Two Tides

We stand above the water when we stand at the water’s edge. The foreshore is elevated, offering protection against hurricanes that come with harvest moons. Williamsburg began with rowboats, and then came steamboats, and then a bridge, and then many forms of forgetting about the river.

Recently, we started to remember.

Williamsburg is not the Brooklyn that most people inhabit, but it’s the Brooklyn that most people talk about, the Brooklyn that has become an international brand. Before I moved to New York, I knew this neighbourhood’s narrative, that it had once been an industrial centre, and then a place where artists lived and worked, squatting in lofts, and that now tourists often spent a day there, returning to their homes to tell their friends that they went to Brooklyn, that they saw more than just Manhattan, and that it was really quite nice. I, too, once visited Williamsburg as a tourist, sampled artisanal chocolate and giggled at a neon sign outside an underwear store reading “LOVE, LUST, PANTIES.”

It is not only tourists talking about this part of Brooklyn, though. Sometimes it feels as if everybody in New York is at once complaining about Williamsburg and dreaming about Williamsburg. I myself have spent an hour on the subway travelling from my home in another Brooklyn neighbourhood, Sunset Park, and arrived with notebook and camera to look at a place that seems to slip through my fingers, more famous than understood. Williamsburg is a place with an outsized significance, like a bellwether for the twenty-first century. It is a microcosm of the larger city.

The world is changing, and Williamsburg is changing first.

Williamsburg was once a major manufacturing hub, an industrial centre considered a rival to Wall Street. Pfizer Pharmaceuticals and Standard Oil had factories and refineries here. Domino Sugar’s factory is still standing, one of the last signs of those industrial decades, but it’s being converted into condominiums. After World War II, the role industry played in the life of the city changed, and factories fell vacant; jobs disappeared. In the 1980s and 1990s, rents in Manhattan began to increase and artists moved across the bridge, to Williamsburg.

The city has rezoned Williamsburg three times in the twenty-first century under the pressures of development. The City Council prioritized waterfront access and low- to mid-rise housing in 2002; Mayor Bloomberg presided over a major rezoning in 2005 that rendered the factories closest to the waterfront residential; and in 2009, the city tried again, attempting to correct the excesses of 2005, with a new zoning plan that claims to protect the character of certain inland streets by requiring that they remain residential and by creating height limits for new construction.

It may have been too late, or it may have provided the wrong incentives; Williamsburg is disappearing under scaffolding, replaced by computerised renderings of an anodyne future.

I attend a panel discussion, organised by Open House New York, that contemplates what we might learn from Williamsburg. Gregory Wessner, the organisation’s Executive Director, suggests that the changes taking place in this neighbourhood have “nothing to do with New York City,” but spring instead from changes in the way things are made today. Leah Archibald, Executive Director of Evergreen, claims the problem is money. In the last rezoning, the government agreed to create a twenty million dollar fund for manufacturing, but deposited money in it slowly, reaching only half of the promised total. Archibald’s job focuses on assisting working-class businesses in Williamsburg, trying to help these businesses find financing and navigate regulatory issues, and also in trying to get public acknowledgement of their continued presence.

“We probably lose a little more than we win,” she says.

There is no discussion, here, about the tide. We are not thinking about Williamsburg as the edge of Long Island, as a fortified coast. Access to the water was a reason that Williamsburg became an industrial center, and it’s a reason, now, that people want to live here. This is short-term thinking, because this neighbourhood will be submerged.

The waterfront was evacuated in 2012, when Hurricane Sandy struck. People taped up their windows and bought alcohol and snacks, caught taxis to hotels in Manhattan. The water rose above the shoreline, and sandbags sealed the entrances to towers. Further inland, too, there were flooded streets.

Another storm could turn Williamsburg into a peninsula and Greenpoint, just north, into a small archipelago. The tides are always getting higher.

