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Portrait of the Neighborhood as a Hipster Haven

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Portrait of the Neighborhood as a Hipster Haven

How the creative class remade Williamsburg, Brooklyn Autumn 2016
Arts and Culture
New York

You’ve doubtless heard the story: artists homestead in a battered, working-class district. Shortly after, yuppies, hipsters, and developers try out a few blocks; soon, their numbers swell. Before you know it, the crumbling district has morphed into that much-hated entity, the “gentrified neighborhood,” its grimy factories reborn as condos, its dive bars as $30-per-entrée restaurants, its mom-and-pop corner shops as mirrored cafés, serving coffee that costs as much as yesterday’s blue-plate special.

No place better exemplifies the master narrative than Williamsburg, Brooklyn. As of 1980, a semi-abandoned, seemingly hopeless district on the north East River waterfront of the borough, the neighborhood has become the brag-worthy destination for the Condé Nast crowd; town cars pick up the almost-famous at luxury hotels and gallery openings; the food cognoscenti reserve dinner at the latest farm-to-table restaurants; midwestern tourists line up for tastings at Brooklyn Brewery, a start-up that has become an international brand, trading in part on its now-chic home-borough name. The artists? They’re long gone, having fled Bloombergian zoning policies, real-estate robber barons, trust-fund hipsters, and Wall Street wannabe-bohemians.

At least, that’s the way the story is generally told. It’s partially true, but it leaves out something crucial to understanding our current urban moment: artists were the drivers as much as the victims of the dramatic transformation of Williamsburg and other gentrified neighborhoods. A new breed of creative-class entrepreneurs seized opportunities opened up by technological changes and related economic shifts. In fact, artists’ cultural and financial power has never been greater.

In the beginning, though, Williamsburg really was the adopted home of a bunch of struggling artists trying to find cheap digs. They found space among a hodgepodge of immigrants who’d settled in Williamsburg in the decades after World War II. Hasidic Jews of the Satmar sect, coming to Brooklyn following their escape from Romania and Hungary, constituted the largest of the immigrant groups, but Puerto Ricans—and later Dominicans—were heavily represented, too. The factories that had employed previous generations of newcomers were downsizing or closing, and the always-rough neighborhood was in big trouble. The streets north of the Williamsburg Bridge—or Northside—were barren; Southside was riddled with gangs and drugs. People who could leave, left.

The young artists were undaunted. These bohèmes may have wanted to join their older comrades in the East Village, but by the late 1980s, that area was becoming too expensive for new graduates. Word got out: right across the East River was a place with empty and affordable loft spaces, big enough for art installations. Though grimy and unreliable, the L train could take them back and forth from “Billyburg” to the simpatico bars and clubs of the Village.

Artists had long gravitated to down-and-out parts of big cities—Paris, London, the Lower East Side, Brooklyn. They were attracted to people living on the margins, the lively streets, and those wholesale rents. Greenwich Village was New York’s earliest artist enclave. The East Village and Soho, both in Manhattan, followed. But Brooklyn had its appeal for the creative set, too. After World War II, writers like Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller, and Carson McCullers called Brooklyn Heights home, at least for a while.

The Williamsburg artists arriving in the 1980s and early 1990s were different, though—typically middle-class college graduates, who, like their less artistic peers, were postponing marriage and children well into their twenties and early thirties. Instead of spending their young-adult years paying off new mortgages and warming formula bottles, college grads were attending graduate or professional school, trying on different careers, and drifting in and out of relationships and social cliques.

The newcomers didn’t care that a lot of Williamsburg was, to put it bluntly, toxic. The area’s industries may have closed, but not without leaving a chemical trail that helped boost childhood leukemia rates to among New York City’s highest. Williamsburg sat adjacent to Newtown Creek, a tributary so polluted that it purportedly stripped paint off boats. Radiac, the only facility in the city licensed to handle radioactive waste, was within breathing distance of a local elementary school. But with no children or spouses to worry about, young singles—especially those of an artistic bent—were willing to put up with dangers and industrial effluents that would have made their middle-class parents shudder.

Also distinguishing the Williamsburg bohemians from their forerunners were their preferred crafts. Though boasting plenty of aspiring painters, novelists, memoirists, and poets, the tribe also included more extroverted types: sculptors working with unconventional materials, especially found objects; multimedia and conceptual artists; and, most of all, rock musicians. More than cerebral, low-key folk music, rock thrives on young, uninhibited audiences—in other words, the very people moving into the neighborhood.

The scene became a magnetic mixture of art school, Woodstock, and proletarian dystopia. The young artists saw the hulks of the Pfizer chemical factory, the Domino Refinery, the massive Cass Gilbert–designed Austin and Nichols warehouse, and remnants of the smaller foundries, ironworks, and breweries as objects of romance, reminders of a more “authentic” time. They were drawn to the adventure of the razor-wire and oil-tank landscape and the waterfront, with its broken piers, abandoned cars, and occasional random body parts in the high grasses. The more reckless among them might even snort cocaine at Kokie’s—the name a sly allusion to its favored stimulant—with local toughs. After perestroika, a new wave of Polish immigrants arrived in nearby Greenpoint, spilling over into Williamsburg and adding another layer of exotic texture to the neighborhood.

The newcomers didn’t care that a lot of Williamsburg was, to put it bluntly, toxic.

The artists’ relationship to their grim surroundings was different from that of the Latinos, Hasidim, and Poles. Using their ingenuity and manual skills, artists made a playground out of the industrial era’s detritus. They turned rubbled factories into living space—or tried to, at any rate: without money or experience, they sometimes blew out their buildings’ power while tinkering with electrical panels. For entertainment, they held impromptu film screenings on the walls of vacant buildings. Robert Moses had built the enormous McCarren Park pool in 1936 for the enjoyment of local German, Irish, and Jewish immigrants. By the 1980s, it had closed, a victim of government neglect, deindustrialization, and racial tension. The Williamsburg artists resurrected the graffitied cavern as a performance space for local dance troupes and bands.

The insides of those abandoned, trash-filled warehouses became the sites of some of 1990s Williamsburg’s most memorable events: all-night multimedia “immersion” bacchanalias. The genre-bending parties brought together video artists, punk bands, stilt walkers, painters, sculptors, sword swallowers, contortionists, conceptual artists, and other imaginative souls. The vast spaces were decorated with found objects: scrap-metal streamers, or forests of plastic strips to create the impression of “plastic fog.”

The impresario of “Organism,” one of the most celebrated of these extravaganzas, was Ebon Fisher, an MIT media lab graduate and gnomic conceptual artist. Fisher and his coproducers held their event in the Old Dutch Mustard Factory, a brick pile built in 1908. The immense space was ideal for letting creative people go wild. “Hang your stuff. Read your stuff. Play your stuff. Project your stuff. GET INVOLVED,” read one poster for the 1993 Organism. One hundred artists, 2,400 guests in total, wandered the space all night, seeing everything from exploding watermelons to performers rappelling down silos. “The fine arts are dead,” one organizer told Newsweek, “and we’re taking advantage of decentralized media to create a new cultural forum.” The artists were small in number—in 1990, there were probably only 2,000 or so in Williamsburg—but some were convinced that Williamsburg at that moment was home to the largest enclave of artistic talent ever to congregate in one community in American history. They may have been right.

The artists’ adventure among the ruins couldn’t last. New York City—Brooklyn, in particular—was being flooded with new immigrants and college-educated young people. Real-estate developers were happy to oblige their wish for transit-convenient, cheaper, outer-borough lodgings. Williamsburg was becoming an especially attractive destination not only for its location, just one subway stop from Manhattan, but also for the entrepreneurial energy of the artists themselves, which was beginning to propel them well beyond immersion parties and free concerts.

