Williamsburg Shorts explores a rapidly changing neighborhood through the eyes of a stressed-out subway passenger.
A commute on the L train through Manhattan and Brooklyn edges up on the nightmarish—busy platforms crowded five people deep, riders squished sardine-style inside the cars. It’s tempting to stare blankly ahead and curse.
But finding herself aboard a packed L train, the unnamed central character of a forthcoming graphic novel turns instead to her imagination. Looking around at her fellow passengers, she starts to wonder about their lives and their histories. Though the train stays underground, her ruminations bring her out into the streets of Williamsburg, where she explores the neighborhood’s history and landmarks, and runs up against some of its current controversies.
That’s how Lucio Zago, the author and illustrator behind Williamsburg Shorts, copes with his commute, too. Zago, who’s Italian, moved from Switzerland to the corner of Lorimer and Grand Streets in Williamsburg back in the early 1990s, when it was still possible to find “a very inexpensive place,” he tells CityLab. Things have changed. Over the past five years, Zago—who’s stayed in the same apartment for two decades—has watched newcomers flood the neighborhood and rents soar. The L train—the artery of the neighborhood—has gotten more and more packed.
But Zago isn’t jaded yet. Instead, he’s just gotten more curious. “The train is annoying, but I’m trying to take advantage of it,” Zago says. “Traveling, I look at people, I sketch, I study—I use it for my own purposes,” he adds. “I’ve always been intrigued by my own neighborhood. I thought I should start finding out more about it.”
Zago started by taking note of a conflict that arose several years ago between the Hasidic Jewish community and local cyclists over the bike lanes springing up in the borough. The story he wrote and illustrated in response to those tensions took a humorous spin—“all the stories are somewhat funny,” Zago says—and at the encouragement of friends, he kept going, laying out the history of the Domino Sugar Factory and McCarren Park alongside stories of the Italian and Caribbean immigrant communities. The unnamed girl’s commute threads together all of the different stories.
There are an infinite number of stories to tell about the neighborhood; Zago says he’s still “very much busy illustrating story after story.” The final version of the book—which far exceeded its Kickstarter goal—will be released later this year.
In crafting his stories, Zago intentionally leaves most of his characters unnamed; he wants people to be able to imagine themselves into the scenarios he presents. “Williamsburg is becoming younger and younger,” he says. “People moving in don’t have any idea of what it used to be like. I just want to give my readers a view into the recent past, because it really was very different.”