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Williamsburg is a neighborhood of 113,000 inhabitants  in the New York City borough of Brooklyn, bordering Greenpoint to the north, Bedford–Stuyvesant to the south, Bushwick and Ridgewood, Queens to the east and the East River to the west. The neighborhood is part of Brooklyn Community Board 1. The neighborhood is served by the New York Police Department (NYPD)'s 90th Precinct. In the City Council, the western and southern part of the neighborhood is represented by the 33rd District; and the eastern part of the neighborhood is represented by the 34th District.
Williamsburg is an influential hub for indie rock, hipster culture, and the local art community. Many ethnic groups also have enclaves within Williamsburg, including Italians, Jews, Puerto Ricans, and Dominicans. The neighborhood is being redefined by a growing population and the rapid development of housing and retail space particularly catered to a wealthy population that has been historically foreign to the neighborhood.
In 1638 the Dutch West India Company first purchased the area's land from the local Native Americans. In 1661, the company chartered the Town of Boswijck, including land that would later become Williamsburg. After the English takeover of New Netherland in 1664, the town's name was anglicized to Bushwick. During colonial times, villagers called the area "Bushwick Shore." This name lasted for about 140 years. Bushwick Shore was cut off from the other villages in Bushwick by Bushwick Creek to the north and by Cripplebush, a region of thick, boggy shrub land which extended from Wallabout Creek to Newtown Creek, to the south and east. Bushwick residents called Bushwick Shore "the Strand."
Farmers and gardeners from the other Bushwick villages sent their goods to Bushwick Shore to be ferried across the East River to New York City for sale via a market at present day Grand Street. Bushwick Shore's favorable location close to New York City led to the creation of several farming developments. In 1802, real estate speculator Richard M. Woodhull acquired 13 acres (53,000 m²) near what would become Metropolitan Avenue, then North 2nd Street. He had Colonel Jonathan Williams, a U.S. Engineer, survey the property, and named it Williamsburgh (with an h at the end) in his honor. Originally a 13-acre (53,000 m2) development within Bushwick Shore, Williamsburg rapidly expanded during the first half of the nineteenth century and eventually seceded from Bushwick and formed its own independent city.
Williamsburg was incorporated as the Village of Williamsburgh within the Town of Bushwick in 1827. In two years it had a fire company, a post office and a population of over 1,000. The deep drafts along the East River encouraged industrialists, many from Germany, to build shipyards around Williamsburg. Raw material was shipped in, and finished products were sent out of factories straight to the docks. Several sugar barons built processing refineries. Now all are gone except the now-defunct Domino Sugar (formerly Havemeyer & Elder). Other important industries included shipbuilding and brewing.
On April 18, 1835, the Village of Williamsburgh annexed a portion of the Town of Bushwick. The Village then consisted of three districts. The first district was commonly called the "South Side"; the second district was called the "North Side", and the third district was called the "New Village". The names "North Side" and "South Side" remain in common usage today, but the name for the Third District has changed often. The New Village became populated by Germans and for a time was known by the sobriquet of "Dutchtown". In 1845 the population of Williamsburgh was 11,500.
Reflecting its increasing urbanization, Williamsburgh separated from Bushwick as the Town of Williamsburgh in 1840. It became the City of Williamsburg (discarding the "h") in 1852, which was organized into three wards. The old First Ward roughly coincides with the South Side and the Second Ward with the North Side, with the modern boundary at Grand Street. The Third Ward was to the east of these, stretching from Union Avenue east to Bushwick Avenue beyond which is Bushwick (some of which is now called East Williamsburg).
In 1855, the City of Williamsburg, along with the adjoining Town of Bushwick, were annexed into the City of Brooklyn as the so-called Eastern District. The First Ward of Williamsburg became Brooklyn's 13th Ward, the Second Ward Brooklyn's 14th Ward, and the Third Ward Brooklyn's 15th and 16th Wards.
