The New York City neighbourhood where politically correct prejudices are born
Most people, when they hear the word Brooklyn, will think of big-bellied pizza-spinners, or men hunched over pints of the black stuff in Little Ireland, or black kids in hanging-down trousers ghetto-limping through the streets.
But there’s another side, a whiter, cleaner, more PC side, where the inhabitants probably don’t eat pizza at all, never mind drink Guinness, because they’re more than likely allergic to the gluten in the pizza base and probably disapprove of booze. And this leafy bit of Brooklyn, home to some of the most influential people in American arts and letters, is where much of the wacky outlook that passes for contemporary liberalism (but which smells more like snobbery to me) is born.
It’s called Park Slope, being on the western slope of the gorgeous Prospect Park. It has a population of 65,000, whose median age is 35 and whose median income is $79,000. Walking towards Park Slope from Carroll Gardens, an Italian part of Brooklyn named after Charles Carroll, the only Roman Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence, you immediately know you’re arriving somewhere More Respectable — there are fewer black faces, more stay-at-home dads with kids in slings, adverts for ‘Self-Defence: A Holistic Approach For Youth, Women and LGBT Individuals’.
Think of Bloomsbury (for writers), mashed with Islington (for political types), squeezed into Hampstead (for luvvies), and you’ll have an idea of what Park Slope is like. Steve Buscemi from Reservoir Dogs lives here. So does Maggie Gyllenhaal, darling of the arthouse movie scene.
In most normal bookshops the ‘Local Authors’ section will feature one or two self-published tracts about King Arthur or the sex lives of otters. In the Park Slope branch of Barnes & Noble it reads like a Who’s Who of contemporary American literature: Paul Auster, Douglas Rushkoff, Rick Moody, Jonathan Safran Foer.
Foer’s latest book, Eating Animals, is prominently displayed. In it, he denounces the factory conditions in which animals are kept before they’re chopped into burgers and nuggets to satisfy those other Americans: the big-waisted, non-Park Slope breed. Park Slopers are seriously hung up about their grub. Local parenting websites feature tortured debates about how to cope with a kid who has soya allergies or lactose intolerance. Milk is a toxic substance here, to be handled with care.
The filmmaker Morgan Spurlock lives here, too. He made the 2004 gross-out documentary Super Size Me, for which he bravely left Park Slope, venturing into America’s heart of darkness to see if he could live on nothing but McDonald’s meals. It was an act of unadulterated Victorian-style anthropology: the right-minded Park Sloper, who’s married to a vegan activist called Healthy Chef Alex who runs the Park Slope group ‘Nutrition for Empowered Women’, going off to mingle with the natives, becoming one of them by eating their peculiar foods, drinking their gloopy pink milkshakes, developing one of their weird protruding bellies.
Well-to-do Park Slopers hang out at the local co-op, where you have to be a member and do two or three hours of work a week before you can access the organic fruit and veg. It’s like Waitrose on steroids. Walking past (a mere mortal like me is not allowed to buy anything), I see youngish men and women carrying boxes of carrots, lines of sweat developing on their brows. They aren’t used to physical labour, these journos and graphic designers. Over the road there’s a cake shop, packed with stay-at-home parents and kids tucking into gluten-free fare. An advert shows an ageing hippy asking ‘What are you waiting for? Learn Qigong.’ I don’t know what Qigong is; I daren’t even google it in case it involves survivors of the Sixties showing people how to sustain 10-hour erections and have tantric sex.
Sometimes Park Slopers’ PC-ness goes too far. When Park Slope mums started advertising online for live-in Tibetan nannies, who are apparently more naturally mothering than other nannies, they had to have their wrists slapped by online moderators. Tibetan nannies risked becoming a new ‘status symbol’ for Park Slope parents, said one blogger.
Park Slope has come full circle. It was fairly well-to-do up to the 1950s, but the middle classes fled and it became a rough working-class neighbourhood, packed with Italians, Irish, blacks, Latinos. Then these immigrant communities were priced out by a gentrification process in the 1980s, and Park Slope is now resolutely upper middle class again. You still see black people. A friend tells me they’re nannies, who come here during daylight hours to look after the kids of the writers, the actors, the food critics.
Hanging out in Park Slope, it’s easy to see it as a kind of factory of modern liberal prejudices, churned out by the hacks who live in these streets and spread to the rest of the world through the publications they write for: the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate. In Barnes & Noble, the magazine choices of Park Slopers speak to this liberal elite’s isolation from what they view as mental Middle America. Following those midterm elections in which Obama received a seriously fat lip from voters, the front cover of the left-leaning Mother Jones tells us that ‘A Confused and Frightened Citizenry Voted Against Its Own Self-Interest’. New York magazine says, ‘Rage, powerlessness, magical thinking… politics increasingly mirrors the mindset of a small child.’
Yet at the same time, Park Slope has turned into too much of an easy target. Democrat-voting, Fox News-hating Manhattanites and other East Coast liberals have made a sport of pummelling Park Slope liberals for their super-aloofness. Yet much of this trendy PS-bashing is driven by a desperate desire amongst East Coasters to cover up their own snobbery, to disguise their own utter isolation from the masses of America by mocking those who seem to be the most physically and mentally removed of all. The truth is that the sometimes strange world of Park Slope only reveals, in pronounced form, the growing chasm that exists between America’s liberal intellectual classes and the apparently childish McDonald’s-scoffers who live far, far away, in places where they don’t have Tibetan nannies or hippies to teach you Qigong — whatever that is.