Williamsburg’s rezoning was intended to promote affordable housing, but instead created an influx of luxury units, the most jarring of which are the towers clustered beside the pier for the East River Ferry. These are all glassy and forgettable, taken individually. These are non-places, bearing no trace or memory of what was before. They have no history. They have no connection to the earth. They have names like “THE EDGE.”

It could be anywhere in the world, perhaps, save for the Chrysler Building across the water. Those who live in Williamsburg and work in Manhattan—most of those living in these towers—have an enviable commute, boarding the ferry and jetting across to Midtown or south to the Financial District. This is one of the most expensive neighbourhoods in New York City, which some people find hard to believe because Brooklyn, until Williamsburg, was the place where people moved when they couldn’t afford Manhattan. But you could go weeks, living here, without setting foot on a Brooklyn street.

There are benefits to building and living in towers. In theory, dense living frees up land for parkland and agriculture, meaning food can be produced and transported efficiently. In theory, these towers could relieve pressure on the market for apartments. But in Williamsburg, they don’t. Their main effect is to create a hard barrier between Brooklyn and the river, with only small paths between them for people to permeate.

I close my eyes outside a bar on Bedford Avenue and the crowds of people laughing, chattering over one another, sound almost like gulls calling out as they scavenge for food. I imagine animals that might replace people in the waterfront condominiums, picture birds perched on fifteenth floor balconies, lizards on the mezzanine, fish swimming up from the basement and over lobby tiles.

If we think of neighbourhoods for people in the same way that we think of ecosystems for animals, we remember that we don’t just need homes, but also jobs that suit us nearby, and food, too, that we can access and afford. Our conversations about gentrification often focus on affordable housing, but when applications for one such scheme in Greenpoint, just north of Williamsburg, closed recently, over half the applicants were rejected because they didn’t make enough money to rent the units. Developers speak of creating jobs, but the jobs they create aren’t the jobs that people want: hotels where there once were foundries.

I don’t know which species are, or will be, native to this habitat. I don’t know to whom Williamsburg belongs. The histories are obscured; the futures are uncertain.

Opposite the Brooklyn Brewery is the Wythe Hotel. “Everybody knows the Wythe Hotel,” says a woman with curly hair, as I stand on the street looking at a map. It’s in Wallpaper*’s guide to New York City. “The Wythe has given Brooklyn the grown-up hotel it deserves,” reads the guidebook.

“I don’t know if grown-up is the right adjective,” my companion says, looking at the crowd outside. I’m not sure about deserves.

The Wythe Hotel is a very busy place, with guests and visitors to the bar and restaurant constantly moving through the lobby and elevators. The staff are preparing for a wedding party later in the day. There are signs in a corner to direct visitors to the Northern Innovation Happy Hour. In the basement’s private dining room, I see a copy of Forbes’s ‘500’ issue lying atop a stack of boxes.

The Wythe Hotel used to be a barrel factory. There were still people working here when Morris Adjmi Architects were invited to work on the building’s conversion into a hotel. Jeremy Reed, giving us a tour of the hotel, points out the many features the architects chose to keep—the tracks in the ceiling, the details around the doors—and those they changed. The floors can hold a lot of weight, Reed tells us, because they’re made for heavy industry.

It’s a decadent hotel, in more ways than one. The owners, reportedly, were not concerned about making a profit, and the financial crisis bought Reed and his team the luxury of time to finesse their design before any construction took place. There’s a rooftop bar, where a cocktail called Brooklyn View costs $18: visitors look out across construction and warehouses, dusty lots, and the Brooklyn Brewery.

In the guest room, the focus is not on Williamsburg, but on Manhattan. The architects kept three of the building’s original façades, but cut off a bay on the building’s western side and replaced it with glass, differentiating the façade facing Manhattan from the others. In the guest room on the southwest corner, exposed brick obscures Brooklyn; glass, from floor to ceiling, directs the eye out of the hotel and beyond low-lying warehouses, west across the East River, to the city’s skyline.

