Brooklyn is always changing, always propelling itself forward, leaving behind a comet's tail of history. And, really, it is our history that makes our present possible. However, tackling all of Brooklyn's history is something we've done before. And, to paraphrase Walt Whitman, Brooklyn contains multitudes. So, for our purposes, those multitudes can be divided into all of Brooklyn's varied neighborhoods, each with a specific and distinct past and personality. So, we're going to go back into the history of each of these neighborhoods, to understand better where they came from, where they are now, and maybe where they'll be headed. First off is Williamsburg, a part of Brooklyn that has a long and storied history, most of which has nothing to do with fixed gear bikes. Obviously.
This is a timeline of one Brooklyn neighborhood, its past and present, its people and places.
1638: The Dutch Come to Williamsburg
The Dutch were the first European settlers of Brooklyn and their influence stretches into the present in ways as small as the introduction of the "stoop" and as big as the very name of the borough. 1638 was the year that the Dutch West Indies Company bought the land that is now Williamsburg from the Canarsie Indians who had long inhabited the western tip of Long Island. The land that the Dutch bought was eventually chartered as the town of Boswijck which would later be known as Bushwick. At this point, what would eventually be Williamsburg was just farmland. And not the rooftop farms of today. Oh no, these were the original organic farms of Brooklyn. There were undoubtedly a lot of beards, as well, because facial hair has pretty much always been in style in Williamsburg.
1802: Williamsburg Gets Its Name!
Williamsburg is kind of a great name for a neighborhood for a few reasons. One is that it can be shortened, without really being shortened that much at all, into things like Billyburg. Aghh, Billyburg is totally an awful thing to ever say, actually. Please, don't say that. What's really interesting about the name is that many Brooklyn neighborhoods have monikers that evoke the geographic features of the borough. Think about it—Park Slope, Brooklyn Heights, Flatlands, Bay Ridge—all of these places have names that reference their various highs and lows, geographically speaking. But Williamsburg has no such land-related name. Who was William? Haven't you always wondered?
Well, I'll tell you! In 1802, Richard Woodhull bought land in northwestern Brooklyn and hired the engineer Jonathan Williams to survey it for him in order to map out a grid. After Williams, who was also a nephew of Benjamin Franklin, completed the job, Woodhull named the area Williamsburgh. Williams never resided in Williamsburgh, though. Instead, he moved to Philadelphia where he eventually died of gout, which sounds very painful and not like something many people in the Williamsburg of today really need worry about. And the "h" at the end of Williamsburg(h) was ultimately dropped in 1852 because it seemed too old-time-y*.
*not the official reason, but the probable reason, I think
1855: Williamsburg Becomes Part of Brooklyn
While it is hard to think of modern Brooklyn without Williamsburg, the neighborhood actually spent time as its own city before being absorbed into the city of Brooklyn, which would, of course, one day be incorporated into greater City of New York. Williamsburg became its own city on January 1, 1852, but became part of Brooklyn proper three years later. A fun fact is that Williamsburg was actually almost made into its OWN borough in 1898, separate from Brooklyn. And although it didn't happen that way, it's worth noting what an influential place Williamsburg had become in order for that idea to even be proposed.
The reason that Williamsburg even had the clout that it did by 1898 was because of all the growth it experienced in the middle of the 19th century. This point in history was a time of previously unimaginable expansion for the north Brooklyn neighborhood as wealthy industrialists came over to exploit the convenient location and available land. Businessmen like Cornelius Vanderbilt, Charles Pratt, Jim Fisk, and Charles Pfizer built homes and factories in Williamsburg, and the iconic Williamsburgh Savings Bank was founded in 1851 at 175 Broadway. With the more recent Williamsburg trend toward small and artisanal businesses, it's definitely interesting to think back to this prior economic boom, which was spurred by some of the most notorious and rapacious capitalists in American history. Probably, nowadays, many of their great, great, great-grandchildren live off the trust funds started way back in 1855. It makes you think, huh?
1903: The Williamsburg Bridge Opens
Just five years after Brooklyn was incorporated into the city of New York, a monumental change that would affect the narrative of Williamsburg occurred—the opening of the Williamsburg Bridge. The connection between Williamsburg and the Lower East Side of Manhattan was one that would characterize the population shift that would happen in the Brooklyn neighborhood. With the bridge came a flood of immigrants from the tenements of the Lower East Side, and soon, Williamsburg became the most densely populated area in the country.
And as intolerable as the densely packed tenements of turn of the century Williamsburg must have been, a new invention had just been patented in the neighborhood that could have made the close quarters a bit more bearable. In 1902, Willis Carrier invented the first air conditioner in a printing factory on Metropolitan Avenue in East Williamsburg. This invention would come to revolutionize how and where Americans could live, and it all started on the second floor of a paper company in Brooklyn. I, of course, don't have an air conditioner because of a perverse sense of accomplishment that I get each September when I realize that I managed to keep my Con Ed bills ridiculously cheap. It's the little things, you know?
1930s: As Goes the Nation, So Goes Williamsburg
The 1930s weren't the best decade for America, or really the world, and that carried over into Williamsburg. Although there were still a plentitude of factories in operation back then, that didn't mean there were enough jobs to go around. Another problem was that immigration to the neighborhood continued unabated. The newest round of immigrants were Satmar Hassidic Jews, many of whom came to Brooklyn after escaping from Europe and the looming threat of the Nazis. This population block has become one of the strongholds in Williamsburg, both as a demographic, cultural, and political force. 1938 also marked the opening of the first public housing in America, the Williamsburg Houses.
