Strollers are replacing hipsters in the streets of Williamsburg these days. In fact, walking out of the Bedford Avenue subway station, one might be equally likely to bump into either.
The neighborhood has witnessed the number of babies and toddlers snowball as the area gentrifies. This process has now rooted family, the most traditional of institutions, in a community famed for liberal thinking and artistic counter-culture.
This shift has also opened an array of commercial opportunities for new establishments focused on this niche and made some traditional Williamsburg businesses start thinking in kid-friendly terms. Still, with increased competition and changing tastes, the few toddler shops that have been in the neighborhood since before the baby boom might soon get kicked to the curb.
In 2005, the city passed an extensive rezoning of Williamsburg’s waterfront to allow residential construction along the area. A major influx of people followed in the next few years, mostly young professionals attracted by better real estate prices, the short commute to Manhattan and the artsy feel of the neighborhood.
“Manhattan is too cost prohibitive if you want any space,” says Yvonne Thomas, 41, mom to a 4-year-old, who has lived in the neighborhood since 2009. “People starting a family want at least two bedrooms. You get more for your money in square footage here.”
The total population of Williamsburg averaged 116,602 between 2005 and 2009, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In 2010, it grew to 121,938, and the number of children under age one increased from 1,785 in 2000 to 1,968 in 2010.
Williamsburg’s Northside Preschool opened an infant and toddler center in 2009 with two classes and has opened two more since.
“We try to keep things small and manageable,” says Yolanda Uzzo, the educational director. “But the waiting list is definitely becoming longer by the minute.”
This baby vogue has not gone unnoticed in the neighborhood’s establishments. The Knitting Factory, traditionally a venue for up-and-coming bands, has hosted “sing-a-longs” for toddlers in weekdays during the daytime for several years, but in the last year the turnout has more than tripled.
“There’s a strong word-of-mouth effect going on with the parents in Williamsburg,” says Ari Brand, one of the performers. “Last summer there were about 15 families coming to the show. Now it’s about 50.”
More bars and restaurants, including some most commonly associated with the hipster scene, are adapting to the family demographic. Take the case of Spike Hill, a bar and indie music venue. It has just launched a children’s menu for its daytime costumers.
Parents themselves have become more proactive business-wise, making the neighborhood as much about family convenience as it is about entertainment. Several local moms have opened baby boutiques in the past two years, and some small vendors are following the lead. Simon Hyun, an artist and designer who uses screen-printing on t-shirts, started making “onesies” this year.
“You can still be creative with baby clothes,” says Hyun. “I feel like I’m jazzing them up by incorporating my artwork and sense of color.”
But some children’s businesses that have been in the area for several years are having a hard time handling the change. Photographer Cristina Dodd, 39, opened the crafts workshop and store Spacecraft four years ago after noticing the neighborhood had nothing to offer her first child. Spacecraft was conceived to cater mostly to the artist community with children.
“During my first years people would come in and spend hours doing arts and crafts with their kid,” says Dodd. “It’s just something an artistic personality can relate to. But a lot of these new residents just want to be on the phone while their kid plays around.”
The only thing keeping Dodd in Williamsburg is rent control. She is 18 weeks pregnant but does not identify with recent Manhattan transplant parent set. The newcomers instead are flocking to newer play spaces with high-end facilities and separate areas for parents to lounge such as Play, Klub4Kidz and Frolic, which opened last month in the luxury condos The Edge.
In 2004, there was already a place with a similar concept called Mamalu that was just baby steps ahead of its time. Former owner Mariela Salazar recalls that people complained repeatedly when she raised the playground fee from $3 dollars to $5 and then to $7 just to make ends meet. It wasn’t enough, though, and she had to close in 2007.
“Most parents that you see now around Williamsburg just have a higher income,” says Salazar. “Mamalu, at the time when it existed, could’ve never been a successful business. It was a great community service, but I’m still paying the debt for it.”