One of the first of the new breed of artist-entrepreneurs was Andrew Tarlow, a struggling painter/bartender who had moved from Manhattan to South Williamsburg for loft space. He had a crowd of friends—other artist refugees from Soho and the East Village—but their new neighborhood was as empty of places to hang out as a junkyard. He and a friend did something similar to the warehouse scene-setters: they found a derelict space—an ancient train dining car—did some do-it-yourself preparations, and started a small restaurant. In a foreshadowing of hipster irony, they called the place Diner.

It was a crazy idea: they had no business experience or plan. They hadn’t even hired a chef. But their timing and location proved ideal. Shortly before opening in the winter of 1999, they met a young cook with experience at the Savoy, one of Soho’s first locavore restaurants. Almost immediately, Diner became a key part of the local scene—in fact, it invented the scene, at least in that part of Williamsburg. The place was soon packed. People hung out there at lunch, had drinks or coffee in the afternoon, and often stayed through dinner. When a New York Times food critic gave Diner a warm review, it wasn’t just a great advertisement for the restaurant; it was great publicity for this forgotten neighborhood and its enclave of freaky artists. So many people wanted to see what was happening that, five years later and just a few blocks away, Tarlow and his partner opened an equally successful second spot, which they called Marlow and Sons. It was that same zeitgeist-sniffing Andrew Tarlow who would eventually open the posh Reynaud’s at the neighborhood’s industrial-chic hostelry, the Wythe Hotel.

Around the time that Tarlow opened Diner, 26-year-old Lexy Funk and 31-year-old Vahap Avsar were creating a hit business in an entirely different discipline. Their beginning was just as inauspicious as Diner’s: a couple in need of some cash found the canvas of a discarded billboard in a Dumpster and thought that it could be turned into cool-looking messenger bags. The fabric on the bags looked worn and damaged, a textile version of Tarlow’s rusted railroad car, but that was part of the charm. Funk and Avsar rented an old factory, created a logo with Williamsburg’s industrial skyline, emblazoned it on T-shirts, and pronounced their enterprise Brooklyn Industries. “We wanted it to sound like a steel plant,” Funk told CNBC. At first, they sold mostly to friends, but the business grew fast. Today, with 16 stores in three states and humming online sales, the website nevertheless announces that the brand “fills a void in the clothing market with artistic clothing for urban dwellers.” Just as with Diner, Williamsburg—the place and its artists—was crucial to the company’s identity and its eventual success.

Through a combination of high animal spirits, lucky timing, and a clustering of innovative peers—and, thanks to New York’s crime turnaround under Mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, increasingly safe and inviting streets—these entrepreneurs tapped into, and promoted, several related cultural trends. First was the growing cultural power of the artists themselves. After World War II, artists had gained some visibility in popular culture, though they remained largely an elite concern. But by the late twentieth century, with more Americans going to college, making more money, and, as airfares got cheaper, traveling to Europe and Asia, the market for art was expanding, as was the number of artists. An educated middle class had the money to support the ballooning number of galleries. Gentrified neighborhoods are the urban habitus of the bourgeois bohemian, and art galleries are as good a signifier of gentrification as wine and coffee bars. In fact, many wine and coffee bars in gentrified areas are also galleries, displaying the work of a revolving cast of artists.

Events like this artists’ happening at the Fishtank Gallery are nightly occurrences in today’s Williamsburg. (THOMAS HOEPKER/MAGNUM PHOTOS)

Another trend working in the artist-entrepreneurs’ favor was a change in public taste. Industry’s decline expanded the popular aesthetic vocabulary; what was once associated with deafening, dangerous, and stultifying work could now be admired as historic creations and greeted with reverential—if only quasi-informed—nostalgia. The taste for outré street culture like grunge and hip-hop had already spread into youth culture. Now, industrial style emerged as another major signifier of urban hipness. With so many artists moving to formerly industrial neighborhoods—not just in Brooklyn but in Wicker Park in Chicago, Chelsea in Manhattan, and Belltown in Seattle, among other locations—the industrial style was growing closely associated with young artists and their way of life.

