Williamsburg, Brooklyn Williamsburg, Brooklyn Williamsburg, Brooklyn Williamsburg, Brooklyn

Williamsburg, the ‘Hipster Capital of the World’, is a neighbourhood in Brooklyn, New York, just one subway ride away from a glossy Manhattan and into very different territory.

If New York is the Capital of the Art World then Manhattan is its epicentre. It wasn’t always so glossy and it was the abandoned downtown manufacturing district of 1960s Manhattan that drew in artists seeking space, light and low rent. Punk and Fluxus aesthetics and ideas didn’t care for polish, and amongst the decay flourished fresh artistic communities.  The ‘raw, dark, dangerous and broke New York’ is one that composer and performance artist Laurie Anderson remembers as “exhilarating… like Paris in the ‘20s’; ‘we had no interest in money and thought those who did were idiots.” Others followed, think of Andy Warhol in the 1970s setting up his pop art Factory studios in the midst of the ‘it’ crowd he thrived off. Success, however, brings desirability and Manhattan eventually ceased to be so raw and its rent so cheap.

Meanwhile, areas of 1980s Brooklyn possessed those same ripe qualities attractive to artists. Post-industrial decline left neighbourhoods such as Williamsburg with heavy crime and social ills… yet deliciously dilapidated factories and warehouses. Here creative and artistic communities began to form. Williamsburg had been a poor working class borough, home to different ethnic groups such as Italian, Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Hasidic Jews and despite complications it bore honest cultural depths. This combined with fresh incoming energy made for a vibrant atmosphere. Following the early ‘pioneers’, those seeking an alternative and cheap place to live and work in New York have swelled the population of Williamsburg and it is now seeing much investment and inevitable gentrification.

The McCarren Park swimming pool presents a microcosm of the area’s gentrification. In the 1980s it was a grim place, a time when ‘a stroll along the Williamsburg waterfront was more likely to turn up a dead body than a hibiscus-flavoured donut’ and closed in 1984 to become an empty shell. But in recent years it has become the venue for Indie-rock shows, flea markets and the Williamsburg Film Festival. This winter it is to be renovated into an ice-skating rink. Williamsburg’s architecture is likewise illustrative of the changes as the industrial scape is revamped into living and working spaces. In particular plans to upgrade the iconic Domino Sugar Factory (in its glory days supplying half of the U.S with sugar) and its riverside site truly will change Williamsburg. By building gleaming towers around the old factory and converting the derelict building into apartments it will serve a more upmarket demographic as well as redefine the skyline.

Bedford road holds the main concentration of shops consisting of thrift stores, artisan jewellery, independent cafes, record shops and bookstores. Music venues abound, and there’s much to entertain outside the mainstream. A DIY attitude exists and one coffee bar owner explained: ‘in our part of the neighbourhood, you get a sense of the old style and new style coming together. There’s still charm and romance; things are done and made with love.’ Food that is made with love is usually rather good, and the reviews of Williamsburg eateries certainly say so. ‘CB I Hate Perfume’ is a shop (Wythe Ave.) that caught my eye. The perfumer started this shop in order to treat perfume as an art medium. He wrote a manifesto, which included ‘people who smell like everyone else disgust me’/‘perfume is a signpost to our true selves- a different journey for the brave to travel’. His shop is a gallery of scents created by his own hand and bespoke perfumes are waiting to be mixed. Such singular quests find a welcome home in Williamsburg. It is an evolving community but in the communality, anti-materialism and generosity there is a shared spirit of the movements of 1960s that brought Manhattan to life.

Williamsburg’s hipster status is one crowed about perhaps too loudly and self-consciously. The Citibike stands in Manhattan signs read such wry statements as ‘Williamsburg is only 12 minutes away. I’ll race you to the plaid shirt store’ and ‘Williamsburg is only 12 minutes away. Or you could just stay home and shop on Etsy’. Social media intensifies this identity; Yelp created a heat map tracking reviews that use the word ‘hipster’ and Williamsburg is heavily afflicted.

Being on the cusp between anarchic and fashionable is what makes Williamsburg the ‘Hipster Capital of the World’. For certain this transient state is one to be enjoyed.