Williamsburg is one of North America's hippest neighborhoods, according to the Utne Reader magazine. This could make you cringe, if you cringe at the thought of visiting a former industrial neighborhood now inhabited by young people with multiple piercings, tattoos, and careers made you cringe. Mostly, however, Williamsburg residents are hard-working, loyal to their community, and eager to show you around to the latest hot spots.
Williamsburg stretches along the southeast side of the East River, directly across from Manhattan.1 The area was first settled in the 1660s by the Dutch; it was laid out as a town in 1810 by a Colonel Williams, who lent his name to the area. Ferry service to Manhattan was instituted in the first half of the 19th century in order to develop the area as a suburb for the Manhattan workforce. In 1852, Williamsburg (pop. 31,000) was incorporated as a city; it was consolidated with the city of Brooklyn in 1855. In the latter part of the 19th century, the area was partly developed as a resort for Manhattanites and partly as factories. The opening of the Williamsburgh Bridge in 1903, however, made the area more suitable for industry and swelled the working-class population employed in the factories to a high of 260,000 in 1920.
In the 1950s thousands of Puerto Ricans moved to the area to work in the factories, but the area's poor housing stock was nonetheless targeted for redevelopment: a combination of highway-building and public-housing projects. A rising crime rate and the movement of manufacturing jobs out of the city made the area less desirable. For a time in the 1980s, Williamsburg was generally regarded as a drug-ridden slum, a kind of lawless frontier in the heart of the city where cops and gangs engaged in a perpetual stalemate in front of an apathetic population of junkies, families on welfare, and crack cocaine addicts.
At the very same time, however, artists discovered the vacant loft spaces once occupied by factories and warehouses. For several years, the burgeoning artist population lived in uneasy equilibrium with the criminal element. In the early 1990s, though, the area became more inviting to ordinary New Yorkers with moderate incomes who sought cheap rents in a funky area. As this population grew, it sponsored more and more cool bars, quirky shops, cozy restaurants with backyard gardens, and neighborhood art galleries.
At the end of the 1990s, the area around Bedford Avenue had been transformed into an entertainment district, with bars and restaurants open in the evenings and shops and galleries open during the day and on weekends. Ironically, many of the people who had been living there when it was an abject slum were now priced out of the area and found it hard to remain in Williamsburg2. Lots of artists, however, still live and work there and show their work in the neighborhood's thriving galleries. If you attend gallery openings, the agar-agar in which the Williamsburg social scene is cultured, expect to be asked, "Are you an artist?"
Outside of the Bohemian strip along Bedford Avenue, there remain thriving communities of orthodox Jews, including the extremely conservative Satmar sect, Puerto Ricans, and Italians. The area's manufacturing heyday is not completely forgotten, either: a suction-cup factory, a sugar-processing plant, a brewery, a water-tank manufacturer, and a radioactive-waste transfer facility are all still operating in the district.
A circuit that will take you through most of the interesting parts of Williamsburg begins at the Brooklyn end of the Williamsburg Bridge. Turn left onto Bedford Avenue. Make a left at Grand Street. Continue to the river (Grand Ferry Park), then turn right onto Kent Avenue. Make a right on Metropolitan Avenue. Make a left at Bedford. Continue to McCarren Park and turn right at North 12th Street. Cross Union Avenue and continue on Bayard Street. Make a right turn on Graham Avenue. Follow Graham Avenue under the highway and all the way down to Broadway. (You can take the L train back into Manhattan from the Graham Avenue stop at Metropolitan Avenue.) Make a right turn on Broadway and continue to Division Street, where you bear left. Follow Division Street to Roebling, turn right, and then left onto Broadway again. Turn right at Bedford to reach the bridge path.
Places to Go
Interesting destinations are:
The mini-mall in the Girdle Building (Bedford and North 5th) has a wide variety of interesting little clothing and knickknack boutiques and a coffee bar with a really friendly and comfortable atmosphere, called the Verb Cafe.
On the east side of Bedford Avenue between North 6th and North 7th Streets there are four reputable eateries: Vera Cruz (Tex-Mex style Mexican food, like enchiladas and burritos), Matamoros Puebla Grocery (delicious Mexican sandwiches, known as tortas), Bliss (organic/vegetarian), and L Cafe (soup/salads/sandwiches). Vera Cruz also has a busy bar scene at night.
