Williamsburg, Brooklyn and the New New York

Sandra Canosa

The East River has never seemed so wide. Just one subway stop away from Manhattan, the neighborhood of Williamsburg in the Brooklyn borough has become synonymous with its own way of life – one that panders the line between bohemian and bourgeois, high-end and low-brow, artistic and opportunistic.


Once a sea of working factories, then a deserted and crime-ridden no-man’s land, Williamsburg at the turn of the 21st century became a budding haven for New York City’s proverbial struggling-artist types for its cheap rents and quick access to the creative haven of lower Manhattan. A rapid decade and change of gentrification, though, has turned the neighborhood into a coveted – and expensive – place to live, as well as a checkbox on any New York tourist’s bucket list.


With a nationally renowned dining scene, live music venues booked every night, and a gallery or artisan store at every turn, there’s hardly a reason to leave the borough anymore. The bustle of New York City still abounds, but is subdued by a smaller-city feel – the sidewalks less crowded, the parks more spacious, the skyscrapers fewer and further between.

And yet the nine-square miles of Williamsburg proper is increasingly giving Manhattan a run for its money when it comes to cultural innovation. The melting pot society that has long characterized the city takes on new meaning in Brooklyn, where exciting young chefs are free and encouraged by the eating public to experiment with a variety of ethnic cuisine influences with New York style; here, locally sourced ingredients aren’t just ideal, they’re par for the course.


If you manage to score a table for brunch at the popular restaurant Egg off the main drag of Bedford Avenue, you’ll find meticulously prepared classic breakfast dishes, made fresh with ingredients from their very own farm space in Oak Hill, New York, two hours north of the city on the cusp of the Catskill Mountains. Or challenge the locavore within even further at Aska, named one of Bon Appétit’s Top 10 Best New Restaurants of 2013, where Swedish-style cuisine meets hyper-local foraged ingredients like root vegetable salsify.


But pretension cuts both ways: high-end restaurants are still far outnumbered by convenience shops and on-the-go eateries to match the City’s lifestyle. But in Williamsburg, the corner butcher store is Marlow & Daughters, offering fine charcuterie; the Cheese Shop offers a pungent array of gourmet goods; even the go-to hot dog vendor, Crif Dogs, has handmade pups with an almost ridiculous selection of toppings, and the all-vegan diner Champs merits a double-take, even for omnivores.


It’s not just the grub that waxes local and lively. Williamsburg plays home to Brooklyn Brewery and a growing mass of micro-beer manufacturers, and you won’t be hard-pressed to find a bartender with ironic facial hair very un-ironically willing to craft you a wildly involved cocktail nouveau.


Proof of Williamsburg’s emerging dominance in the New York nightlife scene can be found on any block – converted warehouse spaces being ideal for DIY music, art, and performance venues. Some Manhattanite establishments have even willingly crossed over the river, like former-TriBeCa venue the Knitting Factory, which relocated to the ‘Burg in 2008, or longtime art bar staple Max Fish, which shuttered its doors in the Lower East Side earlier this year with plans to re-open in Brooklyn. The underground music scene the neighborhood’s become known for is not-so-underground anymore, with larger venues like Brooklyn Bowl or the Music Hall of Williamsburg bringing in mainstream acts just as easily as anything on the Bowery. Still, some spaces, like Glasslands and 285 Kent – neighboring minimalist venues in the southern reaches of the area – maintain a DIY ethos and offer some of the region’s best up-and-comers in music.


But for the majority of Brooklyn’s stereotypically young, hipster transplants, what was once a collective home for New York’s starry-eyed starving artists has now become just another commute. Rising rents and luxury living constructions have priced artists out of the neighborhood and further inland: north, into the historically Polish neighborhood of Greenpoint, and east, into the regions of Bushwick and Bedford-Stuyvesant, where once notoriously poor and often dangerous streets are now undergoing the mixed-bag effects of gentrification.

The financial hierarchy of New York City is more exaggerated than ever, with the repercussions of rising costs of living making a physical impact on the boroughs, and Brooklyn especially. The working classes that New York so heavily relies upon are being priced out of their neighborhoods by the young and struggling-artist types, who, after initiating the wheels of gentrification, are in turn priced out of these areas by the professional classes. The cycle presses on and on and further and further away from the city’s centers, the only physical limits being the size of the islands themselves.


Though it’s not just the people: despite Williamsburg’s burgeoning community, the trek to Manhattan used to be deemed necessary for any kind of nine-to-five work. But now industries from publishing to tech start-ups are opting for cheaper – and, for many of their employees, closer – offices in Brooklyn, further rendering the growing divide and increasing sense of competition between the boroughs. With plenty now to offer in the realms of work and play, Brooklyn has become a mindset destination distinct from New York City. Little old Williamsburg’s grown up remarkably well under Manhattan’s imposing shadow – it’s not just another New York neighborhood. It’s claiming an island of its own.


Author Bio:
Sandra Canosa is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.


Photos: Rasmuss Knutsson (Flickr); Effing foodie (Flickr); Andrew Mace (Flickr); Honeymoon Music (Flickr).

not popular
Bottom Slider: 
Out Slider