Why Trend Journalism Is Breath-Takingly Stupid (Or: Brooklynites Like Bikes)


I expect trend pieces to be bad. I expect them to be superficial, hacky, tendentious, filled with irritating neologisms, short-sighted, over-determined, thesis-driven and not truly “reported,” and to be built around quotes from the author’s own friends. This is journalism.

I expect trend pieces to be, at best, written on tight deadlines by people who, were they only afforded the opportunity, might surprise even their jaded editors with something much, much better.

I expect, in other words, to learn about “faminism” and then spend 15 minutes I will never get back listening to “faminism” being parsed on NPR by one of the term’s creators, a woman who sounds frankly embarrassed of it. I expect to read 8,000 iterations of the same Fashion Bloggers In The Front Row piece. The same Rich People Find Ways To Sneak Cigarettes piece. To learn about such non-events in the history of American socializing as the Man Date. To hear some writer’s shallow reflections on demographic change reported as fact, to whit, the I Happen To Know A Handful Of Women Who Went To Good Universities And Now Want Kids piece. Trend pieces are so inane and idiotic, and this has been a fact acknowledged by so many people for so long, that in 2006 the Observer even ran a trend piece about how trend pieces have gotten really dumb. Nut graph:

The basic formula has long carried reporters and readers alike through lazy vacation months: colorful quotations from a number (specifically, three) of the trendsetters; a blurb or two from academic experts; some vaguely thesis-related statistics; a reference to the broader zeitgeist.

So allow me to acknowledge, first, that my ire at this latest opus from the Observer‘s Leon Neyfakh is almost as old and predictable as the “news” that some people like living in (the trendier, whiter neighborhoods of) Brooklyn. But still, is this really necessary?

Perhaps you remember the New York Times columnist David Brooks’ coinage BoBos-short for Bourgeois Bohemians? Those latte-slurping, SUV-driving, Pottery Barn-shopping, NPR-listening creatures of the Clinton era? Ms. Hambleton and her ilk represent a new variation on the species: Brooklyn Bourgeois Bohemians. BroBos! Young, comfortable and inclined toward creativity, they enjoy a utopian-seeming existence marked by strolls down tree-lined streets, carefully chosen foods and leisurely weekends spent in coffee bars and parks.

Neologism no sane person could say with a straight face: Check.

Merell Hambleton, the source to whom Leon refers, is 24. She has lived in Brooklyn for six months. Another Brooklynite quoted by full name in this story is Matt Power, who owns his own home and threw his house-warming in the summer of 2008. There’s also a quote from a Matt Kirsch Leon found at the Brooklyn Flea, looking for owl stuff with which to decorate his apartment. He says he’s lived in Brooklyn five years. And so we meet and hear from the magical number of three brave trend-setters!

There are actually no expert-sounding quotes from academics or appeals to authority in the form of statistics; perhaps this is because Leon’s major thesis seems to be that Brooklyn is a land of carefree bike-riding, farmers’ markets, gardening, parkland, sour ales, and Neutral Milk Hotel fans, while Manhattan is a lightless concrete jungle where office drones spend 70% of their income on rent and say things like “I’m not really engaged by, like, playing Frisbee and riding bikes.” (That would be the New Yorker‘s Lizzie Widdicombe.) Perhaps it’s short on information that might allow readers to put these assertions about the “culture” of these two boroughs into context because if we did any looking into, say, the number of farmers’ markets in New York City or the number of parks, we might find that Manhattan is actually extremely well furnished in those departments. What about the hipster-ridden Superfund site that is Greenpoint? Try growing your organic heirloom tomatoes there, BroBos.

Here’s the gesture towards the zeitgeist:

[In the 90s] the hardscrabble Brooklyn of Saturday Night Fever became but a distant memory as the proto-BroBo upper middle class started settling in the borough. With their arrival, the romantic idea of making it as an artist in New York was replaced by a dream of backyard parties, stoop sales, small plates and meticulously designed signage. This evolved into creatures enchanted by the spiffy, sexy suburbia of Mad Men and comforted by the summery chillness of the appropriately named, suburb-loving indie rock band Real Estate from Ridgewood, N.J.