Along with an interest in gallery-hopping, middle-class Americans were growing intrigued by the artists themselves. In post-1960s America, artists’ autonomy, ingenuity, and fealty to self-expression became aspirational values. But whereas the early-1990s Williamsburg warehouse scene was too anarchic to have mass appeal, twenty-first-century Williamsburg was producing a more accessible artist-model. Artist-entrepreneurs like Lexy Funk and successful indie bands like LCD Sound System were pragmatists, demonstrating that work could also be a passion project. “Live, Work, Create” is Brooklyn Industries’ motto.

By the mid-2000s, “a new kind of ambition was taking hold,” writes Ann Fensterstock about Williamsburg in Art on the Block, a history of the turn-of-the-millennium New York art scene. There was, she observes, “a thirst for critical attention in the wider, increasingly international art world. The notion of producing art for profit was no longer anathema.” Anyone with a sense of irony couldn’t help but notice the hookup between the artists and the affluent gentrifiers. Even as the wealthy newcomers changed Williamsburg in ways that the artists either hated or couldn’t afford, they also enlarged the pool of money sloshing around for galleries, art, and other creative endeavors.

As the success of Diner and Marlow and Sons foretold, food has become one of the most popular pursuits for this new generation of entrepreneurs. Again ironically, a decaying industrial neighborhood has helped revive preindustrial modes of production, with locally made pickles, beer, mayonnaise, and chocolate—often with a nod to the home borough. “We make small-batch charcuterie using sustainable meat and fine-dining technique, with a bit of Brooklyn swagger thrown in for good measure,” reads the website for Brooklyn Cured. Some of the entrepreneurs are dropouts from the Manhattan establishment, able to take “Live, Work, Create” to heart. Daniel Sklaar left his position as a financial analyst to open Fine and Raw, a company that produces raw chocolate with “conscious ingredients.” A disaffected Chase Bank employee, Tom Potter, partnered with an ex–Associated Press reporter to found one of Williamsburg’s most famous companies and a top Williamsburg tourist destination, the aforementioned Brooklyn Brewery.

Art school students and graduates were now pouring into Williamsburg, as well as nearby Bushwick and Greenpoint. The art grads took advantage of the artisanal scene. The chocolates, pickles, and music groups coming out of North Brooklyn almost always have magnificent logos and packaging; it’s a no-brainer to get some cutting-edge branding with all that design talent within a few miles, or even next door. Other do-it-yourselfers made furniture, clothing, lighting, and decorative objets. They sold their products at crafts fairs in Williamsburg and other Brooklyn street markets. Many were joining, or launching, fashion and graphic-design firms; between 2003 and 2012, Brooklyn as a whole saw a 101 percent increase in design businesses, according to the Furman Center. (See “Made in Brooklyn, Again,” Spring 2015.) Over that same period, businesses in Williamsburg grew by nearly 32 percent, compared with a 21 percent gain borough-wide.

Williamsburg’s flourishing was an outgrowth of the density of talent and energy that had located in the neighborhood, what the economist Edward Glaeser would call the vitality of an “agglomeration economy.” Ideas were shared, visions imitated and transformed. Justin Moyer, a musician, colorfully described the process in an article in the Washington City Paper:

[There] are galleries, and loft parties, and record stores. A dude who presses vinyl lives there. So does a dude who makes stickers and a woman who books a venue. Because there’s an infrastructure that supports getting shit done, people do shit, and a lot of the shit they do is cool. Someone is a recording engineer. Someone is a graffiti artist. Someone has a blog. There’s a lot of energy, and a lot of people to know. Information—“Know a cheap place to print posters?” or “Who can play the tambourine in my Jefferson Airplane cover band?”—is the coin of the realm.

