Williamsburg starts somewhere south of the Williamsburg Bridge. My neighborhood, the North Side, straddles Williamsburg and Greenpoint, which is on the border of Queens. In terms of transportation the place is quite isolated. We took the "L" train, which is not one of the choicer ones. On the South Side, people get "J", the "M" and the "Z", which are even stranger. The unfortunates in Greenpoint proper had only the Brooklyn-to-Queens "G" train, which goes from nowhere to nowhere else. It's one of the two trains in the entire system that never touches Manhattan.
This isolation fosters a small-village atmosphere. Both neighborhoods were built in the 19th century on the East River facing Manhattan. In a previous heyday (as opposed to the current one), blocks of brownstones were built near the river as a refuge for the middle class. There was a ferry to bring them to work in Manhattan. Away from the river, a large part of the neighborhood is industrial, and in the teens and twenties, many apartment buildings were built to house less affluent people.
As the industry started to wane, the neighborhood got to be pretty rough. Rough neighborhoods are cheaper neighborhoods, so two things happened. First, immigrants from Poland started a community here. Second, artists moved in, attracted by the industrial space that was available. Since the 1980's, young people started trickling, then flooding in, and today, it's one of the coolest neighborhoods to live in. It's a lot of fun.
The speculators are keenly aware of all this, and unfortunately, there may well be a third stage coming, when the rich buy the artists out of their lofts. The rents are going through the roof, and even when I was living there, Donald Trump was thinking of what he could do with the waterfront.
My neighbors were mostly Polish immigrants. These are hardworking people, and unlike my neighbors in the East Village, they regarded the street as something you use to get from one place to another. When my neighbors weren't working they were cleaning. When they weren't working or cleaning they were sleeping. What a novelty! In my old neighborhood the cars boomed out salsa music at all hours. Not once did I hear a single polka coming from a car stereo.
As immigrants they were part of the New York experience, but my neighbors were clearly from Poland. Their culture is more old-world, more formal. The women had their hair done and wore their best dresses even when going out to the market. Polish was definitely the language on the street, and even the Palestinian shopkeepers spoke respectable Polish. There was kielbasa to last a million years and astounding stuffed cabbages at stupidly low prices. The markets had things I remember my grandmother for: kasha, pierogies, blintzes, sauerkraut, borsht, whitefish and pickles in a barrel. This made me feel incredibly comfortable.
The only drawback was that the neighborhood was somewhat "aesthetically challenged" -- some aluminum siding salesman had made a killing in the 1970's, and some of the stately brownstones had crenellated metal awnings. The Polish restaurants had fake wood wainscot and obviously plastic flowers, as well as stenciled ceiling fans with glass lampshades in the shape of flowers. But the half-price flourish came along with half-price good food (double portions as well), so you'd have to be pretty narrow-minded to complain.
Oddly, everyone who lived there had a label that started with "P". The locals were Poles, the shopkeepers were Palestinian, and the new arrivals were punks, performance artists, photographers, painters, or in my case, programmers. Near us was the Dominican neighborhood, and farther down, the Satmar Hasidim, who had big beards and even bigger bellies. They had recreated a piece of 18th-century Poland in the middle of Brooklyn.
It was a fantastic opportunity to see more of New York, and I became a tourist in my own neighborhood. I spent a lot of weekends walking around, many times with a camera. Most of the pictures were of things, since I didn't dare to photograph people. I spent a memorable afternoon photographing garbage at the waterfront. At one point we walked into one Dominican grocery with our cameras, and the guys in the back yelled "Cuidado, la Migra!" No, just a couple of goofballs who thought they were artists.
The place was livable, and it was also incredibly cheap. You could get a great dinner for $6 if you felt like a splurge. And if you knew how to shop at the Salvation Army it was even cheaper. The local branch billed itself as "Grandma's Kept Secret", until someone pointed out that they had left the word "best" off the sign. It was painted in with a caret. I lived right across the street. I got some great furniture, and a $35 suit that was nice enough to wear to work. When one of the financial analysts at work told me he had the same suit I was very pleased. "So," I asked, "where do you get yours?"
The neighborhood is now twice the price, since Grandma could never keep a secret, though at twice the price it's still a bargain. The yuppies have invaded, and nothing ever stays the same, but if I were to move back to New York, it's still the first place that I would look. Manhattan might have the architecture, but it could never be as interesting.