Leon is an acquaintance of mine and I have a tiny role in this piece as one member of the “media couple in their 20s” who had some fellow uptown-dwelling friends over for drinks last Friday. Leon came with a mutual friend, which was fine, because if I remember correctly, he brought some beer. Leon asked several questions about the kinds of plants I grow on the shelves I built in my kitchen window. (It turns out that gardens and gardening are the MacGuffin of this piece, and Leon’s chosen shorthand for the “Brooklyn” identity he advances.) It didn’t really bother me too much that cocktail hour was apparently going to be asked to serve as the Observer‘s trending hive brain. This was mainly because Leon was a good sport when I told him to his face that his story idea was almost breath-takingly stupid. I suppose I rather self-aggrandizingly imagined I might improve the final product by offering some critique of his methods — here was my chance to genetically engineer a Trend Piece in its embryonic stage — but alas, now we know how that went. While this trend piece notionally concerns New Yorkers and their neurotic borough self-identifications, the problems it suffers (unacknowledged classism, reporting so thin it lies like gauze over the barstool “Don’t you think that…” conversation that probably inspired the thesis) are typical of trend pieces generally.

Quoting young media/creative types who went to universities like Columbia and Yale about their choice of borough/preferred source for organic kale/stance on owl trinkets in interior decoration is not a meaningful or interesting way to analyze whatever social boundaries or differences exist now between Brooklyn and Manhattan. The “Manhattan” identity, the “Brooklyn” identity, as constructed by bright, employed young things is one easily assumed and very, very similar on both sides of the East River. I buy my tomatoes at a farmers’ market, too; it’s on 145th Street. Or else I go to the one on Lenox, where there’s always a man who drives up from South Carolina in a refrigerated truck to sell home-made sausage, slab bacon, and Virgina ham. He makes his own juices and pickles relish, too. Afterwards I might stop by one of the neighborhood’s several excellent bakeries, get soft-shell crabs from the fish market, or go for a walk in St. Nicholas Park. I say this not to make an argument-by-anecdote, but just to point out that anyone could write a trend piece about Young White People Living Uptown or somesuch and make me sound every bit as annoying, privileged, and un-self-aware as all these Brooklyn assholes with their gardens.

But truthfully, I didn’t move to Harlem because of the farmers’ markets or the parks, and I doubt many people move to Brooklyn for those reasons, either. (Looking for places of great natural beauty in New York is a fool’s errand: the only green spaces here are the wholly constructed and very prissy kinds of environments favored by late Victorians like Frederick Law Olmstead and his imitators. I am from fucking New Zealand, and neither Fort Greene Park nor Central Park nor Van Cortlandt Park is “nature,” sorry.) I moved here because my apartment is cheap, beautiful, spacious, and located two blocks away from the nearest subway station, where I am served by two express trains, two local trains. I can be downtown in 15 minutes, in Williamsburg or Boerum Hill in 30. Elevating the likes and dislikes of a small and self-selecting class of people into metaphors for a personality, and then conflating that list of touchstones with the personality of an entire borough, is stupid.

Find some people who’ve lived in Brooklyn (or Manhattan) their entire lives, who were educated in the public schools, who vote in local elections, who understand how the levers of power work in their communities, who note business closures and openings, who don’t so much try to “engage with” the communities in which they live as they do in fact constitute those communities, and you may find someone whose opinion on the lifestyle afforded by living in the way and place that they do I would listen to. Asking these questions of someone who moved there six months ago, and expecting to hear anything insightful back, is ludicrous. Asking those questions of me or anyone else who moved to New York like a year ago is idiotic. But then, it is a trend piece.

With that, dear Reader, I’m afraid I must meet my father for a walk in Central Park. Maybe we’ll forage for some Meyer lemons, or something. I hear that’s the latest hip craze.

BroBos In Paradise [The Observer]

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin