Brief History of the Current Communities
on the East River: Brooklyn

By Emily Tudisco

          In 1827, a man called Hezekiah Pierrepont made a proposal: to create a new kind of public place, an area for the Brooklyn elite to put themselves on display while Lower Manhattan was also on display across the river. The plan never came to fruition during his lifetime, but a century later, would forever change the physical and societal geography of the waterfront. His work laid the ground for much of the urban planning in downtown Brooklyn, which would become the exception to how the East River’s eastern shore developed: Brooklyn Heights and its immediate surroundings were almost exclusively upper income residential districts from the beginning. This was, for the most part, not the case at any other stretch of land along the water. Greenpoint and Williamsburg saw many shifts in their identities as neighborhoods, beginning with and as a result of industrialization.

          Williamsburg is a particularly interesting case of vacillating identities—what is now popularly called Williamsburg (for a while known as Williamsburgh) was not always so. Its borders are therefore nebulous or at least treated as such. In 1827, it joined the Town of Bushwick, and from then on it was subject to increasing amounts of activity. German builders soon created a proliferation of shipyards that served the factories that were beginning to play a larger role in the economy. Some of the most important industries that called the Williamsburg shore home were shipbuilding, sugar processing, and glass-making. So great was its expansion that it split from Bushwick to become its own city in 1852. However, only three years later, it was incorporated into the City of Brooklyn (and would eventually be part of a consolidated New York City in 1898).1 As Brooklyn’s Eastern District, business flourished. The beginnings of Corning Incorporated as Brooklyn Flint Glass Works were in Williamsburg, and Pfizer Pharmaceutical was founded here. Breweries and sugar refineries abounded. Grand Street was of particular importance because it led to the ferry terminal; its connection to the East River, and therefore Manhattan, made it the primary thoroughfare in the neighborhood, and many businesses grew up around it. When the Williamsburg Bridge opened in 1903, Broadway Street took its place as the focal point for commercial activity. The newly established connection brought people escaping the slums of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a new demographic of second-generation Americans who were more financially stable than their immigrant parents. Separately from this, Lithuanians, Italians, Poles, and Russians were the predominant immigrant group at the time. Regardless of the location of businesses within the neighborhood, Williamsburg in the early 1900s was the fourth largest industrial center in the United States.2 It was also one of the most densely populated neighborhoods nationwide, and the densest in the city by 1917: five thousand people lived on the block between South 2nd and South 3rd Streets.

Puerto Rican Sugar. Brooklyn Eagle, 1951.
Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection.

          The World War II era might have overwhelmingly benefitted industry in the area, creating a massive demand for precisely the products and services provided by these factories and shipyards, but the aftermath of the war had an entirely different effect on Williamsburg. The demand for steel works and easy shipment dropped, marking the beginning of deindustrialization, although the availability of jobs in this sector is in part what continued to draw so many immigrants. European refugees, especially Hasidim, along with Puerto Rican and Dominican immigrants, began to flood in, and the concomitant poverty brought with it crime, which in turn led to the White Flight of the 1950s. Unfortunately, the construction of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway destroyed massive amounts of low-income housing that was so necessary at this time. Between this and the effects of deindustrialization finally killing most of the jobs, Williamsburg had reached a breaking point by the 1980s. Racial tensions between Hispanic, African American, and Hasidic communities revealed a particularly ugly face of the neighborhood. Added to the mix was the emergence of another demographic: artists from SoHo who started settling in the Northside, and thus began the process of gentrification.3 The effects of these newcomers are still manifesting themselves today.

          Greenpoint did not appear on the radar of urban significance until the 1830s, when a man named Neziah Bliss purchased thirty acres of land and had it surveyed for streets and lots. This would all have been for naught had the Ravenswood, Greenpoint, and Hallett’s Point Turnpike not been completed in 1839, for without this road, the land in this area was largely inaccessible. Bliss then established a ferry service there that would connect to 10th Street in Manhattan that opened in 1850. These three things are responsible for the birth of Greenpoint, for the area had been far behind the rest of Brooklyn and Queens in terms of development. What would have been underutilized agricultural land, thanks to the marshes that surrounded Newtown Creek, was given the opportunity to catch up in a few short years, and catch up it did. Within a decade, shipyards appeared on the river, and people settled in. Despite its very rapid origins, manufacturing became the crux of the local economy.4 The most famous example of the productivity of Greenpoint industrial sites is the assemblage of the USS Monitor at the Continental Iron Works yard in 1862. It was the first ironclad ship in the world and would go on to fight in an iconic battle against the CSS Virginia in which it lost, but nonetheless, its creation forever changed naval warfare, and marked Brooklyn as indisputably at the forefront of the ship-making industry. Ship-making and iron works were not alone, though; they were accompanied by porcelain works, glass blowing, lumber yards, and oil refineries. The last of these is best exemplified by Charles Pratt’s Astral Oil company, part of the Standard Oil behemoth. But unlike in Williamsburg, industrialization began its decline in the late 19th century here, after wooden shipbuilding became obsolete.5 What Greenpoint had to offer in the way of manufacturing services and products was far from unique, and so the overabundance of competition along the river meant an early deindustrialization and a disrupted economy. This was not the only legacy left by this era, however: the factories and refineries and the lack of regulation left an ecologically ravaged neighborhood. Newtown Creek at Greenpoint is the site of the country’s largest oil spill, 17 million gallons in 52-acre underground lake of sorts. Waste dumping and other pollutants have wreaked incredible havoc on the balance of the area.6 In reaction to the extreme environmental harm caused, the community of Greenpoint is perhaps the most proactive and passionate about restoring the health of their waterfront. Their efforts to raise awareness and campaign for the rehabilitation of a resource that served the neighborhood for so long is truly inspiring.


Dmuchowski, Frank J. "Greenpoint History." New York Architecture. (accessed December 3, 2011).

"Greenpoint History." Greenpunkt. (accessed December 4, 2011).

"Groen Hoek -- History." AIA New York Chapter. (accessed December 4, 2011).

The Advocate for New York City's Historic Neighborhoods. "Neighborhood At Risk: Williamsburg." Historic Districts Council. (accessed December 3, 2011).

"Our Brooklyn - Williamsburg History." Brooklyn Public Library. (accessed December 3, 2011).

"Williamsburg History." New York Architecture. (accessed December 3, 2011).

(Back to top)

Natural History    Manhattan    Brooklyn/Queens    Transportation    Art & Literature
Home    Media    Bibliography    About/Contact

1 "Williamsburg History." New York Architecture. (accessed December 3, 2011).

2The Advocate for New York City's Historic Neighborhoods. "Neighborhood At Risk: Williamsburg." Historic Districts Council. (accessed December 3, 2011).

3"Our Brooklyn - Williamsburg History." Brooklyn Public Library. (accessed December 3, 2011).

4 Dmuchowski, Frank J. "Greenpoint History." New York Architecture. (accessed December 3, 2011).

5 "Greenpoint History." Greenpunkt. (accessed December 4, 2011).

6 "Groen Hoek -- History." AIA New York Chapter. (accessed December 4, 2011).