The design is nice, and the architect is friendly, and perhaps the Wythe Hotel wouldn’t have felt quite so cruel in 2006, before Williamsburg fully became the place it is today. Reed tells us that the owner, looking for furniture, walked around the neighbourhood until he found somebody making beds, and then commissioned a prototype. The bed we see is beautiful, made of wood with rope stitching around the frame that suggests an old-fashioned box-spring. I wonder if the woodworker is still based in Williamsburg.

“These logos are all taken from companies that don’t exist anymore, to add authenticity,” says Reed, directing our eyes further down, to a brick wall opposite a lower floor.

On the evening Hurricane Sandy hit New York, in September of 2012, high tide was at 8:46 PM. The tide, that day, was not much higher than any day that year, but was accompanied by a nine-foot storm surge and high winds.

Kinfolk is less than a block from the Wythe Hotel, and it used to be a garage. Now it’s a coffee shop and a clothing store and a bar, with space for live music and other events. There’s a sign outside the clothing store reading “I spent half my money on liquor and fancy t-shirts. The other half . . . I wasted.”

John Berg, the architect who designed the interior, is meeting groups of visitors outside the entrance to the bar. The client told him that they wanted something that felt like it was designed by “an off-the-grid hippie mathematician from the Pacific Northwest,” and that caught his attention. Williamsburg has almost no trees and none of the dramatic coastline of the Pacific Northwest, but rather an artificial waterfront under which we’ve lost the real one. This neighbourhood is on every grid—even the streets line up as a grid. I am taken by the coolness of the concrete and the way the light filters down through the ceiling, made with Douglas firs from Washington State, but it must take an incredible lack of self-awareness to ask, in Williamsburg, for a design along these lines.

If you come on a Friday or Saturday night, Berg tells us, there are huge crowds of people and, outside, “a line of cabs to take you back to Manhattan.”

When Hurricane Sandy struck, some Williamsburg residents disobeyed the order to evacuate and stayed to watch, making their way to the forbidden waterfront. Some leaned against the winds on the pier, while police tape waved in the air behind them, and others held empty plastic bags up to the sky, holding the handles and attempting flight.

The water is a playground and a threat.

“As an architect,” Peter Zuspan says, “preservationists are my nemeses.”

We are in a room that Zuspan designed, a performance space with black lines crossing patterned white aluminium panels at a range of angles, disappearing into the dark voids that form doors and a recessed balcony. This room is at the centre of National Sawdust, a non-profit music venue in a brick building, once a sawdust factory.

The capital that allows National Sawdust to operate came from rising property prices, with a model in which investors own the building. The metal components in the sleek central room were made locally, though the manufacturer has since moved elsewhere in the borough. The neighbourhood’s development, here, has been leveraged to benefit local artists and local industries.

It feels impossible, in Williamsburg, to be pure in ideological commitments, to keep one’s place without allying oneself with the financial forces that are driving change. I think of the imaginative commitments of art and music as at odds with capitalism’s value systems. I think of architecture and design as fields with social commitments, as arts which aim to solve problems and create affordable solutions that work for everyone, and I forget that, for some, art and design are business opportunities, part of a process of creating products that sell.

It could be water that breaks the system, that resists in a way that people cannot. Water, already, is pushing at Williamsburg’s infrastructure. It will be necessary, soon, to close the tunnel through which the L Train, the neighbourhood’s main subway line, runs, in order to repair the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy. It only takes a tiny amount of rain, less than a quarter of an inch, before sewage tanks overflow, sending waste into Newtown Creek, just north of Williamsburg. We saw the hurricane as an anomaly, as an event, but the emergency is continuous, invisible to those looking elsewhere.

