In the middle of my neighborhood – Fort Greene, in Brooklyn – is a massive, wall-sized mural of Biggie Smalls. The mural features his signature mean-mugging pout, and the phrase “Comandante Biggie” in large capital letters underneath.
It is also across the street from two other Fort Greene mainstays: Greenlight Bookstore, an indie shop visited by literary superstars like George Saunders, Karen Russell, and Zadie Smith (to name a few from the last several months) and hosts the twee-est weekend children’s story time you can possibly imagine; and The Greene Grape’s grocery annex, Greene Provisions, which makes Whole Foods look like a particularly shady Key Foods. Think $9 organic strawberries and a million different types of Brie.
The Biggie mural is also just blocks from Barclays Center, which, on August 25, will host MTV’s Video Music Awards.
Now, I’m no expert in Brooklyn culture or borough politics – having only lived here about eight months – but here’s what I can tell you: My parents lived in Fort Greene, just blocks from my current apartment, in the 1980s, at a time when people like them (white and socioeconomically comfortable) told them they were crazy to move to the borough. Now, instead of telling me I’m going to get mugged on the train, most people who hear I live in Fort Greene mention either the stately brownstones, the Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument or the annual Fort Greene Park dog Halloween costume contest. In other words, the neighborhood has changed.
That’s part of the reason why it’s interesting that the VMAs have chosen this year to come to Brooklyn. Sure, as borough president Marty Markowitz said in a statement, “Brooklyn … has played a crucial role in the careers of some of 2013's biggest bands, like Fun. and the Lumineers.” It’s the national center of hipster culture, from ironic facial hair to artisanal s’mores (that’s a real thing at Brooklyn Flea. They’re delicious). But the Brooklyn that the VMAs seem more eager to pay homage to, the Brooklyn of Jay-Z’s upbringing, of The Notorious B.I.G.’s reign, would be hard to find anywhere near the schmancy, brand new Barclay’s Center.
In some ways, the VMAs are a huge boon for Brooklyn. They’ll bring attention to the thriving music scene and the hip factor that everyone but the stodgiest Manhattanites knows has flourished in Brooklyn for a long, long time. They’ll christen Barclays Center, the home of the refurbished and re-branded Brooklyn Nets, as a cultural place to be (the stadium has already hosted the likes of Mumford and Sons and Bob Dylan, so it’s not like it needs much help) and bring throngs of LA-and-Manhattan-based celebrities to an outer borough. And that seems to be good news for everyone, from the local economy to the out-of-touch folks who still see Brooklyn as dangerous and seedy.
But hosting a major, star-studded awards show also means that the Brooklyn the VMAs will undoubtedly harken back to no longer really exists. At least in the neighborhood that the Barclays Center calls home, you’d be hard-pressed to find rents cheap enough for up-and-coming artists to afford. As much as anything else, hosting the VMAs proves that gentrification in large parts of the borough has achieved its ends – making the area not just whiter and more expensive, but almost totally innocuous. There’s very little gritty about Fort Greene anymore (not that I was here or have any experience with a time when there was). And hosting the VMAs just shows that, while Brooklyn is what Markowitz called a “cultural Mecca,” it’s not a Brooklyn Comandante Biggie would recognize.
For up-to-the-minute VMA news, head to PolicyMic's VMA 2013 Live blog.