The recovery from the Great Depression was slow in Williamsburg, but thanks to the abundance of factory jobs, there were at least some employment opportunities, even if it meant solidifying the neighborhood as a blue-collar place. Long gone were the days of Cornelius Vanderbilt, which is fine, really. He was kind of an unbearable tycoon. Who wants that for a neighbor? He'd probably be really quick to make noise complaints, or, like, bang on your door if you were walking around with shoes on and you lived above him. Ugh. He'd be the WORST neighbor.
1950s: Robert Moses Lies, Williamsburg Children Die
"Power broker" Robert Moses had a dream of relieving the congestion that plagued the streets of Brooklyn and Queens. This dream involved building the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Moses made this dream a reality and there was never any traffic in Brooklyn or Queens forever after!
Oh, right. That's not what happened at all! Moses did, of course, get to construct his pet project but in doing so, he might have stretched the truth just a LITTLE bit. For example, Moses promised that the Expressway would follow the shoreline and have as minimal an impact as possible on existing neighborhoods. Well, that might have been what happened in wealthy neighborhoods like Brooklyn Heights, but more working-class, immigrant-heavy 'hoods like Williamsburg and Red Hook got torn asunder. And, in 1956, there was a terrible construction accident in Williamsburg where nine children were trapped under a mound of dirt at a construction site, six of whom died. Slow clap, Robert Moses, slow clap. At least there's no more traffic, right?
Toby Sanchez put it best in his 1989 book, "Williamsburg: A Neighborhood Profile" when he called the BQE "a monument to the disdain of a community."
1970s and 80s: Well, This Wasn't Exactly the Best of Times
All of New York City had its problems in the 70s and 80s; Williamsburg was no exception. The large number of immigrants who had continued to come throughout the 60s, from places like Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, were finding that the factory jobs they were coming for had completely dried up. In fact, the available factory jobs in Williamsburg fell from over 90,000 in 1961 to 12,000 in 1990. The numbers were not good.
Add rampant crime to the discouraging economic numbers because of the fiscal crisis in 1975, and you don't get the nicest picture. In 1971, police detective Frank Serpico was shot in Williamsburg during a drug bust and was left to die by his fellow officers. What I'm saying is, a lot was rotten in Williamsburg. Serpico turned out okay, though. He was able to testify about his shitty police colleagues and his life story got turned into a movie where he was played by Al Pacino, before Al Pacino became all "Hoo-ah!" or whatever in "Scent of a Woman." So you know, it wasn't all bad times. But things were depressed.
1990s and early 2000s: Changes. Big, fat changes.
So, basically, here's where I say that gentrification started and then everything in Williamsburg became cool and all Williamsburglars lived happily ever after, eating oysters and, I don't know, building tables? Well, I would never say that! Because that's not how things worked or work. What I will say is that this is the time that artists began to get priced out of there former neighborhoods in Manhattan and started flocking to Williamsburg to take advantage of the cheap rent and converted factory loft spaces. In 1996, Yuko Nii started the non-profit Williamsburg Art and Historical Center, which attempted to bring together all the different facets if the local artistic community. Basically, change was coming and it was coming fast.
And how did the existing neighborhood residents respond? Well, first of all, Williamsburg was a diverse neighborhood, so there was no monolithic response. But also, it's important to remember that these are the easy years of development, the beginning years. This is the time when change might seem to be coming really rapidly, but, actually, the growth is relatively slow and organic. Why? Because it's just people moving in. This is before the government and the really big corporate money has a stake in it. This is before the era of the glass towers is what I'm saying.
2005-Present Day: You Know You've Arrived as a Neighborhood When the New York TImes Develops an Unhealthy Obsession With Your Every Move
2005 was a big year for Williamsburg because it was the year of the rezoning of the Williamsburg waterfront. The area was rezoned because it had only been approved for industrial use, a remnant from the days when WIlliamsburg had a booming factory-based economy. 75 blocks and 375 acres were rezoned into mixed use (commercial and residential) land and, as I read on PBS.org, "in exchange for letting developers build tall luxury condominiums along the waterfront, the city required them to make 20 percent of the new developments affordable housing units — an incentive known as inclusionary housing." The housing market crash changed everything, though, and Williamsburg became known for those vacant skeletal building, just waiting for their glass skins.
And what's the state of the rezoning today? Seven years later? Well, "today, about one-third of the originally projected number of housing units have been created, and about 20 percent of the affordable housing units have been built. The waterfront park, which was supposed to cost $20 million, will now cost the city well over $200 million." Okay, then!
It's difficult to get much perspective on the Williamsburg of today because we are in it—wow, are we IN IT—and Williamsburg has become this idea of "hipsterdom" and "gentrification." However, looking back at its history, it is easy to see that there was no clear trajectory that got diverted by an influx of artists in the 90s. In fact, the history of Williamsburg demonstrates that the absorption of wave after wave of newcomers has been one of the neighborhood's defining characteristics, much more so than other places in Brooklyn. Perhaps it's only because of its location, right on the edge of Brooklyn and across the river from Manhattan, but Williamsburg has always seemed a bit like a port city. People flock to it and then they leave. The neighborhood evolves, the city evolves, its story is in the hands of those who write it, those who live it, those who love it.
Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen