Williamsburg is a neighborhood located in northern Brooklyn. It borders Greenpoint to the north, Bedford–Stuyvesant to the south, Bushwick, East Williamsburg, and Ridgewood, Queens to the east, and Fort Greene and the East River to the west.
After our visit to the neighborhood, we noticed the impact that gentrification has had on the lifestyle, demographics, costs, and culture. Today, Williamsburg is known for its hipster culture, contemporary art scene, and vibrant nightlife. Additionally, the neighborhood itself was ahead of the curve in the gentrifying process, compared to other New York City neighborhoods.
Up until the 1990s, Williamsburg was an industrial site, with factories, manufacturing plants, and warehouses taking up a sizable portion of the area. Rents, consumer prices, and other costs were relatively low, which ultimately resulted in an influx of artists and hipsters settling in the neighborhood. Prices skyrocketed and deindustrialization began to take over.
Williamsburg went through a major rezoning process passed by the New York City Council in 2005, with many of the industrial plants and warehouses being transformed into residential buildings and expensive high-rise condominiums. Additionally, much of the waterfront district was rezoned to accommodate mixed-use high density residential buildings with space set aside for public waterfront parks. These changes immediately spread to types of street activities, art scenes, businesses, transportation, and real estate. With an improved quality of life and rising costs, all of these aspects followed suit, appealing to the new demographic. A neighborhood that was once primarily inhabited by Latin Americans and Hasidic Jews is now bustling with artists, hipsters, and young college-degree adults. The Latin American and Hasidic population has stayed in the neighborhood, especially the Hasidic population, but now find themselves on the bottom of the totem pole, in terms of economic and social status in Williamsburg. The impact of gentrification is omnipresent throughout Williamsburg, making it the poster child of mass gentrification in New York City.
Today, Williamsburg has a diverse population that traces back to immigration. The residents identify their ethnicity or ancestry as German (11.6%), Irish (11.6%), Italian (10.4%), Asian (9.2%), English (6.4%), and others. In addition, 23.9% of Williamsburg’s residents were born in another country. The average age of males in Williamsburg is 27.1 years, while the average age of females in Williamsburg is 30.1 years.
Puerto Ricans and Hasidic Jews are the two most well-known and long-standing ethnic groups in Williamsburg, which is why we decided to go into further detail about their presence and impact over the years.
Williamsburg was once home to a large Dominican and Puerto Rican population. The south end of the neighborhood was and still is predominantly populated by Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and other Latin American groups (Puerto Rican History of Williamsburg). The first area that we walked by in Williamsburg was populated by Latin Americans and had shops and buildings written in both English and Spanish. Even though the Puerto Rican and Dominican population still exists, it is not what it once was back in the 1960s. When these immigrants arrived in the neighborhood, they found easy ways to obtain jobs, as there were many factories in the surrounding area, such as the Domino Sugar Factory and Refinery. The Puerto Rican community even has a street named for them located at the south end of the block, called Graham Avenue or “Avenue of Puerto Rico”. The southern portion of Williamsburg became a flourishing Puerto Rican neighborhood, with many working class citizens living there and jobs revolving around the existing factories. However, in the early 2000s, things began to take a turn for the Puerto Rican and Hispanic community. The effects of gentrification were noticeable, as people noticed the cheap prices and proximity to Manhattan and began moving in. Additionally, a major art scene was taking over the neighborhood. Soon, those artists, their budgets and their preferences began to override Puerto Rican and Hispanic presence. Prices and rent increased, and the Puerto Rican community decreased as a result. In 2000, 4,036 Hispanics lived in Williamsburg. Just ten years later, only 3,459 Hispanics remained.
Williamsburg is inhabited by over 73,000 Hasidic Jews, as their presence in the neighborhood has not changed since the start of World War II (Hasidic Jews in Williamsburg). Hasidic Jews first moved to the neighborhood in the years prior to World War II, along with many other religious and non-religious Jews who sought to escape the difficult living conditions on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Beginning in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the area received a large concentration of Holocaust survivors, many of whom were Hasidic Jews from rural areas of Hungary and Romania. Towards the end of the 20th century, Jewish developers renovated old warehouses and factories, turning them into affordable housing. More than 500 apartments were approved in the three-year period following 1997; soon afterward, an area near Williamsburg’s border with Bedford–Stuyvesant was rezoned for affordable housing. By 1997, there were about 7,000 Hasidic families in Williamsburg, almost a third of whom took public assistance. The Hasidic community of Williamsburg has one of the highest birthrates in the country, with an average of eight children per family. Because Hasidic men receive little to no secular education, and women tend to be homemakers, college degrees and economic opportunities lag far behind the rest of the population. This is a major reason for the near 60% poverty rate among the Jewish enclave in Williamsburg. With the gentrification of North Williamsburg, Hasidic Jews fought to retain the character of their neighborhood and have characterized the influx of art and hipster life as a “plague” and “a bitter decree from Heaven”. Conflicts over housing costs, loud nightlife events, and the bike lanes along Bedford Avenue have taken place as a result (New York Times, 2012).
