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How Bushwick and Ridgewood, Once Entwined, Became Distinct Neighborhoods

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Two of NYC's rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods were once united

Some neighborhood names appear to be jokes. Some have stuck around for centuries, despite changing connotations. Some shift with the winds of gentrification. Welcome to Blurred Lines, in which writer Keith Williams studies New York City's changing neighborhood boundaries.

Note: it will be helpful for readers to be familiar with the history of the borders within (and between) Queens and Brooklyn.

Settlement of Bushwick

In 1638, the Dutch West India Company purchased 3,860 acres in what we now know as Greenpoint, Williamsburg, and Bushwick from the Lenape tribe. In exchange, the Lenape received "8 fathoms of duffels cloth, 8 fathoms of wampum, 12 kettles, 8 adzes, 8 axes, some knives, corals, and awls." In 1643, Governor Willem Kieft, against the will of colonists, massacred the native tribes, resulting in a two-year war. Many Dutch who did not abandon their farms for the walled confines of lower Manhattan were killed in retaliation.

After the war, most settlers were (understandably) reluctant to live out in the open. A few intrepid Dutch created a protected village in 1656 on what became known as Furman's Island, and called it New Arnheim. To prevent further attacks, in 1660, Governor Pieter Stuyvesant ordered anyone living in an exposed location to abandon their farms and move to a centralized location. At this point, the population included several French Huguenots.

This centralized location was named Boswijck (meaning "heavy woods") the following year by Stuyvesant himself. It was the last of Kings County's original six towns to receive a charter. Within a year, there were 20 families; in 1738, the register showed 249 white residents and 78 slaves. Its centralized, elevated location served as a headquarters of sorts for British troops during the Revolutionary War.

Unfortunately, our knowledge of the early history of Bushwick is limited, because much of the paperwork was lost—or perhaps intentionally destroyed—after Brooklyn annexed it (along with Williamsburgh) in 1854.

Bushwick eyes development

Heralding the potential for a new era in Bushwick’s history, the Penny Bridge was built in 1836. It carried traffic on Meeker Avenue across the Newtown Creek, following a crossing that had been served by a ferry as early as 1670. It was removed after the Kosciuszko Bridge opened in 1939; you can still see parts of its structure along the water. (The northern end of the Penny Bridge would serve as the border between Newtown and Long Island City when the latter seceded in 1870.)

In 1840, Williamsburgh broke away from Bushwick. Rapid development came to the new town, but Bushwick was not far behind. Among the early adopters along Newtown Creek was Peter Cooper, who in 1838 built a glue manufacturing plant on Furman’s Island, which is now connected to the Brooklyn mainland and the site of Cooper Park. Other factories produced sugar, oil, and chemicals; those manufacturing and shipping industries contributed heavily to Newtown Creek’s current Superfund state. By 1913, the waterway moved 5,000,000 tons a year—more than double the amount in Newark Bay, which would soon be developed into the nation's busiest port.

In 1853, in its last year of independence as a town, Bushwick established a village called South Williamsburgh. (It seems these people had trouble with cardinal directions—it was actually east of its namesake.) Although initially nicknamed Ridgewood, it became known as Evergreen to avoid confusion with another Ridgewood (now known as Wantagh, in Long Island). Adrian Martenses Suydam split his farm into lots in 1869, and by 1884, 125 homes had been built on his land.

Along with Williamsburgh, which was also annexed by the City of Brooklyn in 1854, Bushwick became known as the "Eastern District." Many of the streets therein were renamed to match Brooklyn’s naming conventions. The last Bushwick farmland was sold for development in 1945.

Bushwick eyes beer

Cultural and political upheaval in the mid-19th century led millions of Europeans to seek new lives in America. Bushwick became a haven for German immigrants, many of whom had started out on the Lower East Side.

