I visited Williamsburg for the first time back in 1997. My professor had a studio there in an old warehouse, and looking back on it, I realize how ignorant I was. It was a great place to live, but only for economic reasons. The rent was cheap and there was ample parking, and as far as logistics were concerned, it was a short ride on the L train away from NYU. But socially, it wasn’t great. There weren’t a lot of good restaurants (unless you liked Polish, Italian, or typical roadside diners) and the bar scene catered to construction workers. The only people that lived there were looking for cheap rent and big spaces. But by 2000, I wished I’d seen the huge potential. Dopey me.
Robert Anasi’s The Last Bohemia is a great book by a writer who was there the whole time. He narrates this great history of the area, from a time when it was a backwater to the present day “hipster” hangout. When I say hipster, I’m not making any compliments; the so-called “hip” is little more than a bunch of snobs trying to one-up everyone else with their expensive clothing and knowledge of every bar, band, and eatery. The real “hip” people lived in Williamsburg because the rent was cheap. The real artists had to work, and they put up with the place being not much fun.
Anasi doesn’t pull any punches when describing the uber-stylish. He has a lot of respect for the people that lived there before it was cool, and those are the people that got priced out. It truly is the “last bohemia,” because there’s no place like it left in this city (unless you want to trek farther and farther from Manhattan.)
This book reminds me of the recent In Love With Art, because 1970’s Soho is described in a similar way; run-down, few restaurants, but safe, because nobody had anything to steal. In a way, the old Williamsburg was safe too, because who would be there besides the people who worked and lived in the area? The residents weren’t walking around with expensive stuff to steal. If you broke into an apartment, you’d be lucky to find a TV.