The modes of transportation in Williamsburg are diverse, as the neighborhood has numerous bike lanes, subway lines, and walking areas. Walking through the neighborhood, we noticed all of the aforementioned types of transportation. The subway lines demonstrate Williamsburg’s connection to the city as a whole, as most residents use the trains to commute to work. The neighborhood is served by the J, M, Z, G, and L lines. Residential areas within close proximity of the subway is much more expensive in Williamsburg, since the majority of residents commuting to work via the subway. The bike lanes are also an example of gentrification. As the quality of life in the neighborhood has increased over the years, the transportation followed suit. The bike lanes diversified the way people commute and added a more eco-friendly element to the neighborhood as a whole. More designated walking areas, such as on the Williamsburg Bridge, also cater to that.
With gasoline prices rising, the length and means of one’s commute can be a financial burden. The greatest number of commuters in Williamsburg neighborhood spend between 30 and 45 minutes commuting one-way to work (53.8% of working residents), which is at or a bit above the average length of a commute across all U.S. neighborhoods. Most residents (84.0%) take the train to get to work. In addition, some residents to get to work by foot (5.6%). Williamsburg is distinguished by the high number of residents who take the train to work each day, which can be a very good way to get to work at a lower cost and with less pollution (City Data). Automobiles are no longer the lone mode of transportation in Williamsburg, as the changing population and increase in life quality called for changes in commuting and getting around the neighborhood.
Street Activity/Popular Attractions
Being one of Brooklyn’s and New York City’s most popular and vibrant neighborhoods, Williamsburg offers tons of activities for locals, visitors, and tourists. Changes in the neighborhood’s demographics towards a more younger population, as well as increase in quality of life and income, have influenced the types of events and activities that occur on a daily basis. The neighborhood is a mixture of old and new, although gentrification has made it more modern and popular than it once was. The hip Williamsburg scene coincides with old industrial buildings, modest attached homes, expensive waterfront high-rises, and a long-standing Hasidic Jewish residential community. Nevertheless, the varying activities offer anyone a chance to see Williamsburg for themselves (Williamsburg Street Activity)
Williamsburg is considered one of Brooklyn’s premier food neighborhoods, which means there is no shortage of excellent wine, cheese, meat, and produce. There is a wide range of restaurants that offer a multitude of traditional cuisines at varying prices and locations. There are also many simpler eateries that offer street-style food, such as tacos. Some of the eating establishments that we spotted during our visit to Williamsburg were Peter Luger Steakhouse and Dressler. Both are rated with one Michelin star, a prestigious rating for any restaurant. The Brooklyn Flea Market and Smorgasburg, an outdoor food festival that almost everyone is familiar with, are also among very popular food attractions that are well-known in Williamsburg. Having these options for fine dining and an exquisite eating experience shows how gentrification and the passage of time have impacted the food scene in Williamsburg. The streets of Williamsburg are never without some type of fine-dining or street-food eatery.
One of the most popular activities in Williamsburg is bowling. There are several well-known bowling alleys in the neighborhood, one of which has a modern spin. Brooklyn Bowl, which is a well-known bowling alley in New York City, is actually split into a bowling alley and a concert venue. This is a perfect example of how street activity has adapted to a changed demographic. Bowling and live music caters to the much younger population, showing the effects of gentrification on the neighborhood. Williamsburg also has classic bowling alleys without any additional spins. The Gutter, for instance, has traditional bowling, along with a bar with vintage overtones.
An aspect of street activity that really makes Williamsburg such a modern hot spot is the breweries and cocktail bars. Brooklyn Brewery is a local institution that has helped revitalize the beer industry in Brooklyn, as it was once home to many major brewers. There are also various beer gardens in Williamsburg that many locals and visitors explore. In additional to beer, wine is also a hot choice by many residents. There are plenty of small, tasteful, and whimsical wine and cocktail bars that serve as an alternative to beer. Having a casual experience at a reasonable cost is the goal of all of these beer, wine, and cocktail establishments.