A few blocks south, at FACE Design and Fabrication, a woman in a floral dress is talking passionately, to a man who doesn’t seem impressed, about how she thinks “the community needs to see makers,” about how she’s trying to get spaces for industrial fabricators that people can visit, close to green spaces. Reuben, working in the next room, tells me they’re worried developers will notice them if the community does. It’s a noble intention, he suggests, to encourage general awareness that manufacturing is still taking place in Williamsburg, and isn’t just a thing of the past—but what if developers see another opportunity and come after the block they’re working on?

“I hope we can stay here,” Reuben says. FACE were pushed out of the East Village, and then the Meatpacking District, and then moved to another site in Williamsburg, on which condominiums now stand. The William Vale Hotel is close, and very visible, and Reuben tells us another hotel is going up beside it. I notice a sign reading “FOR LEASE” on a building across the road.

There are so many predators, ready to pounce.

In the evening, during the hurricane, after hours of sirens and loudspeakers urging evacuation, after the wind and rain had combined to scare everybody from the pier, after Williamsburg’s streets had filled with water, there were still people by the waterfront, watching, as the Con Ed Substation across the river exploded and lower Manhattan lost power. In a video taken that night, a crowd on a corner are illuminated by the explosion; they are silhouettes in raincoats surrounded by shimmering water. I think of Guy Debord’s idea of spectacle as something larger than people, something that people watch and absorb, silently, without forming a critical commentary. There is silence, for a moment, and then there is shock, exhilaration, voices saying “woah,” “fuck,” and, to the person holding the camera, “did you get that?”

We are thinking, in architecture, about how to disappear. We do not presume, now, that our buildings will last hundreds of years. We don’t think about buildings that will last forever, but celebrate the temporary, predict dilapidation, imagine surfaces wearing thin, structures breaking down entirely. It is wasteful; it is exciting.

Industry, of course, is not innocent either.

In 1978, a streak of oil appeared in Newtown Creek, and over fifty acres of soil is still contaminated today. On a map showing where chemical and petroleum spills have occurred, Williamsburg is covered in dots. There are brownfields and superfund sites everywhere.

We did not know, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, about the larger consequences of oil. We did not expect hurricanes or floods. We are nostalgic, now, for a flourishing industrial centre that we could not accept today. Williamsburg has always been tipping toward crisis.

In many places, contaminated soils overlap with floodplains. Nine months after Hurricane Sandy, samples showed that contamination from industrial areas had migrated to residential ones.

I suppose the basements will not fill with fish after all.

Across New York, the areas that flooded during Hurricane Sandy are being watched by developers. Red Hook, further south, was evacuated entirely, with water reaching seven feet on some buildings. Over a year later, businesses were still closed for repair. The city hasn’t yet invested in work to mitigate the effects of similar events that will occur in future, but there is a complex for tech companies under construction, and 45,000 apartments being planned. The waterfront warehouses of Sunset Park, where I live, are in the first evacuation zone, and developers are currently campaigning to bring a hotel to one of them. Their dream, it seems, is to make the neighbourhood like Williamsburg.

The only exception thus far to this desire to build where the water went is in Oakwood Beach on Staten Island, where the city has started buying houses that were damaged in the hurricane and returning them to nature, transforming the neighbourhood in a strategy of managed retreat. There are wild turkey and deer where once there were harried commuters and high school students.

There are many buildings in Williamsburg that used to be something else. Diviera Drive, which I walk past as I return to the subway station, was once a garage; it’s now a bar and an Italian restaurant with a boat named “El Dorado” decorating the yard. I don’t know, yet, if it floats.1

Architecture, across this neighbourhood, is being used as a means of creating links with the past, an attempt at reconciling the changes taking place with the place itself. Everybody wants to move to Williamsburg, but as they move to Williamsburg, Williamsburg disappears.

The dust from construction makes me thirsty.

It will all, one day, wash away.

1. Diviera Drive has since closed.


Author: Anna Kate Blair

Anna Kate Blair is a writer and architectural historian from New Zealand. She has had work in publications including Litro, The Appendix, King’s Review, Antithesis Journal and 10 Stories: Writing About Architecture.

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