A firsthand account of the swift transformation of Williamsburg, from factory backwater to artists' district to trendy hub and high-rise colony
Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is now so synonymous with hipster culture and the very idea of urban revitalization—so well-known from Chicago to Cambodia as the playground for the game of ironized status-seeking and lifestyle one-upmanship—that it's easy to forget how just a few years ago it was a very different neighborhood: a spread of factories, mean streets and ratty apartments that the rest of New York City feared and everyone but artists with nowhere else to go left alone.
Robert Anasi hasn't forgotten. He moved to a $300-a-month apartment in Williamsburg in 1994, and watched as the area went through a series of surreal transformations: the warehouses became lofts, secret cocaine bars became sylized absinthe parlors, barrooms became stage sets for inde-rock careers and rents rose and rose—until the local artists found that their ideal of personal creativity had served the aims of global commerce, and that their neighborhood now belonged to someone else.
Tight, passionate, and provocative, The Last Bohemia is at once a celebration of the fever dream of bohemia, a lament for what Williamsburg has become and a cautionary tale about the lurching transformations of city neighborhoods throughout the United States.
The Last Bohemia
Paperback, FSG Originals, 2012read an excerpt
A firsthand account of the swift transformation of Williamsburg, from factory backwater to artists' district to trendy hub and high-rise colony
An excerpt from The Last Bohemia
Prologue: Summer of 2011
Friday, August 12, 2011
Sonic Youth is headlining a show at East River State Park, a three-block span of waterfront on the Northside of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It’s the latest in a concert series that started back in June and stretched through a July heat wave that broke almost nine thousand temperature records across America, ‘causing pavements to explode, railroad rails to buckle, and insects to invade homes in search of shelter and water.’ So far, August has been blissfully temperate and a mellow breeze sidles in from the river. The gates opened at 5:30 and two and a half hours later the first distorted guitar riff and drum thuds bring a delighted bellow from the crowd. Since I don’t have a ticket, I’m stuck outside.
I’ve donned a hipster disguise for the occasion: black-and-white shell-toe Adidas, red Toughskins jeans, a black T-shirt from a strip club, large mirrored sunglasses and two death’s-head earrings. The Adidas are replicas of shoes Run-DMC rapped about in ‘My Adidas,’ and part of a breakdancer’s uniform—the shell toes help with spins. The Toughskins date to the late 1970s and have a subtle light blue weave that gives them the afterimage shimmer of complementary colors. They’re a sentimental choice: I wore Toughskins as a boy in the seventies. The T-shirt, from a strip club further east in Williamsburg, reads ‘Pumps exotic dancing.’ In a white circle above the lettering, the silhouettes of two naked women revolve around a stripper pole. Their f i gures are cartoon preposterous. The back of the T-shirt reads ‘There goes the neighborhood, BROOKLYN, New York,’ along with the address and phone number (718- 599- 2474, FYI). I’ve been to Pumps, but I’m wearing the T-shirt ironically, because of course an English PhD couldn’t wear it any other way. The sunglasses are Rocawear, Jay- Z’s brand. The death’s-head earrings are the kind of thing a seventeen-year-old metal head from Fontana would wear. So that’s funny. It’s an outfit designed to make me conspicuously inconspicuous in American’s coolest zip code. Williamsburg was my home for fourteen years but I left in 2008 and everything I see reminds me that it’s not home anymore.
Five minutes outside the concert are enough for me to realize that I picked the wrong disguise. Today it’s an older crowd for, let’s face it, an older band (like, AARP card old). The women wear various takes on sundresses or blouse- skirt ensembles. Most of the guys wear logo’d T-shirts, relaxed-fit jeans and sneakers—American men dressing like American boy. Waistlines and hairlines show that they’re closer to forty than thirty. Three decades have passed since Sonic Youth launched from the Lower East Side postpunk scene. I was seventeen when I first saw them in my hometown of Providence. They’d just started touring Bad Moon Rising and I’d fake ID’d my way in to join fifty other people in a concrete bunker called the Living Room. I spent the entire show leaning against a pillar as tuneful dissonance tore a hole in the space-time continuum, defeaning and clear, the gateway to something new. To night in some small club out in Bushwick or Bed-Stuy a nervous teenager is getting his head blown apart by a sound that will alter American music. But that teenager is definitely not here.
