Friday, April 9, 2010

The Reconstruction of Williamsburg . . . More

Wythe Ave. looking northwest toward Kent Ave.

When the towering apartment buildings were being thrown up along the river on Kent Avenue in Williamsburg, I naively thought that it was just the available space and the river view that was responsible, and that that kind of building could probably be kept to that side of the neighborhood. People will pay for a view of the East River and the skyline of midtown but who is throw away good money to look down on a pizzeria or bodega or some run down apartment building from the turn of the last century.

Bedford at South 4th.

Stupid, stupid. That’s why I am just scraping by in publishing instead of making my fortune in real estate. I don’t think like a realtor; I don’t thinking terms of trends or what’s a hot neighborhood and what’s not. In fact, when I first moved to Williamsburg some nine years ago, I even thought it could go the way of the Village or Nolita or Little Italy.

Grand Street between Bedford and Driggs.

Sure, it would attract the well-heeled who would drive prices up but the neighborhood would remain essentially the same (like Grand Street, above) since that’s what drew people here to begin with, and there would still be places for the not-so-rich since you can’t tear down all the old apartment buildings and drive everyone out.Though as it turns out, you can try. Actually, in the summer of 2001, it hadn't even begun attracting the really wealthy trenderati, it was still a pleasant place with a few bars and some outdoor eateries and nothing too chic in the way of stores.

South 1st near Havemayer.

Now I wonder how long it can last before it’s just another extension of midtown, a high density area full of gleaming metal and glass high rises. It’s going in that direction and I don’t see much to stop it.

Driggs at North 10th.

I am talking mainly about the Northside, from around Broadway north into Greenpoint, and from the river east into, well, there’s really no stopping it going east; the swamps of Maspeth, maybe.

A couple of postings ago when I was talking about the new building in the eastern side of Williamsburg, the Italian neighborhood centered on Graham Avenue, Lorimer Street, and so on, I forgot one really tall high rise I had wanted to show. At the time I was taking the photos, I ran into an older gentleman who had lived there most of his life and who allowed that when these developes started coming in and picking off the lots and small buildings, only two people tried to fight it, he and one other man. Then he pointed to this tall building nearby and told me that that one didn’t even have a permit when it went up; so he told me, I can’t prove it one way or another. He was pretty disgusted by the whole thing.

Richardson and Humboldt Streets.

You don’t really get a good sense of how out of place these tall buildings are until you view them from a distance and see how they tower over their neighbors. It’s like the effect the Empire State Building gives. When you are walking nearby it seems like just another tall building n midtown. You don’t get a good sense of the height in the midst of all the other buildings there. But look at it from New Jersey and you see that there is nothing that even remotely touches it for scores of blocks around. These tall buildings in Williamsburg are not the ESB but the effect is similar.

And then there is this building on Humboldt Street that I confess I have a sneaking liking for. It’s very clean looking. I don’t know if I’d like to live there (I hate a.c. so I need windows that open and most of these new places look like the windows don't) but it’s not terrible. Then too, I really wouldn’t want to live in a neighborhood where this is all there was. But I think that’s likely to happen.

Humboldt between Withers and Frost.

But the real fertile ground for the new Williamsburg begins over around Union Avenue near McCarren Park. There is acre after empty acre waiting for the economy to improve a bit more, probably so someone can develop large chunks of it instead of piecemeal building. This is the intersection of Union Ave. and North 10th St. Stand in the middle of the street and you are almost completely surrounded by empty lots.

This map may give you a better idea of the amount of empty space at that intersection just waiting to be filled in with tall, gleaming new silvery glassy towers. It's the area outlined in yellow. Driggs ave., which I will talk about further on is a block past, and parallel to, Roebling St., out of the picture on the left.

Before I get back to that Northside section of Williamsburg from Driggs to the river, I want to take a short detour up Union Avenue toward Broadway to see another neighborhood facing the inexorable tide of glass and steel and one person's reaction to it.

Ainslie is around seven blocks or so further south from the photos above, on the other side of the BQE and of Metropolitan Avenue.

These are all within the space of two blocks or so of each other on both sides of Union.

The 2- and 3-story buildings in the foreground and background give you an idea of what the avenue was like not too many years ago.

And, further up Union Avenue, closer to Broadway, one person sees what's coming and doesn't appear to care for it.

What do you want to bet they get it in the end?

And a detour in the other direction back to McCarren Park where we just were.

Those three buildings face McCarren Park. I guess that they are actually in Greenpoint, I'm not sure off the top of my head where the neighborhood line is, though in reality there is little difference these days. They are just about the tallest buildings in the vicinity and I wouldn't be surprised if their brothers and sisters were awaiting birth in those empty lots behind the board fence.

Here is a shot from the front.

Driggs and Union Avenues; part of McCarren Park.

Thank god McCarren Park is large and includes the old municipal swimming pool (below) and Automotive High School and some parkland on the west side, otherwise you'd feel you were running on a track at the bottom of a canyon.

Of the streets that run up through the Northside, Driggs Avenue seems to be the center of activity now. Along Bedford Avenue, Berry Street, and Wythe Street the buildings are too well-established to be easy targets . . . for now. But Driggs was always more commercial than residential and a lot of the buidings were old and the owners saw a nice profit in the offing if they sold them. There is feverish activity on almost every block now where only a year or two ago almost nothing was happening. Near the top of this posting is a shot of Driggs looking from North 10 to North 11. Below is North 11 looking from Driggs to Roebling.

These buildings have been going up so fast and I was out wandering so little during the winter that I only noticed them for the first time last weekend. That's when I realized that there was very little to stop the neighborhood becoming this.

North 11th in the opposite direction, toward Bedford.

And when I said that Bedford Avenue was unlikely to see this kind of reconstruction soon, I forgot about this immense empty building site along Bedford and North 12 bordering McCarren Park, seen here from North 11. Something is going in there, but what and how big?

The row of buildings in the background is on Bedford and McCarren Park is out of sight down to the right. You get a nice view of the Manhattan skyline from that far corner.

Looking down North 10th from Driggs to Roebling.

North 9th and Driggs.

North 8th and Driggs.

Well, we do know that nothing is going up in that lot behind the green fence. Incredibly, it is now a beautifully blacktopped parking lot. As New York City found out from decades of Robert Moses-built highways, traffic increases to fill the available space, so rather than taking cars off the street this will probably just attract more cars to the neighborhood. Progress, ain't it wonderful?

North 7th looking toward Driggs.

And just to give you an idea of what parts of the neighborhood used to look like, and what some still do today, below is a stable residential block, North 6th looking from Roebling toward Driggs.

More later.