Parler, Hablar and Sprechen: It's all heard in Williamsburg

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sun Nov 23 17:39:18 UTC 2008

Old Europe and New Brooklyn in Williamsburg By CHRISTINE

The French stake out the terrace of Fabian's Cafe, the Brits convene at the
Spike Hill Bar & Grill to watch Manchester United soccer matches, and the
Swedish parents meet at one another's apartments for a coffee-and-buns break
called "fika."

There is a distinctly West European flavor to the social calendar in
Brooklyn <>, these days, as affluent
buyers from France, Germany, Italy and Britain are transforming a
neighborhood better known for attracting hipsters, Midwesterners and Polish

Other neighborhoods that have been reshaped by the condo boom of recent
years have also seen influxes of foreign buyers investing their yen, pounds
and euros in real estate. But the trend has been most visible in
Williamsburg, where the newcomers are establishing deeper roots and are not
simply looking for weekend pieds-à-terre or investment properties.

Many are buying larger apartments with big kitchens to make room for growing
families. Some are opening restaurants, foreign-language after-school
programs and other small businesses.

Many of the immigrants say they have chosen Williamsburg partly because it
is cheaper than Manhattan, but also because it is reminiscent of the cities
they left behind. They say they like its cafes, its more muted displays of
wealth (well, more muted than Manhattan's) and an artistic vibe that reminds
some of the Marais neighborhood in Paris, or Brighton, England. The sense of
community has softened their pain of being far from friends and relatives.

"Most of my friends actually are French," said Scheyla Carriglio, a
transplant from Barcelona who bought her Williamsburg apartment two years
ago and is a part owner of Mamalu <>, a coffee shop
with an indoor playground on North 12th Street. "I hardly have any friends
who are not European."

The influx of Europeans is the latest twist for a neighborhood that has
become a symbol of New York's gentrification. Until about a decade ago,
Williamsburg was a gritty industrial patch of aging or vacant factories,
warehouses and residents who tended to be intrepid artists, working-class
immigrants or Hasidic Jews.

The weak economy and strengthening dollar seem to have slowed but not
stopped the Europeanization of the neighborhood, brokers say. Jonathan
Miller, chief executive of the real estate appraisal firm Miller Samuel
Inc., said Europeans still make up a higher percentage of condo buyers than
they did five years ago. Brokers also say that Europeans who are finding
that their euros and pounds are worth less than a year ago or even a few
months ago are looking even more closely at Brooklyn, where prices are

That's especially true in Williamsburg: Over the last five years, its ratio
of new condos to existing housing is one of the highest among New York City
neighborhoods. And Europeans say there are still bargains to be had.

"Now is definitely a buyer's market," said Wendy Gouirand, who relocated to
Williamsburg from Paris three years ago and hopes to buy now that the market
has slowed. She plans to finance part of her purchase with savings she has
in euros.

The international buyers are in the United States on a combination of work
visas, green card applications and citizenship acquired through their
parents. Many say they want to remain permanently, although the long wait
for permanent residency and the economy make such ambitions uncertain. While
they all spend a lot of time mulling over this issue, many seem committed to
staying for years.

As the new immigrants have settled into the neighborhood, local businesses
have tried to cater to their preferences. Luis Illades, an owner at the
organic market Urban Rustic <>, facing
McCarren Park, is selling more freshly baked baguettes than packaged breads
to appeal to the growing number of French residents. Fredrick Larsson, owner
of a Swedish furniture store, Scandinavian
is greeting customers in different languages and learning to handle their

"They don't just want a pretty product," Mr. Larsson said about European
buyers, who make up half his clientele. "They are more serious shoppers."

Some Europeans are starting their own small businesses. Christian Pala, a
musician from Avignon, France, bought out Phoebe's
Cafe<>on Graham Avenue in June and has been
expanding its hours and its music
schedule. At Mamalu, Ms. Carriglio found that most of the children were
bilingual or trilingual, so she plans to add art classes in Italian and
French early next year.

