Williamsburg, Brooklyn: from fringe to cutting edge and beyond

  • "Finger" building towers

    "Finger" building towers

    A new mid-block "finger" building towers over the central intersection of Bedford Avenue and North 7th Street.  Note the food truck and the boarded-up Salvation Army store, which has been in this condition for decades. Courtesy of Peter Feigenbaum.

  • Residential infill

    Residential infill

    A residential infill building blends somewhat tastefully with the vinyl-siding architectural vernacular. Courtesy of Peter Feigenbaum.

  • Kent Avenue

    Kent Avenue

    A view down Kent Avenue shows a variety of loft buildings old and new (including the historic, white 184 Kent building), plus the mixed-use liner massing of the Edge condo tower development. The Williamsburg bridge and Domino Sugar factory chimney are visible in the background. New bike lanes are visible as well. Courtesy of Peter Feigenbaum.

  • The Edge condo towers

    The Edge condo towers

    A view of the Edge condo towers and Williamsburg Bridge from East River State Park. Courtesy of Peter Feigenbaum.

Peter Feigenbaum, New Urban Network

At a glance, the transformation of the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn over the past 15 years appears to be just another chapter in the reconfiguration and rebirth of New York since the city’s nadir in the mid-1970s.

New York has gone through many cycles of the sort recently seen in Williamsburg: Countercultural and cutting-edge creative communities take shape in forgotten fringe neighborhoods, starting a familiar progression of retail and restaurant booms, and eventually large-scale construction of condos and luxury apartments, followed in turn by city- and state-led upgrading of amenities.

Compared to its predecessor “trendy” neighborhoods — SoHo, the East Village, and the Lower East Side — Williamsburg has been an especially unusual laboratory for observing new patterns in New York urban design, planning, and redevelopment. This area stands out for its geographic size, highly varied land-use patterns and housing stock, large vacant parcels, and proximity to the its waterfront.

The boundaries of the neighborhood are massive, stretching north from the Brooklyn Navy Yard up the East River to McCarren Park, which marks the beginning of Greenpoint. (Greenpoint, along with Bushwick, is the new epicenter of the creative community, now that many people have been priced out of Williamsburg.) From the East River, Williamsburg stretches east to Bushwick Avenue. The central part of the neighborhood is inscribed by the unsightly elevated Brooklyn-Queens Expressway viaduct, which has long been a barrier between the bustling and trendy central area close to Bedford Avenue and the sleepier fringe areas. As one of the northernmost neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Williamsburg has little connection geographically to other parts of the borough.

The neighborhood has a very interesting ethnic mix. Its southern part is home to a large concentration of Hasidic Jews — a highly visible but socially insular community that has singlehandedly developed parcels into massive, now-ubiquitous apartment flats characterized by slightly exotic beige brick walls and large balconies with cages affixed chaotically to the exterior (to prevent children from falling to the sidewalks below).

The central part of the neighborhood has a large Puerto Rican and Dominican community, while the northernmost part is home to large Polish community — an extension of the Polish stronghold, Greenpoint. The eastern part of the neighborhood near Graham Avenue is predominantly Italian. These communities each shaped the retail environments and even the architectural vernacular of new construction in their respective micro-communities in the years leading up to Williamsburg’s recent boom.

Interestingly, the epicenter of culture and development in the past 15 years — Bedford Avenue and North 7th Street — was considered a part of Greenpoint up until the 1990s. Real estate agents have continually stretched the unofficial boundaries to capitalize on Williamsburg’s trendiness — there is now section of Bushwick dubiously known as “East Williamsburg.”

