Williamsburg by Jennifer McPherson

Since its annexation into the city of New York proper, Williamsburg has morphed from an ethnically diverse melting pot, to an industrial wasteland of drugs and crime, to what it is today: the hipster capital of the world.

T he Dutch acquisition of Williamsburg was annexed into the Eastern District of Brooklyn in 1855. Many of New York’s wealthiest people built mansions along the banks of the East River in Williamsburg as a refuge from the city. Taking a cue from the likes of Vanderbilt, Fisk and Pratt, a slew of industrial tycoons looked to the Williamsburg waterfront to build enormous factories in the southern section of the neighborhood. At one point in the 19th century, Williamsburg held ten percent of the entire nation’s wealth.

The opening of the Williamsburg Bridge in 1903 marked an influx of immigrants, who were looking to flee the heinous living conditions of the tenements and ghettos of lower Manhattan.  The combination of better living conditions and easily accessible factory work cemented Williamsburg’s position as the hub of New York’s international working class. Soon enough, however, Williamsburg became the most densely populated neighborhood in New York, and living conditions proved to be no better than the lower east side.  By post-World War II, the neighborhood became synonymous with drugs and crime, and it stayed that way for decades.

The Artists

In the 1970s, many artists began to move into the neighborhood for the dirt-cheap rent. The abandoned factories were illegally rented as live-work loft spaces. The influx continued and, by the mid-1990s, Williamsburg was becoming known for drugs and ground-breaking music, performance art and painting. It was still dirty and dangerous, but it had a “cool” factor that no other neighborhood had at the time.  As a result, more and more young artists flocked to the area to join the scene.

The Jewish

During World War II, a massive influx of Hasidic Jews moved to Brooklyn to escape Hitler (naturally).  Currently, there is an enormous population of the Satmar Hasidic sect living in South Williamsburg (south of Broadway). They stick to their own, for the most part, and they would be almost unnoticeable if they didn’t often get into altercations with people for refusing to move out of the way of bike traffic.

The Hipsterfication

Today, Billburg (as the kids are calling it) is the most notable hipster community in the world.  While there are still many artists who reside in the neighborhood, the increase in popularity amongst young people has caused rent to rise to the point it now rivals Manhattan. The true artists have been pushed further east into Brooklyn.  What has come to take the artists’ place is nothing short of horrendous. The area around Bedford Avenue (the main Billburg thoroughfare) is entirely inundated with trust-fund kids who don’t shower, don’t work and don’t get past noon sober. They have little to do with creation but wholeheartedly refer to themselves as part of the artist community.  To their credit, however, hipster fashion choices have been mimicked from Silver Lake in Los Angeles to China and their presence is responsible for maintaining what is, arguably, the best restaurant, bar and music scene in the city.

The Scene

Williamsburg is notorious for its music culture.  Zebulon, Pete’s Candy Store and The Music Hall of Williamsburg have been responsible for maintaining the presence of up and coming bands. Many musicians, who have already found popularity or fame, repeatedly visit the venues for intimate concerts as a “thank you” to the community for helping them get their start.  On any given night of the week, the music venues and bars off of the Bedford stop are packed with people watching the next big thing no one has heard of…yet.  It’s incredible because of the energy and enthusiasm the community has towards the music scene.  It can be awful, however, because it can turn into a frat party quickly.  Pabst Blue Ribbon cans and cigarette butts line the streets, where weeds don’t dare to grow.

Union Pool is a neighborhood staple that, in the words of its actual owner, “if a tidal wave hit this place on a Monday night, the skinny jean population of New York would be down by 70 percent.”  It has a great back patio, and it boasts some of the best people watching in town.  But, it truly is a meat market for the morose, judgy and unemployed.

Hotel Delmano, another one of Billburg’s staples, is Union Pool’s mortal antithesis.  It is beautiful, dark and old timey.  They have great jazz bands on weekend evenings and a cocktail menu that rivals any Manhattan mixology venue.

Spuyten Deyvil has a beer list so long it’s overwhelming, and the bartenders aren’t what anyone would refer to as helpful or even polite.  On the other hand, the patio, along with selection, makes it the best place for a relatively tranquil evening that the neighborhood has to offer.

The Food

Williamsburg has had an explosion of hip and trendy restaurants in the last ten years.  Motorino has been voted the best pizza in New York by nearly every big magazine.  Diner and Marlow and Sons both have incredible menus of food that is all organic and from sustainable local farms. Moto shines not only in ambience and food but also because it’s off the beaten path (it’s located far away from people who will judge someone for having no visible tattoos).

