Chernobyl and Its Radiant Creative Culture Lures New Yorkers

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It started with a Geiger counter. Just as the Girls tour of Greenpoint generated buzz about that secluded, environmental hazard-plagued, northern nook of Brook, the Chernobyl Diaries tour of Chernobyl has already begun generating excitement and lifting the stigma surrounding the abandoned nuclear power plant and its environs. As they may or may not say in real estate, “it was only a matter of time.”

Last Fall, fashion designer Sia Latah decided to take the Chernobyl Diaries tour as inspiration for her Chimera Chic collection, a provocative line combining pastels, silhouettes denoting genetic mutation, and, at the runway show — in a breathtaking statement about bodies and norms and masculinity and tunics — the semi-erect penises of male models (for which Ms. Latah had enlisted a bored John Galliano to design some very small stilts). In the hopes of catching glimpses of Squogs (the famous Chernobyl squirrel-frog) and Sprabbits (the more elusive spider-rabbit), Ms. Latah left her rundown, putrid Quooklyn railroad apartment — which smelled like Durian (and which she shared with three and a half roommates) because New York is just awful — for greener pastures.

Before taking off, she traded her furniture on Craigslist for a secondhand Hazmat suit — of which, she’d later find, there are an abundance in Chernobyl’s budding vintage shops. (The budding, it’s said, can only be stopped using a rare chemical produced by Monsanto, and so most of said shops are, unfortunately, hard to enter through the lumpy sediments. But they’re trying!)

Of her decision to stay in Chernobyl, Ms. Latah said, “When our tour guide, Janice, took out her Geiger counter, and it began clicking away, I was scared at first. Had I been too cavalier as a gentrifier in this neighborhood where so much radiation still resided? Would there be… tension? Tension between me and the first-wave community — a mix of zirconium, niobium, lanthanum, cerium and a smaller population of neptunium and plutonium (whose cuisine and customs, I should mention, are wonderful)? But then, I realized that the clicking coming from the contraption wasn’t the noise of danger! That was the clicking of goddamn creative energy. It’s in the soil, in the air, and boy, does it get into your bloodstream.”

“Besides, I was basically already living in the Chernobyl of NYC,” continues Ms. Latah, whose Ridgewood apartment was located near the radioactive Wolff-Alport site and an excellent wood-fired pizza kitchen known for its homemade Stracciatella. “Chernobyl is like the grown up version of Ridgewick [a term referring to the Ridgewood/Bushwick border, invoked for convenience during small talk at parties, bars, hat shops, etc.]. No, really. You start aging, like, really quickly here,” she told us, yanking at the skin beneath her chin, which simply evanesced, leaving a hole that revealed her jaundiced lower jaw.

“It’s like New York, but the migraines aren’t coming from stress. And way back when, I said to myself, ‘shit, girl, if you can handle the German cockroach infestations in Quooklyn, the Ukranian ones on the site of a catastrophic nuclear accident can’t be much worse! And it turns out, they’re fucking resilient, and huge — but I’ve been using them as runway models! Fashion has come a long way with body positivity, and Chernobyl is becoming the epicenter for new norms.”

“And new worms!” adds the multi-headed worm with whom she shares an office, self-righteously.

Early pioneers like Latah, of course, brought about a whole wave of change. Others, worried their brunch pals would abandon the Eggs Benedict of New York for the яйця Бенедикт of Ukraine — fearing the absolute worst — that one day they’d vacation in Chernobyl and see the familiar faces of all their former Brooklyn friends at the same table — furthered the exodus. Recently, it was noted that Tilda Swinton had been shipped over in a glass box, and rumor has it that Marina Abramovic is present, somewhere. Klaus Biesenbach, it’s been said, is looking into creating a MOMA Annex-Annex, whose first exhibit — a mid-career Bette Middler retrospective — will be called, simply, Bette.

As a result of all of this, the old, notorious New York-Chernobyl rivalry has started to shift. No longer will you hear your cantankerous, intellectual aunt quoting the Annie Hall line, where Alvy Singer says, “I don’t want to move to a city where the only cultural advantage is being able to make a right turn on a radioactive trefoil symbol.”

In 2000, the Sex and the City girls stole away to Chernobyl to learn about radiation contamination and survival — predominantly because Samantha had heard something along the lines of it being the equivalent of a “chemical peel.” But they were quickly disenchanted, and ran away from a group of “bottle-blonde” humanoid mutants with D-Cups and Brazilian waxes that were, also, just the product of the environment. “Some of us had lost our hair and all of us had lost a little dignity,” Carrie said of the experience. But that was 2000, and perceptions have drastically changed.

The mythologizing of the horrors of the place that had, for so long, been the butt of New York snobbery, is now seen, thankfully, as a backwards tendency. Lena Dunham formerly told Vogue that she could only spend two weeks in Chernobyl before “getting a very tingly feeling,” and, as was curiously photographed by the magazine, “feeling as though a pigeon had been melded to [her] head.” Jezebel reassured the writer/actor/director/icon that the pigeon was, in fact, a Photoshop illusion, and Dunham has since warmed to the place. She recently purchased the inside of the steam turbine/tiny house that formerly belonged to George Peppard. Word on the streets is that the next season of Girls will see them filming all Bushwick scenes at the architecturally identical power plant.

The end game of all of this is that people are quickly learning that Chernobyl isn’t all red carpets, glitz, celebrity culture, exclusion zones, corium, wrecked reactors, spent fuel pools and overgrown forests. Rather, the growing, “much documented haute-boho revival” has brought in hoards of people who love looking at art while eating tartlets. Sorry, New York: your hipsters have become Chernipsters.

[Context]