Williamsburg, Brooklyn Hipsters Face the Prospect of a Gentrification Tidal Wave

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Niccolo and Donkey
Brooklyn's Williamsburg becomes new front line of the gentrification battle

Guardian UK

Paul Harris

December 12, 2010


Jennifer Nelson gasped as she set foot inside the giant, spotlessly clean space that is the new Duane Reade drugstore in New York 's hip and bohemian neighbourhood of Williamsburg.

"It is huge. It is a kind of sterile feeling. This is not the kind of place that I want to shop," said the 32-year-old freelance writer as she looked wide-eyed at gleaming aisles of beauty products, shampoos, a pharmacy counter and, incongruously enough, a giant walk-in freezer filled with beer.

It might be seen as odd to have such a visceral reaction to Duane Reade, a drugstore that seems to exist on virtually every street corner in New York. But this is not just New York. This is Williamsburg, perhaps the national capital for young "hipsters" trying to beat back the commercialism and standardisation that defines much of American day-to-day life. It is a place that prides itself – and has won fame – for rejecting the malls and big business brands of the rest of America.

So for many inhabitants, the new Duane Reade in the middle of the main drag of Bedford Avenue is not just a store offering cheap and convenient shopping. It is nothing less than an invasion of corporate America into their tranquil enclave of independent bohemians. It is, in short, the start of a battle for Williamsburg's soul.

In the safer, less-corporate surrounding of the Blue Bottle coffee shop nearby, Nelson explained why she had founded a local campaign to boycott the Duane Reade store. "We simply do not need another drugstore here. It is not just an urban issue. It is a capitalism issue," she said. Certainly the Blue Bottle is more typical of what New Yorkers – and much of America – associate with Williamsburg.

Unlike the Duane Reade, it is the opposite of a quick and easy chainstore designed for modern convenience. Fresh coffee is painstakingly crafted by baristas who often sport the trendy moustaches and beards associated with hipsters. As customers sip their Guatemalan lattes they can look on as workers unload and grind bags of coffee. It is independent, was founded in the hippie heaven of California's Bay Area and is also quite expensive. The coffee is, it has to be said, very good.

That is what Williamsburg is meant to be about, many residents say. Over the past decade the neighbourhood, which sits just over the East River from Manhattan, has been transformed from a sleepy, poor, residential area of Jewish, eastern European and Hispanic working-class immigrants to one where most denizens appear to have beards, piercings, lots of tattoos and belong to at least one band. Most also tend to write a blog and spend all night drinking or involved in art projects.

Sometimes that lifestyle is funded by middle-class parents. That has led to Williamsburg being relentlessly mocked by parts of the New York media. Gossip website Gawker lambasts hipsters and the neighbourhood they call their own in its typically brutal style. When the New York Times covered the arrival of the Duane Reade on Bedford, Gawker put up a posting titled: "Horrible Williamsburg Residents Horrified by Arrival of Horrible Chainstores."

But, beneath the bitchiness, there are real issues at stake. The new Duane Reade is part of a chainstore invasion; perhaps inevitable following the money the new youthful residents have brought in. In fact, there is already a Duane Read there, tucked away in a corner of the neighbourhood now dominated by giant, new and expensive apartment buildings. CVS – Duane Reade's main rival – is also building a store. Fast food chain Subway has opened on Bedford, as has the American Apparel clothing chain. To cap it all, it is rumoured Starbucks may be coming next year, replacing a bagel shop. If that happens, the hipster apocalypse may be nigh.

No wonder many residents are angry. "When the American Apparel store opened is when I thought: 'Oh my God, the neighbourhood is over.' These big businesses have come in and the small businesses won't be able to afford the new higher rents," said Gil Roman, 33, who works in Manhattan but has lived here for seven years.

Roman fits the bill for Williamsburg. He is a huge fan of local bands and lives with his artist boyfriend. He surfs, parties in cool bars and does not like the corporate invasion of his home turf. "All of a sudden our little, quaint place was being infiltrated by the big brands."

Sadly for Roman and other youthful and trendy denizens, the story of neighbourhood change is one of the oldest in the Big Apple. It has a simple plot that goes something like this: an old neighbourhood has cheap rents that attract artists. The artists spruce the place up. That attracts youthful newcomers. That attracts the bars, shops and restaurants the newcomers like. The neighbourhood becomes cool. And safe. That attracts wealthier people, with families. The rents rise. Older inhabitants and original pioneers then leave and start again somewhere else. It happened to SoHo, Tribeca and Greenwich Village in Manhattan in the 1970s and 1980s. All were former centres for bohemians and are now the haunt of expensive chainstores, luxury boutiques, A-list celebrities and eye-bleedingly high property prices.

"There is a cycle. There is a whole series of places that go through this problem. Now with Williamsburg, it has become the great place to be," said Joshua Freeman, a professor of New York history at the City University of New York. But the hipsters and young bohemians are not entirely innocent victims in the process of change. After all, before they arrived Williamsburg was a quiet, unassuming working-class place with its fair share of problems but plenty of affordable housing.

Many of the old residents remaining still attend the Polish, Ukrainian or Russian churches that dot the streets. Even on Bedford Avenue, a Polish diner still clings on offering up cheap helpings of pierogis and blintzes amid rows of shops dominated by vintage clothing boutiques, vegetarian restaurants and coffee houses. The Jewish community too is still strong and frequently clashes with the new hipster element over things like bike lanes: of great interest to hipsters and of less fascination to Hassidic families.

"Gentrification by anyone is at best a mixed blessing for the working class and immigrants whose neighbourhood it was," Freeman said. "They often get priced out of their neighbourhood and certainly their children do get priced out." Ironically, it is these older ethnic communities who would welcome the Duane Reades of the world, embracing the cheap prices chainstores bring and the convenience of getting their shopping done at one place.

But, whether you are an original inhabitant or a pioneering hipster or one of the wealthy new residents snapping up multimillion-dollar new apartments, there is one lesson that New York teaches all of its citizens in the end. "Cities and neighbourhoods change all the time. You can't freeze them. You don't want to create a sort of museum," Freeman said.

Which might be why Nelson is now leaving, heading to a different part of Brooklyn at the end of the month, attracted by a great deal on rent and a chance to be nearer her workplace. She laughs when asked whether the boycott of Duane Read she has organised will work.

"I know there is very little we can do. I just educate myself about my choices and try to educate the people around me," she said.

She does not have too many regrets about saying goodbye. Her landlord is the same landlord who rented out the space to Duane Read. She knows he is just cashing in on a good opportunity. So too are those who have sold land to developers who have raised up towering apartment blocks, gleaming new properties that look down on the older, more modest family houses.

In fact, one such building now blocks the view from Nelson's bedroom. "I used to be able to see the Manhattan skyline from my window. Now, I can't," she said.