Williamsburg and Greenpoint

Williamsburg and Greenpoint
Williamsburg in Brooklyn is a vibrant, active community represented by many different ethnic groups such as Italians, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Hasidic Jews. Greenpoint is the northern most neighborhood in this borough and lies to the southwest of Williamsburg.

The land upon which the neighborhood of Williamsburg stands was purchased from the local Native Indians in 1638 by the Dutch West India Company. At this time the area was chartered as the Town of Boswijck in 1661 and the town’s name was later changed into English as Bushwick. It was in the 19th century that Williamsburg broke away from Bushwick and became an independent community. When Williamsburg was finally annexed into the neighborhood of Brooklyn, it saw a lot of industrial, cultural and economic growth. All the local businesses started doing very well. Wealthy New Yorker’s like Cornelius Vanderbilt and railroad tycoon Jim Fisk chose to build their mansions in Williamsburg. They were followed by Charles Pratt and his family. Pratt founded the Pratt Institute which was and is even today a school for the Arts and Architecture. He also founded the Astral Oil Works which later on became part of Standard Oil. This area could also boast of being the home to the Corning Glass Works before the company moved to Corning, New York. When German immigrant and chemist Charles Pfizer arrived in America, he chose to settle down in Williamsburg and founded Pfizer Pharmaceutical which operated until 2007. Over time, this area also became a popular location for manufacturers of condiments and household products like Domino Sugar and Esquire Shoe Polish. Most of the residents of Williamsburg were of German descent; however, when the Williamsburg Bridge was built a lot of Jewish people moved in from the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Williamsburg could also boast of being a financial hub as it was home to two major community banks - Williamsburg Savings Bank (1851) and the Dime Savings Bank of Williamsburg (1864) which is now known as the DIME.

In 1898 Brooklyn officially became one of the five boroughs of New York City. Williamsburg really began to thrive when the Williamsburg Bridge opened in 1903 and grew to be a popular area. The neighborhood was featured in a novel which was later made into a movie called "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" about a young girl growing up in the tenements of Williamsburg. Through all sorts of problems the neighborhood rallied, and finally in 2005 the N.Y.C. Council passed a large-scale rezoning of the North Side and Greenpoint waterfront this got developers to create a continuous two-mile long string of waterfront esplanades and helped to solve Williamsburg’s problem with a vacated and derelict warehouse which had started to become an eyesore.

There are a lot of designated historical landmarks in Williamsburg. In 1980, the Kings County Savings Institution chartered in 1860 became listed on the National Register of Historical places. This building is located on the corner of Bedford Avenue and Broadway. In 2003, The Landmark Preservation Commission designated the Williamsburg Houses as a landmark. William Lesicaze designed these modern architectural buildings which consists of twenty 4-storey apartment buildings. Three buildings which were once part of the Domino Sugar Refinery also became New York Landmarks in 2007. The original Domino Sugar Refinery was built in 1856 and processed over half of the sugar that was used in the U.S. Operations of the refinery ended in 2004 and in 2010 it was converted for residential use.

The area of "South Williamsburg" is home to the Yiddish speaking Hasidim community and to Puerto Rican residents. This area is separated from "the South Side" by Broadway where you can find Puerto Rican and Dominican residents. Polish and Italian residents live on "The North Side". A large Italian-American, African-American and Hispanic population can be found in East Williamsburg as well as many industrial spaces. This area is located between Williamsburg and Bushwick. The Italian community of the "North Side" is made up of immigrants who came from the city of Nola near Naples in Italy. In the summertime, they celebrate the "Festa dei Gigli" or the "Feast of Lilies" in order to honor St. Paulinus of Nola who was once the bishop there in the 5th century. So for two weeks in the summer the streets which surround Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church on Havemeyer and North 8th Streets, are full of celebration. The highlight of this feast is "Giglio Sundays" when a hundred-ft. tall statue accompanied by a band and singers is carried around the streets in honor of St. Paulinus and Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Interestingly enough, this feast was the subject of a documentary which was called "Heaven Touches Brooklyn in July" and was narrated by actors John Turturro and Michael Badalucco. Most of the tens of thousands of Hasidic Jews who live in Williamsburg belong to the Satmar Hasidic Group. This is one of the fastest growing communities in the world. The area is also home to The Hebrew Academy for Special Children.

In November of 2009 to help the poverty-stricken, a 50-seat kosher soup kitchen was open on Lee Avenue. The first artists started moving into Williamsburg in the 1970s and thrived there through the 1980s and 1990s. The artist’s community had grown greatly by 1996. Williamsburg is not only home to a lot of galleries but also to theaters like The Brick Theater and The Charlie Pineapple Theater. The neighborhood has also become famous with the music scene. A certain number of unlicensed performance, theater and music venues began operation in abandoned industrial buildings and other spaces around the streets about the Bedford Avenue subway stop. Some of the legitimate commercial music venues that are presently in Williamsburg include Pete’s Candy Store, Union Pool, Northsix (now the Music Hall of Williamsburg) and Galapagos which is now Public Assembly. Events like concerts, movies and dance performances were held at the previously abandoned pool at McCarren Park in Greenpoint during the summers of 2006, 2007 and 2008, but in 2009, the so-called pool parties got a new location at the Williamsburg Waterfront. The neighborhood has also attracted respectable representatives of the funk, soul and worldbeat music scene. Labels such as Daptone and Truth & Soul Records. Jazz and World Music has found a home here with classical jazz playing full-time at restaurant venues, such as Zebulon and Moto.

