Nü Williamsburg: A History

By Erik Stinson

The current Williamsburg -- hip, self-reflexive, and a little sassy -- is poised to pass into history. But another Williamsburg has already taken root -- and you can see it in the design details.

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Getting off the L train at Bedford Avenue an North 7th Street, it's easy to imagine this Williamsburg street-life as timeless. Crudely elegant, emanating from a hot mess of cultural savvy, women pass in smart clothing. They are models and media-types. Bearded, tattooed men lean out of bars at happy hour. Northside Car Service's Lincolns cruise up Bedford, connecting city jobs to the hapless brain-trust of cool transplants, content misfits, and nerds who finally fit in.

But this is the Williamsburg that emerged as recently as the late 1990s. This Williamsburg is only one of many that have existed, and it barely reflects the complete Williamsburg of today. The current Williamsburg most New Yorkers understand -- hip, self-reflexive, and a little sassy -- is poised to pass into history. Another Williamsburg has already taken root.

Further off the beaten path, along the East River, Nü Williamsburg rises. The brick and concrete of Bedford gives way to the steel and glass of Kent Avenue. Towers lean in the direction of Manhattan. Bars are more expensively furnished. Walkways meander between landscaped stones and sweeping views of Midtown, newly salvaged from ancient industrial lots. See these massive imagination projects become reality -- first on websites for places like The Edge, and Northside Piers -- then on the streets.

The new East River Ferry service pulls up to a dock and a few tourists and early adapter types set foot on Brooklyn soil. They have come directly from Wall Street without taking their eyes off the blue, late-summer sky.

There is a strange sense of emptiness and possibility here. People look around as if in a dream. Nothing is familiar and nobody feels at home.

Story continues after the gallery.

At the beginning of modern New York City, in the '60s, Williamsburg was still the home of tens of thousands of factory jobs, fueling an already-decaying industrial sector and offering employment to thousands of immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean.

When the factories began to close in the '70s and '80s, the people stayed. The neighborhood aged. Generations of immigrants from Poland, Puerto Rico, and the Lower East Side lived big, epic American lives at the edge of New York City.

As Manhattan rental rates soared in '90s, a few artists and entrepreneurs began to look at Williamsburg as a place for spiritual and economic expansion. But there were rules against making Williamsburg a new condo forest: zoning laws prevented the '90s boom from spilling into what was becoming an artist enclave bordering immigrant neighborhoods.

Nü Williamsburg dates back to a 2005 change to zoning laws allowing for the construction of new residential units in the areas of North, South, and East Williamsburg, semi-defined divisions of the sprawling Brooklyn neighborhood. In 2008, the housing boom busted, but, slowly, many of the then-new projects are being completed and filled.

When this process is finished, Williamsburg will have been transformed by newer, smarter, wealthier immigrants from Manhattan to Shanghai. These are the people who will, at some point in the future, live inside the images on various real estate sales office walls: flat, inevitable forms of new human capital. Today's Williamsburg will be in people's minds, but Nü Williamsburg will be in full effect, or rather, Nü Williamsburg will be in transition to Nü Nü Williamsburg, a place of unimaginable cultural wealth and complexity.

Today, Williamsburg is many things: a well-aged art community, family neighborhood for legacy residents and wealthy newcomers, a trust fund paradise, a charming condo landing-pad for the next class of JPMorgan bankers. Nothing lasts.

You only need to ask around about the bar scene to realize the pitch and tone of life here is changing once again. Many friends who have lived in the area for years echo versions of the same words: "It's a Disneyland now." People come from the city, looking for something they don't understand. The bars fill with these people, who seem like college students but are in their 30s with high-paying jobs: they are confused, looking for sex or validation, but not really wanting to find it. They are looking for a limited parody of the Williamsburg that came before.

The specter of a bohemian enclave may haunt this place forever. However, Williamsburg will evolve again, into something vast and unrecognizable. There are thousands of possible Williamsburgs waiting to be born from the spaces left empty by misunderstanding or neglect.

Image: East Williamsburg/Wikimedia Commons.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/09/n-williamsburg-a-history/245262/