Twenty-one years ago last month, New York ran a cover story titled “The New Bohemia,” about Williamsburg’s burgeoning artist community. Today, revisiting the eight-page spread – which we’ve embedded for you below – is like opening a time capsule from a moment when the neighborhood was on the precipice of change. “In the seventies, it was SoHo. In the eighties, the East Village. In the nineties, it will be Williamsburg,” said one interviewee. Here now are 10 things we learned about the Billyburg of 1992.
1. The neighborhood looked a heck of a lot different.
It resembled “the Lower East Side of yesterday,” to be exact. Photographer Collier Shorr compared it to “a working-class hick town.” Others described its aesthetic as “the land that time forgot,” where buildings “rarely rise higher than four stories.” That changed when the city rezoned the area in 2005, leading to the high-rise condos of today.
2. Rent was cheap. Real cheap.
Schorr paid $425 per month for a two-bedroom apartment and kept a $250-per-month studio next-door. Compare that to the Craigslist ad asking $1,350 for 60 square feet.
3. The waterfront used to be kind of spooky.
The waterfront — with its “disheveled wharves,” where “abandoned cars stick up from the East River” — was “Williamsburg’s spookiest area.” Now it’s the home of Smorgasburg and “hipster Olympics.”
3. Good coffee was a lot harder (and cross-dressers a lot easier) to find.
“My most burning project is to bring a decent cappuccino west of the BQE,” said Madea De Vyse, the cross-dressing alterego of composer Billy Basinki (who eventually moved to California).
4. The bomber jacket wasn’t always the Williamsburger’s attire of choice.
The late Lori Ledis recalled the moment she and her husband Robert Flam knew change had come: “I remember Robert coming back from the train and saying, ‘I’m noticing all these used overcoats. The used overcoats are moving in.'” At the time, “Williamsburg style” meant “a sort of Blade Runner Industrial Gothic.”
5. A lot of fun-sounding spots were doomed.
Clubs like Keep Refrigerated (“a Berlin-style underground club where the temperatures hovered above freezing”) and Game Room (“featuring roulette tables, chess and board games”) closed long ago, as did Arcadia (the setting of a New Year’s Eve Surrealist Ball), the , Comfort Zone (located on Grand Street, “one of Williamsburg’s empty boulevards”), and the late Annie Herron’s Test Site gallery. Coyote Recording Studios closed due to what it described as “the gentrification of Williamsburg and a non-negotiable lease with exorbitant rent.”
6. The ethnic boundaries used to be a bit different.
The ethnic communities of Williamsburg are the same today as they were in the ‘90s, though you don’t see many Asians moving there from Chinatown anymore. In 1992, Poles were moving south from Greenpoint, from 15th Street to Grand Street, and many of the Hasidim lived south of Division. Artists were “interlopers” on the Hispanic South Side.
8. The parties were way more fun.
750 people celebrated Bastille Day at the Old Dutch Mustard Factory before the organizers of the so-called Cat’s Head parties moved to Berlin. Back when ’80s art stars McDermott and McGough kept a studio in the bank that now houses the Williamsburg Art & Historical Center, they threw a costume party “fastidiously modeled after Louis Comfort Tiffany’s Egyptian Fete of 1913.” The duo subsequently moved on to Dublin and the West Village. But hey, at least Bushwick raves on?
9. There have always been haters.
Even 21 years ago, there were accusations of inauthenticity. “It’s like an army,” one person said of the newcomers. “They march off the train in their thrift-store clothing carrying their art-supply bags and stretchers on their way to the health food store.” Another interviewee described McDermott and McGough as “total Manhattanites” who “just moved out here to exploit the low rents, but they’re not really connected to the community.”
10. Some predicted the changes to come.
A member of the community board said of developers, “They want to gentrify the area with condos, which would lead to a domino effect, changing the neighborhood.” Er, Domino effect indeed. Just last month a Williamsburg penthouse sold for $3 million.