Websites change and so do neighborhoods. FREE Williamsburg turns 22 this year, which would normally make our spry little publication a millennial. Unfortunately, if you convert 22 to internet years it makes us, well, decrepit.
When I first arrived in New York in September of 1996, I rented a sizable two bedroom apartment on 93 Berry Street, just a few blocks from the Bedford Avenue L train stop. It was $900 a month, which made the shared rent of $450 that my roommate and I paid pretty darn affordable.
In 1996, Williamsburg was already changing. North of Metropolitan Avenue was called Northside and was primarily a Polish neighborhood with a scattering of newly-implanted artists. If you ventured south, closer to the Williamsburg bridge, things began to get seedy. Prostitutes would chase after you at night begging for a trick. Cabs did not want to venture anywhere other than Luger’s. Kokie’s was openly selling crappy blow — and getting away with it — because of an alleged police pay-off. In Greenpoint, there was drag racing on secluded West Street by the banks of the East River. Shells of stolen cars, blown up in the night, littered the backstreets of Bushwick.
On the Williamsburg waterfront, due west of the Bedford L train stop, there was an enormous abandoned lot overgrown with weeds and scattered with broken bottles, mufflers, and stray cats. It could be spooky at times, but the New York skyline beyond was spectacular. You’d have it to yourself most days, if you didn’t mind the occasional homeless person asking for change.
Back then, I’d sit on the rocks by the river and write god-awful poetry (which you can likely find if you dig deep enough in our archives) or share a few tall-boys with friends who would visit. It was a truly cinematic view, unobscured by food festivals, condos, or bearded bros in Allbirds.
The Williamsburg old-timers I met spoke of darker days in the seventies and eighties, but the Northside still seemed pretty gritty to this New York newcomer. It also felt glorious.
Free Geocities, Animated Gifs, and the Creation of an Online ‘Zine
I’d moved to the city to be a writer (yawn) but the closest I got to the publishing world in my early days in New York was shelving books at the Strand. In its way this felt glamorous, working at the iconic bookstore and hiding my crush for co-owner Nancy Bass Wyden beneath an armful of dusty books she’d hand me to carry to the basement. I was as green as they come professionally and had zero connections in the publishing world. Thankfully, what I lacked in skills and talent I made up for with resourcefulness.
Following multiple rejections from poetry journals and local magazines, I decided I’d take matters into my own hands. It was the dawn of the first dotcom boom, so I decided I’d learn how to code and simply publish my own cultural commentary and local news. Inspired by the burgeoning culture of the neighborhood I had a scheme: I’d create a website that tracked local restaurant openings, music, and art alongside my own writing. It wouldn’t be a crime, after all, if someone stumbled across my iambic pentameter while searching Netscape Navigator for that new bar on Bedford.
I launched FREE Williamsburg in 1998 on a Geocities site, which used to provide free hosting for publishers, and populated it with enough animated gifs to induce a seizure. I liked the name “Free Williamsburg” with its literal promise of free news that you’d normally have to pay for in a newspaper. Free was a buzzword used in countless URLs at the time, but the name felt like an absurd battle cry for something that needed no unfettering. It had a certain rebellion when spelled with an exclamation: Free Willy! Free Williamsburg! Free Winona!
In 1998, Craigslist was barely a thing, so I papered the Northside with flyers to help find contributors. “Writers needed. Flash designers needed. Call to apply.” Bret Nicely, a very talented artist and designer, tore a phone number off the corner of a flyer he saw while ordering falafel and became my artistic partner for the first five years. Alexander Laurence, spotted one at a dive bar. He’d been interviewing celebrities and artists such as Irvine Welsh and The Flaming Lips for a magazine called Cups and was interested in contributing to a website, the new frontier. A chap with the moniker F. Sot Fitzgerald joined the team and handled the bar coverage. Anne Hellman contributed fiction and poetry that didn’t suck like mine did. Russ Josephs got in touch with a pitch for a column cheekily called Sex in the Sub-City. And we were off.
Bewilderingly, we changed the design almost monthly — you can see a few designs here, here, and here — mimicking the flow of a monthly magazine before transitioning to a blog format when platforms like MovableType and WordPress began to emerge.
Okay… That Hipster Thing
Things really took off for us when we published a satiric glossary of hipster phrases in May of 2001. The glossary became a meme, or whatever you called that in early 2000s. Before we knew it, we’d published a book with Random House called The Hipster Handbook, which was at once a send-up and a celebration of a scene that found its epicenter in our neighborhood. “Are you deck?” we asked, saying “authoritatively” that deck was the new word for cool. (To our amazement, the term was used on The Sopranos and Veep.)