Outside the fence the sound is mud, the vocals muffled. An aging fan rushes by me, dragging a woman and talking in a rush, trying to infect her with his passion. His free hand waves the air in time to the drum rumble. I recognize the intro to ‘Death Valley ’69’ and catch the enthusiasm myself, swept up in a thrill of music I love played live in a new location, the Manhattan skyline a perfect backdrop, sunset seething purple, orange and violet.
But it is not really a new location for me, and my ennui stems from its usual source—the gap between what was and what is. This is not the waterfront as I remember it, as I still want it to be. I take a walk around the park and run into barriers no matter where I go. Pine green plastic sheets hang from the fences. The sheeting has a .org address for an ‘Open Space Alliance.’ Semicircles have been cut out of the plastic at regular intervals to keep the sheets from flying loose in the wind. An ancillary effect is that you can see inside—see the crowd and the big sound stage, the concert speakers and construction trailers. Of course fans are taking advantage, knees bent, peering through. But it’s still a fence and the price of a Sunday in the park is thirty-five dollars, if you bought a ticket before they sold out.
I wind up sitting on a crumbling wall next to the fence on the last block of North Seventh before it hits water. Pavement has replaced cobblestone there, cobblestones and trash. The L subway rumbles right under my feet and at the end of the block there’s a ventilation unit for the subway tunnel. It looks like what it is—the world’s biggest floor fan. Orange security barriers block the road a couple dozen yards up from the squat ventilation structure, the barriers manned by men wearing yellow polo shirts and black pants. Lettering on the shirts reads ‘Event 565 Staff.’ Opposite the park is the far end of the Edge, a complex of condo towers that went up over the last five years on the site of a ‘waste transfer station.’ Something approaching fifteen hundred units pack the insta-city of colored glass and steel. On a few of the blue-railed balconies, residents peer down at the ruckus.
I leave the wall and walk to Kent Street. Cop uniforms stand out in the swirl of bodies, walkie-talkies crackling. I almost get run over by a bicycle—‘It’s a two- way bike lane,’ the cyclist sighs—as I watch touts trying to sell tickets even this late in the game. They don’t seem very concerned about the cops and the sour honey of marijuana bastes the air. Toward the park entrance I pass the one building within the park boundaries—an old brick ware house. Fifteen years ago the span between North Sixth and Ninth held seven ware houses and factories. All the buildings were occupied, but only the squatters in this one ware house managed to navigate the labyrinth of New York City housing law and gain title. Most of the other squatters were vagrants, drug addicts and prostitutes in need of a place to hide their shame. From luxury boxes, the proud new homeowners watched the other buildings on the lot fired and demolished.
The ground floor of the ware house semaphores a stint as a restaurant or café, furled black-and-yellow patio umbrellas with the Żyweic logo and heavy iron furniture lining one wall behind yet another fence. The cheap row of mailboxes in the lobby heartens me—at least some early neighborhood settlers managed to hold out. Security and more barriers block the park entrance.
Bags open, the guards say. Ladies have your bag open. No food and drink. Have your tickets out.
As per usual, security is mostly black and Latino, heavy men who pump a lot of iron and eat a lot of pizza. They can’t be loving the uniforms—in black and yellow they look like bumblebees and even XXL adheres to man- boobs like spray- paint. Across the river, window lights flash in the dark mass of the cityscape. I’ve had enough of the new Williamsburg and head off to meet a friend.
Beth and I get socially lubricated at an enoteca on the corner of North Seventh and Wythe. The enoteca encapsulates the contradictions of Williamsburg: outside you have a flimsy three-story house with faux-wood shingles, inside, Sardinia. It’s been at least six years since Beth and I have been on the Northside together. Back then she worked for a sports book, boxed competitively and was an occasional stripper. We drank at Black Betty. We drank at Rosemary’s Greenpoint Tavern (which isn’t actually in Greenpoint). Now she’s a writer whose first book is about to be released as a Hollywood feature film. She’s given up boxing for yoga but still looks great in her cutoffs.
Out on the street the show is over and we struggle upstream through a mob eager to keep the party going. A barricade at the bottom of North Eighth manned by cops turns us back and we head south down Wythe. A block away from the waterfront condos the housing stock speaks of a very different past, four-story rows sided in vinyl or tar paper. It could be a blue-collar enclave in any old industrial town except that the occupants of these railroad apartments are as likely to have graduated from Yale as the University of the Streets.
I’m trying to explain how things used to be on the Northside but it’s not working. ‘This used to be’ is not the easiest game to play. That upscale seafood restaurant? It used to be a Jewish bakery with two-dollar loaves of heavy rye. The boutique window featuring a headless mannequin in funeral black? That was a friend’s apartment, the windows painted over so that it was always midnight inside. By the time we make it back to the Edge, Beth is as tired of the game as I am. Broad walkways lead out to two new piers, metal clattering brightly to our footsteps. The disconnect from the old waterfront is overwhelming. A ferry service opened this summer on the East River and for the first time in over a century you can water-commute from Williamsburg to Midtown. Signs all down Kent Avenue announce the ferry arrival with one of the worst catchphrases I’ve ever read: ‘Relax, we’ll get you there,’ straight verbal Valium. Four dollars takes you wherever the ferry goes—Long Island City, Wall Street, Governors Island. Stray concertgoers wander or sit on the patches of well-tended lawns. Dog walkers jabber into iPhones as their purebreds urinate on the well-tended lawns.
The Edge was built by the Stephen B. Jacobs Group, an architecture firm responsible for big Manhattan projects like the Hotels Giraffe and Gansevoort. In Manhattan, the Jacobs Group liked to supersize some classical form—Italianate, Federal, Georgian—and wrap it in a New Age glitter of mirrored glass and pulsing neon, mansard roofs mating with flying saucers. In Williamsburg, with no historical societies to placate, they could dispose of tributes to the olden days. Welcome to Abu Dhabi! (Or Key West, where Jacobs erected a white elephant of a hotel.) It was pointless to hate a large chunk of concrete and steel but I tried. Why? I mean, why build this thing? It didn’t have anything to do with the place where it had been planted. You had the views, sure, but the East River isn’t the the Gulf of Mexico—no sandy beaches and swimming only for iron men and suicides. When you walked out of the Edge you were still in the world of the Edge—street-level version—a dull chain of franchise stores and overpriced restaurants. The blessing of New York congestion was that when you left your house you were tossed into all those other people. People in the streets and in the stores and walking their dogs and running errands. Life. But when you walked out of the Edge you walked into nothing. Cars and trucks running down Kent and a few pedestrians but no city life and blocks to go before you found any. Outside even the plushest Upper West Side manor the city enveloped you. But at the Edge you had all the boredom of the suburbs without any of the trees. Only a methodical calculus could explain the choice to buy there—a certain kind of person with a certain income could afford to buy a certain number of square feet more at the Edge than he could on Water Street, and, after subtracting for the longer commute, you still had a reasonable investment opportunity. The views and the cool zip code were just throw-ins.
In the wake of another couple, we pass the last Edge tower on a walkway that wraps a former ware house. Unlike the Edge, the ware house wasn’t designed by Jacobs, et al. The Austin, Nichols & Company Warehouse building is a stolid white cube that was built in 1915. Austin, Nichols has been disemboweled since I left the neighborhood, a ‘gut reno,’ and now offers loft rentals. Five thousand a month will get you eight hundred square feet.
This used to be all artists’ lofts, I say. They had these amazing parties, over entire floors. There was a seawall here too with an iron gate. In the old days, boats could dock right at the building. We used to crawl underneath—it was just a huge open space—and then walk out to what was basically a forest.
I wave out at the remodeled piers.
When the Edge started construction, I say, they fenced all this off but we kept cutting holes in the fences. I guess they won.
I trail off at the glaze that films Beth’s eyes, cataracts of boredom. My lost world is far from the ineluctable now, which at the moment provides us a view into a ‘fitness center’ on the ground floor of the former warehouse—a half acre of the most advanced pound- shredding, bun-rounding devices known to the twenty-first century in a space where railroad cars used to roll. Inside, fluorescent lights banish every shadow, but the room is empty, a display case.
