My previous blog posts about taking a dérive (an unplanned walk through an urban environment) have all happened to be located in Manhattan. However, it’s time to get off the island and explore one of the hottest neighborhoods in the city. Bordered by Greenpoint, Bed-Stuy, Bushwick, and the East River, Williamsburg has rapidly evolved in the past decade, with the housing price increases to prove it.
The area of Williamsburgh (yes, there was once an extra h) was within the town of Bushwick during the days of New Amsterdam. It became the city of Williamsburg in 1852, and was annexed into Brooklyn just three years later. Cornelius Vanderbilt built a mansion in the area next to the river in the late 19th century, and the economy boomed with factories (in a perfect reflection of the area’s change, the old Domino’s Sugar Factory was recently the site of a large scale public art project by Kara Walker). The building of the Williamsburg Bridge in 1903 led to swarms of immigrants from Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and Williamsburg became the most densely populated area of New York City (itself the most densely populated area in the United States). After World War II, the neighborhood became run down, and although many artists settled there, it took a major rezoning in 2005 to spur redevelopment of the abandoned warehouses into residential buildings.
The first subway stop in Brooklyn on the L Canarsie train is Bedford Avenue, and it’s a perfect place to start exploring this charming area. Walking north along Bedford, you immediately get the feeling of the neighborhood. Generally, low rise buildings and rows of townhouses predominate until you reach larger warehouses and new development high rises near the river. Shops tend to be unique rather than branches of mega-chains. Bedford eventually dead-ends at McCarren Park, which borders Williamsburg and Greenpoint and hosts the SummerScreen free movie festival (you are too late to see Zoolander this summer but Cry Baby, Heathers, and The Big Lebowski are still ahead).
Turning west toward the river on 11th Street, within a few blocks you can smell the hops at Brooklyn Brewery before you see it. Their small batch tour (Monday-Thursday at 5) is highly recommended, but you have to reserve online a month in advance or will likely not get in (each tour is limited to 30 people). Your $10 admission pays for a guided tour of the working brewery and curated tastings of four of their beers. On Fridays there are no tours but people line up to purchase tokens ($5 each) and taste very fresh cask beer. Saturdays and Sundays there are free tours, and beer available for purchase ($5 per token). The hieroglyphs on the side of the brewery say, “Beer has dispelled the illness which was in me,” so a stop at Brooklyn Brewery could perhaps be seen as a necessity for your health (that’s my story, anyway).
Turning south on Kent Avenue, you can see the Manhattan skyline just over the East River. The most spectacular view of Manhattan I have ever seen was from the rooftop garden of an apartment building on Berry Street in Williamsburg, but I don’t personally believe that a view of Manhattan is what Williamsburg is about. Passing the Music Hall of Williamsburg on 6th Street when heading back to the subway, I remember fantastic concerts I have attended and notice five or six places I would like to return to and stop for food or drinks. Williamsburg is easy to get to from Manhattan, and vice versa, but it doesn’t need Manhattan to charm a visitor, or perhaps to turn a visitor into a resident.