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Tracing Three Centuries of Williamsburg's Bedford Avenue

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James Nevius is the author of three books about New York City, the most recent of which is Footprints in New York: Tracing the Lives of Four Centuries of New Yorkers.

New York has undergone such a remarkable series of changes since 1977 that it often doesn't seem like the same city it was during the blackout that year, when parts of Brooklyn appeared to self destruct. The sanitizing of Times Square, the reemergence of Soho, and the surge of mega-towers in Midtown are all hallmarks of that change, but no transformation may be more remarkable than that of Williamsburg in Brooklyn.

To step out of the L train on a Saturday afternoon at Bedford Avenue today is to come face to face with the gentrification and hipsterization of Brooklyn. The street has witnessed three centuries of change, evolving from Dutch farmland to the independent city of Williamsburgh (back when it still had an "h") to thriving immigrant district to today, where properties change hands for millions of dollars—a figure that would have been unimaginable as fires burned in 1977. Just one year earlier, George Wanat had bought the entire apartment building at 292 Bedford for $22,600 at a city auction. As the looting swept through Bushwick and Williamsburg, I wonder if he thought he'd paid too much.

[292 Bedford. Photo courtesy of James Nevius.]

At nearly eleven miles, Bedford Avenue vies for the title of longest street in Brooklyn, running from Sheepshead Bay to Greenpoint. The avenue is actually a patchwork of older roads that ran through what were once independent villages in Kings County. The oldest section of the street was the Cripplebush Road, which ran from New Town and Bushwick in the north to Flatbush in the south. Where that road intersected the Road to Jamaica (aka the King's Highway), the village of Bedford Corners was established around the time of the English takeover of New Netherland in 1664. Though the town would remain a hub through the American Revolution, no trace of it remains today except in the names of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Bedford Avenue.

While Bedford Corners (right) was booming, the section of what's now Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg didn't yet exist. In fact, what we call Williamsburg, which the Dutch had acquired from the Canarsee tribe in 1638, was simply a part of greater Bushwick. It was sometimes known colloquially as "the Bushwick Shore." Most of the area was farmland, but around 1800 things began to change: the U.S. government took over a local shipyard at Wallabout Bay for what would become the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and around the same time two entrepreneurs from Manhattan, Richard M. Woodhull and James Hazard, began running competing ferry services (via rowboat) from Grand Street in Manhattan. In 1792, Woodhull had purchased thirteen acres of land in Bushwick Shore; Hazard and his partner, Thomas Morrell, countered by snatching up an additional 28-acre plot.

In 1802, Woodhull hired his friend, chief surveyor of the army Col. Jonathan Williams, to lay out a gridded street plan on his property—nearly a decade before the commissioners in Manhattan would overlay their similar grid. Woodhull dubbed his new town Williamsburgh in honor of its master planner, and if the village had taken off as a residential district, it would be hailed today as America's first suburb. However, Williamsburgh proved a failure, Woodhull was soon bankrupt, and all we have left are Williams's street grid and the name Williamsburg—minus the final "h," which was shorn in 1852.

In Williams's original layout, today's Bedford Avenue was known as Fourth Street, an appellation which persisted until around 1865. (You can still see the original name carved into the sides of buildings along the avenue, such as the Bedford Avenue Cheese Shop at the corner of N 4th Street.) Indeed, all the named avenues in Williamsburg (Kent, Berry, Driggs, etc.) were originally numbered streets. Sometime after 1865, Fourth Street from N 15th Street to Division was renamed Bedford, linking it to the preexisting Bedford Avenue that ran southeast from Division to Flushing Avenue before connecting to the original Cripplebush Road to Bedford Corners (by then also called Bedford).

In 1818, a steam ferry replaced the rowboats and the development of Williamsburg began to take off. The first distillery opened a year later and streets like Fourth Street began to add a mix of residential and commercial properties. The most famous was the North American Hotel, on Fourth Street between N 1st and N 2nd Streets. Opened in 1808, it quickly became a social and political hub on what was then known as the "Eastern District." As Eugene Armbruster noted in his Eastern District of Brooklyn, "everybody that came to Long Island or left for the New York side by way of Williamsburgh stopped [at the hotel]," adding, "no beer was in that hotel, only Jamaica Rum or applejack and the farmers took their rum straight…." Unfortunately, no trace of the North American Hotel or Village of Williamsburgh—formally incorporated in 1827—remains. Like other early Brooklyn neighborhoods, housing along Fourth Street, then an unpaved dirt track, would have been dominated by wood-frame construction. The hotel, probably also of wood, was "2-stories in height with a high pitched roof, a high stoop, a shed on either side and another in the rear." There is one tantalizing potential remnant: at 334 Bedford (right) stands a vacant three-story building covered in twentieth-century siding; a portion of that siding has worn away to reveal a trace of a wood-frame house. Was it one of the original Bedford Avenue homes? Alas, property records in the area are mostly inaccurate, so it is hard to tell.