‘Where are you leading me?’ slurs the man ahead of us. The couple is young and the man is handsome. His slur is half liquor, half Castile, a mellow blend. The girl giggles and I see they’ve hit another barrier, this one temporary, fresh plywood blocking the way to North Third. Over the plywood rises the round mass of a fuel storage tank. The couple turns back and we follow, all the way out of the Edge and out to Kent. Beth is ready to be somewhere else. She mentions the Greenpoint Tavern. I tell her it’s still open. She asks if it’s as tacky as it used to be. I assure her that it is, that you can still get a thirty-two-ounce Styrofoam cup of Bud for three dollars.
But there’s one last place I want to show her. She humors me so we walk down Kent to North Third. I have it figured out: I’ll point out the abandoned fuel tanks of New England Petroleum and then take her past Grand Ferry Park, where ferries stopped before the Williamsburg Bridge was built—a few more ‘this used to be’s’ and then over and out. The tour will end with a whimper.
On North Third we face the usual obstacles. There’s another fence, chain-link, and a string of lights dangling from a scaffold over the sidewalk. Underfoot, cobblestones, very different from the slick walkways on the Edge side of the plywood, Miami Beach to industrial ruin in a matter of inches. In an economic downturn that has people muttering ‘Depression,’ the Edge is only 40 percent sold, still a more robust figure than any of its rivals in the neighborhood can claim. Banners on Austin, Nichols offer rental lofts but most of the windows are dark. In recent years a security guard has barred the end of North Third but I don’t see him to night. This is our chance.
Come on, I say and hop over what my father told me was a ‘Jersey barrier’ when they first started appearing on the freeways in the seventies.
Where are you going? Beth says, but she follows. I expect shouts and men in uniforms, but we reach the end of the block without a sound. Just as I remember, the chain-link fence beside the fuel tanks is cut and sagging, and we duck through. A narrow walkway runs alongside the massive fuel tank and we reach another barrier, a solid metal panel, but ripped away from its top joint. We squeeze through and shuffle out along the walkway.
Still no shouts, no cops. After the second barrier I feel relief but we’re still visible from the shore. The walkway is eighteen inches wide and algal pools of water make it slick. We turn a corner and continue our cautious shuffle, shoulders pressed against the cool white of the tank until we’re past any shore sight lines. Safe at last. In front of us, wooden piers finger out to a series of docks.
Let’s go up to the top, I say.
I lead Beth to a gate at the foot of a stairway that climbs the hundred-odd feet of the fuel tank. Wire—razor and barbed—crowns the high gate and fence. Beth is dubious.
I’ll go first, I say, and clamber up the gate (if you have to climb a fence, take the gate—more footholds). Beth follows but freezes at the top. The cutoffs mean she has to swing her bare legs over the razor loops, one and then the other, fifteen feet over the ground.
I don’t know if I can do this, she says.
Sure you can, I say. You already did the hard part.
That’s easy for you to say, she says. You’re not wearing Daisy Dukes.
She gears herself up and makes the move. No rusty slash, no tetanus scare. I’ve always loved exploring the waterfront but it’s a hundred times better with a partner.
I’m not at all surprised that Beth hopped the fence; she did make it to the finals in the Golden Gloves. Eight years ago, Beth and I ate magic mushrooms before a night of dancing at Black Betty. On the way to the club, Beth thought it would be funny to hit me as hard as she could. We’d walk a few yards, then she’d spin around and drop a right in my stomach. I’d shout ‘Are you crazy?’ before hitting her back. After Black Betty, we ended up at my apartment. Her nice Jewish boyfriend—later husband, later ex-husband—watched in horror as we kept tagging each other on the couch. The next day the couple drove to see Beth’s parents, and the boyfriend had to explain that he wasn’t the person who’d painted her in bruises.
After the trek up the metal stairway we clamber through a maze of pipes and valves and hoses and walkways set in pebbled tar. I haven’t been up here since I left Williamsburg and I notice changes. For one thing, lit bulbs drooping from extension cords like glass fruit make me think the late shift is about to clock in. There also seems to be more open space, as if they’ve been clearing the top of the tank. Here, too, demolition is under way.
