The Last Bohemia

Scenes from the Life of Williamsburg, Brooklyn

by Robert Anasi

23 August 2012


You could live out here. No one would know.

When the Edge started construction, I say, they fenced all this off but we kept cutting holes in the fences. I guess they won.

I trail off at the glaze that films Beth’s eyes, cataracts of boredom. My lost world is far from the ineluctable now, which at the moment provides us a view into a ‘fitness center’ on the ground floor of the former warehouse—a half acre of the most advanced pound-shredding, bun-rounding devices known to the twenty-first century in a space where railroad cars used to roll. Inside, fluorescent lights banish every shadow, but the room is empty, a display case.

‘Where are you leading me?’ slurs the man ahead of us. The couple is young and the man is handsome. His slur is half liquor, half Castile, a mellow blend. The girl giggles and I see they’ve hit another barrier, this one temporary, fresh plywood blocking the way to North Third. Over the plywood rises the round mass of a fuel storage tank. The couple turns back and we follow, all the way out of the Edge and out to Kent. Beth is ready to be somewhere else. She mentions the Greenpoint Tavern. I tell her it’s still open. She asks if it’s as tacky as it used to be. I assure her that it is, that you can still get a thirty-two-ounce Styrofoam cup of Bud for three dollars.

But there’s one last place I want to show her. She humors me so we walk down Kent to North Third. I have it figured out: I’ll point out the abandoned fuel tanks of New England Petroleum and then take her past Grand Ferry Park, where ferries stopped before the Williamsburg Bridge was built—a few more ‘this used to be’s’ and then over and out. The tour will end with a whimper.

On North Third we face the usual obstacles. There’s another fence, chain-link, and a string of lights dangling from a scaffold over the sidewalk. Underfoot, cobblestones, very different from the slick walkways on the Edge side of the plywood, Miami Beach to industrial ruin in a matter of inches. In an economic downturn that has people muttering ‘Depression,’ the Edge is only 40 percent sold, still a more robust figure than any of its rivals in the neighborhood can claim. Banners on Austin, Nichols offer rental lofts but most of the windows are dark. In recent years a security guard has barred the end of North Third but I don’t see him tonight. This is our chance.

Come on, I say and hop over what my father told me was a ‘Jersey barrier’ when they first started appearing on the freeways in the seventies.

Where are you going? Beth says, but she follows. I expect shouts and men in uniforms, but we reach the end of the block without a sound. Just as I remember, the chain-link fence beside the fuel tanks is cut and sagging, and we duck through. A narrow walkway runs alongside the massive fuel tank and we reach another barrier, a solid metal panel, but ripped away from its top joint. We squeeze through and shuffle out along the walkway.

Still no shouts, no cops. After the second barrier I feel relief but we’re still visible from the shore. The walkway is eighteen inches wide and algal pools of water make it slick. We turn a corner and continue our cautious shuffle, shoulders pressed against the cool white of the tank until we’re past any shore sight lines. Safe at last. In front of us, wooden piers finger out to a series of docks.

Let’s go up to the top, I say.

I lead Beth to a gate at the foot of a stairway that climbs the hundred-odd feet of the fuel tank. Wire—razor and barbed—crowns the high gate and fence. Beth is dubious.

I’ll go first, I say, and clamber up the gate (if you have to climb a fence, take the gate—more footholds). Beth follows but freezes at the top. The cutoffs mean she has to swing her bare legs over the razor loops, one and then the other, fifteen feet over the ground.

I don’t know if I can do this, she says.

Sure you can, I say. You already did the hard part.

That’s easy for you to say, she says. You’re not wearing Daisy Dukes.

She gears herself up and makes the move. No rusty slash, no tetanus scare. I’ve always loved exploring the waterfront but it’s a hundred times better with a partner.

I’m not at all surprised that Beth hopped the fence; she did make it to the finals in the Golden Gloves. Eight years ago, Beth and I ate magic mushrooms before a night of dancing at Black Betty. On the way to the club, Beth thought it would be funny to hit me as hard as she could. We’d walk a few yards, then she’d spin around and drop a right in my stomach. I’d shout ‘Are you crazy?’ before hitting her back. After Black Betty, we ended up at my apartment. Her nice Jewish boyfriend—later husband, later ex-husband—watched in horror as we kept tagging each other on the couch. The next day the couple drove to see Beth’s parents, and the boyfriend had to explain that he wasn’t the person who’d painted her in bruises.

After the trek up the metal stairway we clamber through a maze of pipes and valves and hoses and walkways set in pebbled tar. I haven’t been up here since I left Williamsburg and I notice changes. For one thing, lit bulbs drooping from extension cords like glass fruit make me think the late shift is about to clock in. There also seems to be more open space, as if they’ve been clearing the top of the tank. Here, too, demolition is under way.