As a result of this concentration, by the late 1800s, Bushwick had become the nation's premier place for brewing. At one point, it boasted more than 35 breweries in all, with 11 breweries within a 14-block area known as "Brewer's Row." Some well-known names included Schaefer, Ehret’s, Piel’s, and Trommer’s. Brew York has a neat map of all of the city's breweries circa 1898, when Bushwick still dominated.

But Prohibition struck a huge blow to the industry; only a dozen breweries returned in 1933, and just seven survived through the end of World War II. Among them were Liebman's, the official beer of the Mets and the founder of the "Miss Rheingold" competition, and F&M Schaefer, which was the last to close in 1976. Longtime Brooklynites probably have a soft spot for Piel's, which ran a string of classic television commercials in the 1950s starring the animated "Piel brothers," Bert and Harry:

Formal beermaking was dormant in Bushwick until 2013, when Braven Brewing Company launched. The company sold its first brews in early 2015.

Transportation improvements

In 1802, the Flushing Bridge and Road Company built a causeway over the salt marsh of Alley Pond, near Little Neck Bay. Until then, travelers from northeast Queens County had to take a roundabout route through Jamaica to get to the ferries of Brooklyn. This new route shaved off four miles and took its followers through Newtown via the Cripplebush Road, roughly today’s Bedford Avenue.

Starting in 1840, a variety of horse-car services connected Bushwick and today’s Ridgewood with the ferries to the west. The real game-changer came in 1888, when the Broadway elevated (today’s J/M/Z) opened, followed in 1889 by the Myrtle Avenue elevated, on to which the M train turns after the Myrtle Avenue stop. The rest of that line was closed in 1969 and demolished; you can still see evidence of its existence above that subway platform.

In 1870, Long Island City broke away from Newtown. At the time, Bushwick was known as the 18th Ward; there’s even a condominium complex that has taken advantage of that name.

Other connections soon followed: the Manhattan Bridge opened in 1909, and in 1928, the 14th Street-Canarsie Line (today's L train) was completed.

"Greater Ridgewood" ascending

The name "Ridgewood" dates from the mid-19th century, and most likely came from the Ridgewood Reservoir, established in what is now Highland Park in 1850, which supplied water to Kings County in the latter half of the century. The water was pumped in from the Ridgewood Ponds in Massapequa. Other theories suggested by George Schubel, a historian writing in 1913, include its location on the "backbone" of Long Island, and the Ridge Road (now Wyckoff Avenue).

Schubel listed a number of neighborhood names in vogue at the time for what we now lump together as Ridgewood. Among them: Cypress Hills, East Williamsburg, Evergreen, Germania Heights, Glendale, Knickerbocker Heights, Metropolitan, Ridgewood Heights, St. James Park, Stierville, Wyckoff Heights

Schubel noted that these small communities were disappearing in favor of a unified theme: "Their names and identity are becoming obliterated," he wrote, "and out of these, with all their sweet memories, is rising mightily the ‘Greater Ridgewood’ of our own day and of the days to come." Schubel saw the boundaries of this entity stretching into Bushwick, as well.

The development of both Greater Ridgewood and Bushwick was due largely to one man: Louis Berger. Born in Germany in 1875, he studied architecture at Pratt and opened his own firm in Bushwick in 1895, specializing in tenement laws. To this day, he is still the architect of record for 5,000 homes in the two neighborhoods. Many of his construction materials came from the Kreischer Brick Manufacturing Company, which fired clay from Staten Island.

Border controversies

For more than a century after their foundings, the towns of Bushwick and Newtown both laid claim to today's Ridgewood. The Dutch of Bushwick had the area in their charter; the English of Newtown included it in their bartering with the Lenape tribe. In 1708, Governor Lord Cornbury adjudicated the dispute by seizing the 1,200 lucrative acres in question and distributing it between himself and his cronies. (Often considered the worst governor in New York history, Cornbury was soon removed from his post, in part because he was suspected of being a cross-dresser.)

