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The most controversial bagel in Brooklyn

The Bagel Store in Brooklyn has rolled into a new craze that has customers lining up outside the door - the rainbow bagel. (Video: Reuters)
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It's mid-afternoon, but the line still spills out the front door, snaking around the block, eating up the better part of the sidewalk, as it has since early that morning. There are young couples, clinging to each other in the cold. Mothers, standing patiently next to their anxious children. There are teenage girls, chatting in packs. And there are SLR cameras — so many SLR cameras.

"What are you all waiting for?" a passerby who lives in the neighborhood asks as she plucks an earphone out from one of her ears. She is looking at the crowd with amazement. "I see this line every day. It isn't just for bagels, is it?"

"It's the line for rainbow bagels!" a little girl yells.

She takes out her phone and opens Instagram. She holds it out so the woman can see the striped, multi-colored bagel in all its glory, accompanied, of course, by the hashtag #rainbowbagel.

The woman rubs at her eyes. She is unimpressed. She turns and walks away, shaking her head in the sort of exaggerated and prolonged way people do when they want to make sure others notice.

* * *

The rainbow bagel, the brainchild of self-proclaimed "world premier bagel artist" Scott Rossillo, who has been making the brightly hued treat for almost two decades, is having a moment that many people in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, could do without.

For years, Williamsburg was the epicenter of cool for a specific kind of person. A thriving artist population, a liberal bend and a general disdain for popular culture birthed a haven for counterculturalism, a capital of hipsterdom that was defined, at least in part, by a high concentration of yoga studios, organic markets, vintage stores and artisanal coffee shops.

But time has transformed the neighborhood from the sort of place coveted by a select few to a destination for just about anyone visiting New York City. And that popularity hasn't always jibed with local values. The tourism triggered a commercial flood: First came the Dunkin' Donuts, then the Starbucks. A Whole Foods will be opening this year.

In many ways, the rise of the rainbow bagel perfectly encapsulates this tension, an unlikely but apt example of a proud neighborhood confronting the inevitable: change. The dye-infused treat, whose dough resembles Play-Doh more than it does something edible, is the antithesis of the organic-eating culture that courses through the veins of so many who live in the area.

It's evidence of a uniquely modern form of gentrification, one more concerned with remaking a local economy for popular consumption than with simply raising housing prices. As Neil Smith, a longtime anthropology and geography professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center, described it to the New York Times, this economic force transforms a local lifestyle into a tourist experience.

“Gentrification today has become all about attracting capital to the city, not least from tourism,” Smith told the New York Times. “In this struggle, the interests of private capital rarely lose.”

No place for old customers

Before the Bagel Store, where Rossillo works, was drowning in demand for its photogenic creation, it was living the life of a neighborhood bagel joint. It offered an array of quirky concoctions, including the cragel, a cross between a croissant and a bagel, which created some buzz in 2014, but mostly it sold simpler fare: traditional bagels with cream cheese, egg bagel sandwiches, coffee — the sort of thing locals picked up on their way to work. Mainly, it served those who lived in the area, near South Fourth Street and Bedford Avenue.

On the weekends, it could get packed, but there was never a line out the door.

Then a wave of publicity, galvanized by a video posted online this year and including plugs on popular morning shows, write-ups on popular websites and more than 10,000 posts on Instagram, changed everything, elevating the circles of dense radioactive dough to the realm of virality and turning the neighborhood spot into a tourist trap.

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For those who have relied on the store for breakfast, the bagel's sudden celebrity status carries with it an immediate form of disappointment. Ever since the rainbow bagel blew up, the Bagel Store has been so swamped that it has had to retire its pickup and delivery services. The only way to get an egg bagel sandwich is to wait in line, a process that can take as long as three hours on the weekends. So no one gets an egg bagel sandwich.

"I used to go there on the weekends, but ever since this rainbow bagel thing started, it's been impossible," said Maia Schoenfelder, who has lived down the block for several years. "I can't go anymore."

Schoenfelder isn't alone. I spoke with more than a dozen people who live in the area, many of whom expressed a similar frustration.

The situation is only marginally better at the Bagel Store's second location, which is nestled a bit farther into Brooklyn. On a recent Sunday afternoon, the line took about 45 minutes.

"OMG. I feel like it's gotten out of control! This place is wayyy too small to be this packed," a Yelp reviewer, who claimed to live nearby, wrote last month.

The problem is not lost on the Bagel Store, which realizes that the popularity has come at the expense of its core customers. Only it's unclear how to remedy that.

"We don't want people who live nearby to not be able to come here," said Francine LaBarbara, who is in charge of marketing and development at the store. "We're trying to figure out how to accommodate them."

The wrong neighborhood

On a recent weekend morning, the easel outside Summers Brooklyn, a small cafe near the Bagel Store, looked different than usual. Instead of teasing the artisan sandwiches and fresh juices that could be found inside, it poked fun at the craziness going on down the street.