For a more neighborhood feel, try instead Laura Bamonte's Bakery (North 6th and Havemeyer), which has excellent Italian pastries and pretty good coffee. Driggs Pizzeria (Driggs and North 7th) looks like an ordinary New York neighborhood pizzeria, but it also has delicious Italian entrees, as well as pizza. Sit down in the back room and ask for the menu. Joe's Busy Corner (North 7th and Driggs) makes excellent Italian sandwiches to take out. You can stay for a while and listen to the old-timers tell stories of how the neighborhood used to be. Fortunato's (Manhattan Avenue and Ainslie Street) is a bakery/cafe with delicious pastries and incredible marzipan on sale.
Oznot's Dish (North 9th and Berry) is a very nice Mediterranean-style restaurant with an excellent and fairly priced wine list. Bean (North 8th and Bedford) serves Mexican-inspired food and has a charming dining room.
The Brooklyn Brewery (North 11th and Berry) is a working brewery, where the Brooklyn Lager, Brooklyn Brown ale, and Brooklyn Pale Ale served in bars all around the neighborhood is produced. They have tours of the plant on Saturday afternoons; call for information and schedule.
Plan-eat Thailand (Berry and North 7th) is a great barn of a space with two entrances. It serves both Thai food and sushi. There is fresh art on the walls and a DJ playing. The restaurant used to be called Planet Thailand, but the Planet Hollywood3 people went to court to have them change it. Plan-eat is always packed with trendy people, even on weeknights. This is incredible and strange until you realize that just eating there makes you trendy.
Grand Ferry Park (Grand and Kent) is a pocket-size park right under the armpit of the Domino's sugar factory. You can sit there at the water's edge and watch the activity at the Domino's docks, mostly sugar being shipped to all corners of the earth. Grand Ferry Park is named after the Grand Street Ferry, which ran from the site to Grand Street in Manhattan until the Williamsburg Bridge was completed. The park has a water fountain and is a nice little stop on a bike tour.
Bars of every stripe abound in Williamsburg, and each one caters to a different subgroup. This is a consequence not of Brooklynites' innate fondness for drink, but of low commercial rents that make it easy for bars (even trendy ones) to stay in business.
Galapagos (North 6th and Wythe) Galapagos is the bar that epitomizes Williamsburg's bohemian scene. It is situated in an industrial building, and the bar itself is located on the other side of a reflecting pool from the entrance. Candles are ensconced in niches on the walls, giving the place a warm glow, and the tables are wood, which contrasts with the industrial ventilation on the ceiling and walls. Galapagos is a must-visit.
Teddy's (North 8th and Berry) is a traditional pub-style hangout. It has a pretty standard burgers/fries menu and televisions tuned to sports events. It's Williamsburg's closest thing to a sports bar. Often there is live music or a DJ in the house.
Pete's Candy Store (Lorimer and Newton) Pete's is on the outskirts of Williamsburg. It has a friendly vibe, several small rooms for more intimacy, and yummy toasted sandwiches.
Mugs (Bedford and North 9th) is a nice place with pinball machines.
The Abbey (Driggs and North 7th) has a little more of a punk/hardcore vibe.
Yabby's (Bedford and North 1st) is a converted auto-repair shop. It has a pleasant outdoor courtyard, which, if it had any greenery, could be called a garden.
The list of art galleries is always changing. One of the most well-known is Pierogi 2000 (North 8th and Bedford). The best way to find out what's showing in Williamsburg is to browse the cafes and galleries for postcards and flyers announcing shows. Sometimes galleries will have a map to give away.
Subway - Take the L train to Bedford Ave (North 7th) or Lorimer (Metropolitan). Take the J/M/Z to Marcy Avenue (Broadway). Take the G train to Metropolitan (Union Avenue)
Bus - The B61 bus runs from downtown Brooklyn right up Bedford Avenue. The B43 runs along Graham Avenue. The B40 and B46 run along Broadway. The B39 runs across the Williamsburg Bridge.
Automobile - Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (I-278). From Queens: Metropolitan Avenue exit. From Brooklyn: Flushing Avenue exit.