Brooklyn – the greatest country in the world! These were the words that greeted me as I stepped inside Luigi’s Pizza, finding relief from the scorching summer sun. I had just moved to Brooklyn after 20 years in Washington, D.C. I had read that Luigi’s had been proclaimed the best pizza slice in the five boroughs by the Village Voice. As an Italian I couldn’t resist: I had to verify.
Fifteen minutes later, while sitting comfortably on my sixth-floor-balcony, I found myself vehemently agreeing with the Village Voice. Before me a breathtaking scene: the stark, vertical beauty of the Manhattan skyline juxtaposed to the solitary and affirming power of the Statue of Liberty – symbols that for the last 120 years have captivated the imagination of millions of people around the world in their pursuit of a new identity in the land of hopes and dreams.
Brooklyn – the greatest country in the world. That tagline has been expanding its meaning ever since I read it that day; the laugh that accompanied that rapid first glance has since been replaced by a more profound meaning and understanding. The statement was a proud one: why?
Brooklyn Bagel & Coffee Co, Brooklyn Burger, Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory, Brooklyn's Studio, Brooklyn Gin, Brooklyn Rye, Brooklyn Republic Vodka, Brooklyn Lager, Brooklyn Industries, Brooklyn Brine, Brooklyn Spectacles, Brooklyn Soda Works. These are just a handful of businesses that carry Brooklyn in their corporate name.
Then of course the movies: either filmed in Brooklyn (such as The Intern) or focused on Brooklyn, like the recent one titled simply Brooklyn, a story about a young Irish woman's immigration (I will spare you the long list of famous celebrities who were born and grew up in Brooklyn).
I also learned that Brooklyn has become a bit of an iconic destination abroad. There is a Brooklyn Bowl in London, which I am told is an almost exact replica of its namesake space in Williamsburg; Brooklyn Lager can be commonly found in Stockholm; Brooklyn Spectacles has distributors in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Canada, Belgium and the Netherlands. Its tagline says it all for me: “Bringing a little bit of Brooklyn to you” – clearly signaling that Brooklyn has achieved global brand status. The use of the Brooklyn brand is so pervasive that the borough’s chamber of commerce launched a “Made in Brooklyn” certification.
In US politics the Brooklyn brand has been an important component of Bernie Sanders’ message: his Brooklyn life shaped his commitment to pluralism and his focus on creating conditions for greater opportunities to all.
And, on a personal level, even more interesting have been the enthusiastic reactions I have been receiving from friends and acquaintances around the world since I moved to Brooklyn: “I love Brooklyn,” “such a cool place,” “I would move there today,” and “we’ll definitely come visit you now” (apparently DC wasn’t cool enough).
As a strategist I am in the business of building meanings; instinctively, I always seek to find meaning in everything I get to experience, constantly focused on uncovering seemingly invisible threads of significance in everything my mind comes across. So naturally a question arose: What’s the power of the Brooklyn brand all about? Is Glaser’s iconic “I Love NY” mark being dethroned by “I Love Brooklyn”?
Brooklyn represents a glorious celebration of social pluralism and the embodiment of the “American dream” – the history of Brooklyn is the history of America. In the days where presidential candidates want to build walls between countries, Brooklyn shows what people can achieve when walls are replaced by an open society where people coexist, exchange ideas, and are allowed to practice their crafts.
More than 2.5 million people from over 35 nationalities live in Brooklyn. People from diverse socio-economic classes settle here to pursue their version of a better life - all bringing their cultural nuances, entrepreneurship and beliefs to the neighborhood’s streets. This aspect of Brooklyn gives it an authenticity and inclusiveness that starkly contrasts with the exclusive image that Manhattan has gained in recent years. Brooklyn feels more real and more approachable.
However, the rise of the Brooklyn brand is to be attributed to the millennials and their strong rejection of mainstream corporate America right after the 2008 financial world meltdown, which Wall Street represented just across the East River. The plethora of local, artisanal and personal brands already present in Brooklyn found a great mouthpiece in the hyper-connected millennial generation. More artists moved in, more people adhering to the values of local and smallness pursued their ideas and set up shop in Brooklyn, finding cheap places they could afford.
Real estate recognized the trend and enabled the transformation of what frankly used to be dangerous neighborhoods of dilapidated warehouses and crumbling buildings into safe and creative havens where people could pursue the new, healthy lifestyle: Williamsburg was born, DUMBO followed, Park Slope’s leafy streets gained in status.
Times Square, 5th Avenue, West Village and many other iconic Manhattan historic strongholds, celebrated by previous generations have become tired symbols of corporate America. The Brooklyn brand became a new, appealing replacement of the old “I Love NY” symbols: a believable truth to people searching for authenticity, urban edge and commitment to artisanal and local; a place where people can establish more personal connections and express their individualities in a cozy environment. Social media with its immense visual and immediate networking power made it global.
To the locals, the brand is already showing some cracks. Rents are rising sharply (I painfully agree) and challenging the very conditions that fostered the brand’s creation and characteristics. But Brooklyn is vast and many other neighborhoods beyond today’s popular ones are ready to add new dimensions to its brand; its people’s creative power and spirit will find new avenues and no doubt continue to amplify and sustain the power of the Brooklyn brand.
For more thinking about the subject, you can find me at Luigi’s Pizza. Brooklyn may or may not be the greatest country in the world, but Giovanni’s slice is certainly the best. (Giovanni, or Gio as he goes by, is the Italian American owner of this small, local shop whose commitment and passion for his craft and quality of his pizza slice is matched by an authentic, jolly persona always ready to tell you funny stories.)