A border was finally established in 1769, after residents of the area decided they wanted to be part of Newtown. The border was drawn in perhaps the least scientific way possible: basically, it was a straight line from a boulder near Newtown Creek, southeast to a random pile of rocks with a stick jutting out.

The boulder, known as Arbitration Rock, was supposedly rediscovered in 2001 and moved to the Vander Ende-Onderdonk House. Brian Merlis, an authority on all matters Brooklyn, was originally unconvinced that it was the real thing, noting that the original rock had a line with the letters "N" (for Newtown) and "B" (Bushwick) on either side. He has since changed his mind: "Seems like the real thing, but shape and size should be compared to what is shown in these old photos," he said in an email, noting that the photos themselves might have the wrong rock.

As Ridgewood began to boom in the early 20th century, there were stark contrasts with its more-mature twin. "A Ridgewoodite could be singled out … by his habit of taking to the middle of the street to walk," wrote Schubel, noting the neighborhood was slow to embrace sidewalks. The differences even boiled down to water: Bushwick got its water from the city, while Ridgewood paid much higher rates to the private Citizens Water Supply Company, which collected its water from local wells. The city finally condemned the private company in 1924.

Until 1905, there were also differences in building codes: Bushwick required masonry construction, while frame homes (a serious fire hazard) were still legal in Ridgewood. Causing even more confusion, the borough line often crossed mid-block, with some residences belonging in part to both Brooklyn and Queens; to be safe, early developers tended to adhere to the stricter Bushwick standards on a single block. In 1925, the Legislature snapped the Brooklyn-Queens border to the grid, abandoning the original 1769 decree.

One strange detail of the two neighborhoods is they originally shared the ZIP code 11227. (112xx is used for Brooklyn addresses; Queens ZIP codes mostly depend on their original town.) In the wake of the 1977 riots, Representative Geraldine Ferraro of Queens successfully pushed for the two to be split, as Ridgewood no longer wished to be associated with the epicenter of looting and arson.

The border had already been the object of debate earlier in the 1970s. Wyckoff Heights Hospital, just on the Bushwick side of the line, found its remote location gave it difficulty in soliciting donations from Brooklyn. Local Assembly members introduced several bills to adjust the line, which would have taken 17 blocks from Kings County and added it to Queens.

Demographic changes

After World War I, other ethnic groups began to form enclaves in the Bushwick-Ridgewood area. Among them were Gottscheers (Germanic Slovenians), Sicilians, Polish, and Irish. The time between the two World Wars is often considered the zenith of the neighborhoods’ history. Residents would gather at the Palm Garden for discreet beers (at least until it was raided in 1930); the RKO Bushwick was considered the premiere vaudeville theater outside of Manhattan. The region was also, unfortunately, the center of Nazi sympathizers during the 1930s, with members hosting several conventions and committing occasional hate crimes.

Like many other areas in Brooklyn, Bushwick was subject to white flight in the 1960s and early 1970s. In the economic downturn that surrounded the city’s near-bankruptcy in 1975, the now-minority neighborhood was particularly hard hit. Those tensions boiled over during the Blackout of 1977, when Bushwick became the epicenter of looting and rioting. Several blocks of Broadway burned; after the riots, the vacancy rate on this hub of Bushwick commercial activity approached 50 percent.

While Bushwick is still majority Hispanic, gentrification has taken hold, particularly in the past decade; even Saturday Night Live recently took a stab at it.

Preserving the past—or not

In 1983, the "Ridgewood Multiple Historic Resources Area," an agglomeration of 18 different sections, was added to the National Registry of Historic Places. With 2,980 buildings, it was the largest in the nation. Since 2000, the city has named four different Historic Districts in Ridgewood.

Although Bushwick has three federally recognized historic buildings, it has no Historic Districts at any level. One major push began in 2011, when a group of Columbia University graduate students pushed for a district along Bushwick Avenue.