This is a free edition of Brooklyn, Everywhere, a newsletter where I ponder the many meanings of gentrification, and what we lose in our relentless pursuit of “the American dream.” Sign up here to get it in your inbox. For access to all editions of the newsletter, including subscriber-only exclusives, subscribe to The Atlantic.
Past editions I’ve enjoyed include: And Just Like That... Is A Mirror Image of the New NYC, On Gentrification of Self: An Ode to Jeremy Strong, and America's Inside Voice.
Before Seamless, before Uber Eats, before Instacart, my family had me: From the time I was 10 until I left for college, no adult in my house went out for anything if I was available to go and get it. And there were a lot of adults—my widow aunt on the first floor, my spinster aunts on the second, me and my grandparents on top. On weekdays, I would take myself home from school and make myself a snack, and when the adults arrived, I would be on call to fetch eggs, milk, cleaning supplies, or a VHS cassette from the video store. They needed only to bellow my name in the hallway, hand me some cash, and I’d be on my way. Dissent was unwelcome in this administration. On the rare occasions when I whined or rolled my eyes, I was reminded of the fact that “when you get older, someone will go to the store for you!” (Little did they know that “someone” would not be a child I bore, but a stranger, and that the whole thing would be arranged by “doing the computer.”)
It was with this upbringing that my fellow latchkey classmates and I were thrust into college. For Gen Xers, who didn’t yet have cellphones and were bound by the costs of long-distance calling, going away to school meant you were left alone on the campus, wild. Most students like me survived with nothing more than a weekly (scheduled) call home for support. In between, you were banged around a fair deal, and if you had the energy on a Sunday morning to fill in your parents or family, they would console you with something dismissive, like “Such is life. It will all pay off later!”
Postcollege life, for most people, meant taking a job that you knew, before you even started, would involve terrible grunt work and, in some cases, emulation (or at least feigned adoration) of your boss. A friend of mine who went into finance once gave this explanation for why he wears Thomas Pink shirts: “Because my first boss wore Thomas Pink Shirts. So we all wore Thomas Pink shirts.”
In this era, you got the coffee, you sent the faxes, you endured long hours and bad treatment and low pay. And afterward, you would go out with your friends in fields where they were treated worse but paid better, and make them buy the drinks at the Park Bar or BBar or whatever place was trendy at the time. And after that, you, with your lower-paying but more perk-laden job, would get all of you into clubs or parties where the drinks were (ideally) free and the music was good. And then, the next day, you would wash, rinse and repeat, because you had fun at night and … it was all going to pay off some day. Yes, there were problems and traumas. But Jane Fonda had been telling us since the ’80s: No pain, no gain. And we believed this wholeheartedly.
I’ve been reflecting on all of this because recently, one of my favorite early-aughts pop-culture “moments” was in the news. It seems that Gen Z, the offspring of my very generation, had discovered Making the Band—and they were not too happy. For those unfamiliar, it was an MTV show that blended the celebrity and competitive genres of reality programming to wonderous effect. It starred a turn-of-the-century Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, a.k.a. Diddy, a.k.a. Puffy, a.k.a. Puff, as he set out to form a new supergroup for his label Bad Boy Records. The contestants lived together in a New York City apartment, where they would be coached and trained in music and entertainment by various members of the Bad Boy family. There would be, of course, eliminations.
But what made Making the Band—particularly the early seasons—so special (and truly entertaining) was that Puffy would randomly show up at the house or the studio with “challenges” designed to demonstrate how hungry the contestants really were to “make it.” These things ranged from having a sing-off to competing for a bed to sleep in to, most famously, walking from Midtown Manhattan to Downtown Brooklyn to get Puffy a cheesecake from Junior’s. The show, and the challenges, were so epochal and ridiculous, they were re-created for a skit on Chappelle’s Show.
Apparently, what I and my friends saw as “learning the ropes” and “working your way up” is, seen through the Gen Z lens, now considered “exploitation” and “hazing.” While I always considered the stunts the contestants were called upon to do extreme and often hilarious, I can honestly say I never once balked at the premise: It takes more than talent to make it in the music business. (Frankly, to make it in most businesses.) It also requires hunger and sacrifice and determination. Diddy was just making entertainment out of a question that it seemed my generation was asked every day—do you have what it takes to make it? (When I told a fellow Gen X friend I was writing about this, she immediately texted me back, “I still can’t understand the moaning about the friggin’ cheesecake. It’s only 5 miles from midtown.”)
Diddy apparently feels the same way. Following the Twitter controversy, several of the artists involved in that season of Making the Band came out to decry his abuses, and he responded with this: “STOP ALL YOUR CRYING, BITCHING & MOANING. HUSTLE HARDER OR GET THE FUCK OUT OF OUR WAY.”
Diddy speaks for those of us in my oft-ignored generation who are not so much annoyed by what some might perceive as a Gen Z laziness or entitlement as we are befuddled by the tendency to name so many happenings in life “traumas,” from expectations in the workplace to the idea of unlikable speech being categorized as violence and even the schism in the #MeToo movement, when, for many Gen Xers, what we experienced (and survived) as bad dates were suddenly being categorized as assault.
And while there is now a big backlash against what Diddy describes in his quote as “hustle,” I don’t think the generational divide is over work. It’s over life. And the certain subset of Gen Z who seems a bit afraid of it.
And yet, it is my very generation that birthed this one. It’s almost as if the neglect and wounds we sustained while no one was watching have led us to want to swathe our own little ones in bubble wrap. And my empathetic self completely understands that: It is the most primally American thing to want our children to have better lives than we led before. For too long we only hoped for economically better, but there is much to be said for emotional and spiritual improvement as well. Plus, one must acknowledge that Gen Z has grown up in a chaotic, sometimes heinous world, with 9/11, the Great Recession, and everything happening now. All of it lived amid the technology and social media that their Xer parents came to as adults.
So I have empathy, yes. But I worry about a skill set that’s critical to not necessarily “living” life, but finding some joy in it: resilience. The ability to endure trauma and pain and to return to form. To go back out and live, knowing you were maybe made better by hardship. To feel pride in getting to the other side. To bring it back to Making the Band, I linger on a quote from one of the former stars of the show, Babs Bunny: “I could say it was a dream come true, it was dreams coming true with nightmares in and out … For me, that was my experience. I was a sponge. And no matter with all the negative things over the years, I just tried to focus on all of the positive things that I learned.” This outlook, she later says, enabled her to “keep pushing” in her life. That to me feels like a good outcome.
Watch this space—not sure I’m done turning this one over in my mind yet. I would love to hear your thoughts …