Most of the area which is now Greenpoint was once farmland and the only thing that survives from those days it that some of today’s streets have the names of the families who once owned farms here. In the 19th century, land was divided into parcels and it is upon these parcels of land that most of Greenpoint was built. Along the East River toward the west, there were rope factories and lumber yards. The Native Americans who once lived here were the Keskachauge, a sub-tribe of the Lenape. This area was so lovely at one time with Jack pines and oak forests, meadows, freshwater creeks and briny marshes. A lot of water fowl and fish made their home here.

In 1638, The Dutch West India Company sought rights to settle down here. One of the earliest European settlers was a Norwegian immigrant called Dirck Volckertsen who built up a farm and planted orchards, raised crops and had sheep and cattle. Unfortunately, he had a lot of disputes with the Keschaechqueren Indians who killed two of his sons-in-law and tortured a third one. This was in the 1650s. Another immigrant who ran into trouble with the Indians was Pieter Praa who was a captain in the local militia. His farm used to be where Freeman Street and McGuinness Boulevard is today. Greenpoint’s residents included five related families at around the time of the Revolutionary War. On the banks of the East River between what is today known as India and Java Streets, lived Abraham Meserole who was the grandson of Pieter Praa. His brother Jacob Meserole had a farm which stretched across the whole south end of Greenpoint and his family made their home in the area today located at Manhattan Avenue and Lorimer Street near Norman Avenue. Pieter Praa’s son-in-law Jacob Bennett farmed the northern part of Greenpoint and their family was located at Clay Street. Another son-in-law Jonathan Provoost farmed the eastern end and lived in the house that had been built by Praa and the western end of Greenpoint was farmed by Praa’s grandson-in-law. When the Revolutionary War began, the British Army had an encampment here. Greenpoint began to change considerably when an entrepreneur Neziah Bliss married into the Meserole family in the early 1830s and bought out practically all the land in Greenpoint. In 1839, he got a public turnpike to open up along what today is Franklin Street and in 1850 Bliss established regular ferry service to Manhattan. In time Greenpoint became a shipbuilding and waterborne commerce center.

It was in the mid-19th century that German and Irish immigrants arrived, and before the turn of the century, the Polish people moved into the neighborhood as well. Merchants and workers could be found living along the streets which lead to the waterfront. This particular area is now known as Greenpoint’s Historic District and can be found on the National Register of Historic Places. Today one can still see some of the old buildings from those days. The U.S.S. Monitor was constructed in Greenpoint’s dockyards and was used during the American Civil War as the Union’s first ironclad fighting ship. It was launched on Bushwick Creek. Along Newton Creek was built the largest wooded ship ever - The Grand Republic. When the 1860s came along Charles Pratt opened his Astral Oil Works on the waterfront and later sold his interests to John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Trust in 1874. The Astral Apartments were built in order to provide affordable housing for the workers of Astral Oil.

Nowadays, Greenpoint’s residents are mostly working class and the neighborhood has a large Polish population. To the north of Greenpoint Avenue live people of Latin descent and there are also quite a few South Asian and North African residents. In the area one can find some nice parks such as McCarren Park, formerly known as Greenpoint Park, which has the largest green space. The smallest green space can be found at McGolrick Park formerly Winthrop Park. In this park one can also find the landmarked Shelter Pavilion from 1910 and a monument to the U.S.S. Monitor from 1938.

Greenpoint also has some architecturally interesting buildings, such as the Episcopal Church of the Ascension built in 1853 on Kent Street. It is the oldest church in the neighborhood. The Astral Apartments dating back to 1885 are still on Franklin Street, the Saint Anthony of Padua Roman Catholic Church built in 1875 is on Manhattan Avenue, the Eberhard-Faber Pencil Factory is on Franklin Street. On North Street, you can find the Orthodox Cathedral of the Transfiguration of Our Lord built in 1921. Dating from 1867 is the Oliver Hazard Perry School on Norman Avenue and it has the honor of being the oldest continuously operating public school building in N.Y.C., On Humbolt Street is the Saint Stanislaus Kostka Roman Catholic Church built in 1896, serving as a Catholic shrine to the Polish community. And finally, there is the synagogue building of Congregation Ahavas Israel which was built in 1903 and is located on Noble Street. This building has lovely stained glass windows and a torah shrine with turn-of-the-century wood carvings and is only open during services on Saturday mornings. Greenpoint is an interesting neighborhood which is rich in history and well worth visiting.


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  • iffatali

    As soon as I read that, it clicked: that's my theater of war. It was exciting to think that I could write about World War Two from a totally new place.
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