Chirag Patel, a British citizen who works for a financial services firm, and
his wife, Cecilia Trollby, a Swede who is in marketing with a British
engineering company, relocated to Williamsburg in March 2007 from Brighton.

They describe the change as a succession of fortuitous real estate moves.
They profited from selling their house in Brighton during a stronger housing
market. Then this fall, when the pound was valued at two to one against the
dollar, they bought a two-bedroom loft here, where they live with their
3-year-old son, Viggo. Their building at 100 North Third Street has a
familiar international feel: 10 of the 21 buyers are from France, Japan,
Germany and the Netherlands, according to the building's real estate agent
and broker, Tom Le of the Corcoran Group.

The transition, they say, has been surprisingly smooth. They have been
charmed by how Viggo's preschool recognizes their international backgrounds.
When Viggo visited his grandparents in Sweden, he sent back photos of his
mother's native country to his classmates. In turn, the classmates found
Sweden on a map and learned how to say "grandma" in Swedish, and a classmate
taught Viggo how to say "cat" in French.

When Mr. Patel longs for HobNobs biscuits or Branston Pickle relish, he
heads to Marlow & Sons <>, a Williamsburg
restaurant. When he wants to watch soccer matches, he hangs out at Spike
Hill <>. Four sets of his British friends
are moving to Williamsburg, and he is pleased that the friends he has made
in the neighborhood talk less about work when they're off the job than do
most New Yorkers.

"There isn't that same kind of talk about money and jobs," he said. "People
leave work at work. It's more like friends back home."

Ms. Trollby has found a network of Swedish friends through her mothers'
group. Each week, she meets with four or five other Swedish parents and
their children so they can catch up and their children can practice Swedish.
She heard that another Swedish group has been formed for mothers with
younger children. Having so many expatriates around has helped her settle in

"You become closer because you celebrate holidays together," she said. "They
become like a family, really."

Williamsburg's restaurants and markets have become so international that
some Europeans find that they miss few things. In Paris, Ms. Gouirand, 36, a
marketing executive who has been training at night to become a chef, said
she used to live two doors down from a sweet shop known for the best
croissants in Paris. She has not felt homesick in three years because she
has found all of the "cheese, pâtés and cornichons" she craves in
Williamsburg, which she describes as "the American version of Le Marais."

And she is never at a loss to find French friends: Her neighbor is from
Grenoble; she meets friends at
which is known for French pastries; she catches jazz concerts at
a French-owned club; and she dines at the French-owned restaurant

"You can't step outside without hearing French around you," Ms. Gouirand

Now she plans to take advantage of the weakening real estate market and buy
an apartment. She is less interested in buying new construction and more
eager to find space with sunlight and a kitchen where she can cook.
Manhattan's tall skyscrapers with locked windows are not attractive to her.

"I wouldn't want to be in a building where you can't open the window," she

Some Europeans are moving to Williamsburg less for the community and more
for the relative bargains. Nearly 2,000 new condos were built there in the
past five years, according to the real estate brokerage Halstead Property,
more than established neighborhoods like Harlem and the Upper East Side.
Foreigners bought a third of all the units built in the last two years.

Nicola Ventricini, a public relations executive who grew up near Milan, is
one of those bargain hunters. While he found an authentic Italian cafe in
Williamsburg, he is shopping for an apartment there because he thinks it's
the nicest area with units under his price limit of $550,000.

"I did not move there because there are Europeans," he said. "I like the
neighborhood because it is quiet."

Some newcomers lament that their children don't know about their parents'
homes. The couple from Brighton, Ms. Trollby and Mr. Patel, say Viggo
doesn't seem to miss their old town, with its long, pebbly beach, where he
had cousins close by. He is happy throwing stones in the East River,
watching Williamsburg's acrobatic skateboarders and drawing pictures of the
trucks that rumble by on the way to nearby construction sites.

"He doesn't ever remember living next to his grandparents or anything," Ms.
Trollby said. "He doesn't know anything else."

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