Something that really caters to the younger demographic in Williamsburg is the vintage shopping opportunities in the neighborhood. Williamsburg has several vintage and artisanal shops that offer retro-style and designer-brand clothing, a unique selection of cheeses (Bedford Cheese Shop), and other types of attractive items.
These are some of the most popular activities that make Williamsburg the hot spot that it is. There are other classic and simple ways to enjoy everyday life in the neighborhood, such as a walk or bike on the Williamsburg Bridge, attending the popular Northside Festival (New York City’s longest-running music festival), or taking a cooking class. There is something for everyone to do in Williamsburg, as the streets are almost never empty. With a younger demographic, rising costs, and improved quality of life, the activities reflect these changes and make the neighborhood a hot spot.
Jobs and Businesses
In 1960, there were, on average, less than 10% of households made more than $10,000. $10,000 in 1960 is worth over $85,000 today. There are some areas within Williamsburg that, as of 2016, make more than $100,000. As a result of households making more money, businesses can raise the prices. This has happened in Williamsburg. Businesses were catering to the poor and now – because residents are making more money – they tend to cater to a more affluent community. This pushes out older businesses for newer, trendier businesses.
According to Census data, in 1960, throughout Williamsburg, there were a lot of people who were categorized as “Operatives and kindred workers.” This includes a large amount of occupations, but those occupations are mostly comprised of people who worked in the transportation industry and people who made different articles of clothing.
Throughout Williamsburg, according to the 1960 Census, about 30-35% of people fit into the category of “Operatives and kindred workers.” According to the American Community Survey, Williamsburg, in 2016, was mostly comprised several categories of workers:
- Arts, Entertainment, and Recreation
- Accommodation and Food Services
- Educational Services
- Health Care and Social Assistance
- Professional, Scientific, and Management
- Administrative and Waste Management Services
Over the span of almost 60 years, the outlook of jobs in Williamsburg has changed. It went from a neighborhood with more industrial jobs to a neighborhood with jobs that were predicated on arts and science.
Prior to the 1970’s, there was no significant arts or music in Williamsburg. However, the inexpensive rent was attractive to artists in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village and Soho neighborhoods. As a result, they leased commercial spaces through the 1980’s where they both worked and lived. At first, the visual arts community was very small but by the late 90’s the artist population reach about 3,000 (New York Times, 2011). The growing art community centered around the foundation of new galleries, namely the Front Room Gallery, the experimental Sideshow Gallery, Luhrig Augustine, and Figureworks (New York Times, 2011). These galleries differed from their more upscale counterparts across the river and were home to new and experimental artists. Most of these galleries concentrated around contemporary work and used a variety of mediums including canvas, print, metal, clay, and plastic. The effect of the art community was evident in the neighborhood— public arts projects were under construction throughout the 2000’s, local artists used contract to decorated specific streets (see images), and the artistic rebirth of Bedford Avenue began via public funding for art spaces and murals. Some popular street murals include Kobra’s work depicting Michael Halsban’s famous image showing Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat wearing boxing gloves, ROA’s artwork showing dogs in a calm scene, and Mr. Brainwash graffiti 250N10 depicting a contemporary scene with a quote “Life is Beautiful” on the bottom. In 2001, an arts magazine called 111211 Magazine launched their business in Williamsburg and began promoting the Williamsburg neighborhood through explorations of distinguished properties, the rising arts movement, and the development of the neighborhood.
One of the oldest and well-known art galleries in Williamsburg is the Sideshow Gallery, which was opened by urban contemporary artists Richard Timperio in 1994 in a coffee shop on Bedford Avenue. Since then, it has grown it has gained respect and notoriety in NYC for being one of the largest private exhibition spaces in Brooklyn by providing “a forum for all art that attains a high level of quality and embodies integrity, regardless of style or approach.” Under Timperio’s supervision the gallery became a center for abstract and contemporary art and showcased the works of artists such as Chris Martin, Jonas Mekas, Larry Poons, Thornton Willis, Dan Christensen, Richard Mock, TODT, Robert C. Morgan, Robert Murray, and Tadasky.
