CityPASS — Williamsburg, a popular eastern Brooklyn neighborhood of about 125,000 inhabitants, used to be a place visitors would avoid. Now it’s an icon of hipster culture, with lots of fun shops, bars, music venues and terrific people watching. It’s almost along the lines of when tour buses would drive through San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury to gape at the hippies when I was a kid. Instead, here you sit at a sidewalk cafe, sip an espresso and enjoy the show. Definitely bring your camera.
As a native of Portland, Ore., I know something about hipster neighborhoods, and to enter the belly of the Pabst-sipping beast undetected, I knew I’d need a makeover. First the glasses: I wear wire rims, so instead I punched out the lenses of some 3-D glasses I used to see the latest Iron Man with my son — turning them into a pair of obnoxious, black rims that pass muster. Then I borrowed an old hoodie from my daughter, put on a black shirt and was almost ready to walk along Bedford Street.
One omission: Skinny jeans. Those just weren’t going to happen on my paunchy, 53-year-old frame. If there isn’t a maximum weight limit on those, there should be.
Take the L Train
Some have said that the only difference between Portland and Williamsburg is that Portland has more affordable rent. Gentrification has hit Williamsburg hard, making it cost prohibitive for the middle class and starving artist set who originally redefined the area. But it’s a trend facing a lot of former lower-income neighborhoods from the Mission in San Francisco to Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Boston and elsewhere.
Emerging from the Bedford Avenue L Subway Station and walking just a few blocks, I was amused by the uniformity of fashion, a style I recognized from walking about in Portland’s Pearl District. V-neck t-shirts, beards … or wanna-be beards, scarves (the wispy European kind, not the wool lumberjack variety), skinny jeans, Converse, and any article of clothing that can’t be found at the mall.
After people watching, the next best activity is browsing the quirky shops such as the famed Beacon’s Closet selling vintage clothing, Earwax second-hand records, Voos furniture store with jaw-dropping prices (a $900 redwood chair … really?) and, my favorite find, Digital Fix, an electronics shop that sells new “vintage looking” turntables, clock radios and brownie cameras. As one who still loves pulling out that vinyl copy of Mad Dogs & Englishman and giving it a spin, I’m happy to see vinyl making a return. I tried to interview the clerk, but he looked at the floor and mumbled something about not wanting to be in my article.
Feeling hungry, I stopped in at Tai Thai on Bedford, which boasted the best Pad Sed Eiw (also known as drunken noodles). Given the wide variety of ethnic cuisine in the neighborhood, getting a plate of Thai noodles almost felt like a cop-out, but it was terrific.
Nighttime is when the neighborhood comes alive with bars and live music of all different styles. Go to a classic speakeasy and have a cocktail and enjoy piano music at the Manhattan Inn, featuring free performances Wednesday and Sunday. Another idea for some really retro fun is to head to Brooklyn Lanes and knock down some pins. It features live music, DJs and – knowing their patrons – they sell socks to the sockless so they can bowl.
Another idea is to walk across the Williamsburg Bridge to Manhattan’s Lower East Side. On the Brooklyn side, use the pedestrian-only walkway starting at Berry Street between South 5th and South 6th Streets. You had better wear your Converse instead of Top-Siders or heels as the incline to the bridge is pretty steep. Also, it can get pretty nippy due to wind gusts on the bridge, so a jacket might be in order too. It’s a great way to get shots of the skyline.