Tourist-burg-point-wick. Yes, It Is Happening—Tourism and Williamsburg Converge

By Mary Yeung

Even after The Deluge, they kept coming. Tourism in New York City has never been more robust after 9/11. Back in 2002, while some tourists canceled their visits, there were more than enough curiosity seekers to take their place. The truth is, when  the world focuses their attention on a single epic event taking place in a famous city like New York,  some of those people will want to make their next trip a pilgrimage.

Last year, fifty million tourists visited New York City, compared to 35 million in 2001. Economists will tell you that the weak dollar has made vacationing in America a relative bargain. But that doesn’t explain why tourism in the rest of the United States declined by 2% last year, while it was up 2.5% in New York City. Mayor Bloomberg, understandably, would like to take a lot of the credit, citing quality of life issues (the beautification of public spaces like the High Line, and park-like traffic islands throughout the City). The Mayor also credits his effective overseas marketing campaign, conducted by NYC & Company, the agency charged with promoting the City.

In 2006, he merged three separate marketing departments—NYC & Company, NYC Big Events, and NYC Marketing—to create one powerhouse promotional agency. (The Comptroller’s office is not so happy with NYC & Company right now, but that is a whole other story.) This March, NYC & Company announced that it had set a goal of steering over 55 million visitors to the Big Apple by 2015, with a laser-like on the 18- to 29-year-old youth market. Currently, the youth market makes up about 30% of the total, but most of that is domestic tourism, not foreign. The city plans to host many special events that would appeal to young people, and help them find affordable lodging and eateries.

It is estimated that tourists spent a whopping 32 billion dollars in New York City last year, and that 1 in 9 jobs in New York are in the tourist industry. Of course, most of those tourist dollars are spent in Manhattan, but Brooklyn is getting its share too. The borough with a million bloggers and countless award-winning and best-selling authors is doing a pretty good job of tooting its own horn. Brooklyn is now a world brand! We’re on T-shirts, pickle jars, and beer bottles. Brooklyn’s most enthusiastic cheerleader, Borough President Marty Markowitz, estimates that over 11 million tourists visited Kings County last year. Apparently, foreigners love Coney Island, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and hipster-clogged Williamsburg.

For tourists looking for a different vibe, Williamsburg and Greenpoint are perfect for tourists looking for a different vibe. It’s only one stop away from Manhattan, so they can’t get lost. They get to experience real outer borough neighborhoods with quirky eateries, a fancy winery, a steam punk brewery, a sushi-fied bowling alley, authentic biergartens, hip music venues, edgy art galleries, and lots and lots of shops that sell other people’s discarded clothes. Who else has a theater where you can enjoy a gourmet dinner while watching The Hunger Games? Not Manhattan! Where else can you get a tour of a glamorous wastewater treatment plant, complete with a nature walk? Not Queens! Even the creative wall murals (a.k.a. graffiti) are a big draw for street-art lovers everywhere. They come with their geeky iPhones and end up sending bizarre, bold-colored images to every corner of the globe. Look! It’s trippy Williamsburg!

So many establishments in Williamsburg are blogger darlings. Restaurants like Marlow & Sons, Egg, Fatty Cue, Pies and Thighs, Dressler, Peter Luger, Spuyten Duyvil, Maison Premiere, and Fette Sau have their own foodie followings. In June, the Brooklyn Film Festival wheels in film fans to IndieScreen Cinema. In the summer, the waterfront features Brooklyn Flea and Smorgasburg that bring in vintage shoppers and adventurous eaters. Greenpoint’s art scene also attracts lots of new visitors. It’s almost the perfect neighborhood to live in right now, with old world Polish butcher shops, pay-what-you-wish yoga studios, fashion shops, and good restaurants.

Starting in 2008, Williamsburg saw the opening of three hotels and a youth hostel. The first to open was Hotel Le Jolie, a well-priced, 62-room hotel on Meeker Avenue. The location is not what you would call glamorous (it faces the BQE), but it is steps away from the L train and the main shopping district. The rooms are small, yet tastefully decorated, and each comes with a very large plasma screen TV. Amenities include a cozy breakfast area, and a business center nook with faxing and free wi-fi. For the budget-minded traveler, it’s a pretty good deal. Rates start at $159 off peak and go up to $200 to $300 during peak seasons. The top floor has a view of the Manhattan skyline for people with good eyesight.

