Saturday, June 7, 2014

Wandering Williamsburg

When it's a warm, sunny day and you don't have anywhere in particular to be, it pays to get outside and just walk this amazing city.  But if randomly roaming is not your style, you can always latch on to a professional tour guide to shepherd you along and help you explore.  Such was my experience today over in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

I was up early this morning and walked over to the subway station at 14th Street and 8th Avenue, and took the L train over to Brooklyn.  My ears popped as we left Manhattan behind, and sped far under the  water of the East River.  Surfacing at Bedford Avenue, I walked on the sunny side of the street  until I arrived at the meet-up point.  Before long, Jeff Stirewalt from Brooklyn Unplugged Tours arrived and our small group set off on the company's signature two-hour walking tour of the area.

Joining me on today's adventure was a friend from home who works for a travel agency, and neither of us know Brooklyn very well at all.  Under Jeff's guidance we wandered the streets, and heard stories about the demographics of early Brooklyn (before it was officially part of New York).  We learned about "The Great Mistake of 1898" which resulted in the merger of the five boroughs to comprise New York - refer the great article here.  We talked about the opening of the Williamsburg Bridge in 1903, which finally made it possible for thousands of impoverished immigrants from the Lower East Side tenements of Manhattan to get to the rich, gentrified neighbourhoods of Brooklyn - and neither place was ever the same again.

 But we also celebrated the modern-day artists, artisans and craftspeople of Williamsburg, passing by some great street art.  Jeff told us that there are three types of street art in the City:  no-permission, which is the illegal graffiti; permission, which is when a building owner gives an artist approval to paint their mural on the building's facade; and commission, which is when the building owner actually commissions the artist to put some work up, and then pays them for it.  Jeff showed us examples of all three types of street art today, but my friend and I agreed that the "permission" works were our favourites.  I just loved all the colours - some people are so clever.

Speaking of clever artwork, we called in to the sculpture workshop of Israeli-born artist Boaz Vaadia who does some really impressive work with pieces of slate (many of them life-size, but also smaller ones that I think might look just right on my mantlepiece).  By chance, we found the artist in residence today, and he was kind enough to share some of his memories with us about what it was like to live in the neighbourhood when he bought his building in the 1980s.  We talked about the Mob dumping bodies nearby, that prostitution was everywhere, and drug use was rampant.  What a difference 30 years makes!

We had some tasty chocolate treats at Mast Brothers Chocolate, who hand-craft their delights on-site.  I chose this moment to use the restrooms at the fantastic German restaurant and beer hall next door (of course). This place only has a narrow frontage, but is really sprawling inside and is a wonderful vintage throwback to the original German immigrants who settled here and kicked off the craft beer-brewing industry that is now so popular in Brooklyn.

As we headed towards the East River, we passed the fantastic Brooklyn Brewery, and found ourselves opposite an old barrel-making factory - a cooperage - which  has now been restored and repurposed into the Wythe Hotel (with a great restaurant downstairs and fantastic rooftop bar upstairs).  To our left we could see the old Domino sugar factory which is currently home to an amazing art installation by Kara Walker, but which will soon be turned into a hideous modern apartment complex (trust me - I saw the artist rendition drawing).

Before we knew it, we had arrived at the waterfront, bustling with people enjoying the tasty delights of the outdoor food festival, Smorgasburg.  When our tour ended and we said our goodbyes, my friend and I found a shady spot along one of the brick walls and enjoyed some delicious treats and refreshing lemonade from one of the nearby stalls.

With the sun warming me all the way down to my bones, we finally parted ways at the East River Ferry and I made my way back to the subway.

It was great to have Jeff walk us around the Williamsburg neighbourhood, giving us the inside scoop on places I've only ever walked past before.  Jeff has lived in Brooklyn his whole life and his expertise is obvious - we really enjoyed the visit.

I've only posted a couple of photos from today's walking tour on this page, but you can see the other ones in the photo album here.