Take a Walk Back in Time: Exploring Bushwick History From the Early 1600s to Today



For many, it’s easy to go through the motions of daily Bushwick life. You walk down the same streets you always do, go to that same cafe, restaurant, bar or deli, and don’t think for a moment about Bushwick history — what was there before. Like how did this flourishing community come out of the miles of farmland here in the 1600s? What groups of people have come in and out of this neighborhood we call home? There’s so much to focus on in our daily lives, the past can seem unimportant. But in neighborhoods like Bushwick and Ridgewood, whether we know it or not, the past lingers around every street corner.

The Beginning

If you know anything about New York history, you know that the Dutch play a big role. They were the first European colonizers to settle in New York. They originally settled on the southernmost tip of Manhattan, naming their colony New Amsterdam. The Dutch expanded across what we know today as the five boroughs and beyond, naming their new world New Netherlands. In 1638, modern day Williamsburg, Greenpoint and Bushwick were purchased from the Lenape and Canarsie Native American tribes. In 1660, Peter Stuyvesent, the leader of New Netherlands, named the landBoswijck” (also seen as “Boswyck”), which translates to mean “town in the woods.” The British took over in 1664 and united the land under Kings County by 1683. The land was primarily used for farming, mostly food and tobacco. 

Even though the Dutch were here for a short amount of time, their influence still remains today. The Manhattan flag, for example, is blue, white and orange, the orange taking after Dutch leader William of Orange. Our seal has Dutch windmills and beavers on it, reminiscent of the fur trade, which is why the Dutch settled here in the first place. Plus, names like Brooklyn, Staten Island and Harlem all have Dutch roots. 

Bushwick’s Industrial Boom

Fast forward to the 1800s — the industrial revolution causes factories to pop up all around the city, especially in Bushwick. There were sugar, chemical, oil and glass factories in the 1860s. At the same time, a large population of German and Austrian immigrants settled in Bushwick. Then in the 1890s, breweries were everywhere. Bushwick was even dubbed the beer capital of the Northeast. Bushwick was a flourishing community. All along modern-day Bushwick Avenue were the grand mansions of all the brewery owners and other high-earners in the community.

Many more immigrants came to reap the benefits of prosperous Bushwick. Italians, English, Russians, Polish and others moved in, working in the factories and breweries. Busy shops, apartments and factories were thriving, and there was even a popular Vaudeville theatre that rivaled the famous Palace Theatre in Manhattan.

“Between the wars was Bushwick’s period of greatest affluence,” writes Bushwick’s Community Board. “Streets were spotlessly clean, homes beautifully maintained. It was a popular entertainment district.”

Slow Decline and the 1977 Blackout

A few different events led to the general decline of life in Bushwick. Most of the breweries began to close, and residents fled. “Blockbusting” began to take place all over Bushwick, causing many buildings to become vacant. Plans for urban renewal were discussed but never came to fruition. Even landlords stopped maintaining their properties. Crime rates grew high. Many buildings in Bushwick were burnt down, not only because of neglect but arsonists as well. Even business owners were doing it themselves so they could take their insurance money and run.

Then came the blackout of 1977. On July 13, 1977, a bolt of lighting struck an electrical substation. Minutes later, another bolt of lighting struck several power lines, causing the system to become overloaded and the city to go dark. Fires and looting took place all over the five boroughs, but Bushwick got hit hard. Broadway was the street that suffered the most and took the longest to recover. Witnesses say that the looting continued all night and even into the following day. Fires spread all over Bushwick, many shopkeepers setting fire to their own stores to take the insurance money. There was very little police presence, as most officers were called to assist wealthier neighborhoods. Days later, an abandoned factory at Knickerbocker Avenue and Bleecker Street was set ablaze, destroying four blocks and over 30 homes.

The population of Bushwick plummeted: in 1975 there were approximately 122,000 residents. By 1980 there were 93,000.

Recovery

There was massive press coverage of the looting and fires in Bushwick and other struggling neighborhoods, leading to city-wide awareness and a call to rebuild. So much of Bushwick had been burnt down, and there had been no new housing since the 1920s. But that finally changed in the 1980s, with the construction of Hope Gardens and other affordable housing, as well as housing for seniors throughout the community. 

But it wasn’t just government officials finally lending a hand that helped rebuild Bushwick, it was also the residents. Block associations, community boards and outreach programs helped Bushwick get back on its feet. Without our neighbors, both past and present, we wouldn’t have the community that we call home today.


Historical Sights

On your next day off, take a tour around Bushwick and Ridgewood to see some of these historic sights. 

Lipsius-Cook House

Brick exterior of the Lipsius-Cook House.
Bushwick Daily archive

You may have seen this beautiful and haunting manor while strolling down Bushwick Avenue, or even riding down Myrtle Avenue on the M train. Sitting at 670 Bushwick Ave. and constructed in 1889-90, this dramatic home was built for the Lipsius family, a wealthy German family who owned the Claus Lipsius Brewing Company. This beautiful home was abandoned for many years but is now a residential building. Continue down Bushwick Avenue and take in all the beautiful architecture left over from the 1800s when all the wealthy brewery owners lived there. Grand? Yes. Haunted? Maybe.

William Ulmer Brewery

Brick exterior of the William Ulmer Brewery.

Located at 31 Belvidere St., the William Ulmer Brewery complex is one of the only breweries still intact, leftover from the brewery boom of the 1800s. The complex is quite large, including the old office building, main brew house, engine and machine houses, and stable and storage buildings. Take a walk around the buildings and imagine what Bushwick might have looked like way back when.

St. Barbara’s Roman Catholic Church

Gold exterior of the St. Barbara’s Roman Catholic Church.
Bushwick Daily archive

Whether you’ve walked by it or seen it from your rooftop in the distance, this beautiful church at 138 Bleecker St. is not to be missed. Built from 1907-10, St. Barbara’s is quite unique in that it’s in the Spanish Colonial Revival style. Not many other buildings in this area are built in this style, making St. Barbara’s that much more special. Get a closer look inside and out, and take in the beautiful detailing on this unusual building.

Ridgewood Reservoir

aerial shot of the Ridgewood Reservoir.
Bushwick Daily archive

If nature is what you’re craving, look no further than the Ridgewood Reservoir. Located in Highland Park, the Ridgewood Reservoir was originally built in 1858 and caused a major influx in population due to the excellent access to fresh water. This reservoir was so important to the area that during the Spanish-American War in 1898, police guarded the Ridgewood Reservoir to prevent potential enemies from polluting the water. Wait for a warm day and take a stroll or a bike ride on the path surrounding it.

The Vander Ende-Onderdonk House

cottage-like exterior of the Vander Ende-Onderdonk House.
Bushwick Daily archive.

Built in 1709 and located at 1820 Flushing Ave. in Ridgewood, the Onderdonk House is NYC’s oldest Dutch fieldstone house. Surrounded by beautiful gardens, a visit to the Onderdonk House is truly an escape. They have a museum open Saturdays and Sundays from 12-5 p.m. with $5 admission. 

For more historical sights in Bushwick and Ridgewood, check out this website.


Featured photo: St. Barbara’s Roman Catholic Church. Bushwick Daily archive.

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2 Comments

  1. It was fine! Until one white person got the idea to come to Bushwick, because housing In Manhattan became to much to pay. So they started to move into Bushwick and ruined everything. They raise the rent up so much that my Bushwick family were pushed out of this community. Starting with my Mom she had lived in this neighborhood for more 40 years. But they didn’t care, they just make more money. So yeah still now I mad that no one thought of us!!😡😡😡😡