The Price of Fame ~ Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY

I was enroute to yoga class, when my Zen bubble was burst; I had spotted a sign by a prominent Manhattan based restaurant pointing in the direction of their newest location. Painted in bright colours on a side street wall that intersects with the neighbourhood’s main artery, Bedford Street, it looks more advertising than street art.

I was overcome by a combination of sadness mixed with compassion and loss. Flourishing, this artist enclave that I so enjoy for its grit-and- arty glam is now code for ‘goldmine’. Don’t get me wrong, the group behind the new restaurant has a very good reputation. The sign simply added to an already built-up set of emotions attributed to a general sense of protectiveness towards the Williamsburg community; I resist significant change from fear that it might change the fabric of a neighbourhood I have grown to love. Reading the sign, the discourse in my mind ran along the lines of, “Don’t run out the small businesses. They’re creating something good here. Please don’t mess it up.” But, then again, it’s already too late.

Vines cultivated in 'treasure'-cans

Williamsburg, reflected

Street Art is the norm in this 'hood

I moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn when it was in the throes of gentrification; since the recession, things have been looking up. I knew it before its skyline was punctuated with the large-scale developments of today; I was drawn to its artisan culture and rich creative community. What I find most alluring about the neighbourhood is its shabby-chic vibe. Here, (most) everything old is new again: in a nod to the past, former barrel making warehouses house café cum coffee roasteries; vintage clothing stores dictate trends on the street; old school looking diners stand in the midst of streets decorated with torn posters, playful street art, and FAILE wall stencils.

Wyeth Diner

A FAILE work, mimicked. On Wyeth Street

Old factories, decorated

In a labyrinth of independently owned storefronts, I remember being baffled when a large-scale Duane Reade opened a location directly across from a long standing mom n pop pharmacy. It didn’t feel right and I wondered how the council permitted it; I now think it was a subliminal message. Manhattanites have caught wind of this new ‘hot spot’ and clamor here on the weekends.  Just recently I read that Whole Foods will be setting up shop in the area; I can’t say I won’t take advantage of the shorter distance to buy produce but I am in no way advocating their choice of new location.

Taking a stand through art

A typical street scene

I can’t speak to what Williamsburg was like before I discovered it over 4 years ago, and subsequently relocating, though evidence of its roots abound. The Williamsburg Bridge, opened in 1903, brought with it a new population of people: second-generation Americans and immigrants including Hasidic Jews, Dominicans, and Puerto Ricans. Renovated warehouses survive their industrial days of glass blowing and metal smithing; the now defunct Domino Sugar Factory is symbolic of a former glory – in the late 19th century, it was the largest sugar refinery in the world.

Backdrop of the Williamsburg Bridge and Domino Sugar Refinery

A game of dominoes

After WWII, trade and industry deteriorated, and about 30 years ago the creative community took over a neighbourhood in despair. Disenchanted with the rent hikes of their reinvigorated SoHo, they crossed the Bridge to the ‘burg to settle and establish an alternative to the downtown art scene. One of my yoga teachers’ remembers stumbling over passed out drug addicts on the steps of her Bedford Street apartment just 15 years back.

Kent Street's warehouses and condos

A storefront

Do tattoos count as street art?

From Williamsburg, you can catch killer views of Manhattan’s skyline – they span downtown and past 42nd Street. Recent waterfront rezoning laws bring to mind a quote by Jackie Onassis when, in opposition to Grand Central Station’s potential wrecking ball fate, she’d stated:

this is the time to take a stand, to reverse the tide, so that we won’t all end up in a uniform world of steel and glass boxes.

Thankfully, the terminal was saved. On the other hand, these 3-year old East River fringing condo towers are hard to miss as are the gaping holes within the grid of streets, which will eventually be occupied with something of the same. I must admit though, I do enjoy sitting in the new waterfront park at their base, to watch the sun cloak the Empire and Chrysler Buildings with a shimmer of copper-gold as it sets.

Scaffolding hide gaps. In turn, they are a canvas for street art.