The boutique hotel in North Williamsburg is King & Grove’s Williamsburg. Just two months ago it was known as “The Hotel Williamsburg,” but Graves Hospitality sold the 64-room hotel to King & Grove Management for $33 million in March. The building sports an infinity pool, a terrace bar, and a 100-seat subterranean restaurant. Half the rooms face McCarren Park. Nightly rates are $295 to $3,500 (for a large two-bedroom suite), on a par with upscale Manhattan hotels. The decor is hip and sleek, but the new management is doing additional work on the place, so there is no telling what it will look like after they redecorate. Whether or not the staff gets to keep their designer industrial-chic uniforms (designed by Brooklyn Industries) is anyone’s guess. King & Grove also operates Hotel Chelsea, which you may remember as the legendary artists’ haven, the Chelsea Hotel on 23rd Street.

This May, the Wythe Hotel on the waterfront (80 Wythe Avenue) will be open for business. This 1901 brick building had a former life as a textile factory. The architect preserved some original details, such as the concave corner entrances, arched windows, cast iron columns, and original pine beams. The interior has been revamped and the brick wall facing the Manhattan skyline has been replaced with floor-to-ceiling windows. Built with partial government subsidies, this mid-price hotel is especially designed to fit into the Williamsburg music and food culture. There are 74 guest rooms, with two “band” rooms that can sleep four to six people and that are oh-so-conveniently located near the bar area. Rooms at the Wythe can be had for as low as $179. Rooms that feature the Manhattan skyline go from $295 to $495. The hotel is designed to host special events, like art exhibits and food book festivals. There is a 60-seat screening room. The ground floor restaurant and the rooftop bar are operated by Andrew Tarlow of Marlow & Sons fame, so expect innovative American fare from Chef Sean Rembold. The hotel is built by Two Trees Management.

For visitors on a tight budget, there is Zip 112, located at 112 North 6th Street, where you can score a bed in a dorm for 69 bucks. The decor is pretty bare bones. We are talking about bunk beds and not much else, but it’s a great location, surrounded by cafés, restaurants, bars, and shops. The Brooklyn Flea and Artists & Fleas are just a few short blocks away.

For an even cheaper stay, you’ll have to take the L train to Morgan Avenue and check into the New York Loft Hostel on 249 Varet Street. This old factory building has been transformed into one of the coolest hostels in town. I love all the colorful graphics on the walls and doors. It’s more bunk beds in small rooms and single beds in large dorm rooms again. Beds are $29 a night (less in the winter) and private rooms $100 (or $50 a bed if you share). The pros: edgy galleries, fantastic street art, and trendy eateries that serve exciting fare: Roberta’s, Momo Sushi bar, North East Kingdom, Torilleria Mexicana Los Hermanos, Life Café, and Cafe Orwell are great places to dine. The cons: It’s a warehouse district, so it’s wise to take car service at night. The hostel itself has an irrepressibly youthful energy. There’s an open backyard where weekend BBQ parties are held, a large communal kitchen, and a hot tub! Most customers are young Europeans and Japanese, although the manager, Esteban Liberati, says he had one hip French couple in their 70s who loved their stay. “They had a private room and they were cool with the place,” he says. NY Loft Hostel is designed and built by Argentinian developer Juan Figueroa.

Last year, Figueroa also purchased the Williamsburg Savings Bank, a beloved domed landmark, from HSBC bank. Immediately, rumors began to fly that this Renaissance-inspired 1870 building (175 Broadway) would soon be turned into a swanky hotel. Thus far the whole renovation project is very hush-hush. The latest word is that it will be a special events venue, with a stunning banquet hall. The two big steel vaults will be transformed into stylish bars. Well, that’s the rumor anyhow…

Over the years, Williamsburg has ceded some of its counterculture cred to Bushwick, but it remains a creative place, just with a lot more middle-class amenities, like cinemas, outdoor cafés, ferries, quirky fashion shops, home decor stores, a new state park, etc. Many young families, artists, and writers are hoping they can stay for a while. They want to build a future here, and that is good news for Williamsburg, because a neighborhood created for the sole purpose of capturing tourist dollars will be a soulless place. Let’s hope Williamsburg can gracefully straddle worlds, be a fun and creative playground for locals and visitors, and a warm and stable environment where long-term residents can get jobs, build memories, traditions, and a shared history.