Williamsburg may be best known as New York’s epicenter of indie cool, but that’s only one side of this vibrant, multi-faceted North Brooklyn neighborhood. It’s always been a place of migration and change: In 1792, Richard M. Woodhull bought land on the East River and laid out “Williamsburgh” (John Williams, a nephew of Benjamin Franklin, did the survey) with a plan to lure city folk to the suburbs. That worked…eventually. The annexing of Brooklyn in 1898 and opening of the Williamsburg Bridge in 1903 acted as a release valve for Lower East Side tenements and a feeder for area factories. Following a decline in the ’70s, the slow and steady gentrification of the mid-’90s (when artists priced out of the East Village and SoHo came for cheap loft living and easy access to Manhattan) sprang into overdrive when industrial lots were rezoned in 2005. Condos popped up like so many mushrooms after a rain, rents skyrocketed, more affluent professionals and families moved in and the artists continued their eastward march.
Covering approximately three square miles — massive by New York standards — Williamsburg is easiest to think of as a neighborhood of neighborhoods. The traditionally Polish North Side (between McCarren Park, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE) and Grand Street) as well as the more Puerto Rican and Dominican South Side (which extends down just past the Williamsburg Bridge) are the most visitor-friendly parts. In South Williamsburg, bordered by the Navy Yard and Flushing Avenue, a large Hasidic community maintains a conservative, old-world vibe. On the far side of the BQE to the (ill-defined) border with Bushwick, East Williamsburg includes Italian enclaves around the Graham Avenue L train stop, housing projects, and echoes of the neighborhood’s industrial past.
Bedford Avenue on the L train, one stop in from Manhattan, is ground zero of Williamsburg cool. Hip boutiques, thrift shops, cafés and bars — plus artisans hawking their wares from folding tables — line Bedford Avenue and parallel blocks towards the East River. The trendy Wythe Hotel, on North 11th Street, serves as a de facto living room. The area is great for people watching day or night, especially on weekends when it becomes a bit of a zoo. Though stereotypical hipsters, wearing skinny jeans and thick-rimmed spectacles, and urban lumberjacks with jaunty moustaches can still be spotted, you’re just as likely to see preppy creative types. In warm weather, everyone seems to be sporting short shorts and riding a fixed-gear bike to and from McCarren Park or the evolving riverfront esplanade. Weekends bring the Brooklyn Flea and Smorgasburg, a local food market, to East River State Park (NY Waterway’s East River Ferry is a fun way to arrive or depart). A schedule of free summer concerts keeps the area rocking, as do the area’s many mainstay clubs, such as Brooklyn Bowl, The Knitting Factory, Union Pool and the Music Hall of Williamsburg.
Other major commercial thoroughfares include Metropolitan Avenue and Grand Street. Residential side streets, lined with vinyl-sided homes, new condos and walk-up tenements, are quiet and welcoming, but lack the unified charm of Brooklyn’s brownstone neighborhoods. To explore scruffier South Williamsburg it’s easiest to take the M or J train to Marcy Avenue. Broadway, a major commercial zone of off-brand fast food, clothing outlets, delis and nondescript bars underneath the elevated tracks, can feel dodgy at night. These streets are your best bet for finding a yellow cab, although it’s best to keep a car service number on hand.