The debate continues over East Williamsburg’s neighborhood status and geographical boundaries.
Bushwick Daily took a look at the area’s history of shifting names, boundaries and demographics, and asked some local residents where they stood on the matter.
Williamsburg, along with the rest of Brooklyn, was originally home to the Indigenous Lenape. According to a report by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, after its colonization the area went from being mostly open farmland to being incorporated as the village of Williamsburgh in 1827. By 1835, its eastern border extended to Bushwick Avenue.
When the state Legislature granted Williamsburgh a city charter in 1851, the report continues, it became the 20th largest city in the United States for a short time before being consolidated into the “City of Brooklyn and Town of Flatbush” in 1855. At this time, the “h” at the end of “Williamsburg” was dropped.
While the area originally had a large German population, the construction of the Williamsburg Bridge in 1903 allowed new waves of Italian and Jewish immigrants to arrive from the crowded Lower East Side.
The demographics shifted again after World War II, when the number of Puerto Ricans migrating to Brooklyn soared. By 1966, Puerto Ricans made up the majority of the population in a number of boroughs, including Williamsburg.
Dan Nuxoll, one of the founders of McKibbin lofts who later moved out, told The New York Times in 2008, “When we were there, there was a cross-section of people, we were all from New York and had a sense of what that neighborhood meant. I don’t think you see that anymore.”
Erik Rodriguez, 39, was born, raised and currently resides in his Scholes Street apartment. He remembers rumored attempts by the city to remove “Avenue of Puerto Rico” from Graham Avenue street signs.
“It’s the city’s erasure of our culture,” he said. For his part, Rodriguez believes that East Williamsburg was fabricated when a wave of newcomers came in the ’80s.
“While many places retain their historic names, real estate agents and property developers know that rebranding a neighborhood to associate it with a more attractive neighboring area can improve its desirability.”
One such rebranding for improved desirability, “SoHa” or South Harlem, even inspired a bill called the Neighborhood Integrity Act, first introduced in 2017, to protect “the integrity of traditionally recognized neighborhoods.” The bill, which is currently in assembly, would penalize real estate brokers who advertise areas under rebranded names or redefine traditional boundaries “without community input.”
The city’s neighborhoods have no official borders recognized by city or state agencies. However, though it comes with a disclaimer that “neighborhood names and boundaries are not officially designated,” the Department of City Planning’s page for Community Board 1 lists East Williamsburg as one of the neighborhoods in the district.
East Williamsburg is also included on Google Maps, where it is bounded by Meeker Avenue to the north, Bushwick Avenue to the west, Flushing Avenue to the south and the Newtown Creek to the east.
Google creates these maps using “third-party data, public sources, satellites and, often most important, users.”
A neighborhood called East Williamsburgh also existed in what is now Ridgewood, Queens. Found on a map dated 1873, the community was a Dutch settlement and was delineated by Fresh Pond Road to the east and Williamsburg and Jamaica Turnpike (now Metropolitan Avenue) to the north.
Bushwick Daily spoke to Ramon Nieves, who has lived on Havemeyer Street since the age of five, outside of the Williamsburg Community Center. The community center sits on the intersection of Graham Avenue and Scholes Street, in an area sometimes referred to as part of East Williamsburg.
When asked if the area was called East Williamsburg, Nieves responded, “East Williamsburg? No, this is Williamsburg, from the [Williamsburg Bridge] to Bushwick Avenue.”
The debate even prompted Katelin Penner, personal aide to District Leader Samy Nemir Olivares, to create a survey asking “Where does Bushwick end to the west?” It garnered over 90 votes, of which the majority went to Flushing Avenue.
Where does Bushwick end to the west— katelin is celebrating cuomo resigning (@loud_socialist) July 29, 2021
Julio, who declined to give his last name, is a co-owner of a small business on Graham Avenue and resident of 30 years. He said, “Williamsburg is from the river to here and goes past Bushwick Avenue.”
When Julio was asked “Who do you think calls it East Williamsburg?” he responded “I don’t know. The young people moved here, and then they call it something else. Maybe they know something I don’t.”
Top image photo by Nicole Allen Viana.
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