Williamsburg was originally part of the Dutch town of Boswijck (Bushwick). Dutch, French and Scandinavian farmers settled in the area with their African slaves in the late 1600s and the land remained rural until 1802 when Richard Woodhull envisioned a residential area for Manhattan workers.
Woodhull began a ferry service from what is today Metropolitan Avenue to Corlear’s Hook in Manhattan and purchased 13 acres around the landing, naming it Williamsburgh after Col. Jonathan Williams, who had originally surveyed the site.
His service lacked interest though and Woodhull went bankrupt in 1811. David Dunham then tried his luck with a steam ferry that became largely successful. Industry soon poured into the neighborhood in the form of distilleries and sugar refineries along the shore.
Some of the largest firms in America, including Pfizer Pharmaceutical and what is today the Domino Sugar Refineries, were all launched in Williamsburg during the mid-1800s.
Population grew so large that the neighborhood was chartered as a city in 1852 before it was annexed by the City of Brooklyn in 1855.
The face of Williamsburg changed in 1903 when the Williamsburg Bridge opened and Eastern European immigrants left the crowded Lower East Side of Manhattan to come to Brooklyn. Six-story tenements were built and brownstones and wood frame houses were turned into multiple dwellings. By 1917, the population had more than doubled and the area had the most densely populated blocks in Brooklyn.
Jewish immigrants fleeing Nazism settled in what is today called Southside but after a large Latin American influence, the section of the neighborhood is now referred to as Los Sures. The Northside, filled with a mix of artists and young professionals, was separated from the rest of Williamsburg when the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway was built in 1957.
How Williamsburg Got Its Name
Let’s see now, Williamsburg.
“Burg,” we know, means a town or village.
But who was the “William” who gave this neighborhood — once a town — his name?
To begin, this area was originally bought from the local Indians by the Dutch West India Company in 1638 and became part of the town of Boswijck. After the English took New Netherland in 1664, the name of the town was Anglicized to Bushwick; the townspeople generally called it Bushwick Shore.
It was a rural area until in 1810 a real-estate speculator, Richard Woodhull, acquired 13 acres in the area where there was a ferry service from what is today Metropolitan Avenue to Corlear’s Hook in Manhattan. He named the area after Col. Jonathan Williams, a U.S. engineer who had originally surveyed the site.
It was incorporated as the Village of Williamsburgh within the town of Bushwick in 1827.
Williamsburg rapidly expanded during the first half of the 19th century and separated itself from Bushwick.
The population in the area continued to grow until, in 1855, Williamsburg was annexed along with the town of Bushwick by what was then became the City of Brooklyn — and the “h” in the name was dropped.
The construction of the Williamsburg Bridge in 1903 opened up the area to immigrants seeking to get out of the tenements of the Lower East Side in Manhattan.
Today, its neighbors are Greenpoint, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Bushwick and, farther east, Ridgewood in Queens.
Interestingly, 27 of the streets in Williamsburg are named with the last names of signers of the Declaration of Independence.
Brooklyn-born Norm Goldstein is retired, after working 44 years for the Associated Press, the global news agency, where he served as a reporter, feature writer, editor, author and administrator. He also worked for AP as director of Educational Services and editor of the AP Stylebook.
He graduated from Brooklyn College and the Penn State Graduate School of Journalism.
He currently lives in Brooklyn Heights.