“Where Brooklyn at?” the Notorious B.I.G. famously demanded to know in 1995. Not in Williamsburg, that's for damn sure. At least, not in the "Billyburg" of modernity, a netherworld where inhabitants “think the act of pairing aviator goggles with a handlebar mustache can be profound social commentary,” says Robert Lanham, Editor of the popular arts and culture guide, FREEwilliamsburg.com.
Lanham is no hater. Like a non-anorexic corpus jammed violently into a pair of Levi’s 511s, FREEwilliamsburg is practically bursting with homage to indie rock. Rather, he's a taxonomist; a humble servant to an age-old discipline. But Lanham's subjects aren’t chinchillas or subtropical Ugandan wetlands grasses they’re people. His knack for classification has led him to write two books (he authored a third on the evangelical right), each ethnological, and each entertaining as hell: The Hipster Handbook, and Food Court Druids, Cherohonkees and Other Creatures Unique to the Republic. Unsurprisingly, Williamsburg has proven an excellent location to conduct field research.
"In the early days, promoters ignored websites. They thought the web was just a fad, you know, like rap music. Now, people take the web much more seriously."
If nothing else, any discussion of Williamsburg only underscores its worthiness, says Lanham, who’s lived in the neighborhood for 10 years. Speakor blogas you will, but there’s a reason nobody’s up in arms over Dyker Heights. Gelf caught up with Lanham, who explained why so many love to hate on the ‘burg, how his site has been able to secure interviews with the likes of Bloc Party, and how gentrification can do wonders for your beer options. (You can hear Lanham speak, in addition to Jezebel.com Editor Anna Holmes and writer/blogger Chez Pazienza, at Gelf's free Non-Motivational Speaker Series event on Thursday, June 26, in the Lower East Side.)
Gelf Magazine: Why did you start FREEwilliamsburg?
Robert Lanham: FREEwilliamsburg was a means to an end. I'd just moved to Williamsburg from Richmond, Virginia and I was looking for a way to publish my writing so I taught myself HTML. My plan was to create a Time Out New York for Williamsburg, which was transforming into an artist haven. People would be lured to the site to read restaurant, bar, and gallery reviews and in the process they'd inadvertently stumble upon my writing. It was a bait and switch. This was 1998, before Craig's List was really a big thing, so I looked for help the way everyone used to. I posted fliers: "Starting a Williamsburg culture site writers, designers, artists needed." It was a pretty homegrown, grassroots production.
GM: How is it run? (i.e. how large is the staff, is it full-time for anyone, how often is it updated, etc.)
RL: As you can tell from our about us page, we have an eclectic staff which includes the two Tom's: Tom Selleck and Tom Brokaw. I think Roz from Night Court works for us too. It's run in the typical way. The site is updated (almost) daily and since 1999 we've had an average of about ten people who contribute at any given time.
GM: Do you write full-time?
RL: I write part-time and am always sure to leave plenty of time for my true passion, my thimble collection.
GM: FREEwilliamsburg has interviews with many of indie rock's biggest actsare they a lot more accessible than one would imagine?
RL: In the early days, booking interviews with A-listers, like The Flaming Lips, could be difficult because promoters ignored websites. They thought the web was just a fad, you know, like rap music. Now, people take the web much more seriously. Since FREEwilliamsburg's demographic is exactly the one most band's publicists are hoping to reach, we've had an easier time than others making an argument for access.
GM: Why does Williamsburg inspire so much vitriol?
RL: It’s filled with pampered rich kids who think the act of pairing aviator goggles with a handlebar mustache can be profound social commentary. That's gonna strike a nerve with anyone who isn't, well, retarded. On the other hand, 90% of the country is filled with Applebees, Walgreen's, and an overall environment that stifles artistic expression. People talk a lot of shit, but at the end of the day the music, galleries, and overall vitality of the neighborhood is pretty exciting.
GM: What do you like and dislike about Williamsburg today, as compared to when you moved in '96?
RL: Dislike: Beards. The paper-mâché condos. The rent. The crowds. Skinny jeans. The cult of Steve Jobs.
Like: The music scene. Radegast Beer Hall. Spuyten Duyvil. Dumont. Marlow & Sons. Not being chased by toothless hookers south of Metropolitan.
GM: If Bushwick is the new ‘burg, what's the new Bushwick?
GM: Do hipsters (are they still called that these days?) dismiss people as "hipsters?"
RL: Unless you're a member of the jazz age, the term has always been a pejorative. I find the self-loathing pretty silly. Hipsters need a 10-step program where they are forced to admit their “problem.” Yes, I own Animal Collective CDs. I wear skinny jeans. I like Wes Anderson. I am a Hipster. I’m hoping the backlash will come full circle and people will begin embracing the designation. What’s the big deal? You know you’re a hipster, I know you’re a hipster. We all know you’re a hipster. Might as well embrace it.
GM: Neal Pollack called you the "Margaret Mead of the North American weirdo." What species is most unique to North America? Least unique? And which do you find most fascinating?
RL: I'm just fascinated by ex-Hillary supporters who are going to vote for McCain. I'm also fascinated by people who think owning a ferret is normal and people who follow the Jammy Awards.
GM: Has writing about and observing all of these subcultures served to underscore your own identity, or made you more confused as to where you fit in and what your "scene" is?
RL: My “scene:” sitting at home in the A/C with my wife and cat watching Lost and Knot’s Landing reruns. Drunk on Thunderbird.
GM: Which of your three books was most fun to write?
RL: I had the most fun writing Food Court Druids, Cherohonkees and Other Creatures Unique to the Republic, which, for the record, I wanted to call American Taxonomy. That inane title (forced on me by the publisher) still stings. The Sinner's Guide to the Evangelical Right was eye-opening since I got to hang out at some of our country's crazy megachurches. Plus, I got to spend some time with Ted Haggard before he fell from grace. Mofu didn't even offer me any meth.
GM: Is it possible to be cool while possessing an uncultivated sense of irony? And, as a corollary: is a world without irony a world not worth living in?
RL: I keep hearing that being earnest is hip now, but I can never tell if the people who proclaim this are being ironic.