People that were in on the joke appreciated the humor. Others did not. A Boston weekly compared the book to Mein Kempf saying that hipsterdom promoted white power before running an apology. John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants (a terrible band) who lived on the Bedford stop told me “thanks for ruining the neighborhood” when I met him at a Pratt panel on gentrification. I don’t think he was kidding. For me, it was exciting to see our little website get acclaim everywhere from the New York Times, to The Washington Post to CNN. After all, we didn’t create the hipster phenomenon. We just enjoyed taking the piss.
The Good Aught Days
Much has been written about the Brooklyn scene of the early aughts, but we were proud to help forge it. In 2000, it wasn’t uncommon to see Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs on Bedford Avenue. If you’d dropped by the Verb Cafe, you might run into Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio who worked there. Ed Droste of Grizzly Bear lived in Williamsburg too. He dropped off a cassette tape for us to review (which makes us feel like the Flintstones now). We loved it and were the first to write about his pivotal band. And before James Murphy founded LCD Soundsystem or the Williamsburg wine bar Four Horsemen, we talked to him about co-founding DFA.
Our roster of great writers helped to meld the “Brooklyn scene” that included Fiery Furnaces, Interpol, The Rapture, Les Savvy Fav, Black Dice, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs and so many more. These bands headlined bygone clubs like Public Assembly, Trash Bar, Black Betty, Northsix, and Galapagos, the latter of which, some will recall, had an enormous pool adorning its entryway. Over at Luxx in 2002, Larry Tee‘s club night Berliniamsburg celebrated the emergence of electroclash — a blend of 80s synth pop, new wave, and disco — with bands like Fischerspooner and Ladytron.
As the decade wore on, DIY clubs like Death By Audio and Glasslands became local staples and made Williamsburg the epicenter of the nation’s music scene. Things really got nuts when McCarren Park Pool was transformed into a music venue with a-listers including the Beastie Boys headlining. By 2009, The Northside Festival transformed the entire neighborhood into an indie rock Mecca with hundreds of bands playing in too many clubs to count.
And it wasn’t just about the music. We interviewed writers like Jonathan Lethem and J.T. Leroy. We wrote about groundbreaking Williamsburg galleries including Pierogi, Front Room, and Figureworks. And of course there were the restaurants. Dumont, Relish, Diner, Oznot’s, and Rye defined the Brooklyn culinary sensibility which has since spread internationally and still persists. We covered them all and watched our waistlines expand with each glorious Meatball Sandwich (Rye) and Cheddar Biscuit (Relish).
And who could forget our infamous The Real World Williamsburg promotional site, flushed with fake (but evidently believable) bios. We managed to trick quite a few people into believing it was real, before MTV shut it down with a cease-and-desist order.
22 Freaking Years
By the time the twenty-tens rolled around, rents had risen quicker than you can say McMillan. Despite the huge shift from boho to tech bro, there was still plenty to celebrate (and still is today!) in our beloved ‘hood. We covered the L Train “shutdown,” the transformation of the Domino Sugar Factory, Ebola at the Gutter, The Hipster Grifter, Smorgasburg, and so much more. We expanded our local coverage to include Greenpoint and Bushwick as the cultural scene that started in Williamsburg widened its net. I also became older, I’ll be fifty next year, and welcomed in a third wave of writers who have carried the torch for the last ten years.
Of course, a good chunk of this happened before a little old thing called social media even existed. Before Instagram, you’d go to photo sites like The Cobrasnake or Last Night’s Party, or to countless blogs like ours, to see what the cool kids were up to. Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok just weren’t a thing. Today, they’re definitely a thing. And as FREE Williamsburg has turned fifteen… eighteen… twenty… we persisted (we’re stubborn) while the cultural currency that used to be defined by websites like this one shifted to social media and corporate-backed publications.
Neighborhoods change and so does the internet. And accordingly, no one cares about local culture blogs anymore, and that’s okay. But after two decades of change, growth, transition, and obstinate resolve we’re ready to shut this one down. We’re happy to have done our part for the past 22 years. Thanks for reading.
– FREE Williamsburg
I’m definitely missing lots of people here but thanks (in no particular order) to Bret Nicely, Josh Morrissey, Brian Ries, Lisa Baldini, Elizabeth Brady, Alexander Laurence, J. Stefan Cole, Jud Laghi, Andrew Miller, Dave Thomas, Cindy Price, Jeff Bechtel, Trevor Hoey, A.P. Smith, Dan Killian, Rasha Refaie, Peter Rittweger, Coleman Bentley, Lisa Baldini, Sarah Colgrove, Nicky Digital, Ali Gladstone, Fiona Goldstein, Carly McAlpine, Nicole Napolitano, Chris Quartly, Jackie Snow, Nicole Wasilewicz, Evan Weiner, Samantha Wolner, Megan Venzin, Taylor Wofford, (((unartig))), Russ Josephs, George Koelle, Kevin Kosar, and F. Sot Fitzgerald.