The Williamsburg skyline has also changed, moving from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century in one five-year leap. From our perch we look across the entire three square miles or so of neighborhood: the old domed banks, the churches with their small-town spires, the flat black ware house roofs, the LEGO squares of one-family houses, the steel bridge and cemetery beyond. To the north, the Edge is the most stunning irruption of the new, the three towers and piers and plazas an alien graft, Williamsburg-cum-cyborg. Other developments have sprung up along the waterfront, a patchwork of glass and burnished steel rising over brick factories and row houses clad in vinyl.
Traditionally, Williamsburg has been divided into three sections: Northside, Southside and East Williamsburg. When outsiders, all those German, Spanish, Japanese tourists, all those travelers from anywhere America, when they say ‘Williamsburg,’ they mean the Northside. The Northside is where the L subway stops first and where most of the restaurants, clubs and boutiques have sprouted. The Northside also has the best stretch of East River waterfront and landmarks like the Domino Sugar factory and the McCarren Park Pool. The Northside is where I lived for fourteen years and where the biggest changes have come.
My personal Northside runs from the river on the west to the great wall of the Brooklyn–Queens Expressway to the east. We can see the BQE from where we stand, a twisting line of headlights suspended in midair, glow- in- the- dark dragon several miles long. North, my neighborhood ends at McCarren Park, in the night a thirty-five-acre black moat below the lights of Greenpoint. The southern boundary of the Northside is said to be Grand Street, where the street prefixes change from north to south. My personal neighborhood goes further south than that, past an industrial zone of tenements and towering ware houses, all the way down to the elevated subway lines over Broadway and the Williamsburg Bridge. For fourteen years that was home but it never will be again.
From the bridge, we turn back toward the ware house across North Third. The scenic view from the Austin, Nichols balconies takes in the fuel tanks, immense ghost of Williamsburg past. At eye level some thirty-five feet away is what looks like a dinner party—five people at a butcher-block table with bottles and candles. On top of the tank, Beth and I are exposed but since they don’t expect us to be there, we’re invisible. At my feet a slate block imperfectly covers a hole with a ladder leading down into the tank. A faint smell of petroleum and chemicals rises from the hole, the ladder a pathway to the underworld.
I want to take Beth to the fuel tank on the other side of the compound. We approach a catwalk that crosses the yard to the opposite tank. A few echoing steps onto the catwalk grate and I freeze: two security guards are talking below in the light of their checkpoint booth. Beth and I have been loud, practically shouting, and I’m sure we’ll be spotted. I wonder if we can run back to North Third before a squad car arrives. As I have a couple of outstanding warrants, I’m not in any position to be arrested. The guards don’t look up, though, and we creep out over the checkpoint. Across Kent a party has spilled out of another ware house. The Monster Island Arts Center hasn’t been absorbed by new Williamsburg yet, graffiti a splotched second skin over old brick. None of the partyers notice us and we’re free to explore the other tank—more pipes and valves and giant faucet wheels that you’d need Hercules to turn.
Curiosity satisfied, we cross the catwalk again, tromp back down the stairs and climb the gate—no problem for Beth this time. I’m no longer disappointed with the night.
We run out on piers to the docks, massive cylinders plunging into the river muck. The docks hold storage sheds and rubber-wheeled carts and concrete mooring pegs as thick around as sumo wrestlers. I try to imagine the thick cables that wrapped the pegs and the big freighters rising behind them.
Beth points to one of the sheds.
You could live out here, she says. No one would know.
It’s probably the only place in Williamsburg I can still afford, I say.
We sit on the dock edge, feet hanging over the water. Tour boats slide by, festooned with light. It’s so quiet we can hear conversations on the boats, people at the railing taking it all in. A breeze stirs Beth’s hair, the tips of her curls gilded by summer.
It’s so quiet here, she says.
That’s what I love about it, I say.
Across the river the skyline, bright Manhattan dream. Beth stares at the city and gently kicks the air.
It’s crazy that you can be so close to all that and have it be so quiet, she says.
I don’t feel melancholy at all. Breaking and entering doesn’t give you time to cry over the past. Now my Williamsburg belongs to Beth too.
"With a fine ear for dialogue and a nonjudgmental eye, Anasi conjures the pre-9/11 atmosphere of the place, in which the beer flowed like water and there was always a place to crash after a night of pub crawling. An impressive bit of literary journalism and a sympathetic look at a vanished era."