During its period as part of Brooklyn's Eastern District, the area achieved remarkable industrial, cultural, and economic growth, and local businesses thrived. Wealthy New Yorkers such as Cornelius Vanderbilt and railroad magnate Jubilee Jim Fisk built shore-side mansions. Charles Pratt and his family founded the Pratt Institute, the great school of art & architecture, and the Astral Oil Works, which later became part of Standard Oil. Corning Glass Works was founded here before moving upstate to Corning, New York. German immigrant, chemist Charles Pfizer founded Pfizer Pharmaceutical in Williamsburg, and the company maintained an industrial plant in the neighborhood through 2007, although its headquarters were moved to Manhattan in the 1960s.
Brooklyn's Broadway, ending in the ferry to Manhattan, became the area's lifeline. The area became a popular location for condiment and household product manufacturers. Factories for Domino Sugar, Esquire Shoe Polish, Dutch Mustard and many others were established in the late 19th and early 20th century. Many of these factory buildings are in the process of being converted to cultural or residential buildings.
The population was heavily German but many Jews from the Lower East side of Manhattan came to the area when the Williamsburg Bridge was completed. Williamsburg was a financial hub rivaling Wall Street for a time, with its two major community banks: the Williamsburgh Savings Bank (chartered 1851, since absorbed by HSBC) and its rival the Dime Savings Bank of Williamsburgh (chartered 1864, now known as the DIME, has remained independent). The area around the Peter Luger Steak House, established in 1887, in the predominantly German neighborhood under the Williamsburg Bridge, was a major banking hub until the City of Brooklyn united with New York City. One of the early high schools in Brooklyn, the Eastern District High School, opened here in 1894.
In 1898 Brooklyn itself became one of five boroughs within the City of Greater New York, and its Williamsburg neighborhood was opened to closer connections with the rest of the new city.
Just five years later, the opening of the Williamsburg Bridge in 1903 marked the real turning point in the area's history. The community was then opened up to thousands of upwardly mobile immigrants and second-generation Americans fleeing the overcrowded slum tenements of Manhattan's Lower East Side. Williamsburg itself soon became the most densely populated neighborhood in New York City, which in turn was the most densely populated city in the United States. The novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn addresses a young girl growing up in the tenements of Williamsburg during this era.
Brooklyn Union Gas in the early 20th century consolidated its coal gas production to Williamsburg at 370 Vandervoort Avenue, closing the Gowanus Canal gasworks. In the late 1970s the 1970s energy crisis led the company to build a syngas factory. Late in the century, facilities were built to import liquefied natural gas from overseas. The intersection of Broadway, Flushing Avenue, and Graham Avenue was a cross-roads for many "interurbans", prior to World War I. These light rail trolleys ran from Long Island to Williamsburg.
After World War II, the economy sagged. Refugees from war-torn Europe began to stream into Brooklyn, including the Hasidim whose populations had been devastated in the Holocaust. The area south of Division Avenue is home to a large population of adherents to the Satmar Hasidic sect. Hispanics from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic also began to settle in Williamsburg. But with the decline of industry and the increase of population and poverty, crime and illegal drugs, Williamsburg became a cauldron of pent-up energies. Those who were able to move out did, and the area became known for its crime and other social ills.
On February 3, 1971, at 10:42 p.m., police officer Frank Serpico was shot during a drug bust, during a stakeout at 778 Driggs Avenue. Serpico had been one of the driving forces in the creation of the Knapp Commission, which exposed widespread police corruption. His fellow officers failed to call for assistance, and he was rushed to Greenpoint Hospital only when an elderly neighbor called the police. The incident was later dramatized in the movie Serpico, starring Al Pacino in the title role.
On May 11, 2005, the New York City Council passed a large-scale rezoning of the North Side and Greenpoint waterfront. Much of the waterfront district was rezoned to accommodate high density residential uses and mixed use with a set-aside (but no earmarked funding) for the creation of open waterfront park space, as well as strict building guidelines calling for developers to create a continuous two-mile-long string of waterfront esplanades. Local elected officials touted the rezoning as an economically beneficial way to address the decline of manufacturing along the North Brooklyn waterfront, which had resulted in a number of vacant and derelict warehouses in Williamsburg.
