Arguably Brooklyn’s coolest borough, Williamsburg has changed a lot in recent years. In this extract from ALEXANDRA CARROLL’s newest book New York: An inspired wander through the Manhattan and Brooklyn boroughs we take a peak into Williamsburg’s burgeoning hub of flea markets, artisanal food and arts and crafts.
It’s the neighbourhood that birthed hipster culture and the comeback of American craft, twenty-first-century style. Artisanal, handmade, ethically sourced, recycled and repurposed: these are the central tenets of the back-to-basics ethos that gives Williamsburg its soul and sets the standard for outstanding food, home brew, and arts and crafts.
Over the past two decades, pockets of Brooklyn have been transformed by waves of the creative class, at the same time that twentysomethings have been priced out of Manhattan. Naturally all that talent and bohemia and energy was bound to transform its new home, and nowhere more so than in Williamsburg, a modest-looking neighbourhood which has become an extraordinary hub of food, fashion and design made with conscience and care.
Williamsburg still wears its heart on its sleeve today – well, at least beneath all the tatts and hipster sensibility. Ironically, gentrification has already pushed the down-at-heel artists and post-post-hipsters out of the area to places such as Bushwick, Greenpoint and Red Hook, before – at least aesthetically – that gentrification has had an effect on the architecture of Williamsburg. It’s not a pretty neighbourhood but after the slickness of SoHo and the picture perfect West Village, its look puts front and centre the amazing creative initiatives and innovations in food and design that make it one of the most dynamic of Brooklyn’s boroughs. Artists & Fleas and Smorgasburg’s respective offerings of craft that your grandma used to make and superfoods epitomise this spirit.
The Painting Lounge’s all-invited art classes and spaces such as the Brooklyn Art Library are ambitious and inspiring, and galleries featuring the fringe who are destined to be future superstars abound (check out wagmag.org for Brooklyn listings). A thriving food scene has led the way in everything organic, seasonal and locavore years before these ideals went mainstream.
Bedford Avenue, where the L train stops, is the most common entry point into this sprawling neighbourhood, which can feel a little like a story of north and south, with Grand Street the great divide. The action fans out from Bedford Avenue to Berry and Wythe to the west and Driggs and Roebling to the east. The North streets hold their own past the happening Metropolitan Avenue all the way to McCarren Park, while the South streets head down to and are fractured by the Williamsburg Bridge, and just beyond to Broadway.
Williamsburg is in transition. On one block it feels like a destination and cultural arbiter, the next it’s tumbleweeds. It’s worth visiting when it is most awake, which is on a weekend afternoon or after dark, when the top dining destinations come alive.
A wander through Williamsburg
The community vibe and buzz of Williamsburg is best experienced on a Saturday, which is when Smorgasburg pops up with more than 100 stalls offering inventive street food, artisanal goodies and organically sourced ingredients to satisfy the hungry foodie. It’s held from April to November, down on the waterfront at North 7th Street. Just diagonally across the road you’ll find Artists & Fleas, a fabulous indoor market where hipster entrepreneurs and artists hawk their handmade arts and crafts all year round.
Bedford Avenue is home to many of the stores that have enticed diehard Manhattanites to make the trek to Williamsburg to sample Brooklyn’s craft heritage and style. Leading the pack are Catbird, a gorgeous jewellery box of a shop offering its beautiful signature stackable rings and lovely gifts; Awoke Vintage, located opposite at 132 North 5th Street; and Jumelle (148 Bedford Avenue), which stocks American designers and some internationals. A few doors down from Catbird is the Bedford Cheese Shop, which early on set the gourmet gold standard for foodies. You’ll find other specialty stores nearby such as Mast Brothers Chocolate at 111 North 3rd Street, famous for an artisanal approach that extends from making the chocolate onsite to hand wrapping it. Oh, and it tastes heavenly, too.
Also on North 3rd Street is the Brooklyn Art Library (at 103A), which gives you the opportunity to stumble into multiple worlds via the wondrous Sketchbook Project, a catalogue of over 33,000 artists’ sketchbooks from more than 135 countries. Select a volume online based on a theme (from love or war to the elephant in the room or the photograph that changed the world, to name but a handful), an artist or an entirely random pick, and the librarian can pull it out for you. It’s easy to lose track of time here, and once you emerge you may be in need of sustenance. Happily, one of the best brunches in Brooklyn can be found at Egg (109 North 3rd Street).
Head next to Grand Street, where there’s an outpost of highly acclaimed Brooklyn atelier Bird. A little further afield, down towards the water, is Sprout Home (44 Grand Street), which is both a practical paean and a delight for all those apartment and rooftop gardeners (let’s face it, this is a town where a bonsai stands in for a garden).
Walk south along Wythe, pass under the Williamsburg Bridge and turn left onto Broadway. Here you’ll find Electric Nest, which stocks Electric Feathers, a label that is as much art as fashion with price tags to match. Each piece is created by hand – woven, dyed and painted – and one of a kind, and in this day and age it is precisely this attention to detail that’s priceless.
A coffee fix awaits just down the road at the delightful Marlow & Sons (81 Broadway), which takes the traditional crafts philosophy and nose-to-tail commitment so to heart that they’ve founded a tannery and also turn the wool of Icelandic sheep into locally knitted winter woolies. Some of these items are stocked at the cafe.
Come early or come very late, but do go to the no-reservation, hot dining destination Roberta’s (261 Moore Street). The delectable menu at this artisanal pizza joint extends so far beyond a ‘slice of pie’ that despite its random location at the edge of Williamsburg and Bushwick (take the L train to the Morgan Avenue stop), there’s always a queue. However, with its made-from-scratch ethos and fabulous food, some things are worth the wait.
This extract is taken from New York: An inspired wander through the Manhattan and Brooklyn boroughs by Alexandra Carroll, which is out now through Plum Books.
Alexandra Carroll has worked in publishing and print media for 20 years – as a journalist, editor and publisher, specialising in photography, literature, style, and the arts. Alex has been a frequent traveller to New York since her first visit in 1994. She lives in Sydney.