The Williamsburg skyline has also changed, moving from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century in one five-year leap. From our perch we look across the entire three square miles or so of neighborhood: the old domed banks, the churches with their small-town spires, the flat black warehouse roofs, the LEGO squares of one-family houses, the steel bridge and cemetery beyond. To the north, the Edge is the most stunning irruption of the new, the three towers and piers and plazas an alien graft, Williamsburg-cum-cyborg. Other developments have sprung up along the waterfront, a patchwork of glass and burnished steel rising over brick factories and row houses clad in vinyl.

Traditionally, Williamsburg has been divided into three sections: Northside, Southside and East Williamsburg. When outsiders, all those German, Spanish, Japanese tourists, all those travelers from anywhere America, when they say ‘Williamsburg,’ they mean the Northside. The Northside is where the L subway stops first and where most of the restaurants, clubs and boutiques have sprouted. The Northside also has the best stretch of East River waterfront and landmarks like the Domino Sugar factory and the McCarren Park Pool. The Northside is where I lived for fourteen years and where the biggest changes have come.

My personal Northside runs from the river on the west to the great wall of the Brooklyn–Queens Expressway to the east. We can see the BQE from where we stand, a twisting line of headlights suspended in midair, glow-in-the-dark dragon several miles long. North, my neighborhood ends at McCarren Park, in the night a thirty-five-acre black moat below the lights of Greenpoint. The southern boundary of the Northside is said to be Grand Street, where the street prefixes change from north to south. My personal neighborhood goes further south than that, past an industrial zone of tenements and towering ware houses, all the way down to the elevated subway lines over Broadway and the Williamsburg Bridge. For fourteen years that was home but it never will be again.

From the bridge, we turn back toward the warehouse across North Third. The scenic view from the Austin, Nichols balconies takes in the fuel tanks, immense ghost of Williamsburg past. At eye level some thirty-five feet away is what looks like a dinner party—five people at a butcher-block table with bottles and candles. On top of the tank, Beth and I are exposed but since they don’t expect us to be there, we’re invisible. At my feet a slate block imperfectly covers a hole with a ladder leading down into the tank. A faint smell of petroleum and chemicals rises from the hole, the ladder a pathway to the underworld.

I want to take Beth to the fuel tank on the other side of the compound. We approach a catwalk that crosses the yard to the opposite tank. A few echoing steps onto the catwalk grate and I freeze: two security guards are talking below in the light of their checkpoint booth. Beth and I have been loud, practically shouting, and I’m sure we’ll be spotted. I wonder if we can run back to North Third before a squad car arrives. As I have a couple of outstanding warrants, I’m not in any position to be arrested. The guards don’t look up, though, and we creep out over the checkpoint. Across Kent a party has spilled out of another warehouse. The Monster Island Arts Center hasn’t been absorbed by new Williamsburg yet, graffiti a splotched second skin over old brick. None of the partyers notice us and we’re free to explore the other tank— more pipes and valves and giant faucet wheels that you’d need Hercules to turn.

Curiosity satisfied, we cross the catwalk again, tromp back down the stairs and climb the gate—no problem for Beth this time. I’m no longer disappointed with the night.

We run out on piers to the docks, massive cylinders plunging into the river muck. The docks hold storage sheds and rubber-wheeled carts and concrete mooring pegs as thick around as sumo wrestlers. I try to imagine the thick cables that wrapped the pegs and the big freighters rising behind them.

Beth points to one of the sheds.

You could live out here, she says. No one would know.

It’s probably the only place in Williamsburg I can still afford, I say.

We sit on the dock edge, feet hanging over the water. Tour boats slide by, festooned with light. It’s so quiet we can hear conversations on the boats, people at the railing taking it all in. A breeze stirs Beth’s hair, the tips of her curls gilded by summer.

It’s so quiet here, she says.

That’s what I love about it, I say.

Across the river the skyline, bright Manhattan dream. Beth stares at the city and gently kicks the air.

It’s crazy that you can be so close to all that and have it be so quiet, she says.

I don’t feel melancholy at all. Breaking and entering doesn’t give you time to cry over the past. Now my Williamsburg belongs to Beth too.

Photo (partial) by © Nadia Lesy

Photo (partial) by © Nadia Lesy

Robert Anasi is the author of The Gloves: A Boxing Chronicle (North Point Press, 2002). His work has appeared in many publications, including The New York Times, The Times Literary Supplement, The Virginia Quarterly Review, The New York Observer, Salon, and Publishers Weekly. He teaches literary journalism at the University of California, Irvine, where he is a Schaeffer and Chancellor’s Club fellow. He is also a founding editor of the literary journal Entasis.

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