgiven for thinking that, in this district where rent is soaring upwards faster than anywhere in the city (though still half what you might pay for an apartment within walking distance of NYU), there are the same number of Bernie Sanders-loving bohemians scanning the racks of vintage boutiques as there are homeless people begging for their money. After walking past a sign advertising a ‘Shop with Great Karma’, I can’t help but wonder if this liberal paradise is becoming a parody of itself.
A few more days spent wandering around the lively but friendly streets softens this judgement. My brother’s housemates who once seemed unapproachably stylish with their bleached hair and made-up sounding names are surprisingly entertaining company as they take it in turns at dinner to reveal their non-sexual turn-ons which range from heavy metal and an unseen passage of Latin to a good wine-pairing and a narcotics-fuelled night out. I’ve never seen my mother look so uncomfortable. One of them even bags us a round of free cocktails by pretending to our waitress who is (rightfully) sceptical of our IDs that it is her 21st birthday. In fact, as the days go on, I begin to suspect that Bushwick might not be as cool and as defiantly un-American as it thinks it is: even in this hipster oasis yellow school buses signal the start of the new school year; the local supermarket, with its 11 different flavours of Philadelphia cheese, is a capitalist utopia; and next to our apartment is a sign ushering us into the unironically named ‘Christian Church’.
The trick, I think, to enjoying Bushwick is to buy into it without taking it as seriously as it takes itself. Spend a week’s wages on a paleo-friendly Swedish bun; unashamedly take pictures of the pretty graffiti; confess to your brother that kava is, frankly, undrinkable. A store with Great Karma is, after all, better than one with Bad Karma.