It was the summer of 2014 when Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the enclave that has undergone a much-documented hipster revolution and gentrification, saw the opening of a certain coffeeshop that embodied the complete antithesis of the community’s then-mom-and-pop, homegrown spirit. Yes, not far from the bustling Brooklyn Queens Expressway landed the roughly one zillionth location of a java conglomerate whose moniker ends with “bucks” and begins with “Star.” “The neighborhood is over,” said one local of the opening to the Wall Street Journal at the time. “It’s like we lost sight of our mission.”
If that was the sentiment in 2014, it’s a mission that’s traveled so far out of grasp it’s probably passing by Neptune in the present day. The neighborhood has continued changing so radically in the past five years that the concept of a transforming Williamsburg has become so ubiquitous it’s now leaps and bounds beyond cliche. Whole Foods and an Apple Store? Got em. Major clothiers from J Crew to Levis? They’re here as well, along with a cacophony of highrises. And you can bet your Double Venti Mocha Latte with almond milk that a second Starbucks also set up shop.
As a reaction, an entirely fresh hotel market sprouted from the ashes of the community's former vestiges as an arts colony and before that, a factory town that churned out sugar and beer. The Williamsburg hospitality industry, a string of words that would have been akin to referring to a snowball stand in the seventh circle of hell merely a decade and a half ago, is experiencing a California gold-rush style boom. Except here, the prospectors are young, affluent, international tourists and the gold is a brand new experience well outside Manhattan, in a neighborhood that, in some ways, has no idea what hit it.
Ryan Ocker, the director of Sales and Marketing at the Williamsburg outpost of the Hotel Indigo, is sitting in a conference room perched above the property’s modernly designed grey and white lobby. Situated a few blocks from that aforementioned Starbucks, the property takes up such a massive urban footprint it looks like, to borrow a visual from Ocker, a ship docked in the middle of the neighborhood.
“According to our metrics, our performance in September was like we were already open for a year,” he explains of the immediate demand for its airy rooms. Considering this Indigo was designed and is being presented differently than any other property in the company’s sizable portfolio, it’s a popularity that doesn’t necessarily speak to the brand but boils down to interest in the area as a whole. “Brooklyn has never had a massive supply of hotels,” he notes. “Sometimes you think, how did this area survive with so few when it’s the largest borough in New York City?”
Featuring a resort-style pool, a yet-to-be-opened rooftop bar and an upcoming neighborhood-catered eatery dubbed Kitsch (its cuisine: Jewish and Mexican fusion) Williamsburg’s Hotel Indigo is the latest in an army of properties that have stormed the neighborhood with the fervor of shoppers barreling into a department store on Black Friday.
While Brooklyn at large was undergoing a hotel boom in 2010, Williamsburg had few hotels then the Hotel Le Jolie being one). But as builders soon began to take advantage of updated zoning laws and that number ticked upwards by two with the McCarren Park Hotel in 2011 and the Wythe Hotel in 2012. If the Hotel Indigo resembles a battleship, it looked like a spaceship landed when the towering, sleek William Vale touched down in 2016. By 2017, both the boutique Williamsburg Hotel and the tiny-roomed Pod began welcoming visitors. The following year, a location of the London-flavored ultra-stylish Hoxton chain said hello to the neighborhood as well.
“I think we’re all so unique in that we have something different to offer every type of traveler,” explained Deanna Thomas, the Director of Sales & Marketing over at the William Vale of the famine to feast scenario that’s become so pronounced that the neighborhood’s once sleepy Wythe Avenue is now colloquially known as hotel row. “Whether it’s by budget, or if you prefer modern or that cool, older repurposed building. I think we can all unitely say that we’re very excited when another hotel opens in the neighborhood. It just shines more light on Williamsburg as a destination.”
For the Vale, its luxurious accommodations include rooms that boast fluffy bathrobes complemented by large tubs that have a view through floor to ceiling windows of theEmpire State Building, as well as wrap-around resort-like terraces complete with lounge chairs. Visitors can sprawl out in the sun with an espresso in hand, fresh from an in-room machine that squirts out Lavazza. Elsewhere on the property, bountiful food and beverage options range from the Southern Italian eatery Lueca that seem straight out of the Amalfi coast to a rooftop bar Westlight and its sophisticated cocktail menu and Instagram-worthy views of the glistening Manhattan skyline. Even if you think the actual building looks like an eyesore, the sheen inside is hard to disagree with.
For locals, the juxtaposition is jarring; a literal and metaphorical bulldozer trip through a neighborhood they once knew. The aforementioned hotel row was formerly a stretch of dilapidated factories, long boarded up and deeply quiet, as if an American Chernobyl had taken place. Now that same land is home to properties like the William Vale, the type of upscale property that boasts a full gym that features bowls full of both headphones and apples for the taking. If longtime residents weren’t priced out of the neighborhood before hotels swept through, there’s a good chance they’ve been gobbled up in the interim. As a result, one person can see this remaking of a neighborhood with a sense of positive wonder or abject horror, and both attitudes could be justified and experienced at once.
Over at The Williamsburg Hotel, this double-edged new paradigm is on full display. “Our aesthetic is a mix of industrial Williamsburg with the faded elegance of old New York,” noted Toby Moskovitz, the founder and CEO of Heritage Equity Partners, the company behind the property. Moskovitz has had a unique view into the neighborhood’s evolution; her father’s army surplus business was one of the last tenants on the Williamsburg waterfront before the owners vacated their buildings in anticipation of residential rezoning.
“He ran the business that my immigrant grandfather, a Jew from Poland, started in 1950,” explains Moskovitz of her grandfather who spoke Polish and employed Polish immigrants. “While there is some light manufacturing near our building on Kent avenue, the tenancy (now) throughout the area continues to shift to tech, media and creative companies.” For Moscovitz, a third-generation Williamsburg resident, the changing face of the community that priced out her family (that army surplus store had to move to Sunset Park and is now run by her brother) is now one she benefits from.
Like most of the neighborhood’s hospitality industry, Moskovitz was keenly aware that the hotel would have been poorly received if it lacked community character or looked too polished. To that end, it acknowledges the community’s industrial past on a visceral level with copper-accented hallways that look decades older than its two-year age and a throwback water tower that sits on its roof and houses a tiny bar. Even the building’s facade could trick you into thinking its a 1900-era factory and for good reason; each brick was sourced from an old Pennsylvania warehouse, while the wood was salvaged from tobacco barns in Kentucky.
Then again, according to Thomas, there’s a secondary, more global phenomenon at play when it comes to the opening of seven hotels in eight years in close proximity. “There’s been a real shift in travel conversations,” she explains. “First it was, ‘Where are you going for a vacation?’ and then it became, ‘What hotel are you staying at? Where are the residents hanging out? Where are they ponying up to the bar and having that glass of wine or beer?’ Visitors want to interact with the neighborhood like they live here. That’s why these neighborhood hotels popped up and that's what Brooklyn and especially Williamsburg offer.” Over at the Indigo, Ocker agrees with that sentiment. “Having so many hotels (pop up in short order) doesn’t happen often at all,” he explains. “There are 100 Indigos around the world and this one is the most expensive to be built, but it’s also expected to make the most money over time. Brooklyn has become a destination in itself.”
Back at Moskovitz’s Williamsburg Hotel, perhaps its most uniquely neighborhood aspect lies outside its windows: if one looks straight across the East River, you’ll find views of the Manhattan skyline. Down below? For better or worse, it’s a mixture construction projects, warehouses, and naturally, other hotels.