The rezoning represented a dramatic shift of scale in the ongoing process of gentrification in the area since the early 1990s. The waterfront neighborhoods, once characterized by active manufacturing and other light industry interspersed with smaller residential buildings, were rezoned primarily for residential use. Alongside the construction of new residential buildings, many warehouses were converted into residential loft buildings. Among the first was the Smith-Gray Building, a turn-of-the-century structure recognizable by its blue cast-iron facade. The conversion of the former Gretsch music instrument factory garnered significant attention and controversy in the New York press primarily because it heralded the arrival in Williamsburg of Tribeca-style lofts and attracted, as residents and investors, a number of celebrities.
Officials championing the rezoning cited its supposed economic benefits, the new private waterfront promenades, and its inclusionary housing component – which offered developers large tax breaks in exchange for promises to rent about a third of the newly created housing units at "affordable" rates (which amount to upper-middle class pricing). Critics countered that similar set-asides for affordable housing have gone unfulfilled in previous large-scale developments, such as Battery Park City. The New York Times reported this proved to be the case in Williamsburg as well, as developers largely decided to forgo incentives to build affordable housing in inland areas.
A Williamsburg landmark, The Kings County Savings Institution was chartered on April 10, 1860. It conducted business in a building called Washington Hall until it purchased the lot on the corner of Bedford Avenue and Broadway and erected its permanent home, the Kings County Savings Bank building. It is on the National Register of Historic Places (1980) and was the seventh building to be landmarked in New York City in 1966. "The Kings County Savings Bank is an outstanding example of French Second Empire architecture, displaying a wealth of ornament and diverse architectural elements. A business building of imposing grandeur, the Kings County Savings Bank "represents a period of conspicuous display in which it was not considered vulgar, at least by the people in power, to boast openly of one's wealth. From its scale and general character there is nothing, on the outside, that would distinguish the Kings County Savings Bank from a millionaires mansion.
The modern architecture buildings were designed by William Lescaze, whose PSFS Building in Philadelphia was the first successful International Style building in the U.S. The project, first proposed in 1934, was a collaborative between the U.S. Public Works Administration and the newly established New York City Housing Authority. More than 25,000 New Yorkers applied for 1,622 apartments and most units were occupied by 1938. The twenty 4-story buildings are angled 15 degrees to the street grid for optimal sunlight. The structures have tan brick and exposed concrete accented by blue tile and stainless steel. The buildings were restored in the 1990s by the Housing Authority, in consultation with the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
In 2007 three buildings of the Domino Sugar Refinery were also designated New York City Landmarks. The original refinery was built in 1856, and by 1870 it processed more than half of the sugar used in the United States. A fire in 1882 caused the plant to be completely rebuilt in brick and stone, and those buildings remain, albeit with alterations made over the years. The refinery stopped operating in 2004. In 2010, a developer's plan to convert the site to residential use has received support in the New York City Council.
"South Williamsburg" refers to the area which today is occupied mainly by the Yiddish-speaking Hasidim (predominantly Satmar Hasidim) and a considerable Puerto Rican population. North of this area (with Division or Broadway serving as a dividing line) is an area known as "South Side," occupied by Puerto Ricans and Dominicans. To the north of that is an area known as "North Side," traditionally Polish and Italian. East Williamsburg is home to many industrial spaces and forms the largely Italian American, African American, and Hispanic area between Williamsburg and Bushwick. South Williamsburg, the South Side, the North Side, Greenpoint and East Williamsburg all form Brooklyn Community Board 1. Its proximity to Manhattan has made it popular with recently arrived residents who are often referred to under the blanket term "hipster". Bedford Avenue and its subway station, as the first stop in the neighborhood on the BMT Canarsie Line (L train), have become synonymous with this new wave of residents.
A significant component of the Italian community on the North Side were immigrants from the city of Nola near Naples. Residents of Nola every summer celebrate the "Festa dei Gigli" (feast of lilies) in honor of St. Paulinus of Nola, who was bishop of Nola in the fifth century. The immigrants brought the traditions of the feast with them. For two weeks every summer, the streets surrounding Our Lady of Mount Carmel church, located on Havemeyer and North 8th Streets, are dedicated to a celebration of Italian culture.
