Here’s one way to deal with a hellish subway commute: stare at your fellow passengers, draw their portraits, and turn them into characters in a graphic novel. For the past year, that’s how Williamsburg-based graphic designer Lucio Zago, who was born in Italy and raised in Switzerland, has approached his daily descent into the L train crowds. The result is Williamsburg Shorts, an illustrated history of the Brooklyn neighborhood that’s become an international nexus of hipsterdom.
The story of the book is told and illustrated in black and white, from the perspective of an unnamed woman miserably riding the L train. Zago frames her musings about other commuters as a series of short stories about the neighborhood: “Hasids vs. Hipsters,” for example, explores how the local Orthodox Jewish community has preserved a bubble of old-world tradition amid rampant gentrification. There are also stories of workers’ struggles at the famed Domino Sugar Factory, of Neapolitans who threw the first American Giglio Festival in Brooklyn in the 1900s, and of Los Sures, as the Caribbean immigrants on Williamsburg’s south side refer to themselves. Zago’s wry, simple graphics are inspired by the “great Italian cartoons” he grew up watching and emulating. The book, which has exceeded its fundraising goal on Kickstarter, is an ode to the neighborhood’s ethnic and cultural diversity, increasingly threatened by shopping-mall-ification.
Zago moved to Williamsburg in the early 1990s, when rent was still reasonable. He’s lived in the same apartment on Grand Street for 23 years. “I love Williamsburg. There are so many characters and stories, but over the years it has become such a popular destination,” he told Hyperallergic. “Sadly, we’re losing the character that made this neighborhood unique. Starbucks just moved in a couple blocks away. High-rise condos are surrounding us. The only people that can afford the rents are not artists and creative types, but corporations.” Lamenting second- and third-wave gentrification is a favorite pastime of first-wave gentrifiers, but in his book, Zago avoids this trap by focusing on the rich local history that’s unknown to much of today’s Bedford Avenue set.
Williamsburg Shorts is available for preorder on Kickstarter.