In celebration of New York Magazine’s 50th anniversary, this weekly series, which will continue through October 2018, tells the stories behind key moments that shaped the city’s culture.
One winter day in 2006, a good Samaritan named Alice* found a small hat on a Brooklyn sidewalk and sought its owner. She posted to Park Slope Parents, the community listserv: “Found: Boy’s Blue Hat,” with a short description. The moment she clicked “send” unwittingly precipitated an iconic moment in modern Brooklyn parenting and early social media.
Alice’s post was followed by Betty’s, a snarky critique challenging the word boy: “does the hat in question possess an unmistakable scent of testosterone?” she asked, adding, “What does this comment imply about the girl who chooses to wear just such a hat?”
Carol jumped in. She was offended that Betty was offended, adding that Betty’s post was pointless except “to make sure that everyone complies to your PC view of life.”
You can guess what followed.
This was long ago: the same month Twitter launched, a year before the first iPhone. Nevertheless, the thread was thoroughly modern, though without the word snowflake.
Alice herself took the high road. “My eyes have been opened here,” she posted, ignoring the snark, as it was known back then. “And that is good, and a start … ” But mostly, people joined in just to describe feeling offended, or to say the topic was stupid. Or that Betty’s tone was obnoxious. Or that she should have started a new thread.
One poster “joked” that the hat was his and that he had a “thing” for children’s clothing — apparently a creepy attempt at pedophile humor. Not to be outdone, someone else objected to the word “hat,” speculating that it was less offensive to call it a “a soft porous bowl.” With that, it reached peak self-mockery and finally died down.
On Park Slope Parents, at least. Elsewhere, it had just begun — the thread was widely covered in the media as an example of Brooklyn Parenting Excess, and, as in a game of telephone, was sometimes misremembered: The New York Times described the incident by saying that “[t]ens of parents responded to [Alice’s] note as if she had used an offensive racial slur,” when in fact, the venom was mainly directed at Betty.
Susan Fox formed Park Slope Parents in 2002 as a Yahoo! group for local parents who wanted to exchange information. Back then, this was cutting edge; most of us still used clunky desktop computers and didn’t know the words “social media.” But the group met the needs of information-hungry parents with newly fast internet connections. It burgeoned, within a year, to hundreds of members, and quickly split into multiple listservs to accommodate the flood of questions.
By the time of the Blue Hat Brouhaha, 4-year-old PSP, as it was known to its denizens, had more than 1,200 members (it now has over 6,000). It had become both a go-to for parent-oriented classified ads, and — this is what was novel back then — a repository for the questions that have always plagued parents in their loneliest moments in the middle of the night:
“why is my baby awake?”
“did I swaddle her correctly?”
“why does his poop look like that?”
“is she getting enough milk”
“is he normal?”
“am I doing this right?”
“am I doing this right?”
“am I doing this right?”
With PSP, Fox saw an opportunity for parents to voice their concerns and, perhaps, build the kind of community that eases the isolation. This also meant it became a place where the typical minutiae of parenting became visible to strangers.
Gentrification in Park Slope can be traced back as far as 1970, when the “brownstone boom” began and 80-year-old townhouses that had been chopped up into small apartments during the Depression began to be reconstructed by artsy-striver families. (Think of the collapsing family in The Squid and the Whale, based heavily on filmmaker Noah Baumbach’s upbringing in the neighborhood in the 1970s.) By the early ’00s, the neighborhood’s identity as a place where affluent liberal white people moved to raise children was firmly set. The Blue Hat story thus had the virtue of combining a number of trends into one irresistible package: the New Brooklyn, gentrification, liberal intolerance, and internet communities.
Ben Mathis-Lilley, who wrote about the hat uproar for New York’s website originally, mocked new parents who used PSP to discuss “lactation consultants,” (quotes his). Looking for help with breastfeeding wasn’t new in 2005, but he hit a nerve. “The stereotype about Park Slope is that it’s a lot of people from privileged backgrounds, who can be very precious and indulgent and, like, $100 sweater for your baby registry,” says Sara, a Park Slope mom whose child wasn’t born until after the Blue Hat Brouhaha. “But people are trying really hard to be good people. They just have some ‘privilege baggage.’”
Dale, who moved in with her growing family in the early 1990s, remembers a time when Park Slope wasn’t, yet, Park Slope™ — the cartoon. “It was definitely a different kind of place,” she says. “More mixed — both race and class — and kind of funky. It was very much a lesbian neighborhood.” The food coop, the feminist bookstores, and the child-care collectives yielded a stereotype, “but a different one.”
