Williamsburg is an international destination, partly an adult playground for those, often called hipsters, who enjoy the bars, restaurants, coffee shops, and boutiques, on multiple shopping streets. It’s also a living, breathing district with a complicated history. The story begins with location: Williamsburg’s position on the East River made it a 19th century industrial powerhouse, known for sugar refining, kerosene refining, and all manner of consumer goods. Four banks, all extant today, albeit transformed into an art gallery, event space, office building, and church grew near the spine of Broadway. Nearby is Peter Luger, founded in 1887 and still the city’s most renowned steakhouse.
The opening of the Williamsburg Bridge in 1903 connected the neighborhood to the Lower East Side, the city’s longstanding immigrant haven. Hundreds of tenements were built to accommodate those moving up and out. This neighborhood spawned luminaries like attorney Louis Nizer, comic Mel Brooks, and impresario Joseph Papp. Author Henry Miller was raised in Williamsburg; Betty Smith set her classic novel “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” in the neighborhood.
Williamsburg’s immigrant poverty spurred innovation: the neighborhood became home to one of the country’s earliest and most pleasing public housing complexes, with an International Style design. As the next generation of Jewish and Italian immigrants moved away after World War II America, two new groups found a home in Williamsburg: Holocaust refugees, many of them Hasidic Jews of the Satmar sect, and Puerto Ricans moving north for factory work. But Williamsburg, as did the city, suffered from the loss of population and factory jobs in the 1970s, as crime and abandonment increased.
Multiple phenomena positioned Williamsburg for its astonishing rebirth: the willingness of city officials to use public funds to stabilize neighborhoods, community organizing among residents, and the arrival of artists seeking space, often in dormant factory or warehouse buildings, after being priced out in Manhattan. Williamsburg’s proximity to Manhattan, the first stop in Brooklyn on two subway lines, again paid off. Gallerists, restaurateurs, nightclub operators, and forward-thinking businesses like the Brooklyn Brewery and the design company Brooklyn Industries began to put the “New Williamsburg” on the map. Real estate investors rushed in, buoyed by a rezoning that transformed formerly fallow factories into “Condoburg.” The upscaling of Williamsburg—in part, hardly in full—has drawn enormous interest, but also pushed residents, artists, and businesses out.
Our extensive three-hour walk will show visitors numerous facets of Williamsburg. We’ll start in the heart of the hipster zone, and pass by the Brooklyn Brewery and numerous shops. We’ll visit the waterfront, notable for the Domino Sugar plant awaiting redevelopment, and the site of hoped-for green space. We’ll see the old banks and a magnificent war memorial. We’ll dip into the Hasidic district, where the residents retain old world ways while adapting to life in an American shtetl,. We’ll see Henry Miller’s old block, a historic enclave amid Williamsburg’s ferment. The tour will disclose layers of history, including industrialists’ mansions turned into yeshivas, and tenements next to glossy new construction. We’ll see a repurposed public bathhouse, a starkly minimalist chocolate shop, and a mini-mall and a boutique hotel converted from factories. (On weekends, we may be able to stop at the Brooklyn Flea or Smorgasburg, two “New Brooklyn” institutions. From Friday-Sunday, we may stop in a gallery or two.) Williamsburg may not be Brooklyn’s most beautiful neighborhood, but you’ll see what it’s one of the buzziest.
This version of the tour omits the Hasidic enclave of South Williamsburg, as it’s the Sabbath. Instead, we take a more focused look at other parts of Williamsburg, including visits to some galleries and also more time in the neighborhood’s central section, which includes the legacy of Italian and Puerto Rican populations, as well as the pioneering public housing complex the Williamsburg Houses.
Transportation alternative for private tours: take the East River Ferry ($4/person) from its Wall Street start up the Brooklyn coast to the third stop, in Williamsburg, and start walking from there. I can meet you at the ferry, or in Williamsburg.
Also consider adding a visit to DUMBO, via the Brooklyn Bridge Park/DUMBO stop on the East River Ferry, at the start or end.