East River Ferry dock; Empire and Chrysler Buildings in distance

A new take on 'Park n Ride'

My love for the Williamsburg community is unwavering yet coming to terms with inevitable change of the neighborhood is a double-edged sword. As easily as I forget, I must just as quickly remember to embrace the present moment and ride its wave of success, for I too moved here during its early stages of gentrification. Whilst I do find solace in the ability of the artist community to revitalize an otherwise faltering neighbourhood, I can’t help but wonder what will come of Williamsburg in a year’s time.

26 thoughts on “The Price of Fame ~ Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY

  1. Amazing! This reminds me of being there – I totally recognize that diner too – it IS an incredible place with incredible history, I *heart* Brooklyn and could live there in a heartbeat 🙂
    We got a Whole Foods a year or 2 back in our ‘hood. As much it says change (and maybe not the kind we want in our out of the way hoods), they are amazing, and it’s always a slight catch 22 isn’t it! Great shots today Marina. Love the street art especially.

    • Hi Shira! Aww, I heart Brooklyn too! I need to just embrace the change – it’s hard to watch it happen. I think it would be easier and come back to a changed space, and miss all the ‘grey’ in the middle. So much street art Shira! New stuff going up all the time – I can’t keep up!! Thank you!!

  2. These are great photographs, Marina, and as usual your writing is so good! You capture both the essence of Williamsburg and a sense of the transitions it’s gone through. Great post!

  3. So much good stuff in this post.I don’t know about being a travel photographer, but you have a real eye for street imagery. The diner shot is great, but that’s because I’m a European and never see this sort of excellent architecture. I’ve forwarded some of your posts to an Italian artist. Roberto Alborghetti, who specialises in torn posters.

    • Thanks so much Roger! I am struggling to find the line that divides street photography from travel photography. Traveling to me, if living life in another culture. That culture happens on the streets. The Wyeth Diner is a great piece of architecture, isn’t it? Glad to share. Oh, and Roberto A and I go way back 😉 I’m an avid follower of his, and he’s always been supportive of my blog too.

    • Isn’t that a great take on Park n Ride?! I won’t be getting on a bike anytime soon, but seems all of Brooklyn is on one! Thanks so much for your comment Val; I love reading them always!

  4. Hi Marina, Really interesting post. I think it is such a shame that this kind of development almost always spells disaster for the small businesses that have been the lifeblood of the community for generations. Change is inevitable but so much of it is satisfies the pursuit of profit at the expense of community and that is tragic. I hope that Williamsburg can hold out as long as possible and retain what makes it what it is.

    • Hi Adrian, I am with you 100% and remind myself every day that i need to support the local businesses. It’s harder when the community is so kind too. Everyone is just a really hard worker around Williamsburg, trying to create something different. Thank you!

  5. Some wonderful pictures and I love the way you describe the process that is taking place. Reading your words is like being there and your images capture the kind of detail and flavour that usually can only be captured by living there. I love the image “taking a stand through art” which seems to call out to the developer community to tread carefully on dreams… Bravo Marina..

    • Thank you so much Andy. I am happy that you felt the ‘live’ feeling. It’s such an organic community and everyone is adapting to the change; it was on my mind and I wanted to share before it got a little too late 🙂

  6. great post Marina, as usual your writing has taken us on a journey, this time through your neighborhood. I feel as if I have spent the morning wandering the streets with you and now I know Williamsburg a little better. thanks for the visit!

    • I love those greens too – how innovative and cool. The photo was actually taken outside the Brooklyn Winery so i must give them credit for such a great detail. So glad you liked it!

  7. You’ve got some fantastic shots here, and a very good story on what happens to neighborhoods in the big city. I visited the neighborhood a long time ago, and then there were a lot of religious Jews living there. It was another version altogether…

    • Hi Shimon! Thank you – I am so happy you read this post; it is something that is so universal, this gentrification process. Yes, the area has a large Jewish population that is instantly recognisable, and it is interesting to see the kids going to school on the weekend. I used to attend Russian school on Saturdays and actually, it was quite fun!

  8. You’re such a good writer as well! These pics are awesome. Once a week I hang out in Williamsburg to play soccer. It’s an interesting area.

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