Williamsburg, Billburg, Billyburg"¦ call it what you like. But whatever you do, don't call it over. The Utne Reader called it "the third hippest neighborhood in America" a few years back. Like any place that gets hyped this much, Williamsburg - located in Brooklyn just across the river from Midtown Manhattan - has its share of detractors whining that it's getting overpriced, that it's being gentrified, that it's not all that. But Williamsburg is still a world-class cultural incubator, a diverse and thriving community, and an all-around nice place to live.
Whatever it may be now, Williamsburg wasn't always quote-unquote "˜hip.' Prior to European settlement, it was pristine Algonquin territory. In 1647, the Dutch West India Company bought it from the Algonquins, and thus began a series of transformations. In colonial times, the neighborhood (then called Williamsburgh) was mainly farmland, and the surrounding bodies of water kept it relatively isolated from the rest of New York and Brooklyn.
As bridges and ferries improved access to the area, German and Irish immigrants began to flow in. Industry followed, and the neighborhood - in particular the waterfront - served as home to various shipping operations, sugar refineries, factories, power plants, and beer breweries - among them, the F&M Schaeffer brewery, which opened just before Prohibition began and stayed under the radar by peddling a low-alcohol brew called "Near Beer."
The Williamsburg Bridge was completed in 1903, paving the way for a second wave of immigrants - this time Italian, Polish and Russian. After the Holocaust, Hassidic Jews joined the mix, closely followed by large numbers of Puerto Rican immigrants. Artists began to set up shop there in the 1970s, and they've been attracting other artists and the businesses to the area. Dominican immigrants began arriving in the last decade to a neighborhood that has reinvented itself more times than Madonna.
In its current incarnation, Williamsburg is an eclectic hodgepodge of all these elements - culturally, economically, ethnically and architecturally. According to Kirsten Hively, the founding editor of www.wburg.com, an online magazine devoted to Williamsburg's culture, the neighborhood can be broken down into four major areas. "There's the Northside, which is the artsy part. But there's also still a large Polish community there and up through Greenpoint. Then there's the Southside, which is the Hassidic Jewish neighborhood. East of the [Brooklyn Queens Expressway], we call the Eastside, and we've got a lot of retired Italians living there. And finally there's the Williamsburg Industrial Park, which is also starting to be developed now, even though it still looks pretty industrial," she says. "There are also some housing projects on Grand Street and there's still some industry on the waterfront."