In addition to hosting a burgeoning visual arts scene, Williamsburg has been home to an increasing number of musicians. In the late 80’s and 90’s, musicians and performers began to operate in unlicensed and abandoned factories, warehouses, and venues throughout the neighborhood (New York Times, 2011). They began to expand toward the Bedford Avenue train station and pushed out the Hispanic immigrants that resided there. According to a 2005 New York Times article, some notable bands which performed in the 1990’s in the area included The Bog, Keep Refrigerated, The Lizard’s Tail, Quiet Life, Rubulad, Flux Factory, Mighty Robot, free103point9. However, in the wake of rent hikes and crackdowns by the city government, most of these venues shuttered and the artists dispersed among smaller venues in Williamsburg, Bushwick, the East Village, and Bowery. In the following decade, several large commercial music venues opened in Williamsburg including Pete’s Candy Store, Union Pool, Music Hall of Williamsburg (formerly Northsix), Muchmore’s, and Grand Victory. In the late 2000’s and early 2010’s, music venues shifted to more affluent areas and festivals were thrown at the ritzy Williamsburg Waterfront. The music played through these four past decades centered mainly around funk, soul, and worldbeat, with new influences from deep house and the R&B scene. In addition, the Hispanic section of Williamsburg has a strong influence of Latin Jazz and several bands perform in bars and clubs.
As the process of gentrification accelerates in specific areas of Williamsburg and the neighborhood sees higher commercial and home prices, the artistic community is beginning to plateau and shift to new areas. New and rising artists are looking for inexpensive communities where they can practice their talent without being threatened by high costs of living.
Beginning with the influx of artists into the Hispanic sections of Williamsburg, the real estate market in Williamsburg has been a true example of the process of gentrification. From the 1970’s to the early 1990’s, average home prices were slowly increasing as artists began to move into the area via commercial leasing space. They flocked to the area due to the close proximity toManhattan, but also due to the low rent prices and availability of large amount of unused space. In an interview with the New York Times in 2011, Sunny Chapman, 60, a dance instructor and artist who moved to Williamsburg 16 years ago, discusses the wild popularity of the neighborhood, “I lived in Manhattan in the ’80s and we used to talk about ‘bridge and tunnel’ people… Now we talk about bridge and tunnel people coming in from Manhattan.” At the time, Williamsburg was filled with a Hasidic Jewish and Hispanic communities in the residential areas, but closer to the waterfront sat mostly abandoned warehouses, which new artists capitalized upon. However, the 90’s saw drastic increases in price as demand for upscale housing in Williamsburg increased. Many of the Hispanics, who lived in subdivided apartments north of Grand Street were forced to relocate as the rent prices became uncontrollable. Similarly, the Hasidic Jews in the northwest part of Williamsburg were forced to join their community in the southwestern section (New York Times, 2011).
From the 1990’s to the early 2000’s, prices for homes increased by an average of 60% as demand by Manhattan’s youth elite skyrocketed according to statistics from the Financial Times. “Hipsters,” known as trendy people, found the area desirable and looked for upscale and unique housing. This led developers to lobby local government for the rezoning of north of Grand Street. The rezoning passed through the NYC City Council in the late 90’s and the conversion of warehouses to luxurious lofts began, with median home prices going as far as $600,000 for single bedroom apartments, as rated by Zillow.com. In addition, to cater to the needs and wants of the affluent community- supermarkets, home stores, and other shops began to increase the prices and quality of their goods, thus increasing the cost of living in the neighborhood. As demand grew in the first decade of the 21st century, home and rent prices increased by roughly 75% according to Statista, further polarizing lower income residents and removing any sign of their presence. Investment in the Williamsburg waterfront topped $2 billion and construction of massive luxury apartment began in the mid 2000’s and continues to this day.
While the northern section of Williamsburg grew and opened up to migration for the city’s wealthy arts community, the south stagnated and even declined in quality of life. Developers flocked to north and Williamsburg district council diverted tax funding and school funds to the growing Northern section. In addition to these issues, Neil Smith, an anthropology and geography professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center, commented in a 2011 New York Times interview on the growing economy in the north, claiming that “It’s no longer just about housing. It’s really a
systematic class-remaking of city neighborhoods. It’s driven by many of the same forces, especially the profitable use of land. But it’s about creating entire environments: employment, recreation, environmental conditions.”
Up to present day, North Williamsburg continues to grow and price increases reflect steady demand for homes in the area. Since gentrification began in Williamsburg, Statista finds that home prices have increased over 210% and the resultant demographic shifted from poor and immigrant workers to upper class, hipster, and predominantly white families.