The one thing that never changes about New York City is that things constantly change. This city is about transformations, and Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is no exception.
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Williamsburg, Brooklyn’s History
Originally known as Bushwick, the area was primarily farmland. The waterfront became a prime spot for ferrying goods to Manhattan since it was an easy trip across the narrow part of the East River. In 1802, real estate developer Richard M. Woodhull saw the potential for the site to become a new suburb. He purchased 13 acres and renamed the area “Williamsburgh” in honor of his friend Colonel Jonathan Williams, a great-nephew of Benjamin Franklin and the chief of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who’d surveyed the land for him.
Unfortunately, Woodhull went bankrupt a few years later. But the area continued to flourish, eventually becoming its own city before being incorporated into Brooklyn in 1855 and then NYC in 1898. At that point, it dropped the “H” from its name. With the construction of the Williamsburg Bridge, thousands moved across the river from Manhattan. But surprisingly, despite the influx of residents, the neighborhood remained low-key and was sparsely populated outside of a few concentrated residential pockets. Well into the 21st century, much of the area along the waterfront consisted of warehouses and factory buildings.
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The Turning Point for Williamsburg, Brooklyn
Flash forward to the early aughts when residents took advantage of apartments priced below market rates. A robust art and music scene blossomed, scattered among loft spaces, garages, and other nooks here and there. In 2005, Williamsburg, Brooklyn was rezoned, allowing those warehouses and factories to be converted to residential units and businesses. The building boom that followed has transformed the neighborhood. Today, one would hardly recognize Williamsburg as it was even just five years ago. (You can say the same for Bushwick, a more affordable alternative to Williamsburg.)
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Living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn
You will find a variety of housing choices, from 19th-century clapboard buildings to the sleekest, most stylish new condos, including those in covetable buildings on the waterfront.
Plus, with an average commute of 15 minutes on the L train to Manhattan, it’s no wonder that “Billyburg” is a highly desirable neighborhood to live in. The median rent as of January 2022 is $3,795, which is a bit pricier than the median Manhattan rent ($3,700 for the same period). (If you’re a renter on a budget, behold these 13 affordable Brooklyn neighborhoods.) For those who’ve fallen in love with the place and want to put down roots, the median asking sales price is $1.3 million, making it a pinch cheaper than Manhattan’s median sales price of $1.5 million.
But the price of living here is worth it for many: The evidence is in the population boom, which increased an astounding 41% just over the last decade to total more than 151,000. Not bad for what was once a sleepy little patch of farmland.
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Notable Parks and Green Spaces
Once a place with little greenery, now Williamsburg, Brooklyn is brimming with vibrant outdoor spaces.
Domino Park revamps five acres of what had been the Domino Sugar Refinery along the East River. Besides the spectacular views of the Manhattan skyline, there’s a beach volleyball court (with actual sand), a waterfront walkway with plenty of seating, a neat Fog Bridge, and a dog park, among other features. Here are more NYC waterfront parks worth visiting.
McCarren Park used to be a vast 35-acre lawn with patchy brown spots throughout. Now it boasts tennis courts, basketball courts, a running track, places to barbecue, and lots more. And the pool continues to be a popular destination in summer.
Marsha P. Johnson State Park, formerly the East River State Park, was renamed in honor of the gay rights activist in 2020. The waterfront park is the summer home of the uber-popular Smorgasburg. And if you want to walk off all that food, there’s a tiny stretch of sand called Charlotte Beach. With its rocky shoreline and lapping tides, it almost feels like you’ve found a hidden beach in Williamsburg.
What To Do, Eat, & Drink
From shopping to museums and breweries and more, you can expect the unexpected in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
The City Reliquary: It’s a museum specializing in the obscure, quirky, and otherwise little-known artifacts of NYC. The collection can include everything from Statue of Liberty postcards and vintage subway tokens to geological core samples. You never know what you’ll find here.
Brooklyn Art Library: What makes this library distinctive is its trove of more than 45,000 sketchbooks from more than 130 countries. There are multiple innovative workshops that can teach you fun skills like embroidering over images, drawing with wool, building a tattoo portfolio, and more.
Brooklyn Flea: This top-rated flea market is one of the largest and most popular in the five boroughs. It is a must-visit for those who love hunting for vintage clothing, antiques, and other collectibles. There are other locations now, but the Williamsburg one is the original.
Barcade: It’s a bar. It’s an arcade. It’s all there in the name! Although there are multiple locations, this is the original. Play old-school games like Pac-Man and Q*bert while you enjoy a brew.
Brooklyn Brewery: The iconic brewery started here in the 1980s. Its logo was designed by the renowned Milton Glaser, who was an early fan. Come for a tour and a beer.
Mable’s Smokehouse & Banquet Hall: The brisket is melt-in-your-mouth tender, the pulled pork is dripping with juices, and everything is served in a down-home, no-frills space with wooden tables and mismatched chairs.