Welcome to Williamsburg

Our intrepid columnist moves to Brooklyn's hipster epicenter

Magda Biernat

Williamsburg's Wythe Hotel, once a factory

All I could see from the monumental front windows of the Soho loft where I lived for about a year was the handsome cast-iron facade of the building across the street. A few stray beams of sunlight angled in each morning, and in the afternoon, if I stood on a chair, I could watch with horror and fascin-ation as traffic backed up from the Holland Tunnel and turned Broome Street into a stinkpot of frustration and rage. What I learned from living in Soho was that the Lower Manhattan Expressway—Robert Moses’s 1941 proposal for connecting the Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges to the Holland Tunnel—was not necessarily the worst idea the man ever had. The Jersey-bound traffic was more disruptive to daily life than the hordes of shopping-bag-wielding tourists that filled every sidewalk. By the time my boyfriend, Ed, sold his loft and we moved out, I was grateful to be gone. Architecturally, Soho is still a glorious place—it’s best at around seven o’clock in the morning—but it’s not a great neighborhood anymore, largely because there’s nothing left that serves the needs of those who actually live there. In May, Ed and I moved to Williamsburg, a neighborhood I’d visited on a number of occasions over the years, but never thought of as a place where I might live.

What I’ve learned in the two months since I’ve arrived is that—for all the generalizations about this being a hipster’s paradise (true), or the victim of a scorched-earth approach to devel- opment (also true)—Williamsburg is a neighborhood that’s uncannily attuned to the pleasure of its residents, or, at least, its more recent arrivals. Now, from our big south-facing windows, I look out on the paved back- yards of our brand-new building, and of the equally new building directly behind us. It is a tranquil landscape of Ping-Pong tables, high-end gas barbeques, and designer lawn furniture, the likes of which I’ve never seen in this city. Our apartment features a dramatic double-height living room, chic stainless steel appliances (lots of Bosch), and a state-of-the-art washer/drier that plays a cheerful electronic jingle when the load is done. The master suite is upstairs and features a shower with four heads, a dual-flush Toto toilet, and a sizeable balcony off the bedroom. Our building is a direct result of a 2005 zoning change that officially sanctioned what was already happening: the transformation of an old industrial neighborhood into a lifestyle-driven hot spot.

Magda Biernat

Williamsburg's industrial waterfront is giving way to residences

By the time the zoning changes were implemented, plans had been filed for some 130 residential buildings. More than 7,400 new residential units are expected. Down by the East River, there’s a cluster of 30-story towers. Inland, the buildings mostly max out at six stories, except in a few areas, like the eastern edge of McCarren Park, where more height is permitted. Our building is also a direct result of the 2008 economic meltdown; the plans of many developers were scuttled when the young buyers for whom the buildings were crafted couldn’t get mortgages. A 2009 map of the area was thick with stalled construction projects; my building was about 70 percent complete when it was abandoned by its original developer in 2010. It sat boarded up until a New Jersey company with a vaguely Orwellian name, Urban American, bought the first developer’s debt at 50 cents on the dollar and resumed construction. It’s now a rental property.

The story of these failed condos, bought out and converted into rentals, was repeated again and again. As a result, most of the prop- erties abandoned at the bottom of the recession are suddenly full of affluent and young (Ed and I are the exception) renters. I feel as if we moved not to another neighborhood, but to a completely different city. I’ve never lived in a brand-new New York City apartment that’s unsullied by the patina of previous occupants. The newness was part of the attraction, but it’s a little disorienting. Today, Williamsburg has that mixture of alternative culture and tasteful indulgence that I associate mostly with San Francisco. The people who live here seem breezier than your typical New Yorker, less driven. (Let’s not even talk about the tattoos.) It’s exactly this quality—I used to think of it as a wholesale lack of desire—that drove me nuts in San Francisco.

 

In Williamsburg, perhaps because Manhattan and all its hyperactivity is only a subway stop away, I’m enjoying it. While the East River waterfront is the site of a handful of high-rise towers that are every bit as bland as the ones city planners depicted in a 2005 computer simulation, the dominant architectural type of the new Williamsburg is slightly more distinctive. The neighborhood is increasingly defined by overtly modern and conspicuously glassy six-story apartment blocks—see the green glass building at North Fifth and Berry streets, coyly named NV, designed by the prolific architect Karl Fischer, or the bright red building at 34 Berry Street by Perkins Eastman. At worst, these new apartment blocks look like they were airlifted from a suburban office park. At best, they’re credible examples of contemporary urban form. What I like about them, good or bad, is that they refute what used to be conventional wisdom among New York City developers: that the six-story rental apartment building was dead. Not anymore. Through an economic accident, they’re back. These squat glassy buildings with their little balconies and rooftop party cabanas now define Williamsburg, just as tall, skinny condo towers defined the Upper East Side in the 1980s. And more are under construction.

Granted, the extent to which this neighborhood, once predominantly Polish (and still Hasidic and Hispanic if you walk more than a few blocks), has remade itself around hipster desires borders on parody. Every corner bodega now has a sign with photos of a luncheon- meat sandwich, a plate of bacon and eggs, and a can of Pepsi that reads, “Organic food.” But it’s endlessly amazing to live in a place that is so much an outgrowth of the present moment. I like to loiter on North Third Street between Berry Street and Wythe Avenue, home of the Mast Brothers chocolate factory, where a pair of bearded siblings (like the Smith Brothers of cough-drop fame) turns out exquisitely packaged, conscientiously sourced, high-priced chocolate bars. (Free samples!) Down the block is a storefront called the Art Library; it’s home to the Sketchbook Project, an archive of thousands of little notebooks that have been filled by artists from around the world and are available for perusing. Across the street is 100 North Third Street, designed and developed by Elizabeth Barbara Hitz, which has a matte facade that’s half blue and half white. It projects a more confident and subdued brand of modernism than many of its glassy neighbors. One of the building’s storefronts is the home of Vamos, an architecture firm that displays its conceptual projects in the front window; another houses a terrific used bookstore called Book Thug Nation. Once upon a time, I recall, there were blocks of Soho that were this perfectly cool. Which brings up the inevitable.

There are already two Duane Reade drugstores in the neighborhood. A Whole Foods is coming to Bedford Avenue, as is, reportedly, a J.Crew. I imagine that the rest of the upscale chains that dominate Soho will soon follow. The New York Times recently anointed the newly opened Wythe Hotel and its immediate vicinity as the city’s hot nightlife destination, a Meat-packing District in the making. What else could you expect? If you think about it, the only neighborhoods in New York City that are alternative enough to resist the homogenizing force of commercial development are those dominated by the Hasidim, who are so firmly rooted in the past that they are able to keep the future at bay. The rest of us, I guess, can either indulge our taste for hipness in the next place—I hear it’s Ridgewood, Queens—or gird ourselves for the imminent arrival of all the usual suspects that make one neighborhood a lot like the next. Williamsburg isn’t some wacky alternative enclave anymore. It’s a model for waves of urban redevelopment to come.

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