The New York Times recently ran two articles* that describe the differences between the now ritzy & glitzy north side and the industrial “authentic” south side of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, enabling cross-cultural time travel between the 20th and 21st centuries, in the same nabe.
This weekend you might be hanging out at the Wythe Hotel and its environs brimming with boutiques, clubs and salt water swimming pools; and the next weekend you might be dining at an unpretentious, industrial urban-Americana, Art Deco diner or at the old-world Peter Lugers.
The sheer size of Williamsburg (longer than 14th Street to South Ferry) allows these two different worlds to thrive proudly on their own terms. It’s the best of both worlds.
However the north-south border is progressively blurring and it’s a question of when, all of Williamsburg will become a high-end, homogenious, hyper-dense playground for the well-off, with limited diversity. We’re not talking about a high-end enclave, but rather a whole scale invasion of huge swaths of land, in fact in step with a worldwide trend in many expanding cities. This is culturally unhealthy and bound to result in blowback somewhere down the road.
Functional communities have a pyramid structure with affordable housing residents at the base and market rate residents from the middle to the peak. Dysfunctional communities have an inverted pyramid, a structure, just by its shape, is unsupportable.
Only a few Hispanic eateries still exist in South Williamsburg, paralleling the forced economic exodus of that community elsewhere. Today my Polish shoemaker works in a Greenpoint hole-in-the-wall. Earlier this year my Chinese tailor decamped to Bay Ridge. As one high-end real estate developer’s promotional postcard screamed to potential sellers, “Sell your unit at a premium before you lose your gorgeous view with the Domino complex development.” You can assume that a similar message with “lost view” was not mentioned in their marketing to potential buyers of these same units.
In the movie “The Matrix Reloaded,” when Agent Smith plunged his fist into Neo’s chest to duplicate himself, he tells Neo, “Don’t worry. It’ll be over soon.” Neo resisted, fought back and saved his soul. Unfortunately this is Williamsburg, not Hollywood, and it will end badly.
In Robert Frank’s book “The High Beta Rich,” he provides such an example in Aspen in the chapter “Big Money Ruins Everything.” To paraphrase, he explains that a flood of new money creates “a town of glitz and glamour…a nut without a kernel.” He continued, on to explain that, as the Mom and Pop shops are replaced by luxury stores, real estate becomes more prone to booms and busts, because the tax revenue is dependent on high discretionary luxury item sales.
Contextual architecture is defined as “architecture that responds to its surroundings by respecting what is already there” vs. constructivism, which deliberately works against geometrics. Erecting residential high-rise buildings on narrow streets is constructivism. A taller architectural profile and denser population will destroy what’s left of a typical outer-borough community designed for the working and middle class.
We may one day refer to the “Canyons of South Williamsburg” an architectural dystopia that blots out the sun like the super condos on Billionaire’s Row on West 57th over Central Park. This is an unstoppable late gentrification “surge” marked by frenzied construction: build it now, build it fast, sell it fast and get outta Dodge before the next economic crash.
What to do? Do what I’m doing. During this short remaining time left of the gritty industrial architectural and cultural cool Southside, indulge and savor the remaining morsels of a yesteryear glory that will inevitably become known as the Lost Southside.
*”South Williamsburg: Catching Up to the North” [Apr. 15, 2014]; and “The Williamsburg Divide” [Sept. 25, 2013] (NYT).
—Albert Goldson is an Architectural & Engineering Contract Manager specializing in transportation mega-projects, energy, security and urban planning. An internationalist, he is a long-time Williamsburg resident.