The turn of the millennium saw one other significant force that would shape the new Williamsburg: the arrival of the “brogrammers.” Like other gentrifying cities at the turn of the millennium—Seattle, San Francisco, Boston—North Brooklyn was attracting a large number of tech-savvy college grads. Williamsburg’s now-veteran artists grumbled about these new newcomers for some understandable reasons. After all, your typical computer-science grad is likely to outearn—by a lot—your average sculptor or performance artist. That earnings gap has helped turn San Francisco into a virtual war zone between Silicon Valley commuters and longer-term residents; it likely drove up costs for housing and local retail in North Brooklyn, too. It stung even more that higher-income techies were often barely out of their teens, while many of the artists were going gray.

Yet the antagonism turned into close friendship. Computer technology hugely expanded the possibilities for making money through creative endeavors, especially with the coming of Web 2.0 around 2004. Web-design firms opened across Brooklyn as the Internet gave local businesses a global reach. An obvious confluence of interests between video artists, musicians, and techies allowed artists to experiment with new projection and audio techniques. More generally, the web was turning out to be a visual and audio playground. “The Internet entailed not only the explosion of information but also the aestheticization of information,” observes Vanderbilt sociologist Richard Lloyd.

Williamsburg’s flourishing was an outgrowth of the density of talent and energy that had located there.

The cyber newcomers and the analog old-timers also shared a certain sensibility. Richard Florida has found a close connection between “bohemian clusters” and high-technology industry in American cities. Like artists, techies prefer autonomy and flexibility; they need space to pursue their project-based passions, and warehouses fit the bill. Some of the warehouses of North Brooklyn were “repurposed” again, this time not for Organism events but for coworking spaces. Programmers shared rent, coffee-making equipment, Internet access, TGIF rooftop barbecues, and ideas with aspiring info-graphic designers, illustrators, graphic artists, and aspiring start-up founders.

Two successful start-ups perfectly reflect North Brooklyn’s symbiosis of technology and the arts. In 2005, three New York University grads—two coders and one eccentric dreamer-craftsman living in Fort Greene, a bit south of Williamsburg—launched an online marketplace where craftspeople making everything from pillows to knives to posters could set up online shops. Etsy is, in effect, a flea market, but online; and, just like analog flea markets, it has the potential to reach many more customers than individual-store websites. Soon, craftspeople from all over the country—and even some from abroad—were paying the small fee to sign on. Within three years after Etsy’s launch, 400,000 vendors had sold $100 million worth of goods on the site. Now housed in Brooklyn’s Dumbo, another tech-and-design warehouse neighborhood a short bike ride from Williamsburg, Etsy is one of Brooklyn’s top two tech employers.

The other tech company greatly expanding opportunities for artistic types is Kickstarter, which “crowdfunds” creative projects like films, music groups, or the Pebble watch. The idea originated with Perry Chen, a sometime musician making a living as a waiter at Diner, where a frequent customer was the editor of an online music site; together with a web designer, the three launched Kickstarter. The start-up moved into offices on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 2009, but by 2013, it had set up shop in its spiritual home of North Brooklyn. The founders renovated the renowned nineteenth-century Eberhard Faber pencil factory with meticulously sustainable materials. Etsy and Kickstarter not only have hired hundreds of locals to staff their offices, a boon for Brooklyn in and of itself; they have also launched the careers of Brooklyn artists and of innumerable people with a penchant for making things.

As North Brooklyn and Dumbo developed into centers of innovation, other young Internet companies have been clamoring to join the scene. Perhaps the best-known is Pitchfork, a music website launched by a Minneapolis teenager named Ryan Schreiber in 1995, now located in Greenpoint. (Condé Nast bought Pitchfork in 2015.) Vice Media, which began as a street paper in Montreal, has also come to Williamsburg. Rupert Murdoch has a 5 percent stake in the company, now estimated to be worth more than $4 billion. CartoDB, a mapping and visualization firm, has built its American headquarters in an old industrial space in nearby, faddish Bushwick.

