Williamsburg: Not just for hipsters
Photo by Sam Horine
Williamsburg really is something more than a hipster hideaway.
[Full gallery of Williamsburg photos HERE]
The scene on the neighborhood's main drag Bedford Avenue, however, does not exactly give this away. The sidewalks are thick with roaming twenty-somethings sporting black skinny jeans, huge sunglasses, and very little body fat.
"It's becoming a youth demographic. I know people in their 40s who say, 'I couldn't live here, I'd feel like a dinosaur," said Gaynor CotÃ©, who has owned and lived in her building on North 5th Street since 1981.
It's true, there has been a big influx of young artists and musicians in recent years, but this crowded strip represents just one rich slice of Billyburg.It is the connector tissue between two historic areas that offer remnants of Williamsburg's industrial past and are still home to vibrant immigrant communities: Hasidic Jews, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans to the south, Italians and Poles to the north.
CotÃ© has seen big changes in the 27 years she's lived in Williamsburg. The Bedford stretch was "absolutely desolate" when she arrived.
"I remember I came outside three or four years ago, there was a traffic jam on Bedford and I just laughed," she said. "When I would go to work in the 1980s, if there were a dozen people on the subway platform, it was crowded."
The landscape is still changing. The post-hipster wave of residents seems to be affluent young families moving in as entire blocks of old factory buildings vanish and slick glass towers rise up between the shorter two and three-family dwellings.
Rev. Joseph Fonti, the priest at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church for the past seven years, has had a front row seat to this sort of feverish development. A tall condominium sprouted just a few yards beyond his church office.
"I've been waving to people on the balconies," he said.
He's hopeful the church will attract new members, but said several parishioners have been displaced by rising prices as new construction takes over.
"We really haven't been able to maintain the integrity of the neighborhood because it's constantly moving. I do hope when it quiets down, the Williamsburg that I was privileged to be a part of with its cultural diversity can continue," he said.
That cultural diversity began decades ago with industry.
In the mid-1800s, the area was a manufacturing and financial hot spot. Big name companies like Corning, Domino Sugar, Pfizer and Standard Oil all got their starts in Williamsburg.
And when the Williamsburg Bridge opened in 1903, phasing out ferry service across the East River, the population swelled as thousands of immigrants vacated their Lower East Side tenement buildings in favor of life across the water.
These days, that life is getting more crowded and more expensive.
Richard Santiago, 41, an accountant who was born and raised in Williamsburg, remembers when a carton of milk cost $.50. He spent his youth break-dancing with a string of street crews and now devotes three nights a week to teaching free dance sessions at McCarren Park.
"I can remember a friend of mine bought a property on Skillman [Avenue] for $80,000, a two-family with a nice backyard," he said. "Now that same property is worth approximately $600,000. Welcome to Williamsburg, yo."