Bohemian Rhapsody Spotlight on Williamsburg

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.

Ch-ch-ch-changes

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."

So, what's all the hullabaloo over Williamsburg about? Take a stroll down Bedford Avenue, the locus of an ever-expanding sphere of an evolving neighborhood, and it's not hard to figure out. On any given day, you can rub elbows with an artist, writer or musician; maybe even a famous one at that. And of course, there are dozens of bars, restaurants, clubs, art galleries, and boutiques to cater to them. Bars and clubs run the gamut from run-of-the-mill dives to swanky cocktail lounges - and many offer live music, literary readings, and other entertainment - even burlesque shows. Some of the better-known haunts include Galapagos, North Six and Pete's Candy Store. Dining is also all over the map. Aspiring rock stars will wait on you at kitschy staples like Plan Eat Thai, or you can feast in fancy eateries where the waiters never smile, ranging from nouveau cafes to the historic Peter Luger's Steak House. Art galleries abound. Check out Roebling Hall, or Pierogi, home of the famous Flat Files - a mammoth collection of two-dimensional works by some 700 artists - all for sale at reasonable prices.

A Cultural Enclave

Of course, you don't have to be in trendy Williamsburg to enjoy yourself. "There are some great bakeries and little stores to buy appetizers in the Hassidic neighborhood," says Hively. "There are also some wonderful old Italian bakeries and cafes like Fortunato Brothers. They make this amazing homemade gelato, and they'll spend all day just talking to you about coffee. You might also check out Giando's on the Water - it's this huge Italian restaurant with a piano bar and a spectacular view of Manhattan." You can also find some notable churches in the area, like the onion-domed Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Transfiguration of Our Lord. And make sure to check out McCarren Park, and the peaceful Greendome Community Garden tucked away next to it, she says. "There are also some interesting events, like the Giglio Festival," says Hively. "It's sponsored every year by The Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. It's great - they have a brass band playing the theme to Rocky sitting atop a 65-foot tall wooden tower, which they parade through the streets."

All About the Benjamins

So, what will it take to park yourself permanently in Williamsburg? According to Kara Kasper, a broker with the Corcoran Group, "In Williamsburg, most of the available spaces are lofts, so pricing is usually by the square foot, not by the room. There's a real lack of inventory for co-ops due to bad zoning, but there have been a few conversions. One building had ten 2,500-square-foot units that were selling in the $800,000 range. Another was selling 1,400-square-foot units for around $600,000 each. But there have been a few sales in the mid- and upper-[$200,000s] for smaller spaces." According to Iris Dauber-Elbaz, a broker for the William B. May Company, there have only been five conversions so far. "I think this is just the beginning, though," she says.

"Condos are more popular here," says Dauber-Elbaz. "Most of the co-ops are in the original condition the previous tenants left them in, but there's a lot of construction going on, and they're mostly condos. Some of them are quite luxurious, too. They're going for a bit more [than the co-ops] per square foot, but I do think there's a cap on how much people are willing to spend in Brooklyn. For now I think $1.2 or $1.3 million is the ceiling, even for the most high-end properties." According to Kasper, "They're selling units in the Esquire Building for about $500 per square foot. A 1,400-square-foot unit there just sold for $750,000, and a 1,300-square-foot unit went for $685,000. The Smith & Gray Building has 42 units, which have been going for $380 to $475 per square foot."

Rentals have also surged from early 1990's bargains to prices comparable with Brooklyn Heights and Park Slope. "It's hard to get anything for less than $800 per room," says Kasper. "We just rented some nice 1,200-square-foot lofts in the $2,500 to $3,500 range, but you can get spaces for less."

Round the Bend

So where is the neighborhood headed? That is a matter for debate. There are several big factors in the offing that could significantly alter the landscape. The biggest question mark for Williamsburg seems to be what will become of the waterfront. At present, much of the city's garbage is processed there, and a number of other industrial facilities make the space inappropriate for recreation. Residents have long been pushing for rezoning that would restrict some of the more environmentally hazardous operations, and allow for mixed use - including parks and housing. The latest proposal is called the 197-a Plan, and although it has been tentatively approved by the city, debates are still raging. (Details can be found on www.billburg.com.) Another concern is that TransGas Energy Systems, L.L.C. wants to construct a large power plant that would loom over the waterfront in the heart of Williamsburg. Residents are fighting those plans too, but the outcome is still uncertain. And last, but not least, education is a sticking point. "The public schools in the area are not well regarded," says Dauber-Elbaz. "Most of the people I know send their kids to The Children's Workshop in the East Village. But people are always talking about opening a school here. If they actually do it, it will be a real boom to the neighborhood."

Movin' on Up

Despite these shortcomings, the general consensus is that luxury development will continue, and prices will continue to go up - but that the ecosystem of the community will be able to hold steady. "There seems to be an equilibrium because of the diversity," Hively explains. "There are spots of high prices, and you do have some people being displaced - (The landlord of the Gretch building actually cut power to get the original tenants out so they could renovate) - but then, you still have lower-income people and immigrants moving into other parts of the neighborhood, so that keeps a balance." Williamsburg may not be the best bargain for young starving artists anymore but even the high-end buyers are a pretty artsy bunch. As Dauber-Elbaz puts it, "We're not getting investment bankers yet. Most of the people buying in are still artists, designers, architects, photographers, etc., many of whom lived here already. But they're mostly in their 30s and 40s now. They're generally successful artists who are more established in their careers." If that's your crowd, Williamsburg may still be the best deal in town. "I think Williamsburg is still a great investment," says Kasper. "It's still cheaper than DUMBO, which is going for $500 to $750 per square foot. It's also cheaper than Red Hook, which is selling for $500 per square foot - even with such terrible transportation. Those are really the only comparable neighborhoods if you're looking for that kind of community," she adds.

All in all, it seems like Williamsburg has nowhere to go but up, so now looks like a good time to buy. Those who have already taken the plunge are fiercely devoted to the neighborhood, which should help ensure a bright future for the area. Dauber-Elbaz sums it up nicely: "It's not just a place to live. There's a real sense of community here," she says. And that makes all the difference. You can bet that whatever pose it strikes next, Williamsburg is sure to remain a vibrant corner of New York for years to come.

Alexandra Wolf is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York.

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