Close-Up on South Williamsburg


There’s no official—nor, for that matter, unofficial—name for the area of Williamsburg that lies along the western end of Broadway and the ramparts of the Williamsburg Bridge. “Southside” pops up now and again in conversation, but on maps, that title is given to the wedge of land between the BQE and Grand Street. So for this report it will be known as South Williamsburg, and if that name doesn’t stick, another one soon will: Low rents and loft conversions are drawing new residents to the neighborhood at an ever-quickening pace.

That said, culturally South Williamsburg is still defined by its two main ethnic groups. South of Broadway, New York’s largest Hasidic community continues to thrive. To the north, Dominican and Puerto Rican families live in row houses and small apartment blocks. On Broadway itself, the two groups mix easily: It is not uncommon to find Jewish newspapers for sale in a bodega, and everybody shops at the numerous dollar stores.

New residents—young, hip, and mostly white—are moving into the area north of Broadway, drawn by reasonable rents. Section 8 restrictions somewhat limit the available space, but landlords in the area are nothing if not creative; seek and ye shall find nice row house apartments, and even small lofts.

The Hasidic community south of Broadway has resisted the pressure to convert its residences to rental properties. This leaves only the western end of Broadway, where it slopes down to the East River, open to development.

The area is filled with old warehouses and factories, a fact noted by artists and real-estate heavies alike. The latter now have the upper hand: The Kay Organization has sold all the units in its restored Smith Gray Building, a neoclassical iron front, and Martin and Edward Wydra will soon complete renovations on the enormous Gretsch Building, a prewar guitar factory. C.P.C. Resources and Isaac Katan purchased the grand old Domino Sugar refinery, on the riverfront just north of the bridge, last year, and is seeking to have it rezoned for residential use. Just south of the bridge, Kent Waterfront Associates LLC is putting up three towers, known collectively as Schaefer Landing. Two will feature luxury loft-style condominiums; the third will offer rent-controlled apartments to low-income residents. Doors open on the smaller, 14-story condo building in June.

This sudden influx of capital is lifting property values in the entire riverfront area, a fact worrisome to the Hasidic community. Various protests, from anti-development posters to appeals to the city council, have been raised, but a sense of inevitable change is in the air. South Williamsburg is waking, though what it will become—boho enclave? Soho East?—is as yet unclear.

Take me to the river
photo: Tim Heffernan

Boundaries: The East River to the west, Grand Street to the north, Union Avenue to the east, and Division Avenue to the south. Transportation: The JMZ runs along Broadway, connecting with numerous other lines on its loop through Lower Manhattan. The G is accessible at the corner of Broadway and Union Avenue. A ten-minute walk gets you to the L at Bedford or Lorimer. Buses: B24, B39 (to/from Manhattan), B44, B46, B54, B59, B60, B61.

Main Drags: Broadway offers numerous bodegas, lunch counters, groceries, and laundromats. Division Avenue and Roebling Street are the main thoroughfares in the Hasidic community; delis and bakeries abound.

Prices to Rent and Buy: In the houses and apartment blocks north of Broadway, one-bedrooms go from $900 to $1300; two-bedrooms from $1200 to $1700. Lofts at the west end of Broadway range from $1800 (cute) to $5900 (cavernous). Condo units in the professionally renovated warehouses and factories go for $500,000 to upwards of $2 million.

What to Check Out: A walk over the Williamsburg Bridge can be breathtaking on a clear day. Grand Ferry Park, where Grand Street meets the river, is small and shabby, but draws sunbathers in the summer. The Williamsburgh Library, a branch of the Brooklyn Public Library with period name intact, is a beaux-arts gem; newly renovated, and offering wireless Internet, it’s a lovely place to spend an afternoon.

Hangouts and Restaurants: Broadway offers lots of cheap eats, some of them quite good. Emperador Elias Restaurant serves heaping Dominican dishes, with a different special on the menu daily. Authentic tacos are $2 a piece at Mexico 2000 Deli & Restaurant. A morir soñando—a “to die dreaming” mix of orange juice, vanilla, and condensed milk—takes the edge off a hot summer day; most Latin places sell them, though only Reben Luncheonette on Havemeyer Street will give you your money back if you don’t like it.

For more upscale fare on Broadway, try Moto, where well-prepared seasonal dishes range from $8 to $14. Diner draws crowds for its inventive brunches and dinners, and for the ambience: it’s situated in an authentic Pullman car built in the 1920s. Marlow & Sons, a gourmet grocery next door, has a small, romantic dining room in the back; the oysters are especially well-regarded. And, of course, there’s Peter Luger Steak House, a Williamsburg institution since 1887.

Crime: Williamsburg’s 90th Police Precinct reported two murders in 2004, down from seven in 2003; 437 robberies, from 451; and 182 felonious assaults, from 204. Rapes stayed level at 23. Crime is concentrated in the public housing projects further east near the Bushwick border.

Politicians: City Councilwomen Letitia James and Diana Reyna, State Assemblymembers Joseph R. Lentol and Vito J. Lopez, State Senator Martin Malave Dilan, U.S. Representatives Nydia M. Velasquez and Edolphus Towns, all Democrats.