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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.