It was also much more affordable; she and her partner, back then, could afford a family-size apartment on one salary. The abundance of good housing stock may have led to the change, especially for people with money to renovate. “I think that income inequality got worse,” Dale says, and at the same time, the subways got better. “It was also always a really kid-friendly neighborhood because of the proximity to the park,” so when it gentrified, it went in that direction. Some young families who came “were kind of driven at work and really entitled and applied that same way of thinking to their kids. I don’t think they were ever the majority of parents in the neighborhood, but they became a kind of emblem of the neighborhood.”
Dale adds that “a lot of people in news media and entertainment” moved to Park Slope. Perhaps part of the neighborhood’s evolution into a Place People Talk About is that it became home to people who talked.
The blue hat thread “became emblematic of the ‘awfulness’ of Park Slope Parents,” says long-time PSP Advisory Board Member Nancy McDermott, who thinks if the same people had had this conversation in real life, it wouldn’t have become an argument.
Most parents I spoke to remembered the thread with a chuckle or described it as absurd in a nostalgic, fond way. “I was surprised there was such a brouhaha about it,” says Dale. “I thought [Betty] had a good point, although I also felt it could have been made without being snide … I didn’t like that it made PSP kind of a laughing stock.” Laughing stock is only a small exaggeration: “I once had someone I was introduced to actually take a step backward in horror when they found out I was involved,” McDermott says.
Years later, arguments like this have predictable tropes — only the venues have changed. In the ’00s, message boards and commenting communities were where people engaged in vicious personal arguments (two years after the blue hat saga, a New York cover story detailed the toxic culture of comments on a Brooklyn real estate website). In the ’10s, they take place on Twitter and Facebook. “If it happened now, it wouldn’t even be noteworthy,” says Sara, “because that kind of thing goes on all the time, online.” McDermott agrees and explains that the omnipresence of other forms of social media has actually “taken some of the heat off the listserv.”
Today’s parents take for granted that complete strangers share personal information in writing, and weigh in on others’ lives via their phones and laptops. Mathis-Lilley feels that none of the back-and-forth would be noteworthy today: “it just would probably take place in public, on Facebook.” He ought to know: 11 years on, he’s now a parent in Park Slope, and runs into children named “Atticus,” the very name he mocked in his original write up. The name still classically evokes “Park Slope,” but in a world where the far-flung parents of Charlotte and Madysyn and Apple can all encounter each other online, mocking the idiosyncrasies of micro-communities … well, it’s just been done already.
Fox’s aspirations for the virtual world bringing strangers together is now reality. She and McDermott are concerned about outrage culture, though. Fifteen years into moderating online discussions, they both describe how the venom and velocity of the online world can feed a quick thrill but destroy the capacity for nuance. Social media’s explosion has magnified people’s “need to be right,” Fox says, which is not at all the same thing as learning from each other. She notes that with the advent of micro-communities on Facebook and elsewhere, like-minded people discuss the minutiae of parenting without contrary viewpoints. “People lose a bit of their compassion because [they] no longer have a lens to understand other perspectives.”
All this makes Fox intent on fostering community instead of outrage. “There are people who prefer the faster-paced Facebook groups and other social media,” she says, “but I feel like [those] make us more frenetic [and less] compassionate about what other people are going through.” Posts on PSP are read by a moderator, to give folks a chance to reflect — and retract — before their comment goes live.
Sara thinks PSP’s Blue Hat Brouhaha is just an early example of “a deep problem we have in our society,” not just about gendered language, but about conflict in general. “I totally could have said something like the original poster, and then been so embarrassed to be criticized,” she says, “but I also identified with the person who called her out.” The problem is “any time anybody points anything out now, people feel attacked, and attack back.”
Communities like Park Slope Parents should be not only the people who cheer you on, but the ones willing to push you a little so you can grow. Perhaps, in the privacy of our homes and phones, after we wince at being called out, we should try to get past the sting of feeling judged. If we can be curious, not just cynical, we could hear more of what others say. Those are good parenting values, no matter where you live.
Despite the ways in which Park Slope remains, well, Park Slope (think “excessively lyrical descriptions of kale on restaurant menus,” and “‘Refugees Welcome’ signs in the windows of $5 million brownstones”), Mathis-Lilley also thinks residents are also much more aware of, and concerned by serious issues, like the way gentrification contributes to housing shortages and segregation. Or perhaps it’s always been that way, but it’s easier to see that when you live there.
And how has the “boy’s hat” moniker aged, 11 years down the line? Well, the other day I told my 10-year-old I was writing about a time someone posted that she’d found a boy’s blue hat. Before I could explain more she interrupted me to clear something up, her eyebrows pushing together in confusion. She looked up at me, genuinely perplexed, as she asked, “How did she know it was a boy’s hat?”
*Names of the posters in the original thread have been changed.
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