Modern Urban Neighborhood: A Look at Williamsburg with a Focus on its Infrastructure

Broadway, looking west to the Williamsburg Bridge, Williamsburg (April 30, 2016)
Broadway, looking west to the Williamsburg Bridge, Williamsburg (April 30, 2016)

Originally settled by the Canarsee Indians, Northern Brooklyn was known as Cripplebush upon European settlement in the seventeenth century.  Cripplebush, or scrub-oak trees, were dominant but later chopped down by the British for fuel during the Revolution.  At first a part of the Dutch town of Boswijck, Northern Brooklyn became the English town of Bushwick and later a section of the city of Brooklyn, and then a neighborhood of New York City.  Currently, there are three principal neighborhoods in Northern Brooklyn: Bushwick, Greenpoint, and Williamsburg.  The largest is Williamsburg, which had a 2008 population of 121,000.  It is bounded to the east by Queens, to the south by Flushing Avenue, and to the west by the East River.  Northern boundaries from west to east include North Fifteenth Street, McCarren Park’s western and southern edges, and the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.  A neighborhood with both a residential and industrial past, modern Williamsburg has a Northside and a Southside.  The north is a mix of young artists and professionals as well as Italian and Polish immigrants.  The south is mostly Jewish and was separated from the north when the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway was built.  Williamsburg also played a pivotal role in the development of the New York metropolitan area as a key location for sea, rail, and motor vehicle travel.  The following is a history of Williamsburg from its early days to its modern rebirth, with a particular focus on its infrastructure.[1]

Early Williamsburg

Although the first Europeans settled in approximately 1641, Bushwick was formally founded by Dutch Governor Stuyvesant in 1660.  The original application was made on February 16, 1660, and twenty-two lots were laid out on which houses were built.  The first community name was Het Dorp and the first house was built by Evert Hedeman.  The second community name was Brooklyn Green, however, Stuyvesant was asked to rename it when he visited in 1661.  He selected Boswijck, translated as the town of woods.  It was used for the whole town or district as well as the hamlet or village on the eastern edge.  Boswijck was anglicized to Bushwick soon after the British takeover in 1664.[2]

East River view from Bushwick Inlet Park, Williamsburg (April 30, 2016)
East River view from Bushwick Inlet Park, Williamsburg (April 30, 2016)

To the west of what was the village of Boswijck within the town of the same name is today’s Williamsburg.  On marshy land along the East River between what are now South Seventh and North First Streets, the first European settler, Jean Mesurolle of Picardy, built a farm.  According to legend it was a favorite boarding place of Captain Kidd.  By 1663 there were a number of Dutch, French and Scandinavian farmers, and African slaves, in what was called Cripplebush.  It remained isolated until speculators took interest in the nineteenth century.[3]

East River and Williamsburg Bridge, Bushwick Inlet Park, Williamsburg (April 30, 2016)
East River and Williamsburg Bridge, Bushwick Inlet Park, Williamsburg (April 30, 2016)

Before his death in 1802, Charles Titus conveyed thirteen acres of Cripplebush at the foot of North Second Street, then-called Bushwick Street, to Samuel Titus.  Samuel later transferred ownership to New York merchant Richard M. Woodhull.  Woodhull established ferry service from North Second Street to Manhattan and wanted to build a new community.  Hoping to develop a suburb to New York, Woodhull had the area laid out in city lots by Colonel Jonathan Williams of the United States Engineers.  In Williams’ honor, Woodhull named the community Williamsburgh.  However, Woodhull was only able to sell a few lots and declared bankruptcy after six years.  The property then fell into the hands of a sheriff who sold all of Woodhull’s interest to John H. Maxwell in September of 1811.  Maxwell lacked capital to finance the community and the property was sold again by the sheriff.[4]

The next attempt to create a community was made by Thomas Morrell who acquired the twenty-eight-acre Folkert Titus farm on both sides of Grand Street.  After the purchase, he sold part of the land to James Hazzard and the two men dealt out lots.  Morrell called his section Yorktown and in 1812, obtained a ferry franchise to Manhattan.  Although Morrell monopolized service to Manhattan over Woodhull’s older ferry, the name Williamsburgh was preserved.[5]

More roads were built when David Dunham, known as the “father of Williamsburgh,” opened steam ferry service in 1818 and lent money to the new development.  One road of note ran from Woodhull’s ferry to the city of Brooklyn in approximately 1826.  Residential and business construction followed and Williamsburgh became an incorporated village in 1827.  Population soared from 1,007 in 1830 to 11,338 in 1845, and later to 30,786 in 1850.  To augment industry, wharfs and docks were erected.  In 1852, Williamsburgh was incorporated as a city.  Shortly thereafter, Mayor Abraham J. Berry proposed that it be consolidated with Brooklyn.  On January 1, 1855 the plan was enacted and the final “h” was dropped from the name.[6]

Grand Ferry Park, Williamsburg (April 30, 2016)
Grand Ferry Park, Williamsburg (April 30, 2016)

Throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century Williamsburg became a fashionable suburb for industrialists and professionals of German, Austrian, and Irish decent.  The community featured hotels, beer gardens, and exclusive clubs.  The waterfront was lined with some of the largest industrial firms of the nation including Astral Oil (later Standard Oil), Brooklyn Flint Glass (later Corning Glassware), and the Havemeyers & Elder sugar refinery (later Domino Sugar).  Another local business was the Williamburgh Savings Bank, which was chartered in 1851.  Wishing to build a headquarters in the downtown area, the bank bought a site at 175 Broadway and held a design competition.  The winning entry submitted by George B. Post was a four-story, Classical Revival building of limestone, sandstone, and marble with a monumental arched portico and an ornate cast-iron railing along the sidewalk.  Construction began in 1870 and the structure was completed in 1875.  Additions were made in 1905 and 1925, among them a dome crowned with an ornate lantern and delicate weathervane.  In 1966 the City of New York granted the building landmark status.  Williamsburgh Savings Bank was acquired by the Republic National Bank of New York in 1987.[7]