The highlights of the feast are the "Giglio Sundays" when a 100-foot (30 m) tall statue, complete with band and a singer, is carried around the streets in honor of St. Paulinus and Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Clips of this awe-inspiring sight are often featured on NYC news broadcasts. A significant number of Italian-Americans still reside in the area, although the numbers have decreased over the years. Despite the fact that descendants of the early Italian immigrants have moved away, many return each summer for the feast. The Giglio was the subject of a documentary, Heaven Touches Brooklyn in July, narrated by actors John Turturro and Michael Badalucco.
Williamsburg is inhabited by tens of thousands of Hasidic Jews of various sects, and contains the headquarters of one faction of the Satmar Hasidic group, known as the "Zaloinim." The Satmar population of Williamsburg is around 57,000.
Hasidic Jews first moved to Williamsburg in the years prior to World War II, along with many other religious and non-religious Jews who sought to escape the difficult living conditions on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Beginning in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the area received a large concentration of Holocaust survivors, many of whom were Hasidic Jews from the areas of Hungary and Rumania. The Hasidic Jews who moved to Williamsburg during that period were led by several Hasidic leaders, among them the rebbes of Satmar, Klausenberg, Vien, Pupa, Tzehlem, and Skver. In addition, Williamsburg contained sizable numbers of religious, but non-Hasidic Jews. The rebbe of Satmar, Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, ultimately exerted the most powerful influence over the community, causing many of the non-Satmars, especially the non-Hasidim, to leave the area. Teitelbaum was known for his fierce anti-Zionism and for his charismatic but abrasive style of leadership.
In recent years, with the gentrification of North Williamsburg, Hasidim have fought to retain the character of their neighborhood and have characterized the influx of what they call the artisten as a "plague" and “a bitter decree from Heaven.” Tensions have risen over housing costs, loud and boisterous nightlife events, and the introduction of bike lanes along the Hasidic part of Bedford Avenue.
Prior to the influx of "posers", Williamsburg often saw tension between its Hasidic population and its black and Hispanic groups. In response to decades of crime in the area, the Hasidim created a volunteer patrol organization call "Shomrim" ("guardians" in Hebrew) to perform citizens' arrests and to keep an eye out for crime. Over the years, the "Shomrim" have been accused of racism and brutality against blacks and Hispanics. In 2009, Yakov Horowitz, a member of "Shomrim," was charged with assault for striking a Latino adolescent on the nose with his Walkie Talkie.
The Hasidic community of Williamsburg has one of the highest birthrates in the country, with an average of eight children per family. Each year the community celebrates between 800 and 900 weddings for young couples, who typically marry between the ages of 18 and 21. Because Hasidic men receive little secular education, and women tend to be homemakers, college degrees are rare, and economic opportunities lag far behind those of the rest of the population. In response to the almost 60% poverty rate in Jewish Williamsburg, the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, a beneficiary agency of the UJA-Federation of New York, partnered with Masbia in the opening of a 50-seat kosher soup kitchen on Lee Avenue in November 2009.
The first artists moved to Williamsburg in the 1970s, drawn by the low rents, large spaces available and convenient transportation, one subway stop from Manhattan. This continued through the 1980s and increased significantly in the 1990s as earlier destinations such as SoHo and the East Village became gentrified. The community was small at first, but by 1996 Williamsburg had accumulated an artist population of about 3,000. Art galleries in the area include the Front Room Gallery. Williamsburg and Greenpoint are served by a monthly galleries listings magazine, wagmag. Theater is also represented by indie theater spaces such as The Brick Theater and The Charlie Pineapple Theater.
In September 2000, 11211 Magazine launched a four color glossy circulating 10,000 copies in Brooklyn and Manhattan intent on promoting the area from a design firm in Manhattan. A year later the firm moved to Williamsburg and continued to galvanize the gentrification of the area. The content was richly focused on the historical and notable properties, arts and culture and real estate development of the 11211 zip code. The bi-monthly was apparently funded by advertisements from local businesses and founded by writer and designer, Breuk Iversen. Other publications attributed to 11211 Magazine: Fortnight, The Box Map (2002), Appetite, and 10003 Magazine for the East Village in New York City. The magazine had published 36 issues (548,000 copies) of 11211 over a six years period and ceased circulation in 2006.