Living

The apartments in the Bedford Avenue area are a combination of run-down railroad walk-ups that fifteen Pratt students live in and new luxury condos that are predominantly vacant (aside from squatters).  The best living conditions are further east, along Lorimer and Graham Avenues.  There is more of an adult neighborhood feel around these streets and it’s significantly cleaner.  The rent is now too high in all of Williamsburg proper for most of the actual artists, but there are enough to maintain the neighborhood’s edgy reputation.

The plus-side (living arrangement-wise) of living in Williamsburg is that, although the rent nearly equals that of Manhattan, the size of the apartments is, generally, much larger.  The buildings, for the most part, tend to be older, but there are a lot of new elevator buildings sprinkled throughout the neighborhood.  Furthermore, the streets (outside of Bedford) are much quieter than Manhattan, so no one has to worry about being kept up all night by ambulances, foot traffic, cabs honking, etc.

Transportation

The L train is the subway line that runs through the main part of Williamsburg, and it is the best of times and the worst of times.  When it’s “on,” the L is the fastest and most reliable train in the city.  When it’s not — several times a year — it can be delayed for an hour or just not running at all.  This can pose a major problem for people trying to get into Manhattan in the dead of winter.  The JMZ line connects south Williamsburg to the Lower East side.  It isn’t as fast as the L and it’s a bit of a hike, but it’s above ground for most of the commute, providing somewhat of a pretty ride.  The dreaded G train connects Williamsburg to Queens and South Brooklyn. Taking this train requires a copy of Crime and Punishment or any other novel that cannot be finished in less than two hours.

Jennifer McPherson is native Southern Californian writer living on the mean streets of New York City.  A former Williamsburger, she now lives in the West Village and likes to brag about it to anyone who will listen.  Jen is a contributing writer for a slew of humor, travel and health sites (ask her anything about cancer, seriously) and an improv performer / cast member in New York’s Accomplice:  The Show.

Good News

1. Music Scene.

Williamsburg became the Williamsburg that it is today because of the influx of starving artists and the music scene.  Brooklyn’s trendiest borough hasn’t waned.  The Music Hall of Williamsburg continually showcases the kind of bands that are just hitting the brink of fame. Smaller venues maintain the coffee shop atmosphere that up and coming artists have always come to New York for.

2. Food.

There are too many extraordinary restaurants in Williamsburg to count, but there are an awful lot of places that consistently win awards for just one neighborhood. Some restaurants have have people flocking the L Train into Brooklyn on a daily basis. And because the demographic of Williamsburg is overwhelmingly under-30, the restaurants are consistently packed and full of bustle.

3. The Space.

While the rent is starting the rival Manhattan, you definitely get much more bang for your buck in Williamsburg.  The same amount of money will get about 1.5 times more space or more depending how far east or south you live.  And, the streets have actual trees, relatively low street traffic and residents report a significantly lower chance of being hit by a cab, bus or biker on their way to get coffee.

Bad News

1. Hipsters.
They’re everywhere in this part of town.  They leave a snail trail of cheap beer, facial hair and judgment all over the streets. And, there’s no time of day you can escape them because most of them are artists (i.e. they don’t have a job).  You will never be able to score a pair of skinny jeans in a thrift shop in Williamsburg.  You will never see anything like “sunbathing” in McCarren Park for the rest of your life.  And, you will feel old pretty much everywhere you go.  Even the 50 years olds in this neighborhood wear converse and t-shirts with a giant thumbs up on them.
2. The L Train.
It really is the best of times and the worst of times on the L.   But, when it’s bad, it’s the worst train in the city.  It shuts down at night and on weekends like clockwork every winter. When the train is working, it is always jam packed.
3. Aesthetic.
Williamsburg is one of the ugliest neighborhoods in New York City. There are abandoned warehouses and factories every where. The new condos are hideous and the old brick apartment buildings are run down.  Every time you walk home from a bar and make a wrong turn, you end up walking into what looks like the beginning of a horror film.  The streets on Saturday and Sunday around Bedford Ave are covered in a sea of cigarettes, urine and bad decisions.

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Jennifer McPherson is a native Southern Californian writer living on the mean streets of New York City. A former Williamsburger, she now lives in the West Village and likes to brag about it to anyone who will listen. Jen is a contributing writer for a slew of humor, travel and health sites (ask her anything about cancer, seriously) and an improv performer / cast member in New York's Accomplice: The Show.