Grand Street: The Williamsburg Divide

Grand Street separates two neighborhoods in Williamsburg, and the Times is on it. The result could be the single worst article ever written about Williamsburg in the paper of record.

Already there is one correction: “An earlier version of this article misspelled in one instance the name of an avenue in Brooklyn. It is Wythe Avenue, not Wyeth”. Presumably another correction will be forthcoming when the Grey Lady discovers that Bedford Street is in Greenwich Village, not Brooklyn. Apparently one does not need to travel to Brooklyn to write about it.

Other than seeing that the Northside is different from the Southside, the whole article hits a discordant note – it is hard to find a paragraph not to object to.

Let’s start with North Williamsburg. Unless you want to appear a rube (or you are a real estate broker), there is no such thing. The streets north of Grand Street are the Northside (and it is one word, not two). There is a South Williamsburg, but it’s not where the Times thinks it is. To locals, South Williamsburg refers to the area south of Division Avenue (in other words south of the numbered south streets). The streets in South Williamsburg are named after signers of the Declaration of Independence, and the area today is largely Hasidic. In between the Northside and South Williamsburg is the Southside (also one word) – the south numbered streets.

The moniker South Williamsburg has been creeping north for a few years now, and I suspect it starts with a real estate effort to rebrand the area away from its Hispanic identity. When South Williamsburg started moving north of Broadway, I asked some Puerto Rican and Dominican friends who grew up in the neighborhood to define the Southside (Los Sures in Spanish). Their boundaries coincided generally with what I had always thought – from Grand Street south to either Broadway or Division, and from Kent to at least Union was the Southside.

To [Northsiders], the south can feel, well, a little too real: a backwater of vinyl siding, dusty bodegas, Gen-Y drifters and unrenovated dumps unfit for civilized company.

I can’t speak to the drifters and dumps, but I do know that the Northside has far more vinyl siding than the Southside (or South Williamsburg). As an architectural historian, to me the Southside is one of the more interesting neighborhoods in Brooklyn, with many readable layers of architecture and culture. The bulk of its low-scale housing stock is pre-Civil War brick houses and flats, reflecting the neighborhood’s history as the original civic and commercial center of Williamsburg (Grand Street was the main commercial artery, which explains why it still has so many great retail buildings). As that center shifted south, so too did development. That explains the large number of late-19th century brownstones and mansions in South Williamsburg, and the great buildings of Williamsburg’s second commercial corridor – Broadway. Both neighborhoods have a lot of architectural gems in the mix (check the AIA Guide, which doesn’t spend a lot of time on the Northside). Meanwhile, the Northside was historically the more working-class neighborhood, and as a result has many more wood-framed flats and tenements, many of which got the vinyl siding treatment in the latter half of the 20th century. The same is true of parts of Greenpoint and East Williamsburg (which, by the way, has been called East Williamsburg for 150 years – no rechristening there).

From architecture and history to restaurants and retail, the Southside is far more interesting than the Northside. I hope it stays that way.

One response to “Grand Street: The Williamsburg Divide”

  1. Moses Kestenvbau.ODA

    Gorgeous women is the best part that i enjoy in the new invigorated williamsburg. For that alone it paid all the hardships with all this developments