Williamsburgh Savings Bank, Williamsburg (April 30, 2016)
Williamsburgh Savings Bank, Williamsburg (April 30, 2016)

Growth of Infrastructure

The development of Williamsburg would not have been possible without the introduction of improved transportation services such as surface rail.  The first company to provide Williamsburg with rail service was the Brooklyn City Railroad.  In early 1854 the company laid rail along major roadways such as Kent and Graham Avenues, extending from downtown Brooklyn into Williamsburg.  In fact, at one time there were thirty miles of street rail in use.  In 1896 the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company was incorporated as a holding company to control street, steam, and elevated rail in the borough including the Brooklyn City which was acquired by the Long Island Traction Company in 1883.  At first horse-drawn cars were used.  Later, electric trolleys replaced horses on all lines in the twentieth century.  Today, local buses run along former trolley routes.[8]

The first rapid transit in the area was the Broadway Elevated Line running from Gates Avenue in Bushwick to Driggs Avenue in Williamsburg.  Consolidated in 1888, the older Brooklyn Elevated Railroad Company was merged with the Union Elevated Road for the purpose of extending service from downtown Brooklyn into Williamsburg.  The elevated road provided a one-seat ride for those who would otherwise have made connections to Williamsburg surface lines.  Local stations were set up in Williamsburg at Flushing Avenue, Lorimer Street, Hewes Street, Marcy Avenue, Driggs Avenue, and later at the East River ferry terminal.  Service began June 25, 1888 and the roadway remains a part of the New York City Subway elevated line from Jamaica to Manhattan.[9]

New York City Subway J Line Flushing Avenue Station, Williamsburg (May 14, 2016)
New York City Subway J Line Flushing Avenue Station, Williamsburg (May 14, 2016)

Although originally mostly farmland, the area of the town of Bushwick south of Metropolitan Avenue and west of Fresh Pond Road became residential and industrial after the arrival of nearby transit.  The name East Williamsburg was adopted and it played an important role in the history of rail service on Long Island as two right-of-ways once traversed the community.  One was the South Side and the other was the New York & Manhattan Beach.[10]

Since its inception in 1834, the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) monopolized railroading on the island.  Its Main Line traversed the center, less-populated section of the island and residents of waterfront communities were compelled to travel several miles to a station.  Although there was demand, the LIRR refused to build a southern branch because, according to road president Oliver Charlick, it would reduce traffic on the older route to little or nothing.  But, residents were determined, resulting in the incorporation of the South Side Railroad of Long Island in 1860.  Destined to be the LIRR’s competitor, the South Side began building a right-of-way east of Jamaica in 1866 and by November 1867, reached Babylon.[11]

Rather than build west of Jamaica, South Side management hoped that the LIRR would haul South Side cars from Jamaica to the Manhattan ferry terminal at Hunter’s Point in Queens.  However, Charlick refused and the South Side looked to construct its own right-of-way to the waterfront in Williamsburg.  However, the road faced opposition from the Common Council of Williamsburg.  Officials were hesitant about permitting a steam railroad to run along the narrow and crowded local streets.  While the area east of Bushwick Avenue in East Williamsburg was mainly farm or meadowlands, the area to the west was densely populated.  The controversy culminated at the end of 1867 at which time the South Side petitioned the Council for a route along Montrose Avenue.  The advantage was that east of Bushwick Avenue, Montrose Avenue traversed a swamp with few residents.  Still, the disadvantage was that the five-block stretch to Union Avenue west of Bushwick Avenue was densely-populated.  In the end, the South Side and the Council agreed on a steam terminus at Bushwick Avenue and for a single-track, horse-operated road to the Manhattan ferry.  The set-up was officially granted by the Council on December 16.[12]

West of Jamaica the new line crossed into Richmond Hill, Glendale, Ridgewood, and Maspeth.  From there it continued onto East Williamsburg in a southwesterly direction, crossing over Metropolitan Avenue, one of the only cut roads in the meadows, and what became Woodward Avenue.  Then, it turned westward and ran in the middle of Montrose Avenue.  After crossing Varick Avenue, the right-of-way bridged English Kills and headed toward Bushwick Avenue.  Within Williamsburg, the route continued along the eighty-foot wide Montrose Avenue and then curved slightly northwest onto Broadway and on its way to the waterfront.[13]

English Kills, East Williamsburg (May 14, 2016)
English Kills, East Williamsburg (May 14, 2016)

The South Side Railroad opened to Bushwick Avenue Station on Saturday, July 18, 1868.  Since the East River station was yet to be completed, connections were available to both the Brooklyn City and Broadway Railroads for access to the waterfront.  No depot building was set up at the intersection of Montrose and Bushwick Avenues but the South Side used the old Schenck farmhouse of Revolutionary vintage as an office.[14]  On August 5, 1868, all administrative offices were moved from Jamaica to the farmhouse.  In addition to the station, a large rail yard and engine shop were constructed.[15]

Bushwick Station
Historical Fact
Date
Station opened as Bushwick Avenue Station by the South Side Railroad July 18, 1868
South Side Railroad merged under the LIRR Spring 1876
Renamed Bushwick Station After 1876 (author’s analysis)
Depot building construction began May 1877
Depot building opened July 14, 1877
Last passenger service May 13, 1924
Depot building razed Late 1990s (author’s analysis)
Location of the former LIRR Bushwick Station, view southeast (July 11, 2016)
Location of the former LIRR Bushwick Station, view southeast (July 11, 2016)

For the East River terminus the railroad purchased eight lots between Broadway and South Eighth Street.  With frontage on Kent Avenue, the land was formerly a coal yard and the railroad utilized the existing office building as a small freight house.  The location proved to be ideal since it adjoined the Broadway ferry to Manhattan.  Construction of a passenger depot building commenced in September 1868 and was completed in early November.  On November 4 the first train arrived at the new South Eighth Street Station.[16]

South Eighth Street Station
South Side Railroad Company of Long Island
Historical Fact
Date
Depot building constructed September 1868
Station and depot building opened November 4, 1868
Station and depot building renovated April 1872
Last passenger service February 26, 1876
Station closed February 29, 1876
Location of the former South Side RR South Eighth Street Station, South Eighth Street and Kent Avenue, view west (April 30, 2016)
Location of the former South Side RR South Eighth Street Station, South Eighth Street and Kent Avenue, view west (April 30, 2016)

In 1869 the Common Council of Williamsburg granted the South Side permission to pull trains from Bushwick Avenue to the terminal by means of a steam dummy engine.  Regular service began on August 2[17] and included about a half-dozen trains daily, except Sundays, to and from various locations on the South Shore of Long Island.  The following year there were eight trains each way.  Freight service was provided by an early morning eastbound train from Bushwick Avenue and a late-day westbound train to Bushwick Avenue.[18]

With no major freight terminal on the Williamsburg waterfront, and since it was dissatisfied with running dummy engines, the South Side Railroad organized the Hunter’s Point & South Side Railroad Company in 1870 to secure a new waterfront terminus.  A right-of-way was constructed two years later.  It was built off the South Side from a point in Maspeth that became known as Bushwick Junction and continued along Newtown Creek where it connected with the New York & Flushing Railroad to Hunter’s Point.  On May 31, 1870 the two roads were physically connected after the South Side bought the stock of the New York & Flushing.  Initially, the consolidated right-of-way was used solely for freight.  In fact, in 1872 the line carried over 83,000 tons of freight, a 30,000-ton increase from 1869.[19]

Meanwhile, the South Eighth Street passenger station was enlarged in April 1872 by a 100-foot extension of the roadbed to the bulkhead line of the river.  By early summer, a covered depot to shelter cars was erected.  Work also included modifications to the two-story depot building, which had sitting rooms, freight and ticket offices on the first floor, and company offices on the second.[20]

Despite its success, the South Side was sold.  It was later purchased by Conrad Poppenhusen and renamed the Southern Railroad Company of Long Island on September 25, 1874.[21]  Many changes followed.  The most evident was the discontinuation of service to Williamsburg.  For years, residents and local leaders sought abolition of dummy engines because of the dangers in a heavily-populated area and since South Eighth Street was only thirty-feet wide.  By 1875 the passage of a bill forbidding steam was imminent.  In response the railroad began preparations to run all freight and passenger trains to and from Hunter’s Point.  On February 28, 1876 the formal action took effect and service now ran over the right-of-way from the LIRR station at Hunter’s Point to Bushwick Junction and onto Jamaica.  The South Eighth Street Station was abandoned the following day with the last train running on February 26.  All rails from Bushwick Avenue to the waterfront were removed in May 1876.  Additionally, the LIRR was made the backbone of a unified system and all railroads operating on the island were consolidated.  In the spring of 1876 the former Southern Railroad Company of Long Island was absorbed into the LIRR and later became the Montauk Branch.[22]

The line from Bushwick Avenue to Bushwick Junction became a branch road and an additional station named Metropolitan Avenue was set up at the Metropolitan Avenue crossing.  The platform extended south of Metropolitan Avenue on the west side of the track.  Improvements to Bushwick Avenue Station, later designated as Bushwick Station, were formerly discussed in March of 1876 and a large covered passenger depot was planned as well as additional freight houses and sidings to permit horse cars to drive into the station area to unload passengers.  Under Poppenhusen management, the station and depot building were rebuilt.  Work began in May 1877 and the new brick building opened on July 14 at the southeast corner of the Bushwick Avenue (later Old Bushwick Avenue) and Montrose Avenue intersection.  A low-level cedar platform was located east of the building.  In all, there were seven tracks in the station area south of Montrose Avenue and east of Old Bushwick Avenue.  There were also six team freight tracks north of Montrose Avenue and south the Otto Huber Lager Beer Brewery factory.[23]

Metropolitan Avenue
Historical Fact
Date
Station opened After 1876 (author’s analysis)
Last passenger service May 13, 1924
Depot building razed Late 1990s (author’s analysis)
Location of the former LIRR Metropolitan Avenue Station, New York & Atlantic Railway Metropolitan Avenue crossing, view west (May 14, 2016)
Location of the former LIRR Metropolitan Avenue Station, New York & Atlantic Railway Metropolitan Avenue crossing, view west (May 14, 2016)

The other railroad constructed through Williamsburg was part of a line to Manhattan Beach.  On March 26, 1874 the Glendale & East River Railroad Company was incorporated to provide the South Side Railroad with an alternate terminal on the Greenpoint waterfront.  The planned route was to traverse a relatively uninhabited area from the South Side right-of-way in Glendale, through Ridgewood and East Williamsburg, and onto Greenpoint.  However, after the Poppenhusens bought the South Side and merged it into the LIRR, the route was no longer needed.  A few years later, the Greenpoint idea reemerged as a narrow-gauge seasonal railroad to Manhattan Beach operated by the New York & Manhattan Beach Railway Company, owned by Austin Corbin.[24]

As planned, the Glendale & East River Railroad Company was to be constructed to Glendale.  When it was acquired by the New York & Manhattan Beach Railway, it was redirected to East New York over an unconstructed route leased from the Brooklyn & Rockaway Beach Railroad.  Grading took place in 1877 and tracks for much of the route were laid in early 1878.  As constructed, the road began in Greenpoint and continued to what is now McCarren Park. on Williamsburg’s border with Greenpoint.  Continuing in southeasterly direction, the line diagonally crossed the intersection of Lorimer and Jane Streets, passed over Newton Street, and diagonally crossed the Leonard and Bayard Street intersection.  After crossing Richardson Street, it curved in an easterly direction and ran between Richardson and Frost Streets to Vandervoort Avenue.  From there it curved into East Williamsburg in a southeasterly direction, crossing over Metropolitan and Grand Avenues.  To traverse English Kills, a 425-foot-long trestle was built seven feet above the water.  Next, the right-of-way crossed over the South Side Railroad just west of the Montrose and Varick Avenue intersection.  It continued to Flushing Avenue and into what is now modern-day Bushwick.[25]

The narrow gauge route went into service for the 1878 summer season.  Three local stations opened on May 15.[26]  One station was a six minute ride from the Greenpoint terminal.  Designated as Humboldt Street Station, its platform area extended from Humboldt Street to Graham Avenue, between Richardson and Frost Streets.  A depot building was set up on the south side of the right-of-way, complete with a ticket office and cafe.  Horse-drawn car lines provided added local service at both Humboldt Street and Graham Avenue on either side of the station.  The next station in Williamsburg, a ten minute ride from the terminal, was Grand Street.  It is uncertain whether there was a depot building but the platform area extended between Metropolitan Avenue and Grand Street.  The last station in the area was South Side Railroad Crossing located just east of the junction with the South Side Railroad in East Williamsburg.  However, it was removed from timetables effective May 25, 1881.  A second track was laid along the route in the spring of 1879 and completed for the May 24 opening of the second season.[27]

Humboldt Street Station
Historical Fact
Date
Station and depot building opened by the New York & Manhattan Beach Railway May 15, 1878
New York & Manhattan Beach Railway leased to LIRR December 1881
Station closed September 28, 1885
Location of the former New York & Manhattan Beach Railway Humboldt Street Station, Richardson Street, view east (May 14, 2016)
Location of the former New York & Manhattan Beach Railway Humboldt Street Station, Richardson Street, view east (May 14, 2016)
Grand Street Station
Historical Fact
Date
Station opened by the New York & Manhattan Beach Railway May 15, 1878
New York & Manhattan Beach Railway leased to LIRR December 1881
Station closed September 28, 1885
Location of the former New York & Manhattan Beach Railway Grand Street Station, Grand Street and Vandervoort Avenue, view east (May 14, 2016)
Location of the former New York & Manhattan Beach Railway Grand Street Station, Grand Street and Vandervoort Avenue, view east (May 14, 2016)
South Side Railroad Crossing Station
Historical Fact
Date
Station opened by the New York & Manhattan Beach Railway May 15, 1878
Station closed May 25, 1881
Station reopened by the LIRR June 1886
Station closed September 1890
Location of the former New York & Manhattan Beach Railway South Side Railroad Crossing Station and LIRR South Side Railroad Crossing, New York & Atlantic Railway Varick Avenue crossing, view north (May 14, 2016)
Location of the former New York & Manhattan Beach Railway South Side Railroad Crossing Station and LIRR South Side Railroad Crossing, New York & Atlantic Railway Varick Avenue crossing, view north (May 14, 2016)

After Corbin’s December 1880 purchase of the LIRR, the Manhattan Beach was consolidated into the senior road and fell to the status of branch line.  It was officially leased to the LIRR effective May 1, 1882.  Next, as alternate to the Greenpoint-Bushwick route, the Long Island City & Manhattan Beach Railroad Company was organized in February 1883 to build a standard-gauge right-of-way to connect the Manhattan Beach Branch with the Brooklyn & Montauk Railroad (today’s LIRR Montauk Branch) at Fresh Pond Junction in Glendale.[28]

Since the new road was built as standard gauge, shuttle trains provided summer service for the 1883 season from Greenpoint to Cooper Avenue Junction in Bushwick where passengers connected with Manhattan Beach trains.  The following year the roadbed from Greenpoint to Cooper Avenue was torn up and replaced with a standard gauge, single-track right-of-way in order to give full-freight facilities to factories along the route.  However, passenger service continued on a shuttle basis to Cooper Avenue.[29]

Service to Manhattan Beach via Greenpoint was relatively short-lived.  Both Humboldt Street and Grand Street Stations were closed on September 28, 1885.  On May 8, 1886 the final passenger trains ran on the Greenpoint right-of-way.  The Humboldt Street depot building became a carpenter’s shop.  A month later, in light of the Greenpoint abandonment, the former South Side Railroad Crossing Station reopened on the LIRR Bushwick Branch just west of the Varick Avenue crossing.  However, the station permanently closed at the end of the 1890 summer season.  Freight service on the former Greenpoint line also continued until 1890 at which time the route was abandoned and the right-of-way from the East River to South Side Crossing was removed.  The route from South Side Crossing to Cooper Avenue Junction became a freight-only spur known as the Evergreen Branch.[30]

The LIRR Bushwick Branch in East Williamsburg remained the only passenger railroad in the immediate area but over the years, passenger service diminished.  The railroad built and installed new multiple unit storage battery cars and one was relegated to shuttle service on the Bushwick Branch between Bushwick and Fresh Pond Stations on the Montauk Branch.  By the early twentieth century the passenger station and depot building remained at the southeast corner of Old Bushwick Avenue, now Bushwick Place, and Montrose Avenue.  The freight house was located on the northeast corner of Bushwick Place and Johnson Avenue.  While the right-of-way was single track there were many sidings and team tracks in the area for the many factories and buildings.  While the Metropolitan and Varick Avenue crossings, and the English Kills trestle, were single track, the Woodward and Morgan Avenue crossings were double-track.[31]

New York & Atlantic Railway Morgan Avenue crossing, view north (May 14, 2016)
New York & Atlantic Railway Morgan Avenue crossing, view north (May 14, 2016)

Passenger service ended on May 13, 1924.  By this time there were six roundtrips, with four during the morning rush-hour and two in the afternoon.  For example, train number 153 departed Fresh Pond at 6:50 a.m. and, after a flag stop at Metropolitan Avenue at 6:55 a.m., arrived at Bushwick Station at 7:00 a.m.  The return to Fresh Pond left two minutes later as number 154.  Afternoon service from Fresh Pond started with number 163 at 4:32 p.m. which returned as number 164.  In summer, one additional roundtrip was added to the afternoon rush-hour.  While morning service to Metropolitan Avenue was flag only, afternoon service made a station stop.  The brick depot building survived until the late twentieth century but was demolished a short time later.[32]

Although Bushwick Branch passenger service ended in 1924, freight operation continued.  The former freight house became a warehouse for a local business but then abandoned.  It was finally demolished on September 18, 2003.  Many of the sidings and team tracks along the right-of-way prevailed for most of the twentieth century but have since been removed.  All crossings are single track except for the double track Morgan Avenue crossing.  Additionally, a pedestrian overpass was installed in 1952 to connect the two dead-end sides of Scott Avenue.  Currently, New York & Atlantic Railroad, which operates freight on the island, maintains a public access track known as Morgan Avenue Yard just west of the former Bushwick Station and east of Morgan Avenue.[33]

LIRR Scott Avenue passenger overpass, New York & Atlantic Railway right-of-way, view northeast (July 11, 2016)
LIRR Scott Avenue passenger overpass, New York & Atlantic Railway right-of-way, view northeast (July 11, 2016)

The Bushwick Branch was the site for disaster on March 10, 2004 when a runaway 125-ton locomotive rolled a mile and a half down the tracks from Fresh Pond yard to East Williamsburg plowing into five vehicles and injuring four people.  The driverless trip occurred when a crew of LIRR workers detached the locomotive from two freight cars and towed those two cars into the Fresh Pond yard.  Minutes later, they discovered the locomotive had rolled off crashing into cars at the Fifty-Fifth Street, Metropolitan Avenue, and Woodward Avenue crossings.  While the grade crossings had gates and warning bells, they were removed in 1991.  Since the accident, warning lights and bells have been installed at several crossings.[34]

Early Twentieth Century

Williamsburg’s population grew from 105,000 in 1900 to 260,000 in 1920.  The growth can be attributed to the opening of the Williamsburg Bridge after which thousands of Eastern European Jews moved to the neighborhood from Manhattan’s Lower East Side.  The Williamsburg is a steel suspension bridge connecting Delancey Street in Manhattan with Marcy Avenue in Williamsburg.  It supports two subway tracks and four flanking traffic lanes.  The second bridge built over the East River, the 7,308-feet long structure opened in 1903 as an alternative to the overburdened Brooklyn Bridge.  Upon completion it was the longest and heaviest suspension bridge in the world and the first with towers made entirely of steel.[35]

Manhattan Tower, Williamsburg Bridge (Circa Summer 1983)
Manhattan Tower, Williamsburg Bridge (Circa Summer 1983)

The bill authorizing the Williamsburg Bridge became law on May 27, 1895 and work commenced with the construction of the Manhattan tower on October 28, 1896.  The entire project was completed on December 7, 1903 at a total cost of $11 million.  The bridge was designed by the chief engineer of the project, Leffert L. Buck.  However, during construction in 1902, New York Commissioner of Bridges Gustav Lindenthal employed Henry Hornbostel to improve aesthetics.  Hornbostel added ornamental detail to the towers and other sections of the bridge.  Regardless, the bridge remained primarily the work of Buck and his work was criticized for its graceless form.[36]

Williamsburg Bridge, with Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges in view (Circa Summer 1982)
Williamsburg Bridge, with Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges in view (Circa Summer 1982)

A huge celebration, complete a civic and military parade and fireworks display, took place on December 19, 1903.  At a dedication ceremony Commissioner Lindenthal presented the bridge to New York City Mayor Seth Low who ironically was the mayor of the City of Brooklyn upon the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge.  Mayor Low paid tribute to Chief Engineer Buck’s work, referencing his war record and his show of valor in the battle of Lookout Mountain.  The bridge was opened to normal vehicular traffic on the morning of December 21.[37]

Williamsburg Bridge, South Sixth Street (April 30, 2016)
Williamsburg Bridge, South Sixth Street (April 30, 2016)

Originally the bridge had two pedestrian paths, two bicycle paths, two elevated rail tracks, four trolley tracks, and two roadways.  Regular trolley service on the bridge began November 4, 1904 and was provided by both the Brooklyn Heights Railroad Company and the New York City Railway Company.  The Brooklyn Heights cars traveled over to Manhattan and then returned to Brooklyn, while the New York City Railway cars made their way to the Brooklyn side and looped back to Manhattan.  Mass transit was added to the bridge on September 16, 1908 when the Broadway Elevated Line was extended to Manhattan.  At the inaugural celebration, New York City Mayor George B. McClellan, Jr. drove the first train over the bridge from the Lower East Side to Williamsburg.  A reception was later held at Blaney’s Amphion Theatre in Williamsburg.[38]

Williamsburg Bridge, South Sixth Street & Wythe Avenue (April 30, 2016)
Williamsburg Bridge, South Sixth Street & Wythe Avenue (April 30, 2016)

Another infrastructure development was the opening of the Fourteenth Street Cross-town Subway from Manhattan to Canarsie (today’s L train).  Construction began in the mid-1910s and the line opened to Montrose Avenue on April 30, 1924.  Traversing Williamsburg, new subway stations included Bedford Avenue, Lorimer Street, Graham Avenue, Grand Street, and Montrose Avenue.[39]

New York City Subway L Line Bedford Avenue Station, Williamsburg (April 30, 2016)
New York City Subway L Line Bedford Avenue Station, Williamsburg (April 30, 2016)
New York City Subway L Line Graham Avenue Station, Williamsburg (May 14, 2016)
New York City Subway L Line Graham Avenue Station, Williamsburg (May 14, 2016)

Despite infrastructure and community developments, many businesses declared bankruptcy and many residents left after the Stock Market Crash.  But, the Jewish community continued to grow with a large number of refugees escaping Nazism and forming Hasidic synagogues and schools.  During this time, another cross-town subway line, today’s G train, was completed, linking Long Island City with downtown Brooklyn.  The new route allowed residents of northern Williamsburg and East Williamsburg to travel to Manhattan via Queens.  The line was formally opened by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia on July 1, 1937.  Subway stations were set up at Metropolitan Avenue, Broadway, and Flushing Avenue.[40]

Williamsburg Today

In addition to the Lithuanian, Russian, Polish, and Italian enclaves, many Puerto Ricans moved into Williamsburg in the mid-twentieth century.  It was at this time that Williamsburg began to experience an economic and social downturn following the construction of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.  The section from the Kosciusko Bridge in Greenpoint to the Williamsburg Bridge opened on December 6, 1952 and cost $3,200,000 in federal funds.  The entire nine-mile road to the Brooklyn-Battery formally opened on January 5, 1960.[41]

Pedestrian & Bike Path, Williamsburg Bridge (April 30, 2016)
Pedestrian & Bike Path, Williamsburg Bridge (April 30, 2016)

In the end, the eleven-mile-long Brooklyn-Queens Expressway bisected Williamsburg.  More than 2,200 units of low-income housing were destroyed for road construction.  Other buildings were demolished to make room for enormous public housing projects to take their place.  Still, other buildings were abandoned and looting and arson soon followed.  The overall population of Northern and Central Brooklyn, once referred to as the Eastern District, declined from 789,255 in 1930 to 767,400 in 1954.  While industry was not immediately affected, it decreased sharply by the 1990s.[42]

Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, Meeker Avenue and Richardson Street, Williamsburg (May 14, 2016)
Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, Meeker Avenue and Richardson Street, Williamsburg (May 14, 2016)

Buildings were not the only structures in despair.  Engineers found the Williamsburg Bridge in such a state of neglect that they closed it down in April 1988.  Demolition was discussed but the city decided to repair it.[43]

East River and the Williamsburg Bridge, Brooklyn Bridge Park, Dumbo (September 20, 2012)
East River and the Williamsburg Bridge, Brooklyn Bridge Park, Dumbo (September 20, 2012)

The turning point was in the late 1990s when artists and musicians moved into Williamsburg.  As a result, a club scene developed in the Northside while the Southside remained primarily Jewish.  The rebirth was also aided by the United States Superfund which cleaned some pollution along the waterfront.  Gentrification of some rundown areas followed.  Subsequently, the city’s rezoning plan reclassified some industrial areas as residential.  The May 2005 plan also provided for parks and a waterfront esplanade.[44]

While Williamsburg has become a residential destination, there are efforts to preserve its industrial past since many factories were demolished.  In June 2007 the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Brooklyn’s industrial waterfront an endangered historic district.  The society stated that while the city issued 1,740 new building permits in the borough, it also issued 1,924 permits for demolition.  Many of these buildings were industrial and preservationists feel they need to be integrated into gentrification plans in light of their historical significance.[45]

Domino Sugar Refinery, Williamsburg (April 30, 2016)
Domino Sugar Refinery, Williamsburg (April 30, 2016)

One of these buildings was the Domino Sugar refinery.  Located on Kent Avenue, the refinery was acquired by the Havemeyer family in 1856 and rebuilt after an 1882 fire.  Once one of the largest refineries in the world, the recognizable main building was a brick, Romanesque Revival-style structure, with a signature dome, rounded-arch openings and distinctive smokestack.  Indeed, the building endured the boom and decline of Brooklyn’s sugar industry.  Its workers and their union, the International Longshoremen’s Association, went on strike on June 15, 1999.  A strike that lasted twenty months.  Soon after, American Sugar, which bought the plant, announced it was to close in late-2004 because of the falling demand of cane sugar over beet sugar.[46]

Peter Luger Steakhouse, Williamsburg (April 30, 2016)
Peter Luger Steakhouse, Williamsburg (April 30, 2016)

Williamsburg also features other historic noteworthy locations.  Peter Luger Steak House has been a fixture in Williamsburg since 1887.  Named after Peter Luger, a German-born restauranteur who also owned an establishment on Sunrise Highway in Valley Stream, it first opened as Charles Luger’s Café, Billiards & Bowling Alley at Driggs Avenue and South Eighth Street.  It moved to its present location at 178 Broadway in 1904.  Williamsburg also includes some structures designated as city landmarks.  The oldest was originally known as the New England Congregational Church, but now as the Light of the World Church.  Built in 1853, it is an Italiante brownstone located at 179 South Ninth Street.  Another city landmark is the Kings County Savings Bank at 135 Broadway, built in 1868.[47]

Next page: Kings


[1] Leonard Benardo and Jennifer Weiss, Brooklyn by Name: How the Neighborhoods, Streets, Parks, Bridges, and More Got Their Names (New York: New York University Press, 2006), 11; The Encyclopedia of New York City, edited by Kenneth T. Jackson (New York: New-York Historical Society, 2010), 1403; John B. Manbeck, The Neighborhoods of Brooklyn (New York: Citizens for NYC, 2004), 207-211.

[2] Henry Isham Hazelton, The Boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, Counties of Nassau and Suffolk, Long Island, New York, 1609-1924 (New York: Lewis Historical, 1925), 1103-1108; Benardo and Weiss, Brooklyn by Name, 11.

[3] The Encyclopedia of New York City, 1403.

[4] Hazelton, The Boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, Counties of Nassau and Suffolk, 1109; The Encyclopedia of New York City, 1403.

[5] Hazelton, The Boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, Counties of Nassau and Suffolk, 1110.

[6] Ibid., 1110-1112; The Encyclopedia of New York City, 1403.

[7] Ibid., 1403-1404.

[8] Hazelton, The Boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, Counties of Nassau and Suffolk, 1112; “The Brooklyn City Railroad Company, their Organization,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 21, 1853; “Brooklyn City Railroad Company,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, January 20, 1854; “History,” BMT Lines, accessed on July 2, 2016, http://www.bmt-lines.com/history; “Brooklyn City Railroad, Sunset Park,” Forgotten New York, accessed on July 2, 2016, http://forgotten-ny.com/2015/08/brooklyn-city-railroad-sunset-park.

[9] “To Consolidate the Roads,” New York Times (1857-1922), February 7, 1888, http://www.proquest.com; “The Broadway Line Opened: Travel Begins on a Branch of the Union Elevated,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 25, 1888; “Another Road Leads to Hearn’s,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 29, 1924.

[10] Hazelton, The Boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, Counties of Nassau and Suffolk, 393-397.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.; Vincent F. Seyfried,  The Long Island Rail Road: A Comprehensive History, vol. 1, South Side R.R. of L.I. (Garden City, NY: Seyfried, 1984), 10-13.

[13] Ibid., 12-13; Hazelton, The Boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, Counties of Nassau and Suffolk, 397; Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library. “Vol. 2. Plate, G. [Map bound by Meserole St., Canal, Randolph St., Johnson Aver, Vandervoort Ave., Thames St., Varet St., Bushwick Ave., Old Bushwick Ave.; Including Montrose Ave., Boerum St., Ingraham St., Mc Kibbin St., Seigel St., Harrison Pl., Grattan St., Moore St., Waterbury St., White St., Bogart St., Morgan Ave.]” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed May 1, 2016. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e4-4be2-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99; Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library. “Vol. 2. Plate, H. [Map bound by Meadow St., Metropolitan Ave., City Line, Flushing Ave., Ingraham St., Vandervoort Ave., Canal; Including Stagg St., Scholes St., Meserole St., Montrose Ave., Randolph St., Johnson Ave., Porter Ave., Varick Ave., Stewart Ave., Gardner Ave., Scott Ave., Seneca Ave., Covert Ave.]” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed May 1, 2016. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e4-4be3-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.

[14] Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library. “Vol. 2. Plate, G.; Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library. “Vol. 2. Plate, H.; Seyfried,  The Long Island Rail Road: A Comprehensive History, vol. 1, 14.

[15] Ibid., 35.

[16] Seyfried, The Long Island Rail Road: A Comprehensive History, vol. 1, 13-15; Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library. “Vol. 2. Plate, G.; Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library. “Vol. 2. Plate, H.

[17] Seyfried, The Long Island Rail Road: A Comprehensive History, vol. 1, 18.

[18] Ibid., 38; Hazelton, The Boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, Counties of Nassau and Suffolk, 397; “The Long Island Rail Road: A Comprehensive History, Part One: South Side R.R. of L.I.,” Trains are Fun, accessed on June 14, 2016, http://www.trainsarefun.com/lirr/southsiderailroad/SouthSideRailroad.htm.

[19] Seyfried, The Long Island Rail Road: A Comprehensive History, vol. 1, 31-37; Hazelton, The Boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, Counties of Nassau and Suffolk, 397-399.

[20] Ibid., 75.

[21] Ibid., 58.

[22] Ibid., 67-68; Hazelton, The Boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, Counties of Nassau and Suffolk, 399-401.

[23] Seyfried, The Long Island Rail Road: A Comprehensive History, vol. 1, 415; Seyfried, The Long Island Rail Road: A Comprehensive History, vol. 1, 75; “Long Island Rail Road: Alphabetical Station Listing and History,” Trains Are Fun, accessed February 22, 2016, http://www.trainsarefun.com/lirrphotos/LIRR%20Station%20History.htm; Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library. “Vol. 2. Plate, G; Box 9, Book 36, Robert M. Emery Long Island Rail Road Collection, Special Collections, Stony Brook University Libraries.

[24] Vincent F. Seyfried, The Long Island Rail Road: A Comprehensive History, vol. 4, The Bay Ridge and Manhattan Beach Divisions; LIRR Operation on the Brighton and Culver Lines (Garden City, NY: Seyfried, 1984), 32-35.

[25] Ibid., 35-43; Ibid., 61; Hazelton, The Boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, Counties of Nassau and Suffolk, 403-404; Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library. “Vol. 2. Plate, E. [Map bound by Orient Ave., City Line, Meadow St., Canal, Vandervoort Ave.; Including Calhoun St., Dickinson St., Mill St., Grand St., Maujer St., Ten Eyck St., Porter Ave., Varick Ave., Metropolitan Ave., Stewart Ave., Gardner Ave., Scott Ave., Seneca Ave.]” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed May 1, 2016. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e4-4be0-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99; Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library. “Vol. 6. Plate, H. [Map bound by Van Cott Ave., Van Pelt Ave., Monitor St., Meeker Ave., Richardson St., Humboldt St., Conselyea St., Union Ave.; Including Jane St., Newton St., Bayard St., Frost St., Withers St., Jackson St., Skillman St., Lorimer St., Leonard St., Eckford St., Ewen St., Graham Ave., Russell St., N. Henry St.]” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed May 1, 2016. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e4-41b3-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.

[26] Seyfried, The Long Island Rail Road: A Comprehensive History, vol. 4, 64.

[27] “Long Island Rail Road: Alphabetical Station Listing and History”; Seyfried,  The Long Island Rail Road: A Comprehensive History, vol. 4, 207; Ibid., 61; Hazelton, The Boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, Counties of Nassau and Suffolk, 403-404; Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library. “Vol. 2. Plate, E.; Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library. “Vol. 6. Plate, H.; Manhattan Beach Railway, Manhattan Beach Railway Time Table (New York: Manhattan Beach Railway, 1879).

[28] Seyfried, The Long Island Rail Road: A Comprehensive History, vol. 4, 88-92.

[29] Ibid., 92; Hazelton, The Boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, Counties of Nassau and Suffolk, 406-407; “Preparing for Summer Travel,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 18, 1883; “A New Track and Cars,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 24, 1884.

[30] Hazelton, The Boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, Counties of Nassau and Suffolk, 406-407; “Long Island Rail Road: Alphabetical Station Listing and History”; “Branch Notes,” Trains are Fun, accessed May 19, 2016, http://www.trainsarefun.com/lirr/branchnotes.htm; “Manhattan Beach Railroad,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 20, 1885; Seyfried,  The Long Island Rail Road: A Comprehensive History, vol. 4, 207.

[31] Hazelton, The Boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, Counties of Nassau and Suffolk, 415; Box 9, Book 36, Robert M. Emery Long Island Rail Road Collection.

[32] “Long Island Rail Road: Alphabetical Station Listing and History”; Hazelton, The Boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, Counties of Nassau and Suffolk, 415; Robert M. Emery Long Island Rail Road Collection, Box 14, Special Collections, Stony Brook University Libraries, Long Island Rail Road Timetables Schedule in effect October 16, 1921 (New York: Long Island Rail Road, 1921); Robert M. Emery Long Island Rail Road Collection, Box 14, Special Collections, Stony Brook University Libraries, Long Island Rail Road Timetables Schedule in effect May 23, 1923 (New York: Long Island Rail Road, 1923); Robert M. Emery Long Island Rail Road Collection, Box 14, Special Collections, Stony Brook University Libraries, Long Island Rail Road Timetables Schedule in effect October 19, 1927 (New York: Long Island Rail Road, 1927); “Bushwick Branch: LIRR in Brooklyn,” Forgotten New York, accessed on June 29, 2016, http://forgotten-ny.com/2000/10/bushwick-branch-lirr-in-brooklyn.

[33] “Bushwick Freight Terminal,” Hope Tunnel.org, accessed on July 2, 2016, http://www.hopetunnel.org/subway/lirr/bushwick.html; “NYA-New York & Atlantic Railway,” Anacostia, accessed on June 17, 2016, http://www.anacostia.com/railroads/nya; Box 9, Book 36, Robert M. Emery Long Island Rail Road Collection.

[34] Sean Gardiner, “Disaster Rolls through Queens / Out-of-control Locomotive Rumbles away from Rail Yard,” Newsday (Combined editions), March 11, 2004, http://www.proquest.com; Graham Rayman, “Why’d It Fail to Derail? Investigators Probe why recently Installed Mechanism intended to prevent such Incidents didn’t Work,” Newsday (Combined editions), March 13, 2004, http://www.proquest.com.

[35] The Encyclopedia of New York City, 140.

[36] The Encyclopedia of New York City, 1403; “History of the Bridge: Spectacles and Difficulties during Its Construction. Cost of the Williamsburg Span — The Men Who Built It — Description of the Structure,” New York Times (1857-1922), December 20, 1903, http://www.proquest.com; “New Bridge in a Glory of Fire: Wind-Up of Opening Ceremonies a Brilliant Scene. Big Fleet in Parade Daylight Dedication Ceremonies and Night Spectacle Witnessed by Immense Crowds — Enthusiasm on Both Sides of the River,” New York Times (1857-1922), December 20, 1903, http://www.proquest.com.

[37] “New Bridge in a Glory of Fire”; “Bridge Opening Programme: Ceremonies on Saturday Afternoon and Fireworks in the Evening,” New York Times (1857-1922), December 17, 1903, http://www.proquest.com.

[38] “The Williamsburg Bridge,” New York Times (1857-1922), December 19, 1903, http://www.proquest.com; “Bridge Opening Programme: Ceremonies on Saturday Afternoon and Fireworks in the Evening,” New York Times (1857-1922), December 17, 1903, http://www.proquest.com; “Cars Across New Bridge: Temporary Injunction Dissolved — Regular Service Begins To-morrow,” New York Times (1857-1922), November 3, 1904, http://www.proquest.com; “Mayor Runs a Train Over New Bridge: Brooklyn Celebrates Opening of the Service with Red Fire and Oratory,” New York Times (1857-1922), March 16, 1904, http://www.proquest.com.

[39] “Another Road Leads to Hearn’s”

[40] The Encyclopedia of New York City, 1403; Vincent R. Kirk, “Subway Links to Transform Old Sections,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 13, 1933; “New Crosstown Subway Line is Opened: Queens Hails Mayor at Summer Hall,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 1, 1937.

[41] The Encyclopedia of New York City, 1403; “Expressway Link Will Open Today,” New York Times (1923-Current file), December 6, 1952, http://www.proquest.com; Joseph C. Ingraham, “Brooklyn Artery to Queens to Open: 1-2 Mile Expressway Link to Be Ready Tuesday,” New York Times (1923-Current file), January 3, 1960, http://www.proquest.com.

[42] The Encyclopedia of New York City, 1403; “Expressway Link Will Open Today”; Emanuel Perlmutter, “Our Changing City: Northern Brooklyn,” New York Times (1857-1922), July 22, 1955, http://www.proquest.com.

[43] Manbeck, The Neighborhoods of Brooklyn, 206; Kirk Johnson, “The Scramble to Fix a New York Bridge,” New York Times (1923-Current file), April 19, 1988, http://www.proquest.com.

[44] The Encyclopedia of New York City, 1403.

[45] Ibid.; Robin Pogrebin, “Brooklyn Waterfront Called Endangered Site,” New York Times (1923-Current file), June 14, 2007, http://www.proquest.com.

[46] Ibid.; Steven Greenhouse, “Hard Feelings Outlast a 20-Month Strike at Domino,” New York Times (1923-Current file), March 5, 2001, http://www.proquest.com; William Yardley, “The Last Grain Falls at a Sugar Factory,” New York Times (1923-Current file), January 31, 2004, http://www.proquest.com.

[47] Manbeck, The Neighborhoods of Brooklyn, 208; Benardo and Weiss, Brooklyn by Name, 26.

Next page: Kings