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Williamsburg, NYC: Blink and you’ll miss this of-the-moment Brooklyn neighborhood (maybe you already did)

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The first few weeks we lived in New York, I was star-struck by the city itself. It seemed like every street and building was famous. Get off the subway at 34th Street – miracles happened there! Stop at 30 Rockefeller Plaza? Tina Fey makes her own miracles there! And then there was the time we walked the length of Broadway and every minute or so I’d start singing – On Broadwaaaaay.

One place I didn’t’ expect this to happen was on the J train over into Brooklyn to finally visit Williamsburg, a very of-the-moment kind of neighborhood. The name of the first stop over the bridge – Marcy Ave – rang a bell…alarm bells!

bicycle street art williamsburgI thought to myself, “Like, the Marcy Projects? Like, Jay Z’s Marcy Projects? This stop is near a place that is bringing about a locally brewed vermouth revolution and home to flea markets and artisan cheeses?”

The truth is, it was still two stops on the J train to Lorimer St where we eventually got off but even still it was hard to believe that this was near Williamsburg. (This was kind of a back way. We could have transferred in Manhattan and taken the L train straight to Bedford Ave).

williamsburg street art dogSlowly but surely, however, the demographic changed from a mid to lower class black and Latino population to a trickle of hipsters sporting facial hair and sunglasses, and girls in strange long grandma skirts and furry jackets. The transition was complete at the Metropolitan Ave station and as we joined the steady flow of people heading over to Bedford Avenue, it suddenly felt like we were the only ones not dressed up for the hipster parade.

williamsburg head chop car brooklynBased on this Buzzfeed article, we are seriously not hipsters, and that’s fine (we don’t look that great in skinny jeans, anyway). Witnessing the controversial hipster scene flourish in its true element is worth the trip to Williamsburg alone.

Once on Bedford Ave, there are no famous films or books set here to make me starstruck, though this may change as Greta Gerwig, star of the film Frances Ha, based in Williamsburg, is up for a Golden Globe. We kept our eyes open for celebrity spottings, but alas…we did not spot any of the famous types drawn to this creative hot spot.

williamsburg brooklyn houses new yorkIn general, Williamsburg, well ‘modern’ Williamsburg, is entirely new. Until 2008, very few outsiders were interested in what was a working class mix of Poles, Italians, a large Hasidic Jew population and a small community of artists that had been slowly settling here since the late 1970s. Pushed out of Manhattan by skyrocketing rents, artists, musicians and hipsters moved into the warehouses and buildings in the dockyards first, but have since spread far and wide to be the dominant force in much of the neighborhood.

This has caused a huge culture clash, with each group asserting their right to be there.

williamsburg new york flowersThat creates the kind of brilliant friction that makes Williamsburg electric, at the creative cutting edge and entirely of the moment, much the way that Greenwich Village once was – the epicenter of art, music, eclectic galleries and anything-goes nightlife.

And honestly? We love what they’ve done with the place.

williamsburg street art muralBritish fashion celebrity and part-time resident Alexa Chung calls London her Husband and Williamsburg her Lover. She’s hit the nail on the head. Williamsburg is a secret to escape to, one you don’t want anyone to know about. Your time there is exciting, of the moment – a moment which is likely fleeting as the cement dries of what will become the culture of Williamsburg.

Nowhere else can this been seen than the street art in the neighborhood. Established street artists like Roa, JR, Invader and even Banksy have made their mark here, along with the very cool sidewalk drizzle art of Paul Richard.

Street Art in Williamsburg BrooklynAs an outsider, it is hard to believe that it took until just recently for ‘Billyburg’ to become such a scene – if not for the location alone.

Why wouldn’t you consider an apartment that is just one stop on the L train across from Manhattan or an easy 20 minute ride on the East River Ferry to Wall Street. (Don’t be fooled by the tattoo sleeves and weekend fashionistas. Come Monday morning, you’ll also see a steady stream of suits lined up at the N 6 Str / North Williamsburg stop of the East River Ferry heading over to their office jobs in Manhattan.)

And the views. Don’t even get me started on the views. When you are in Manhattan, the only way to take in the beautiful skyline is by getting to the top of a roof somewhere, which will usually cost you an expensive ticket, a room at a pricy hotel or at least an expensive brunch.

manhattan view from williamsburg at sunsetIn Williamsburg, just stop by the Williamsburg Flea or better yet the Smorgasburg, grab some overpriced but incredibly authentic pupusas or an oversized (artisan, made around the corner that morning) ice cream sandwich and sit down in the East River State Park for the most perfect views of Manhattan.

