Williamsburg is home to a thriving art community and is largely associated with one of its main thoroughfares: Metropolitan and Bedford Avenue. Many ethnic groups have enclaves within Williamsburg, including Germans, Hasidic Jews, Italians, Puerto Ricans, and Dominicans. The neighborhood is also a magnet for young people moving to the city, and is an influential hub for indie rock.
Williamsburg is viewed as both a haven for established immigrant families and as an area of exclusive artists and hipsters. The sometimes-clashing definitions have been highlighted by a growing population and rapid development of housing and retail that is changing the look and feel of the neighborhood.
Williamsburgh 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 Williamsburgh. Raw material was shipped in, and finished products were sent out of many 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.
Reflecting its increasing urbanization, Williamsburgh separated from Bushwick as the Town of Williamsburgh in 1840. It became the City of Williamsburgh 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, beginning to approach modern Eastern Williamsburg.
Brooklyn Union Gas in the early 20th century consolidated its producer gas production to Williamsburg at 370 Vandervoort Avenue, closing the Gowanus Canal gasworks. In the late 1970s an energy crisis led the company to build a syngas factory. Late in the century, facilities were built to import liquefied natural gas from overseas.
In modern times the conception of Williamsburg (which lost its "h" with the Brooklyn merger) has expanded to cover areas not historically a part of the City of Williamsburgh. Much of what has later come to be understood as the heart of Williamsburg, the area south of Division Avenue in the west and Broadway in the east, was actually originally the Wallabout section of the City of Brooklyn. Also, much of what is today called East Williamsburg was originally organized as Brooklyn's 18th Ward from the Bushwick annexation, exclusive of the 27th and 28th Wards encompassing what is today called Bushwick, which were split off in 1892.
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 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 Williamsburgh, and the company still maintains an industrial plant in the neighborhood, although its headquarters were moved to Manhattan in the 1960s. In 2008, it plans to close the plant, on a Flushing Avenue site it has used since 1849. Brooklyn's Broadway, ending in the ferry to Manhattan, became the area's lifeline. At one point in the 19th century, Williamsburg possessed 10 percent of the wealth of the United States and was the engine of American growth. 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 the factory buildings have recently been converted to cultural or residential buildings.
The intersection of Broadway, Flushing Avenue, and Graham Avenue was a cross-roads for many "inter-urbans", prior to World War I. The inter-urbans were light rail trollies, and ran from Long Island to Williamsburg. The population was heavily German but many Jews from the Lower East side of Manhattan came to the area when the Williamsburgh Bridge was completed. Williamsburgh was a financial hub rivaling Wall Street for a time. 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.
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 the United States. The novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn addresses a young girl growing up in the tenements of Williamsburg during this era.
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.
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." (from History Preserved: New York City Landmarks & Historic Districts, Harmon H. Gladstone & Martha Dalyrmple, Simon & Schuster, 1974).
In 2007 the Domino Sugar Refinery Building was also designated a New York City Landmark.
"South Williamsburg" refers to the area which today is occupied mainly by the Yiddish-speaking Hasidim (predominantly those of the Satmar sect) and a considerable Puerto Rican population. North of this area (with Broadway serving as a dividing line) is an area known as "the South Side," occupied by Puerto Ricans and Dominicans. To the north of that is an area known as "the North Side," traditionally Polish and Italian, but now home to an increasing numbers of newcomers. 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. The "hipster" center of Williamsburg radiates from the strip of Bedford Avenue near the Bedford Avenue Station on the BMT Canarsie Line the first stop from Manhattan. This area of which is sought out by recently arrived residents to New York City now includes north, south, and east Williamsburg. The "Northside" being the most expensive and most developed followed by the "South Side" and lastly "East Williamsburg".
The Giglio was the subject of a documentary that aired on PBS in 2002 called "Heaven Touches Brooklyn in July", narrated by actors John Turturro and Michael Badalucco. The feast, still an important part of the local community and beloved by its participants, new and old, has its own website at www.olmcfeast.com.
The Satmar community of Williamsburg typically celebrates eight to ten sholom zochors (male births), and the same number of female births, each week. Each year the community celebrates between 300 and 400 weddings. Satmar hasidim study almost exclusively in Yiddish in their schools. Of the nearly 200,000 Satmar adherents worldwide, over 70,000 live in Williamsburg, almost 25,000 live in Kiryas Joel, 20,000 in Boro Park, and another few thousand in Monsey.
Many legitimate commercial music venues opened in the neighborhood including Pete's Candy Store, Union Pool, Northsix, Galapagos, Spike Hill, , The Lucky Cat, the Woodser, and the Local (aka "Rock Star Bar" aka "Ship's Mast" aka "Rocky's" aka the "Mermaid Bar") and Lower East Side open-mic-night stalwart The Luna Lounge, which relocated to Williamsburg in January 2007, with financial and booking backing from Live Nation. In late 2006, Bowery Presents, a Manhattan based promotion company, purchased the location of the former indie rock club Northsix. The company gutted the existing building and reconstructed a new club in the mold of the Bowery Ballroom. The venue re-opened as The Music Hall of Williamsburg on September 4, 2007, with Patti Smith performing the inaugural show. In the summers of 2006 and 2007, Live Nation, an outdoor entertainment promoter and subsidiary of media giant Clear Channel, began staging concerts at the previously abandoned pool at McCarren Park in Greenpoint.
Alongside the more prominent indie rock community, there is a respectable funk, soul and worldbeat music scene in Williamsburg - 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 in Williamsburg as well, 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, 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 also is the birthplace of electroclash, a trend fostered by self-styled New York celebrity Larry Tee and then collaborator Spencer Product and their Electroclash parties "Berliniamsburg" and "Mutants". For two years - starting the week before September 11, 2001 - Friday and Saturday parties at Club Luxx (now Trash) introduced electronic musicians like W.I.T., A.R.E. Weapons, Fischerspooner, Scissor Sisters, and Misty Martinez. By the summer of 2003, the fad dried up and Larry Tee's Williamsburg music nights were discontinued.
Several bus routes including the B24, B39, B44, B46, Q54, and B60 terminate at the Williamsburg Bridge/Washington Plaza. Other bus lines that run through the neighborhood are the B43, B48, B59 and B61.
Radiac does have a troubling history of failing to adhere to safety regulations. An environmental impact study commissioned by the New York City Department of City Planning during the recent North Brooklyn rezoning process noted that the site "has a long list of RCRIS violations," referring to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Information System, a database operated by the Environmental Protection Agency. According to the study, Radiacal has been cited for violating both general standards of such a storage facility, as well as preparedness/prevention requirements. And in 2001 Radiacal received a fire protection report and analysis they themselves had commissioned that found that, "the current water-based fire protection system at the facility is inadequate to control the fire origination from a 55-gallon container" of the highly flammable chemical heptane, which is stored at the building.