On this page, we examine the history of gentrification in Williamsburg, starting from globalization and the neighborhood’s consequent deindustrialization in the 1980s to new condominiums being built for a new generation of “gentrifiers,” aiming to start new families and raise them where they are.
During the 1980s and the 1990s, Williamsburg began to transform from a notoriously dangerous area to a place full of opportunities for young people, especially artists. Sociologist Jason Patch writes that “into the early 1990s widespread homelessness, public drug dealing and prostitution filled the neighborhood,” while media such as the New York Times and New York “began hyping the neighborhood…as ‘The New Bohemia,’ as an extension of Manhattan’s underground hipness” (173). In her book Uncommon Spaces, sociologist Sharon Zukin notes the “visible presence” of artists in Williamsburg in the 1990s, “in an area not previously known for the arts” (43). Artists began to move to Williamsburg due to its proximity to Manhattan – the L train on Bedford Avenue is only a stop away from Manhattan – and its cheap rent offered to people who wanted to be close to the city, most likely young artists and entrepreneurs. What occurred in Williamsburg confirms Jane Jacobs’s that “old buildings with low rents will act as incubators of new activities,” according to Zukin (38). The “old buildings,” such as the Domino Sugar factory, housed manufacturing jobs for Williamsburg’s working class for many decades, and as globalization rose and jobs were exported overseas, these factories were shut down, leading to lots of empty space throughout Williamsburg.
The initial process of gentrification in Williamsburg stemmed from a lack of systemic private and public investment, but as time progressed, real estate developers and government played a greater role in gentrifying Williamsburg. Urban geographer Winifred Curran notes that the displacement of places such as manufacturing factories and small businesses “is the result of speculative real estate pressure that is tied directly to gentrification” (2). She expands on this point, saying that displacement “is an active process undertaken by real estate developers, policy-makers, landlords, and even individual gentrifiers” (2). Thus, there is a contrast between the absence of investment in the first wave of gentrification and the government and private involvement in later waves. This can be seen in other New York neighborhoods such as SoHo and the West Village, and, of course, in Williamsburg, where places like the Domino Sugar factory are being converted from their deindustrialized status to a modern “residential development,” as a waterfront with “glass-and-masonry towers, stores and a quarter-mile esplanade,” according to an article from the New York Times in 2010.
A landmark in recent gentrification in Williamsburg is the rezoning efforts by Mayor Bloomberg’s City Planning Commission in 2005, aimed to encourage more high-scale residential developments. After only three years, luxury condominiums were fully developed on the waterfront, although the housing crisis starting in 2007 affected its success.
Now, restaurants, artists’ unique storefronts, and other businesses exist along Bedford Avenue as the first business signaling gentrification from the 1990s. Williamsburg has become a place that “people come to…where residents don’t have a traditional urban village way of life but are very proud of the ‘authenticity’ of the neighborhood” (Zukin 60). People are starting to settle down in Williamsburg, as they have in other gentrified neighborhoods throughout New York City, and the ‘authenticity’ – the gritty, deindustrial, and ethnically mixed image of Williamsburg – has changed to be hipster, post-industrial, and mostly white. While the gentrifiers and hipsters of Williamsburg admire their deindustrialized environment and use it to their business advantage, they are clearly different from their predecessors.
Actor Danny Hoch wrote and starred in a one-man play called Taking Over about gentrification, and he summed up his feelings about it in three words in an interview with the New York Times: “It feels unfair.” To many former and current Williamsburg residents, it does feel unfair, that their neighborhood has changed, with upper-class Whites representing the new image of Williamsburg, often displacing ethnic businesses elsewhere, putting them out of business completely, or indirectly leading these businesses to benefit economically. Regardless of how you want to interpret these changes, they are certainly here to stay, and a new, “authentic” image of Williamsburg will continue to project itself to the world.