With hotels, Airbnbs, and gifty boutiques popping up all over Williamsburg to serve an influx of out-of-towners, one has to wonder: how many people strolling Bedford Avenue at a given time are locals, and how many are tourists? To answer that question, we posted up outside of the Bedford station and polled over 300 passersby. Our findings: 1 in 3 people we spoke to were from outside of New York City (about half of those visitors were Europeans), while just 1 in 4 of them actually lived in Williamsburg. As one of Williamsburg’s many French tourists might say: “Mon dieu!”
Our findings, shown in the graph above, clicked with a recent study, conducted by the New York State Attorney General, indicating the degree to which Airbnb has made inroads in North Brooklyn. In the apartment-sharing service’s most popular neighborhoods, including Williamsburg, at least 1 in 5 apartments are Airbnb rentals. What’s more, 40 percent of Brooklyn rentals, and 10 percent of citywide rentals, are in Greenpoint or Williamsburg.
It’s no secret that tourists have gotten hip to Williamsburg. Of the people who stopped to talk with us, several pointed to Williamsburg destinations in their guide books. After reading about DuMont Burger, Italians Enrico and Silvia Caino and their 14-year-old son, Pietro, ventured there from their Upper West Side hotel.
Australian Maria Gentile, 39, was lured in part by a Lonely Plant article that listed NYC’s top attractions to see now. “There was a lot in the article about Brooklyn,” said Gentile, who was staying at an Airbnb in Williamsburg. “I like to keep it local,” she said. “It’s more up-and-coming and has a more interesting vibe versus Manhattan, which has a tourist vibe.”
But is Williamsburg getting a “tourist vibe” as well? It would seem so: for every four Williamsburg residents we met, we met one French tourist. Australians also abounded.
Both nationalities were “early adopters” of Williamsburg, said Jim Zito, executive vice-president and chief revenue officer of Chelsea Hotels, which owns the McCarren Hotel and Pool. “Brooklyn was something that was really of interest to the French market from the get-go; we got press inquiries from them early on,” he said, recalling the acquisition of the hotel four years ago.
“We also see a lot of Scandinavians; Germans as well, to a certain degree” — also evident in our findings — “and the UK and some Canadians, and also Italians now. It’s this group of travelers that like to be more adventurous in what they like to do. You’re not going to see a lot of your South American markets and Spanish and Portuguese. Your obvious ones were always French.”
So what is it that draws French tourists to Brooklyn? “I think first and foremost there’s a huge attraction for French people because it’s part of the cultural environment to be connected to New York, whether it’s through films or through literature,” said Lili Chopra, artistic director of the French Institute Alliance Francaise.
“Over the past, I would say, six or seven years, there’s been more and more writing about how artists communities are actually moving to Brooklyn, and how Brooklyn is starting all these initiatives in terms of really taking ownership in what we eat, how we dress, and having small-batch vendors,” Chopra said. “In a sense what you find in Brooklyn is what maybe used to be in Manhattan but no longer is because it’s much more about money, much more commercial.”
Certainly the ease of travel from Manhattan via the L train combined with Williamsburg’s compact streets, stuffed to the gills with restaurants and shops, has put the neighborhood at a unique advantage, she said. Marianne Perret and Léa Perret-Rovine, co-owners of Coucou Brooklyn, a French language school in Williamsburg and Soho that offers native-taught French classes, agreed. “You can walk everywhere or use public transport, so it’s easy to get around,” said Perret in a joint email with Perret-Rovine.
“The recent foodie movement is also something that definitely draws them in,” added Perret-Rovine. “People always used to say that it was hard to eat well in the U.S., but that’s definitely no longer true in New York. In fact, trendy new restaurants in Paris are very influenced by Brooklyn—you can now often find kale, burrata, gourmet burgers, tacos, etc., on restaurant menus—which has become the epitome of cool.”
The women had another take on why the French might prefer quirky village feel of Williamsburg to the big name stores and tourist traps of midtown Manhattan: France in general has a sort of inferiority complex with all things new and trendy, they said. “It has classic, old, ‘high’ culture down, but when it comes to youth culture and modern trends, it’s always looked up to the U.S.,” Perret-Rovine said. “French people are drawn to places that have ‘character,’ that are ‘charming.’”