By 1852, the year Williamsburg was formally incorporated as a city, its population had skyrocketed from 1,000 to 40,000. Due to the favorable tax structure in King's County, many Manhattan businesses and manufacturers moved to or were established in Williamsburg. In 1856, Havemeyer & Townsend opened a commercial sugar refinery on the waterfront, capable of refining 300,000 pounds of sugar a day. By 1883, the renamed Havemeyer & Ellis (later known both as American Sugar and by the name of its most famous brand, Domino) was able to output a million pounds a day, well over 50 percent of the country's sugar supply. Sugar refining would remain New York's most profitable industry through the end of World War I.

[Ads for businesses along Fourth Street. Image courtesy James Nevius.]

In 1855, the City of Brooklyn annexed Williamsburg, but Fourth Street/Bedford Avenue remained a local hub. Churches lined the street, including the oldest congregation in the area, the Dutch Reformed parish, which stood at the corner of S 2nd Street until 1865 and then at the intersection of Clymer Street and Bedford. (It has since been replaced by public housing.) The police precinct was on Bedford Avenue, as was one of the neighborhood's two volunteer fire brigades. (The other, made up of working class Williamsburg residents, was known as the "workies." Acording to Armbruster, the one on Bedford, an association of local gentlemen, was known as the "pintods," a term for which I have yet to find a definition. Evidently, the pintods used their company as a social club and left the business of firefighting to the workies.)

By 1878, the area of Bedford from Division to Flushing avenues was full of pintods; the Times referred to it as "aristocratic" Bedford Avenue, and mansions were springing up in what is now the heavily Hasidic section of the neighborhood. With the wealth came physical improvements to the street: in 1869, the section of the avenue south of Division had its "cobble stones covered with the Sormesham concrete pavement" (as the Times noted), which made it particularly well-suited for the bicycle (or "velocipede") craze sweeping the city. This makes it all the more ironic that it was this section of Bedford Avenue from which the bike lane was unceremoniously removed in 2009. Today, not only is the bike lane gone, most of the mansions are missing, too, though a few splendid examples remain. One, at 505 Bedford, was home to paper magnate H.G. Craig, who was (according to his obituary in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle) "one of the best known residents of the Eastern District for thirty-three years." Another significant example was the mansion of box manufacturer Oscar Hawley, at the corner of Bedford and Rodney Streets, which he built in 1875 for approximately $70,000. It was sold in 1890 and enlarged into the prestigious Hanover Club, run by Brooklyn Times publisher William Cullen Bryant (not the same man who was editor of the New York Post). In a sign of just how quickly the neighborhood changed in the twentieth century, the club was sold again in 1922 to the Young Israel District Association for just $50,000; its collection of paintings fetched only $612 at auction a few years later. The mansion now houses Bais Yaskov of Adas Yereim ("the House of Jacob of the Congregation of the Pious").

[Photo courtesy James Nevius.]

Meanwhile, the old Fourth Street section of the avenue remained a mix of churches, shops, and a growing number of industrial spaces. After 1889, Eagle Iron Works's foundry opened on the north side at the corner of N 13th Street; between N 4th and N 5th sat one of the largest livery stables in New York. It was owned by Henry Hamilton, whose spectacular coach "Pride of the Nation" was pulled by a team of 24 horses and rented out for local political demonstrations and "chowder" parties. Brooklynites had long believed that Long Island was the southernmost point of New England (complete with its own chapter of the New England Society), so it's not surprising that it embraced such northerly traditions.

Even before the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883, residents of Williamsburg began to advocate for a bridge of their own—concerned, in part, that the Brooklyn Bridge would draw too much traffic away from the Eastern District. Work on the WIlliamsburg Bridge commenced in 1896 and it opened on December 19, 1903. Unlike the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge two decades earlier (when the Brooklyn Daily Eagle had looked askance at the hordes of Manhattanites descending on Brooklyn with their "quick, nervous, restless expressions"), the paper fully acknowledged that the Williamsburg Bridge was a "rainbow of promise for the future." No longer would denizens of the Lower East Side "be crowded together in reeking tenements…. Brooklyn was their promised land, and stretching beyond Brooklyn away into Queens and further Nassau, the hope of homes where fresh air would be as free as sunlight." The opening day ceremonies were dubbed a triumph for the members of the Hanover Club, who organized many of the festivities.