Not the prettiest sight

The neighborhood is infamous for its architectural unattractiveness. Its aesthetic is a far cry from the ornate and coherent brownstone blocks of Park Slope and Fort Greene. The housing stock is a hodgepodge of vinyl-siding-clad wood-frame rowhouses, Italianate brick townhouses, old-law brick tenements, yellow-brick dumbbell tenements, post-war light industrial structures, and massive, full-block, Art Deco sash-window warehouses — all of these often on the same block. Though ugly, the architectural diversity and flexibility made the neighborhood attractive to the first wave of artists. Until the 1980s, the neighborhood had a working waterfront — its industrial legacy is still felt architecturally in landmarks like the Domino Sugar factory, which ceased operation in the middle of the last decade and is slated for a residential conversion.

Williamsburg’s recent development unfolded as three distinct periods. The first period, roughly 1992-2002, could be thought of as “colonization.” New York generally redevelops in a contiguous manner — neighborhoods become trendy because they are adjacent to other trendy neighborhoods. Not surprisingly, the initial wave of gentrification primarily reflected transportation and geography.  Although Williamsburg sat on the other side of the East River from the then-bohemian East Village, it was only a five-minute subway ride away, via the cross-town L subway train, which travels along 14th street in Manhattan and under the East River.

There is no road access from Manhattan to Williamsburg other than the Williamsburg Bridge, which lies in the neighborhood’s southwest corner. The L train continues to be the primary means by which residents of Williamsburg (and also Bushwick and Greenpoint) travel to Manhattan; it has the advantage of intersecting with almost every other major subway line as it passes along 14th street. The southeastern part of the neighborhood is also served by the slower and less convenient J and M trains, which run on an elevated structure that feeds onto the Williamsburg Bridge.

The initial wave of artists took advantage of the short travel times, cheaper rents, and large industrial workspaces, often living illegally in raw loft spaces not zoned or furnished for residential living. The lofts and light industrial structures were also attractive to musicians looking to find venues and rehearsal spaces. They appealed to artisanal craftsmen as well — such large structures simply didn’t exist in SoHo or the East Village.

It was during this first wave that noteworthy industrial structures like the Gretsch Building, 184 Kent Avenue, and a warehouse at Metropolitan and Havemeyer (currently occupied by residential lofts, a music rehearsal studio, the Roebling Tea Room, and Front Room Gallery) were first occupied by residential tenants. Other than this ad-hoc use of industrial spaces, outwardly visible changes in the neighborhood were few. Economically, there was also little connection to Manhattan during this period. Most residents, whether longtime locals or newly settled artists, did not commute regularly to Manhattan for work.

The Manhattan connection grows

The first visible changes started to occur during the second era of gentrification, which lasted from 2000 to 2007. During this period a wave of creative professionals arrived — people who took interest in the neighborhood’s cutting-edge culture but were more likely to have steady jobs in Manhattan.  It was during this period that the neighborhood began to stand on its own, with the emergence of legitimate music venues like Luxx and Northsix (both have since changed names) catering to an indie rock scene that was achieving national prominence. The North 6th Street retail and restaurant drag began to grow. Galleries like Pierogi and Front Room emerged, and the vintage clothing superstore Beacon’s Closet moved into its present location on North 11th Street across from the Brooklyn Brewery. During this period, new and old peacefully coexisted in the retail environment — a Mexican grocery and Polish meat markets and bakeries still lined the main commercial stretch along Bedford Avenue.

Much of the older housing stock directly around Bedford Avenue was renovated by landlords to appeal to a more discerning breed of young Manhattan-centric creatives. Most of the visible new construction during this period consisted of contemporary but respectful residential infill projects, usually fitting neatly onto small rowhouse-sized parcels. The more nefarious corollary to this infill trend was so-called “finger buildings.” These narrow mini-towers, sometimes up to 15 stories, often took advantage of zoning loopholes and were usually situated in interstitial spaces within the back yards of existing blocks, often awkwardly set back and tastelessly incongruous. A prime example is the tower on Humboldt Street at Richardson Street. Large condo towers also emerged adjacent to McCarren Park. It was during this period that artists who weren’t blessed with either commercial success or perpetual cheap rent began to move to the adjacent neighborhoods of Greenpoint, Bushwick, and Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Williamsburg’s current period, the era of “Manhattanization,” began perhaps in 2007, when the pre-recession real-estate boom hit its peak and Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s growth-oriented and developer-friendly stance began to trickle down to the neighborhood. This era brought an older, wealthier, less culturally-inclined population, hoping to capitalize on real estate speculation and waterfront views. Many of the original loft spaces from the early years, like the Cass Gilbert-designed warehouse at 184 Kent Avenue and the Gretsch building, reopened as luxury lofts. Other large, vacant industrial parcels were developed into block-sized residential buildings.