"Now serving rainbow egg sandwiches," the sign read, a sarcastic dig. Just below, in parentheses, it took the claim back: "Just kidding!"

To appreciate the joke, you have to understand that Summers is not the kind of establishment that would ever serve food made with artificial dyes, neon-colored dough, or funfetti cream cheese, the most common pairing with the rainbow bagel. The cafe, which offers organic veggies, locally sourced cheeses and avocado toast, is the sort of all-natural hangout that attracts cold-pressed juice enthusiasts who wear full yoga garb just in case the opportunity to stretch arises.

But behind the joke is something else, something a little more pointed. If it were uttered out loud, it might have been uttered between clenched teeth. The folks at Summers, like many who own and work at restaurants in the area, are just a bit perplexed by the whole rainbow bagel thing.

"It's something people in the industry here talk about a lot these days," said Alex Kleinberg, who opened Summers with Christopher Taha in 2013 but sold his portion last year to open Pokito, a Latin-Asian restaurant a few doors down. "That place has been selling quirky bagels and cream cheeses for a long time, but no one was buying them. I just don't think it's the kind of thing people are interested in Williamsburg."

What Kleinberg is getting at is something virtually everyone I spoke with in the area was willing to say in private but not in public: They don't feel like the rainbow bagel, the sort of kitsch that would normally be found in Times Square, belongs in Williamsburg.

One restaurant owner, who asked not to be named, said he thinks it's telling that few of the thousands of visitors who come to wait in line each day spill over to other neighborhood eateries. One time, he recalled, a family came in with a bunch of rainbow bagels and asked whether they could stay if they ordered a wrap. They left the sandwich, which they said had too many vegetables and weird bread, untouched.

Invariably, people used the rainbow bagel to talk about how the Williamsburg they knew was either dead or dying.

There goes the neighborhood

There is irony in claiming ownership over anything, but especially over a neighborhood, for which the only true constant is change. Ada Calhoun, the author of "St. Marks Is Dead: The Many Lives of America’s Hippest Street," made this point compellingly in a piece published in the New York Times last fall. This is what she had to say about neighborhood-induced nostalgia, a sickness for which she has little pity:

If you’re complaining about the East Village, or New York in general, being dead, I think it’s worth considering the possibility that, yes, it is over — for you. But for plenty of others, the city is as full of potential and magic as it was in 1977. Or 1964. Or 1992. Or whenever you last walked down the street and felt like it belonged only to you.

The people who live in Williamsburg might very well detest the rainbow bagel, but saying it doesn't belong — suggesting it, anyway — when it's doing just fine without their approval is a tough sell. One might not understand the appeal — I, having recently tried the bagel after four years living in Williamsburg, certainly don't. But the appeal is real. Just ask the Bagel Store, which was so inundated with business that it had to close temporarily to figure out how it could possibly continue to meet demand. The shop is selling as many as 1,000 rainbow bagels a day, according to LaBarbara, the head of marketing.

What actually might not belong in Williamsburg is the exclusively organic-eating artist enclave that many in the neighborhood conjure up in their heads, a Williamsburg that was. And there is little use in clinging to that Williamsburg, the one they knew, because it began to crumble as soon as they arrived.

Part of that crumbling might involve a rainbow bagel. But it might also involve Smorgasburg, a popular waterfront market that has been wooing large crowds from out of neighborhood since 2011, the Dunkin' Donuts and Starbucks that came soon after, and all the people who have moved into the increasingly posh neighborhood without the beards, tattoos or disdain for popular culture that used to define it.

The new Williamsburg is one where people come from all over the world to experience a part of Brooklyn they've heard is "cool" — rightly or wrongly, of course — and to try, among other things, a colorful bagel with funfetti cream cheese that they saw on Instagram.

On the same morning I watched as the unbridled excitement of a young girl waiting in line for a rainbow bagel met the passive aggression of the nonplussed 20-something walking by, I spoke to a family from Spain, a couple from Brazil, a mother and daughter from Washington, a group of friends from Long Island. All of them were there to brave the three-hour line for Rossillo's neon-striped treats.

"I have met people from all over the world," LaBarbara said. "It's incredible."

Among them were the members of a Japanese film crew, who had traveled almost 7,000 miles to see what all the fuss was about (you can watch the video they produced here). I asked one of them what she thought of the rainbow bagel. She smiled and said, "It's okay?" The other crew member was holding her phone over a newly opened rainbow bagel that was overflowing with funfetti cream cheese. She was trying to capture the perfect shot.

I couldn't help but think of all the people who were profoundly upset by this sort of thing, as though the Hispanics and Orthodox Jews who used to form the epicenter of the neighborhood felt any differently when pricey, artisanal shops began to appear that didn't belong in their Williamsburg.

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