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Williamsburg has become a notable home for live music and an incubator for new bands. Beginning in the late 1980s and through the late 1990s a number of unlicensed performance, theater and music venues operated in abandoned industrial buildings and other spaces in the streets surrounding the Bedford Avenue subway stop. The Bog, Keep Refrigerated, The Lizard's Tail, Quiet Life, Rubulad, Flux Factory, Mighty Robot, free103point9 and others attracted a mix of artists, musicians and urban underground for late night music, dance, and performance events, which were occasionally interrupted and the venues temporarily closed by the fire department. These events eventually diminished in number as the rents rose in the area and regulations were enforced.
There are a number of smaller, fleeting spaces, including Todd P., Dot Dash, Twisted Ones, and Rubulad. Many legitimate commercial music venues opened in the neighborhood including Pete's Candy Store, Union Pool, Music Hall of Williamsburg (formerly Northsix), Public Assembly (formerly Galapagos), Cameo Gallery, Muchmore's and Grand Victory. Several Manhattan-based venues also opened locations, including Bowery Presents (who bought Northsix and transformed it to Music Hall of Williamsburg), Luna Lounge, Knitting Factory, and Cake Shop. In the summers of 2006, 2007, and 2008, events including concerts, movies, and dance performances were staged at the previously abandoned pool at McCarren Park in Greenpoint. In 2009, these pool parties are now held at The Williamsburg Waterfront.
The neighborhood has also attracted a respectable funk, soul and worldbeat music scene spearheaded by labels such as Daptone and Truth & Soul Records – and fronted by acts such as the Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra and Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. Jazz and World Music has found a foothold, with classic jazz full-time at restaurant venues like Zebulon and Moto, and – on the more avant / noise side – at spots like the Lucky Cat, B.P.M., Monkeytown (closed in 2010), and Eat Records. A Latin Jazz community continues amongst the Caribbean community in Southside and East Williamsburg, centered around the many social clubs in the neighborhood. The neighborhood was also the birthplace of electroclash. Friday and Saturday parties at Club Luxx (now Trash) introduced electronic musicians like W.I.T., A.R.E. Weapons, Fischerspooner, and Scissor Sisters.
Low rents were a major reason artists first started settling in the area, but that situation has drastically changed since the mid-1990s. Average rents in Williamsburg can range from approximately $1400 for a studio apartment to $1,600–2,400 for a one-bedroom and $2,600–4,000 for a two-bedroom. The price of land in Willamsburg has skyrocketed. The North Side (above Grand Street, which separates the North Side from the South Side) is somewhat more expensive due to its proximity to the L and G subway trains. More recent gentrification and the newly revised route of the M train, however, have prompted increases in rent prices south of Grand Street as well. Higher rents have driven many priced-out bohemians and hipsters to find new creative communities further afield in areas like Bushwick, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Fort Greene, Clinton Hill and Red Hook.
Williamsburg is served by 3 subway lines, the BMT Canarsie Line (L train) on the north, the BMT Jamaica Line (J M Z trains) on the south, and the IND Crosstown Line (G train) on the east. The Williamsburg Bridge crosses the East River to the Lower East Side. Williamsburg is also served by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.
Several bus routes including the B24, B32, B39, B44, B46, B60, and Q54 terminate at the Williamsburg Bridge/Washington Plaza. Other bus lines that run through the neighborhood are the B43, B48, B62, B67 and Q59.
El Puente, a local community development group, called Williamsburg "the most toxic place to live in America" in the documentary Toxic Brooklyn produced by Vice Magazine. Other rare cancer clusters in Willamsburg have been reported by the New York Post, CBS news and Geraldo at Large on Fox News.
The Greenpoint oil spill of the late '70s is one of the largest oil spills in history. It is believed that the oil oozing from the ground at the Roebling Oil Field at N. 11th Street and Roebling Street in Williamsburg emanated from a ruptured tank nearby.
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The New York City Department of Education operates public noncharter schools.
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