Bedford Avenue’s remaining dives and ethnic groceries were replaced with organic markets and new upscale restaurants; additional retail and restaurants began to migrate north and west into the industrial areas near the waterfront. In 2010, chains like HSBC Bank, Duane Reade, and CVS set up shop in the neighborhood, after years in which Williamsburg remained nearly devoid of these kinds of outlets. Food trucks and carts began to appear on Bedford Avenue’s streets and sidewalks. On weekends, European tourists began to be noticeable.

Until this period, waterfront parcels were still very much a tabula rasa. That started changing with the arrival of the controversial Edge development, a cluster of large glass towers on Kent Avenue. At about that time, the neighborhood’s first state park opened on an adjacent parcel — a former railroad yard and dockland wedged between Kent Avenue and the river.

The Edge project was an important turning point in establishing compromise and care in the way the post-industrial waterfront would be developed. While its towers made little connection aesthetically or culturally to the neighborhood, the Edge’s ground-level urban design extended the existing street grid through the towers and up to the waterfront, lining the bases with moderately successful, albeit banal, retail.

Most significantly, the project brought public amenities, including a pier, seating areas, and a new river ferry, to the site. These two projects started things off on the right foot in preventing the waterfront from being turned into a gated-community that shut out existing residents — though it remains to be seen whether the rest of the waterfront will be developed in similar fashion.

In addition to the completion of East River state park, a number of streets were reconfigured by the city’s Department of Transportation to accommodate bike lanes. A major project currently under way is renovation of the massive McCarren Park public pool, which had hosted rock concerts from 2006 to 2008 after decades of abandonment.

Differing lifestyles still coexist, even as the eastward and northward migration of artists continues and new luxury residential projects large and small continue to multiply like rabbits. Whether Williamsburg will eventually evolve in another flavorless section of Bloomberg’s Manhattan or will maintain its distinct artsy appeal, even as it continues to develop and mature, remains to be seen. The limited capacity of the L train and the geographic barrier of the East River may keep further escalation somewhat in check.

Limited planning

The overall way in which Williamsburg developed was not the result of any concerted city planning effort. Municipal efforts were mostly reactive. New York has perpetually been the nation’s preeminent hub for artists and other creative types because of its hegemony in the media and other sectors of the economy.  Having direct access to these cultural kingmakers does more than any tax break or housing subsidy to keep cutting-edge creative types coming to the city. And like every other cultural subset of the city, these people like to congregate and live together. Even as some grow tired of city life, there is always a constant influx of fresh blood.

There are still small, highly specific urban design lessons that planners could learn from the neighborhood’s development, such as which types of infill buildings enhance the existing streetscapes and which types create chaos; the way in which a post-industrial waterfront can be utilized simultaneously as a lucrative development asset and a site for public recreational amenities via clever urban design; also, the importance of large, raw, and flexible spaces over beautiful architecture in initially attracting artists.

But in the end, Williamsburg is an “only in New York” phenomenon, driven by much larger urban forces, rather than by incubation and guidance from city planners. Nonetheless, as any post-industrial neighborhood evolves into an artist community, and then subsequently finds itself a development hotbed, the role of planners and urban designers becomes all the more important in mediating the increasingly complex cultural and functional needs of the community.

Peter Feigenbaum has lived in Williamsburg, Brooklyn since 2006.  He is a graduate of Yale College and is active as an architectural designer, musician and installation artist. His artwork was recently featured in The New York Times.