Once known as Williamsburgh, the Brooklyn neighborhood purchased by Richard M. Woodhull has expanded from the small lot of land he purchased in 1792 to a pinnacle city for art, hipster and underground urban life. Although it looks like a typo and the red sprawling under the name by Microsoft would further this thinking, Williamsburg was originally named after Col. Jonathan Williams, an engineer, surveyor, and friend of Woodhull’s, and it wasn’t until it became consolidated into the City of Brooklyn that the name Williamsburgh lost its former “h” at the end. In its current day and age, this Northern Brooklyn city has a total population of 126, 183 people with approximately 62,045 male residents and 64,603 female residents. From 1960 to about 1990 Williamsburg transitioned from a traditionally working-class Jewish, Italian and Polish neighborhood into one of America’s poster children for urban renewal and gentrification with ethnic enclaves of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Hasidic Jews. With Hispanics representing almost 50% of the racial background in Williamsburg, the ethnic identity has definitely transformed although the white population alone still makes up three quarters of the other half of the population.
The history of the residents of Williamsburg is an interesting tale that has evolved over time as new racial groups have made their way to this city for an array of reasons some similar while others very different.
Originally created with the hope of being a city that was centered on suburban life, the city’s first residents established their businesses and homes around the idea of marketing their industrial companies here near the East River and the many manufacturing firms flourished. The biggest establishment being the building of the Williamsburg Bridge in 1903, which was the outlet, its newest residents were looking for to escape the harsh and unfavorable living and working conditions of New York City. With its completion, thousands of Jews came to Williamsburg in the hopes of creating a better life for themselves. This idea which is most known as the American Dream attracted thousands of immigrants from Eastern Europe such as Poland, Italy, Russia, and Lithuania. The immigrants lived comfortable in the low-income housing, which accommodated single or two families to a home. But this was soon replaced by public housing projects, which suited the influx of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and other Hispanics who came to Williamsburg for jobs in factories such as docks, shipyards, refineries, mills, pharmaceuticals, glass, and oil. The Hispanic population and found themselves stuck in crowded and decaying tenements and now unemployed due to the drastic cut in manufacturing jobs in the late 90s, while on the other hand the Hasidic Jews kept to themselves in the area of Southern Williamsburg in which they had inhabited post WWI and pre WWII.
In past years, many starving artists, 20-30 year old hipsters have joined the majority of Italian and Polish immigrants by taking advantage of former factories turned into lofts and their very cheap rents. But Williamsburg’s newest residents are no longer starving as the city has become quite marketable and expensive with the addition of art galleries, boutiques, and restaurants along with a revival in the real estate industry. The rezoning of Williamsburg in May of 2005 created new and improved high- rise buildings, condominiums, and state parks. These new renovations and improvements to city with the changing face of the neighborhood has raised the cost of living in Williamsburg and is reflected in many aspects of the city’s culture, especially its art. Williamsburg’s street art has changed along with the neighborhood over time. The pressing issue at hand is that the intent of graffiti art has modified and can be seen in the new forms of art produced by up and coming artists. The starving artists that thrived on Williamsburg’s abandoned factories are no longer present and in my group’s project we will discuss how gentrification is at the forefront of this movement and how the graffiti art produced during this time is one result of this change.