Illustration by Carri Skoczek
By Benjamin Lozovsky
Going out in Williamsburg is like ordering an unfamiliar cocktail or draft, based on an existing favorite. The ingredients are generally expected, but with bold twists on flavor presented to a discerning palette, it’s all about the mix. When done right, it’s an exercise in spontaneity and audacity, blanketed in a warming sense of comfort. On a typical Friday night, start off at a brewery; when that closes go beer-garden hopping, later take in a weekly dance party, finally head to your local pub. Choosing a trajectory is practically a philosophical debate, with so many options on and off the main strip. You’ve just got to do what feels right. The choices are all good, with attractive women in fanciful outfits and guys wearing cool hats and vests drinking local beers on tap. At the end of the night, one sighs contentedly, picks up some freshly baked bread, and stumbles home down cobblestone streets. That’s a common scene from Williamsburg’s history.
If it sounds familiar, that’s because the present alcohol-themed culture closely reflects the area’s boozy past. The first official act of business by the board of trustees of Williamsburg after the town’s incorporation in 1827 was to set a date for the granting of tavern licenses. For over 200 years, actually, Williamsburg and the surrounding areas of Bushwick and Greenpoint have been a social oasis, a playground for some of the earliest well-to-do New Yorkers, a watering hole for travelers and merchants, “party central” for working class German immigrants, an outlet for bootleggers, and an urban model for the business of drinking. That commercial archetype is thriving once again. Entrepreneurs catering to the eclectic tastes of artists and creative professionals, have concocted every possible strategy to ensure drinking at their Williamsburg establishments is a simultaneously local, worldly, and also a unique experience. You can sip the first Brooklyn-distilled whiskey since Prohibition at a whiskey-themed bar, have a sloshy Soviet Bloc Sunday at a Polish beer garden, or get sophisticated at a European style wine bar with a “rock-and-roll sensibility” named after a Weezer album/Puccini character (Pinkerton). Or you can go around the corner and make your own wine, at the borough’s second winery. (The first is located in Red Hook.) These joints have opened in only the past five months, adding to a dizzyingly diverse neighborhood roster of watering holes including Canadian-, hillbilly-, piano-, cigar-, Skee-ball-, arcade-, farm-, and speakeasy-themed establishments, among many others.
All this specialization has helped make Williamsburg an internationally renowned drinking and party destination, bringing commerce and prestige to the neighborhood. It has concurrently angered many long-time residents and, as some critics might argue, indirectly fueled displacement of low-income families. As flurries of new liquor license applications pour in every month for review by Community Board #1, clashes between bar owners and sleep-craving locals are likely to escalate. So will our opportunities to have an unbridled and fuzzy night out, if we can still afford it.
Whatever side of the wagon one falls on, it is significant to take note that the conjunction of residential neighborhood life and drinking culture have existed here since before the town of Williamsburgh—with an h—was even founded, and that most of these new manifestations of alcohol consumption and debauchery are largely revisitations of past phenomena.
The most outstanding relic of Williamsburg’s past to get a makeover is beer. Spurred on by the Brooklyn Brewery, which recently announced that its plans for a massive expansion were underway, appreciation for craft and highend foreign brews are at full tilt. There are at least six retro-styled beer gardens, half opened within the last year, which is more than any other neighborhood in all of New York City. Remarkably, that’s less than Williamsburg and Bushwick had in its heyday. Before St. Louis and Milwaukee decided to make American beer synonymous with underwhelming pilsners and oversized horses with fluffy legwarmers, Brooklyn, and specifically German immigrant heavy East Williamsburg, was the nucleus for the country’s brewing industry. On the corner of Bushwick Avenue and Scholes Street, there were three breweries, two beer gardens, and multiple saloons. By 1904, along Scholes and Meserole streets, there were a total of 12 breweries within seven blocks, many of which had beer gardens. Called Brewer’s Row, it resembled a combination of Epcot’s World Showcase and Amsterdam’s Red Light District and makes Bedford Avenue action seem tame in comparison.
Establishments and distilleries dedicated to hard liquor are growing even faster than the beer-centric watering holes. Bars focused on premium, small batch spirits and jazzed-up cocktails set in swanky ambiance are one of NYC’s most recent fascinations, but in Williamsburg they have become especially plentiful. There’s precedent for this kind of luxury drinking as well; even in a neighborhood defined by its industrial and working class heritage, some of New York’s wealthiest citizens once called Williamsburg home. One of the fathers of the neighborhood, and for a long time its richest resident, Noah Waterbury, opened Williamsburg’s first whiskey distillery in 1819 at the foot of South 2nd Street; well into the middle of the 19th century, his fellow elites frequented the many private clubs, taverns, and resorts along the East River waterfront. The grandiose mansions that stood along much of Bedford Avenue during that period would make today’s heavily vilified luxury condo developments look modest.
Drinking liquor, and later beer, was still overwhelmingly an outlet for the masses. For every modern kitschy, stylized dive bar, there was a local pub to match throughout the neighborhood’s past. When the first ferry service from Manhattan to Williamsburg started in 1792, a tavern was erected on the site. Eventually taverns opened all over the waterfront to cater to travelers, wayfarers, and locals. Applejack and Jamaican rum were prevalent, according to Brooklyn historian and author Brian Merlis, but corn mash spirits truly ruled. In an 1883 Brooklyn Daily Eagle article about the history of Williamsburg, the author commented that “Whiskey was ubiquitous.”
After the Williamsburg Bridge was opened in 1903, the demographics of the neighborhood began to change. Along with struggling immigrants came urban blight, and never far behind hard times, alcohol. “There was a lot of suffering going on and poverty, and that led to a lot of escapism,” says Merlis.
In a strange echo, the modern proliferation of bars in Williamsburg has only increased during the current recession, even though the increasingly pricey booze they serve is out of reach for many of the longest-residing community members. So although the existence of recreational drinking culture in Williamsburg is hardly anything novel, the upscale flair or ironic humor of distinctively themed bars separates the old type of drinking establishment from the new model. It’s impossible to deny that such unchecked expansion could have increasingly negative consequences for the character and makeup of the neighborhood. The one link between all the drinking climates that have existed historically in Williamsburg is that they were all based on the demographics of the community. Altering that formula too drastically would be perilous, just as many long-term residents and activists from the Lower East Side have warned after witnessing the spike in nightlife and subsequent residential and small business displacement that emerged there. As painful as it might be for the outgoing spirit in all of us, some sort of governmental regulation of bar and club growth should be enforced to safeguard Williamsburg/Greenpoint’s socioeconomic balance.
Also, the beer barons, distillers, and tavern owners of the past usually had a high level of civic involvement and were admired for their charitable and public investments. The same kind of contributions should be demanded from today’s budding business owners.
In the meantime, both the new and established Williamsburg residents can at least commiserate and jointly direct their ire to the growing number of Manhattan and suburban residents that have inevitably descended on the hottest party spot in the city. Not surprisingly, that has a precedent too, according to Henry R. Stiles, the author of the 1869 book, “A History of the City of Brooklyn.” In 1843, in perhaps the first recorded instance of cross river debauchery, a large group of presumably drunken “men and boys, bears and dogs, who had come over from NYC, determined to have a regular bear fight for their own diversion and the instruction of this old fashioned community,” invaded the sleepy calm of Greenpoint.
As far as combining cruelty to animals and nightlife goes, we’re lucky we only have to contend with loudmouth drunks playing Big Buck Hunter.