Hipsters as Marketing Material: Billyburg’s Condos Confront the Incredulous

66north Hipsters as Marketing Material: Billyburgs Condos Confront the Incredulous“People always ask about the development across the street,” broker Kevin Ferrara said, gesturing toward an empty lot out the window of a first-floor condo at 29 South Third Street in Williamsburg. “So I’m going to tell you.”

The lot, overgrown with weeds and rimmed by a chain-link fence with a barbed-wire coil, formerly contained part of the Domino sugar refinery. The “development,” which was approved by City Planning earlier this month, and which is slated to take 10 years to complete, will be a luxury residential building, much like the others springing up around Williamsburg’s north side.

The neighborhood is not beautiful. It seems to enjoy the worst of two worlds, either old and run-down or new and, as mortgage loan officer Mark Friedman said, “cookie-cutter.” Still, people want to move there. For some, it’s the only place they want to be.

In a $749,000 two-bedroom at 125 North 10th Street, broker Stefani Shock prepared for a six-hour open house. The new condo development is selling well, she said. Her firm is closing about six apartments a month. “We’re at the finish line,” she said.

Ms. Shock described prospective buyers in Williamsburg as “artists with a budget”—but apparently not a huge budget. “For people who want space but can’t afford Manhattan, this is the default neighborhood,” she said. Does that mean they’re settling for less?

“I mean ‘default’ in a good way.”

Some see Williamsburg as a second best. Ayelet Levron, 33, a software developer from Israel, who now lives in Astoria, looked at a $575,000 two-bedroom at 5 Roebling Street. She aims to save money. “It’s not Manhattan, but it’s close,” she said of the neighborhood. “You can get much more here.”

But Ms. Levron may be an exception. Prices, which aren’t actually that low, are not the neighborhood’s main draw.

Steve Leven, 42, and his wife Mira Trezza, 35, wandered around a $610,000 two-bedroom at 268 Wythe Avenue. Mr. Leven, the owner and founder of Irving Farm Coffee, who has lived in New York City for 20 years and now makes his home in the West Village, isn’t looking outside Williamsburg.

“It’s close to the subway, a little industrial,” he said of the neighborhood. “We really like the energy, the wide-open spaces.”

Ms. Trezza, who hails from Bulgaria and works with Mr. Leven at Irving Farm Coffee, corrected him.

“We like the hipsters,” she said.

Mr. Leven rolled his eyes. But Ms. Trezza was on to something. It’s the residents, and not much else, that make north Williamsburg a desirable (or undesirable) community.

Down Wythe Avenue, the sound of vuvuzela horns spilled out to the sidewalk from Zebulon, a bar where several dozen Billyburgers sat, stood or perched in front of a television showing the Brazil-Cote d’Ivoire soccer game. It was still the first half, and Brazil led with one goal. Lucio, the Brazil team captain, took a dramatic dive.

The onlookers jeered. “Oh, pobrecito!” someone shouted.

Farther north, on Bedford Avenue near McCarren Park, a mustachioed 20-something wearing a blue beanie and snug khaki shorts stood on a ladder and hosed down a building’s brick wall. An older man, passing by, chanced into the crossfire. “Asshole!” he shouted in accented English, chasing the outburst with more obscenities. The kid seemed not to hear.

Back at 29 South Third, Mr. Ferrara showed Ari Shimada, 38, and her husband Atsushi Yokada, 45, a series of one-bedroom condos. Mr. Yokada is a chef at 1 or 8, a Japanese restaurant in Williamsburg, and the couple is moving to Williamsburg from Manhattan to accommodate him. Ms. Shimada doesn’t like the idea of commuting to midtown for her work as an accountant, but she’s open-minded.

“Most likely this is out of our budget, but we just wanted to see,” Ms. Shimada said, standing in a $636,000 one-bedroom.

Williamsburg’s new developments aren’t cheap, and visually they stand out from the landscape. Mr. Friedman, the mortgage officer, greeted prospective buyers at 66 North First Street. He acknowledged that some of his clients are turned off by ultra-modern exteriors but said that when they step inside, “they’re always impressed.”

Alison, a prospective buyer at 5 Roebling, who wouldn’t give her last name, echoed those reservations.

“Everything’s very new. You know, modern condos,” she said, riding the elevator down to the lobby after leaving the open house. “There’s no old buildings. Which is nice, but…” She paused. “It’s just new.”

Outside Vinnie’s pizzeria on Bedford Avenue, a chalkboard advertised vegan slices. The place has been in business since 1960, but the current owners, Jacob Petrera and two of his friends, bought it three years ago and added “specialty slices” to the menu.

“Me and my buddies started doing this in college—trying crazy styles,” Mr. Petrera said. “We bought this place and kind of brought in our own flavors.”

The Observer sampled the vegan “chicken parm” pizza. The chicken, though fake and itself new to the area, was delicious.

walden@observer.com