The Brooklyn Brand.
The neighborhood of Williamsburg in Brooklyn has become an international symbol of gentrification (although the bordering areas are no less affected). It’s also one of the birthplaces, and remains an epicenter, of hipster culture—a culture that has dominated the urban centers of the world for several years now. In cities like London, Paris, Tokyo, or São Paulo, there are cafés, restaurants, and shops named after Brooklyn and Williamsburg. Parisians seem especially predisposed to a fetishization of Brooklyn—“c'est très Brooklyn” has long been synonymous for “it’s super cool.” This no longer has much to do with underground hipster culture—the Brooklyn “brand” has since spread its influence to the mainstream. When people abroad refer to Brooklyn, they still often mean Williamsburg.
A Brief Summary of the District’s Turbulent History.
In 1638, the Netherlands bought a piece of land located on the eastern shore of the East River from the Native American Canarsee tribe. For a very long time, the land was used exclusively for farming, but when the Williamsburg Bridge opened in 1903 and acted as a direct link to the south of Manhattan, the district slowly began to develop into an industrial center. For one thing, Williamsburg became the supplier of more than half of the United States’ refined sugar. When the bridge was opened, several immigrant groups from hopelessly overcrowded Manhattan began settling in Brooklyn. The Jewish quarter that was established south of the bridge exists today, though the ultra-Orthodox leanings that characterize the community today only began to develop after World War II. Polish and Italian immigrants settled in the area north of the bridge, but even in the 30s, the outlook was bleak for the district. After years of criminal gang activity, one of the tragic low points was the widespread looting during the power outage of 1977, after which the New York Times came to the conclusion that the district was ruled by anarchy. Around the same time, however, the low rent prices were attracting the first artists to the borough. More artists followed, and the familiar pattern of gentrification began to take hold: next came the galleries, cafes, shops, and young, well-educated people from across the country. And voilà: hipsterdom.
In recent years, another huge upheaval has taken place in Brooklyn. With the exception of the Jewish community and those who bought property early or benefit from rent-controlled apartments, many residents have been systematically “replaced” by newcomers. Apartment rentals have soared, as have property prices. The borough has become a favorite for wealthy expatriates from around the world. Many are in their thirties and have young offspring. The streets of Williamsburg are now characterized by places selling exquisite croissants, handmade borek, Belgian beer bars, Japanese delicacies, and the like. Even clearer signs that international residents are thriving here are institutions such as Swedish preschools or French high schools. European politicians taking a Sunday walk along Bedford Avenue, the area’s most characteristic promenade, must prepare for headache; the "brain drain" from their old world communities is practically tangible. For onlookers, however, there’s lots to observe. The preppy British couple with twins, the Spanish architect, the Italian lawyer, the German graphic designer, and the Greek art dealer all walk side by side. These types of social constellations may be new for Brooklyn, but the fundamental change is not, and nor will this be the last of it. We’re in New York and there’s no time for a break from radical development—especially not in Williamsburg.