Williamsburg SmorgasburgThere is something even better than the less expensive rent, the great views, the street art and the much slower pace here. And I’m not talking about the indie music scene because a. I don’t feel cool enough and b. we just didn’t have a chance to check out much live music in Williamsburg.

No, I’m talking about the way to my heart and yours: The food.Williamsburg foodFoodie Williamsburg

In fact, in completely unhipster fashion (hey, it was for the article!), we took a Williamsburg foodie tour to get a better overall sense of the scene happening here. Unfortunately we wouldn’t recommend it. Our guide was strange, impersonal and, as I suspect of most recent Williamsburg immigrants, he knew absolutely nothing about the area or its history.

bagelsmith williamsburgBut we did eat incredibly well: we had excellent pizza, stopped at a 24 hour bagel shop, a cheese shop with imported and locally made cheeses, a handmade chocolates company with an on-site factory and ended at a wine shop and bar that sells locally made wines, beers and whiskeys. Williamsburg does everything from upscale, organic, down-scale (but probably still organic) hearty fare. New restaurants and bars pop into and out of the scene here faster than we’ll ever be able to keep track, but one excellent night out we had in Williamsburg was at the Nitehawk theater, which shows first run films and classics while serving up a full menu including alcohol.

Williamsburg food tourEvery place creates its own, unique vibe like the Café de la Esquina, a Mexican diner in a tin camper straight out of a movie, Radegast Hall & Biergarten set in two adjacent industrial chic warehouses that could make Munich residents jealous, Mables Smokehouse straight out of the 1970s, Blue Bottle Coffee with the roasters in the back of the shop and Best Pizza with its wallpaper of paper plates (and seriously good pizza – with thousands more pizza joints to try, we can’t commit to saying it’s the best).

We spent a few afternoons eavesdropping – I mean working – at Toby’s Estate, an organic Australian coffee shop on N 6th Street. Dani was the proud owner of the only PC in the place. Otherwise white apples glowed from every table as people talked about things their producers said, what nags their agents were being, which new boutiques had opened and of course, complaints about Williamsburg selling out.

williamsburg brooklyn office signWelcoming Williamsburg’s flock of admirers

There is no way around it. With the million-dollar condos lining the waterfront and the increased interest and attention on the area, Williamsburg is growing up and like the rest of New York, tourists are starting to flock. Semi-locals should be glad that the double-decker tour buses haven’t invaded here like they have in other parts of the borough, but visitors are not just fashionistas or incredibly cool girls who happen to be globetrotters…

We had an older couple from Staten Island on our food tour who never come to Brooklyn but had registered the hype and needed the safety and context of the food tour to check it all out.

williamsburg chevroletHotels and accommodation options in Williamsburg are still scarce and Airbnb is likely the best way to go just yet. The Wythe Hotel near the waterfront is incredibly attractive but room rates rival those across the river, as do rates at the King & Grove – and availability is an even larger challenge.

This is because most of the short-term accommodating done here in the first five years of the Williamsburg renaissance have been for under-the-radar celebrities and musicians, not your everyday independent traveler. There are a few hostels, like the B Hostel, popping up, but at one block from that Marcy Av stop, I’d say they’re banking on wider gentrification of the area as a whole as this is still a good walk from Bedford Avenue, the heart of it all.

Williamsburg Brooklyn New YorkSearching for the next Williamsburg

The more mainstream Williamsburg comes, the more the hipster transplants are likely to reject it – proof of which already lies in the fact that many have already started relocating to the ‘next Williamsburg’. Where is that you ask?

The New York Times named Greenpoint, a predominantly Polish area (with an incredible pizza joint – Pauly Gee’s – go there!) the next hotspot in 2012.

Based on skyrocketing property prices and gentrification, Crain’s New York just named Bed-Stuy/Clinton Hill neighborhood the next Williamsburg this past November. This was the birthplace of rapper Notorious B.I.G.  who called his childhood home a shack (which has since sold for over $700,000). The same publication named Bushwick the new Williamsburg in 2011.

Williamsburg BrooklynEven Brownsville, in East Brooklyn and one of the borough’s most dangerous neighborhoods, has been linked to the gentrification required to be in the running, especially as parts of it lie on the L train, known by property enthusiasts as the ‘train of gold’.

If you ask us, we’d put our money on Red Hook being the next, true Williamsburg. There is almost no quality public transport (except by water taxi, one bus line and the Ikea Ferry) so it won’t attract the office types. There is already a sprinkling of in-the-know celebrity residents and a seriously cool artisan food and alcohol movement and such a small-town pace it’s hard to believe that’s Manhattan you see across the waterfront.

williamsburg mannequin

How to get the most out of your visit to Williamsburg

Our favorite days in Williamsburg are Saturdays and Sundays, when three of our five favorite New York markets take place in Williamsburg. On Saturdays (between April and November), head to the East River State Park for the Smorgasburg food market. On Sundays, the Williamsburg Flea takes place in the same location. The Artists & Fleas market at 70 North 7th Street is also open on weekends 10am to 7pm (year-round).

williamsburg flea market skullBest place for coffee: Toby’s Estate, 125 N 6th St.

