Williamsburg’s Imperial Climax: New Bohemia to Vertical Suburbia—Saved by the Meltdown?

2010 March 28
by Ando Arike

Bicycling along the Kent Avenue waterfront in recent weeks, I’ve been struck by the eerie and depopulated stillness in this hotspot of the Williamsburg building boom, where the glass towers of two huge developments, the so-called “Edge” and “Northside Piers,” rise like beach hotels from the sludge of the defunct WasteUSA garbage facility. For the last several years, this stretch of road has swarmed with trucks, heavy equipment, and an army of construction workers. Suddenly, they’ve all vanished, leaving a strange ambience of expectation and unfinished business. On surrounding streets, dozens of luxury condo developments hulk in various states of incompletion, their financing and sales collapsing with the bust of the credit bubble. At some, construction creeps along; others have been idle for months. What city planners, developers, and architects envisioned as an entire new upscale residential district has been placed on indefinite hold. Emblematic is the brand-new Duane Reade mega-drugstore below the apparently vacant towers of Northside Piers, its plate glass windows glowing with aisle after aisle of perfectly stocked shelves—but not a soul in sight except the cashier.

By all accounts, the economic crisis has hit the local Ponzi-schemers hard—last fall, sixteen neighborhood residential projects were officially classified as “distressed,” and real estate sources called another eighty-five construction sites “stalled.” Reportedly, some six thousand new luxury apartments will enter the local market by the end of 2010, and the oversupply is forcing steep price cuts, heralding even more stalled projects and foreclosures as overleveraged developers are unable to meet payments. For residents who have watched the boom with growing dismay, all this is cause for a righteous sense of schadenfreude—the greedy bastards are losing money, and lots of it! The derailment of Williamsburg’s increasingly grandiose gentrification means at least temporary relief from the upward pressure on rents, on prices in stores and restaurants, and from the strain on mass transit—particularly the overcrowded L-train. There seems hope now that the more obscene fantasies of the speculators and their architects will fall through, and save us from a glut of these:

Homage to the Emerald City of Oz, Berry and North 5th Streets

Indeed, twelve months before the Great Recession was declared official in September 2008, Williamsburg, like much of the U.S., seemed ready to blow its load in some econo-libidinal wet-dream—what Carl Watson has called a “Ponzi-gasm”—and which I will explore in a later chapter titled: “The Preening Insouciance of the Parasite Class.” Thankfully, massive system-failure aborted the cataclysm—as it were, in flagrante delicto. Our prospects began to brighten considerably in June 2009 when the New York Times sounded the alarm over the plight of young hipsters whose parents could no longer afford to finance their lifestyles:

Famed for its concentration of heavily subsidized 20-something residents—also nicknamed trust-funders or trustafarians—Williamsburg is showing signs of trouble. Parents whose money helped fuel one of the city’s most radical gentrifications in recent years have stopped buying their children new luxury condos, subsidizing rents and providing cash to spend at Bedford Avenue’s boutiques and coffee houses (“Parental Lifelines, Frayed to Breaking”).

Then, in July, New York Magazine followed with a post-mortem titled “The Billyburg Bust,” which opened with this synopsis:

A working-class neighborhood became a bohemian theme park, which in turn became a fantasyland for luxury-condo developers. Now, littered with half-built shells of a vanished boom, Williamsburg is looking like something else entirely: Miami.

Today, despite the media hype of “green shoots” and “recovery,” despite the Great Bailout and the Stimulus and the revival of the stock market, it seems quite possible that many projects that never made it past the excavation stage will remain large holes in the ground—craters left by money-bombs. In effect, the financial meltdown has imposed an uneasy truce in this local battle of the raging global class war.


Fifteen years ago, when I first moved to Williamsburg, the waterfront here was a wild and lawless place—one of those forsaken stretches of real estate in late-imperial America where capitalism had squeezed out the last penny of profit and moved on, abandoning the now-toxic badlands to the natives. Next to the WasteUSA dump, where the Northside Piers now stand, was the defunct Amtrak rail yard, and amid the debris and collapsing train repair sheds dozens of squatters had built improvised shelter, enjoying priceless open-air views of the Manhattan skyline. Less fortunate were the prostitutes who plied their trade along Kent and Wythe Avenues, waiting for truckers and other customers among the blocks of low-rise warehouse and factory buildings, the womens’ precarious lives magnified by the deserted expanses of blank walls and windows. And due to some geophysical fluke, the entire area was a swirling catch-basin for the material debris of the region’s industrial-consumer economy—a terrestrial version of the Great Pacific Trash Vortex. Along with regular blizzards of styrofoam and polyethylene, the Bridge renovation was in full swing, torrents of lead dust sweeping over us during sandblasting. As if that wasn’t enough, we heard constant rumors of new seepage from underground toxic lakes and radioactive contamination from the Radiac waste depot.