[The Williamsburg Bridge. Image courtesy the New York Public Library.]

Although many immigrant groups came across the bridge—including Poles, Italians, and Slavs—the Williamsburg Bridge was soon being called "the Jews' highway." The pintods left, and Bedford Avenue became a center of newly Jewish Brooklyn; then, as now, Division served as a dividing line between the burgeoning Jewish precinct to the south and the more mixed immigrant districts to the north of the Williamsburg Bridge. As Phillip Fishman notes in A Sukkah Is Burning: Remembering Williamsburg's Hasidic Transformation, at first the area was "a polyglot cross-section of the Jews then living on the Lower East Side. Many were not religiously Orthodox or Sabbath observers…." However, the opening of Congregation Beth Jacob Orev Sholom on Rodney Street and its nearby Yeshiva (which claims among its alumni KISS founder Gene Simmons) began to mold the neighborhood into a more conservative Orthodoxy. After World War II, an influx of Satmar Hasidim would permanently alter the landscape of Bedford Avenue.

With the running of the first subway to central Brooklyn in 1908, businesses in the Eastern District began arguing for a subway line to Williamsburg, hoping it would boost property values. In 1924, the 14th Street-Eastern District subway (today's L train) opened, connecting Bedford Avenue to Manhattan. But higher rents were elusive. As the Times noted in 1930, a survey by the Williamsburg Chamber of Commerce found "a few decaying ships...tied to rotting piers of the East River" and "streets lined with cold-water flats where fine estates once were the rule." Bedford Avenue was a noted exception: many landlords had installed plumbing, and some rents were as high as $11 per room, but commercial vacancies were a problem. As the Brooklyn Daily Eagle had observed in 1922: "Opening the Williamsburg Bridge brought with it a tide of immigration from Manhattan which soon swamped the Eastern District and caused a general exodus…. The Williamsburg of today is rather a manufacturing city than a community."

[The Metropolitan Pool and Bath. Photo courtesy the New York Public Library.]

What the Eagle ignored was that Williamsburg was a community—just not one composed of the sort of people who belonged to the Hanover Club. The Depression and World War II brought more Poles to the north side and Greenpoint, a burgeoning Puerto Rican population on the south side, and the tight-knit Satmar community south of Division. It was for these new residents that Williamsburg's Metropolitan Pool and Bath, still one of Brooklyn's most popular pools, opened in 1922 at Bedford and N. 1st Street. Most famously, this era was chronicled in Betty Smith's autobiographical novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which takes place between 1912 and World War II just a few blocks from Bedford Avenue.

But the Eagle was correct that Williamsburg was becoming more and more a "manufacturing city." Among the most notable additions to Bedford Avenue was the Real Form Girdle Factory at 218 Bedford (now shops and apartments), which opened in the 1930s. The churches and fire brigades were long gone, and after the war, as industries fled the city, Williamsburg's infrastructure eroded, too. The common word associated with the neighborhood from the 1960s onward was blight, but even as early as 1935 the city was scheming ways to revitalize the area. Then came the blackout of 1977. Though Broadway in Bushwick was the hardest hit section of Brooklyn, with dozens of stores torched, Williamsburg saw a significant amount of looting, which persisted even after the lights came back on. Yet was this any different from daily life? As the Times wrote in October of that year, gangs ruled the south side: "Marauders armed with machetes, baseball bats, guns and chains have terrorized the community." Even accounting for the Times's usual outer-borough hyperbole, it was clear that parts of Williamsburg were on the verge of anarchy.

Which brings us back to George Wanat and the apartment building he bought for $22,600 in 1976. He sold it this year for $6 million. In the 37 years since his purchase, not only had the value of his property skyrocketed nearly 300 times, but the neighborhood also had transformed into one of the trendiest sections of Brooklyn. Gentrification sprouted in the usual ways—artists and students, unable to find decent rents in Manhattan, took over industrial spaces as live/work studios in the 1980s. (I lived briefly on the south side in 1988 in a factory-turned-artist loft. There was a chop shop across the street.) With the influx of young, predominantly white transplants came galleries, shops, restaurants, and rising property values. More notable than Williamsburg's change, a textbook example of the gentrification process is that Williamsburg still has some "hip" credibility. But how long can that continue? With 184-86 Bedford on the market for $19.5 million and 204-206 Bedford currently asking $23 million, not only have the immigrants been priced out of the neighborhood, but soon the artists, students, and artisan chocolate makers will all be gone, too, headed to Bushwick or Crown Heights—or out of the city altogether. Just like the old Eagle article said when the Williamsburg Bridge opened, in Nassau County the "fresh air would be as free as sunlight."
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