Best place for diner food: Café de la Esquina, 225 Wythe Ave and Diner,  85 Broadway, Brooklyn – right off the Williamsburg Bridge.

Best pizza: Best Pizza -obviously! at 33 Havemeyer St. Runner-up: Fornino, 187 Bedford Ave.

Best place for drinks: the rooftop at Juliette on the corner of Bedford Ave and N 5th St, Berry Park – a sports bar, but they have a nice rooftop terrace at 4 Berry St, Radegast Hall & Biergarten on 113 N 3rd St, Upper Elm rooftop bar at the King & Grove Hotel on 160 N. 12th St.

williamsburg brooklyn bierhausBest place to watch a movie: Nitehawk Cinema on 136 Metropolitan Ave.

Best place for chocolate lovers: Mast Brothers Chocolate at 111 N 3rd St. They have free tastings!

Best place for street art: Everywhere! Wythe and Berry Street are both filled with street art. Kent Street also has great pieces. You can also join a guided street art walk every Saturday at 2.30pm ($20) to make sure you’ll get to see the best pieces. Roa’s big squirrel piece is on 160 Berry Street, an even bigger Roa piece can be found on 2 Havemeyer Street at North 9 Street.

We’ll end with this hipster joke

Question: How did the hipster burn his mouth?
Answer: He ate his pizza before it was cool.

williamsburg new york elephant sculpture brooklyn

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12 Comments

  1. Screw the haters – yes, it’s hipster heaven, but on a sunny Saturday morning, wandering by the East River State Park, it’s also a ridiculously beautiful place. Brilliant roundup of everything Williamsburg has to offer – you girls rock! Most folks just stick to Manhattan, so any info on the value (and food!) of Brooklyn is welcome. We’re lucky to have good friends around Graham Av., so whenever in NYC our time always involves a lot of Brooklyn. Yes, we joke about the hipsters, but one bite at a true Brooklyn bagel and a stroll by the riverside or McCarren Park and we’re sold. If we ever rise above the ragamuffin line, we wouldn’t mind spending a few years watching the East River go by… Again, fantastic piece. Thank you and good luck!
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    1. Aww, thanks! That’s the thing about New York – when we’re in Manhattan we’ll say, man, I’m so glad we stayed in Manhattan. And then we go over to Brooklyn and around every corner we suddenly are talking about how much we love Brooklyn and how we should get an apartment in Williamsburg for a month, etc. Just writing this made me want to go to Williamsburg immediately 🙂

  2. Sadly I think the real edge of Williamsburg is lost, gentrification has certainly taken hold so the real beginning of the scene is missed. BUT the place is still awesome and honestly this is one of the best overall posts I have seen on the cool looking comfortable artistic place.

    I think Astoria may be the next area to start to see an art trend blossom and a new scene take hold.

    I real love NYC and have not been for almost 2 years now but can’t wait until my next visit!
    Forest Parks recently posted..Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost But Most Of Us Are!

    1. Ooh, Astoria – thanks for dropping that in there. I’ll start paying attention to the hype around it and we’ll have to go spend some quality time over there next time we’re in NYC!

  3. I was walking down Shoreditch High Street in London the other day with Zab, and we were both just looking around, wide eyed, unable to comprehend just how fucking cool everything was, and even how different it seemed than when we’d last spent a lot of time in London. It’s weird how places change so quickly once they’re ‘discovered’, but on the other hand, completely understandable. Why wouldn’t you want to live in Williamsburg if you can get views like that, find cinemas that serve full meals (yes please!) and quality street art on every corner?
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    1. Ah, Shoreditch! Love it there, though most would agree that Dalston was the new Shoreditch already in 2009/2010. This Vice article puts Peckham as the new Dalston http://www.vice.com/en_uk/read/we-went-on-a-quest-to-find-the-new-dalston but when we lived in Deptford (that’s some up-and-coming grit for you) it was being promoted as the arts capital of the South East! So much in London to explore, but Brooklyn definitely always reminds us of East London, no doubt!

  4. OMG! The old neighbourhood surely has changed. I remember that it was only safe for 4 blocks around Pratt Institute and I lived 2 blocks away from the GG line, one of the most dangerous at the time! And yes, it was 1978 to be exact! Nice to see things have changed for the better! 🙂
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