There’s also an abundance of relatively affordable lodging in the neighborhood. The majority of tourists we spoke with reported staying at an Airbnb, most of them in Williamsburg. One French tourist was paying $400 per week for a place in the neighborhood. Gabriel Grones, 31, and Elisa Bertaglia, 32, vacationers from Italy, were staying at an Airbnb in Greenpoint. With three friends they were paying $1,100 per person for four weeks in a spacious two-bedroom apartment.
Considering that’s about two times what a guest at the Wythe Hotel would pay per night for a “baby queen-sized” room, listed at $491 after tax for an August 15-16 overnight stay, it’s easy to see how Airbnb can entice travelers to roll the dice a little bit in return for a much longer, more affordable vacation. Even hostels like the B-Hotel and Hostel, on Broadway in Williamsburg, are charging $50 per night for a shared room with a shared bathroom, and they provide none of the conveniences of an apartment, like a kitchen, or the obvious comfort of knowing who will be sharing your room.
Of course, the amount tourists were putting down for Airbnbs varied widely, but they were all paying far less than they would for a hotel. Jennifer Lovanov and Maximilian Karall, Australian friends in their early twenties, were paying $800 for two weeks for their Airbnb on Montrose Avenue. “We have a very nice host,” Lovanov said, adding that they have three roommates and the apartment has four rooms. “There’s everything you need there; it’s a location for young people, away from the heavy traffic of Manhattan, and there’s a lot to explore.”
As hotels feel the impact of Airbnb and elected officials accuse it of putting a damper on affordable housing, lawmakers are seeking to step up the city’s enforcement against illegal short-term rentals. But there’s anecdotal evidence that hotels might be benefiting from a shift in tourists’ attitude toward Brooklyn, brought on in part by Airbnb. Zito said the days when tour operators would book only in Manhattan are over, and now they’re willing to pay up for options in Brooklyn. “We’re also seeing [tourists] booking a few nights in Manhattan and then a few nights in Brooklyn with a tour operator bundling everything for them,” Zito said.
Though the vast majority of people from out of town told us they were traveling for pleasure, not work, The William Vale Hotel (that futuristic behemoth going up on Wythe Avenue, slated to open late this year) aims to cover all its bases with conference rooms, a rooftop pool, several restaurants, a sublevel ballroom, public rooftop garden and promenade of shops and grab-and-go food options. When we toured the construction site back in June, general manager Sebastien Maingourd (who is French) told us it was “unbelievable to see the proliferation of tourists from Europe.” In addition to the William Vale, The Williamsburg Hotel is also under construction just down the street, but with its water tower bar and more modest dimensions it appears it will cater to a younger demographic.
The new hotels currently under construction could cause over-saturation of the market in Williamsburg for a while, predicted Zito, though he thinks it will catch up as the number of people staying in Brooklyn continues to increase. “There’s probably a little too much buildup going on right now; people got a little too excited and started building up simultaneously,” he said, adding that his gut tells him it’s going to be a continuing trend. “There are hotels being built further and further out into Brooklyn, and even there a lot of the artistic community has moved out,” he said. “The rents are going up, and the market has shifted and changed.”
So what draws tourists in, even as the culture they’re looking to experience is arguably on its way out? Of all the explanations, Stephanie McDermott, a U.K. transplant who opened the café/boutique The Vale on North 7th Street earlier this year, may have summed it up best. “Everybody likes the idea of being on the cusp of something,” she said. “People are coming to Williamsburg to feel like they’re part of something, like modern, trendy street kids, even though realistically that’s not what Williamsburg is anymore.”
“Now it’s being seen as a destination, especially with the infrastructure of the new hotels, though personally I sort of scratch my head as far as realistically what there is to do,” McDermott added. “It’s not like when you’re visiting New York City and there are all these museums and famously touristy things to do like the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty. It’s to soak up the atmosphere.”
It’s the atmosphere that enchanted Lonanov and Karall, the young friends who traveled all the way from Australia to stay at an Airbnb on Montrose. “Brooklyn is young, crazy, colorful — different from our culture. People live in a bubble, in their own world,” Lonanov said, adding that she doesn’t see that as a bad thing. Karall stepped in to explain: “It’s that you can do whatever you want, and no one will judge you.”