No, Not That Williamsburg

Trendy shops and edgy galleries draw shoppers and strollers to Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Trendy shops and edgy galleries draw shoppers and strollers to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. (Photos By Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)
By Jennifer Barger
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Beat poets howled in San Francisco's North Beach in the '50s. Artists and intellectuals prowled Greenwich Village in the '70s. Scenesters and musicians filled Seattle in the '90s. The boundaries of new Bohemia shift faster than Chloe Sevigny's wardrobe or which band is playing on your teenager's iPod. Today's happening enclave is tomorrow's urban Disneyland.

But there's no sign of Mickey Mouse just yet in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. On a recent weekend, as my husband, Callan, and I trawled its cool-cat shops, soaked in the indie rock scene and walked the gallery- and cafe-lined streets, "Billyburg" still felt balanced on the cutting edge. It's been building for years, as artists, writers, design students from nearby Pratt Institute and bands (the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs and Nada Surf) invaded this scruffy northwest Brooklyn 'hood of warehouses, converted tenements and brownstones just a subway stop from Manhattan on the L train. Drawn by low rents, postcard vistas of the city and a burgeoning art scene, they arrived in an already polyglot zone of Hasidic Jews, Latinos and Polish immigrants.

"When I moved here seven years ago, Williamsburg seemed like an industrial wasteland," says David Alhadeff, owner of the mod home decor shop Future Perfect (115 N. Sixth St., 718-599-6278). "Now instead of dangerous, it's bourgeois and a receptive neighborhood for creative people."

Alhadeff's boutique, a trove of faux antler lamps, groovy ceramics and toile pillows with naughty embroidery embellishments (a French courtier with a devil's tail!), is just the kind of place that's making shopaholics zip over from Manhattan. They come for clothes made or designed in Brooklyn, ahead-of-the-trend styles and moderate prices that make SoHo shopkeepers look downright greedy.

Browsing along main drags Bedford Avenue, Grand Street and North Sixth, we encountered a streetwise fashion show: one gal in magenta tights and baggy 1980s knee boots and a dreadlocked dude in a Russian army trench coat, ruffled yellow tux shirt and spray-painted jeans.

Hunting for au courant clothes for ourselves (we wanted to fit in), we strolled blocks on and around Bedford. We unearthed locally made kimono dresses and wool and felt songbird pins ( Mini Minimarket , 218 Bedford Ave., 718-302-9337), men's T-shirts depicting the Brooklyn skyline and canvas bags in swirly green and brown prints ( Brooklyn Industries , 162 Bedford Ave., 718-486-6464), and vintage velvet Pucci pants at Calliope (135 Grand St., 718-486-0697).

Home decor shops, though less common than clothing boutiques, also come loaded with the cool and current. Golden Calf (86 N. Sixth St., 718-302-8800) had Chinese apothecary cabinets and boxy 1960s chairs; Cosmo's Cosmos (314 Wythe Ave., 718-302-4662) filled a massive room with mid-century modern bar carts, sofas and chrome chandeliers.

But our fave? Goth-yet-groovy Saved Gallery of Art & Craft (82 Berry St., 718-388-5990), where an Edward Goreyesque room with a Victorian settee and a decorative tombstone held neo-Victorian jewelry and clothing designed by owners Noel Hennessy and Sean McNanney. Their specialty: T-shirts and cashmere sweaters embellished with stark silhouettes of images like the Statue of Liberty or a revolver with a flower in its barrel.

Typical of this creative, try-your-hand-at-everything enclave, Hennessy and McNanney also apply their darkly chic vision to nearby St. Helens Cafe (150 Wythe Ave., 718-302-1197). We broke for lunch, chowing down on crunchy cheddar panini and Brooklyn lagers in a pint-size space with creepy fly silhouettes on the bathroom door. A back garden with a turtle pond tempted us to linger, but we had another hipster scene to make.

I'd noticed a sign for a free concert that afternoon at Sound Fix (110 Bedford Ave., 718-388-8090), one of several indie record stores in Williamsburg. I assumed that the gig by Montreal's Bell Orchestre would be a casual CD-hawking session in a corner of the shop. But Sound Fix hides a back room that's like a slice of fin-de-sicle Vienna, a dimly lighted, sofa-filled bar/coffeehouse with pressed-tin walls. It was crammed with Billyburgers who clearly knew of the band.

We stumbled out an hour later, signed CDs in hand, feeling pretty starry-eyed. Our dinner plans in the city suddenly seemed dull. Trying to squeeze the last bit of hipness out of our day, we popped into Diner, a skinny 1927 dining car. Candles along the bar added a glow to the weathered tile floor and dark wood trim as we tucked into a snack of gimlets and crostini with bitter greens, crisp apples and bacon.

The next afternoon, gallery hopping.

"This must be what SoHo felt like before everyone discovered it," Callan said as we wandered into Pierogi 2000 (177 N. Ninth St., 718-599-2144). The walls were hung with Lynn Talbot's odd-yet-beautiful still lifes (wine glasses in a fish-shape frame, otherworldly fruit) and Daniel Zeller's delicate topographical maplike works on paper.

We picked up Wagmag, a free monthly brochure with maps and gallery info. It led us to Jack the Pelican Presents (487 Driggs Ave., 718-782-0183), with larger-than-life self-portraits by Arthur Cohen. Grand Street is a rich gallery row: The "chess set" of pedophiles and their victims at Ch'i disturbed; a collection of deli coffee cups at City Reliquary amused; and Martin Gurfein's kaleidoscopic scenes of daily life at the Hogar Collection dazzled.

Many galleries were promoting events that night: a show opening here, an avant-garde film screening there. But we had other, cooler plans: tickets to a sold-out concert at the Warsaw, a lauded music venue just over the border from Williamsburg in trendier-by-the-minute Greenpoint. We grabbed dinner at Sea, a Thai restaurant both chic (an indoor pond capped by a Buddha, suspended pod chairs in the bar) and cheap (mustard-zinged spring rolls for $3). Then we headed to the Warsaw, surprised to find it within a building marked Polish National Home. In the kind of happy culture clash so often found in Brooklyn, this grandiose Polish community center by day hosts ascendant rock acts at night.

We bought a couple of Zywiec beers and some pirogi, then headed for the gilt-framed stage. Packed onto the honey-colored wood floor (polished by the polka?), hundreds of jeans-clad fans waited for the headlining act, Spoon. Touted as the next big thing for years, the Austin-based art rockers took the stage, all sharp drums and crisp guitar riffs, sounding like they'd finally arrived. This corner of Brooklyn felt like it had, too.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company