Nevertheless, for its less desperate residents, Williamsburg offered the rundown serenity of an alternative postindustrial universe, an autonomous zone happily uncoupled from Manhattan’s dreary treadmills. There was a freedom in the air that had much to do with low rents and the larger economy’s apparent lack of interest in us. I think of voodoo artwork sprouting spontaneously from the trash at the Amtrak yard. The intoxicating vapors wafting from that spice warehouse on Berry Street. Sunbathing and picnicking on the piers that were quickly collapsing into the East River. Swimming in that same river at night, with Manhattan’s lights spread before us like strange new constellations. Time seemed to flow more slowly here, the sky was broader, and the breeze often smelled of the sea… For about a decade a slacker/artist/anarchist counterculture flourished alongside the original communities of Poles, Hispanics, and Hasidim.

But, of course, vast forces were already conspiring to end this slacker idyll and yoke the neighborhood more firmly to the machinery of profit and power. Soon we would see flinty-eyed men and women with clipboards and cameras pulling up in rental cars to take pictures and jot inscrutably in their tablets; suddenly arcane circles and arrows spraypainted in dayglow would appear on the street pavement, followed by jackhammers at seven in the morning; we would find fences erected where yesterday there were well-trod footpaths. In the offices of some distant Bureau of Infrastructure Enforcement, plans were being drawn to find new ways to extract profit from this underexploited region of Gotham.

The most portentous moment came in 1998, when a Hollywood film crew invaded the neighborhood’s Southside to shoot scenes for a big budget thriller released as “The Siege”—Bruce Willis and Denzel Washington versus ruthless Arab terrorists who’d vowed to “bring the city to its knees.” For a week, streets in the immediate vicinity of my apartment were locked-down under Hollywood’s version of martial law, as production assistants cleared the way for actor-commandos and NYPD extras. When two days of helicopters overhead drove me out in search of a barroom’s airconditioned silence, I stepped into my street to find actors with M-16s herding local residents from their buildings. The climax was the detonation of an MTA bus at the corner of Broadway and Bedford, while hundreds of Hasidim watched excitedly from behind the police barricades, cheering. But the film-shoot did not go without controversy. In another omen, Brooklynites of Arabic descent staged outraged protests against the film’s portrayal of  mass-roundups of Brooklynites of Arabic descent—a sort of dress rehearsal for what would happen several years later.

Alas, the millennium lurched into its grim start—first, the Bush Mob’s coup d’etat, and nine months later, the Pandora’s box of evil loosed into the world on September 11. That afternoon from a rock at the East River’s edge—from the present site, in fact, of Northside Piers—I watched the plume of smoke from the collapsed World Trade Towers drift towards south Brooklyn with the distinct feeling that the zeitgeist was undergoing a violent shift, as though the Earth’s magnetic field was wobbling, and yanking all our compasses toward a sinister new Pole. Already, I could smell the vile stench that would haunt lower Manhattan and downwind Brooklyn for the next six months. As it happened, Leviathan was rousing from his slumbers, visions of new imperial conquests swirling through his reptilian brain—soon hellfire was unleashed into Afghanistan and Iraq, and the Global War on Terror was quickening Kapital’s pulse.

By that point, Williamsburg had long been gentrifying, but zoning restrictions had dampened the effect considerably. In May of 2005, however, the Bloomberg Administration pushed its rezoning plan through the City Council, opening vast swaths of Williamsburg and Greenpoint to luxury residential construction—rumored to include a cordon of forty-story high-rises along the East River. For developers, after champing at the bit for a decade, the gold rush was on—soon hundreds of new projects were underway, with demolitions and excavations on nearly every block, cranes and steel girders poking above rooftops like medieval siege engines.

Suddenly, the flow of new money was palpable—a crisp odor in the air and a faster tempo on the streets. Overnight, sleek realtors’ offices sprang from nowhere with what cartoonist Roz Chast has dubbed “real estate porn” displayed like boobs-n-beaver centerspreads in the windows. Once-sleepy Bedford Avenue  teemed and seethed with monied youth, searching for fresh watering holes and hipper pastures to graze. A dozen cafes quickly opened and filled with twentysomethings alternately cooing, braying, or barking into cell phones. Rents soon reached unprecedented zeniths; morning rush hours on the L-train approached the outer limit of straphanger density. “Progress” again had us in its clutches.


This afternoon, as I round the corner of South 4th and Bedford, workers are mortaring cinder blocks into place to fill the ground floor window and door openings of an unfinished apartment building, securing the premises for the long haul. Progress stopped here more than a year ago, and will apparently not be restarting any time soon. Nor will the boom years be returning anytime soon, either to Williamsburg, or the rest of the United States. In fact, it’s become clear that the boom itself was a kind of hallucination, a delirious mirage induced by easy credit and greed, like much else in late-imperial America. What will sobriety bring?

Upcoming Chapters:
Part II—Bohemia’s Bankruptcy
Part III—“A Commanding Residence for the Privileged Few”
Part IV—The Preening Insouciance of the Parasite Class

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