North Brooklyn’s explosion of youthful entrepreneurial energy and successful innovation, its global recognition, the appeal of its industrial aesthetic, and its flood of new money have turned a crumbling district into a dynamic—and increasingly expensive—cultural, business, and tourist center. To give just two small illustrations: North Fourth Street between Kent and Bedford once had next to no retail; it is now one of the most expensive shopping corridors in the borough. In 1991, when Brooklyn Brewery first came to North 11th Street, across from the Wythe Hotel, it could expect about eight people to show up to drink beer on a good night. Now that number has exploded to 3,000 to 4,000, with half the customers hailing from abroad.

Understanding the growing allure of the Brooklyn waterfront, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg pushed through a massive rezoning in 2004, effectively turning an industrial coastline into a high-rise, professional-class bedroom quarter. For historical and political reasons, officials relied on rezoning as their sole planning tool. The results are architecturally mediocre, spatially crude, and much despised—most of all by local artists, who understandably feel loyalty for the old, gritty Williamsburg.

The irony of the new Williamsburg shouldn’t be lost on them. Williamsburg’s onetime artist-outsiders have now not only become unwittingly mainstream; they have redefined its terms. Their tastes and lifestyle have become “normcore,” migrating from small start-up efforts by locals to the development and marketing offices of large corporations. Urban Outfitters has opened a “concept” store in Northside; it has all the familiar Williamsburg fixtures, including a rooftop bar, brick and exposed beams, goods by local designers, and more. Levi’s has opened a 3,000-square-foot store selling “authorized refurbished vintage” jeans, as well as its usual collection. For months, the store was advertised on Brooklyn streets with thumbnail portraits of young men and women of various hues and the enticing words “We are Brooklyn.” Millions of white suburban teens have watched Girls, the HBO series created by a Brooklyn artist-filmmaker about a group of aspiring young artists hanging out in cafés and warehouse parties in a proto-Williamsburg setting. Young opportunity-seekers find ways to latch on to the Williamsburg allure. One of the most unself-conscious is surely an anti-gentrification-messaged “Affordable Brooklyn” T-shirt, made by a company called Standard Brooklyn and Wardrobe, for sale on the Etsy site. The firm takes old-fashioned “wife-beater” T-shirts, which couldn’t cost more than a dollar or two to produce unadorned, and embosses them in Soviet-realist style with a muscular hand gripping a protest flag. They go for $30.

You could say that these are all examples of the market “co-opting” of the counterculture that drove so much merchandising in the 1960s and 1970s. There’s a big difference, though, between the Pepsi Generation ads and the success of Girls’ Lena Dunham. In Dunham’s case, a high-tech, creative economy is nourishing the actual artist, not just appropriating a countercultural style. That new economy has consummated a union of art and commerce that goes beyond anything the world has seen before. Artists become CEOs lunching with lawyers and bankers, throwing around terms like “leverage” and maybe even “IPO.” Indie musicians front for Beyoncé and fill venues in Paris and Tokyo. Those who don’t strike it rich may still find market space to pursue their craft. “[T]he space between ‘starving artist’ and ‘rich and famous’ is beginning to collapse,” Jack Conté, member of the band Pomplamoose and cofounder of the crowdfunding platform Patreon, argued in a controversial 2014 article.

Williamsburg’s creative class has learned the ways of market competition, profits, distribution, business plans, customer satisfaction, and vertical markets, along with sustainability, organic materials, and community responsibility. The marriage between art, millennial politics, and old-fashioned capitalism will strike some as Marx’s worst fear come true. But even the haters would have to admit that it tastes and looks good.

Top Photo: Once dominated by heavy industry, Williamsburg has become a destination for the Condé Nast crowd. (THOMAS HOEPKER/MAGNUM PHOTOS)

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