Originally published in Condé Nast Traveler, September 2015
POP QUIZ: The bar pictured here is in (a) Portland, (b) Williamsburg, or (c) Istanbul?
If you guessed Istanbul, congrats! You win a Brooklyn Lager, served here by the bottle. That’s the Zeplin pub, in Kadıköy, which a Turkish friend recommended to me for its killer beer list and for feeling “just like East Williamsburg.” The beer sounded good, but the second part made me want to run the other way. Thanks, I thought, but I came here from there.
The world is getting cooler, yes, but it can also feel quite small, with the same few hipster enclaves—Brooklyn, Portland, Silver Lake, Wicker Park—setting a now-global standard for style. Among travelers (and travel writers), the appeal of one place is increasingly defined in terms of another—like a funky neighborhood in Zagreb that calls Oakland to mind, or a gallery in Hanoi which, as the new cliché goes, “wouldn’t be out of place in Brooklyn.” (Seriously, Google that phrase in quotes—you’ll get more than 50,000 hits.)
By my count, the planet now has 3,487 “New Brooklyns,” from Stockholm’s SoFo to Hong Kong’s Tai Ping Shan. Yet the media keeps anointing more—in Montreal (per the Daily Telegraph), Berlin (New York Times), Beijing (the Times again), Baltimore (Yahoo Travel), Detroit (Fortune), Las Vegas (The Independent), and Doha, Qatar (Vulture.com). A decade on, the phrase is as played out as the word hipster itself. (Yo, media: I got your New Brooklyn right here.)
It’s not just that the trope is lazy. It fails both the places it describes and the travelers who go there, reducing the world to a supremely narrow definition of interestingness. And it presumes we seek only familiar things when we travel: the same barrel-aged Negronis, the same distressed chalkboards, the same National sound track to remind us of home.
Look, there’s nothing empirically wrong with Williamsburg or Wicker Park, with small-batch bitters or Van Dyck beards. (Actually, scratch that: Van Dycks are goddamn silly.) The problem comes when that stuff is absolutely everywhere, until Istanbul might as well be Portland might as well be Shoreditch. When the offbeat goes fully in-step, the so-called weird places feel all too predictable—a phenomenon a friend calls “the sameification of difference.”
Meanwhile, as the next Brooklyns get all the love, the truly singular places—like, say, Vientiane, Laos—get ignored for being incomparable. In its cityscape and citizenry, Vientiane bears no resemblance to a hipster mecca. There are no fair-trade coffee bars nitrogenating your cold-brew. The best food is served at restaurants with fluorescent lights, plastic tables, and pink toilet paper for napkins. If you come here looking for Williamsburg, you’ll be deeply disappointed. But if you come looking for the capital of Laos, you’ll probably love it.
I’m sure Vientiane will soon get with the program and Brooklyn up, as all great cities now do. This month in Paris, Le Bon Marché—as defiantly French a brand as any, you’d think—unveils a Brooklyn-themed pop-up on the Rive Gauche, featuring artisans and picklers from the borough itself. (Really, Bon Marché—is it 2007 there? You couldn’t co-opt a fresher bastion of cool? Marseille wasn’t available?)
I happen to live in the actual Brooklyn, or what I now call the Old Austin. I live here because I like it here. But I travel because I like it there, and because There—the food, the music, the fashion, the people—is usually quite different from Here.
Or not. As I stepped into the Neighbourgoods Market, a scuzzy-chic weekend bazaar in downtown Johannesburg, my first thought was, Wow, this is amazing! My second thought was, Wait, I know this place. Every bike was a fixie; every girl had a wrist tattoo. And though vendors were selling South African biltong jerky—and nearly half the crowd was black or mixed race—it otherwise felt like Bushwick beamed into a Jo’burg garage: corrugated-tin flowerpots, stovepipe trousers and chukka boots, ginger-kombucha stands. Once I got over the novelty of recognizing almost everything in sight—in a city 8,000 miles from home—it struck me that I had flown all that way just to end up where I’d started.