A History of Williamsburg's Bedford Avenue

I don’t go to Bedford Ave. If you’ve ever been to Bedford Ave, you know that’s like “Hipster Central”. I don’t step foot [there], because it’s so crowded, everyone’s in their own world... it’s just, it’s just weird to go there now because it’s all restaurants...it’s changed, it’s not like it used to be.”

To most today, Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg is synonymous with the words “hipster”. One goes to Bedford Avenue for fusion foods and fair trade coffee, laundromats with exposed brick, experimental bars with funky music, handmade organic soaps and vintage boho-chic clothing. One of the longest avenues in Brooklyn at almost eleven miles, it too has a long history. It was not always the cool hangout place that we know it as today.

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To give a history of the hip Bedford Avenue would be incomplete without a short history of Williamsburg. What we call Williamsburg today once belonged to Native Americans who made tools, hunted, fished, planted crops, traded amongst themselves and developed complex spiritual beliefs. This all changed in the early 1600s when the Dutch West India Company arrived and built their first settlement near what is now South 4th Street and called it Het Strand. Then, during the seven years of the Revolutionary War, British troops occupied the Williamsburg area and leveled out all the trees for buildings and firewood. After the war, the area became a farming village where farmers who planted vegetables gardens and orchards would cross over to Manhattan markets to sell their goods. By the 1800s, there were two competing entrepreneurs who began running ferry services from Williamsburg to Manhattan: James Hazard and Richard M. Woodhull. They both bought land on the Brooklyn side, and what we call Williamsburg today was owned by Woodhull. Woodhull then hired his friend Jonathan Williams to lay out a gridded street plan, and by 1827, the new settlement was soon incorporated as the official village of Williamsburgh (yes, with an extra h). Thus, the now Bedford Avenue of Williamsburg, called Fourth Street on the plan, was born. Sometime after 1865, it was officially renamed Bedford, linking it to the existing Bedford Avenue that ran through Brooklyn.

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Williamsburgh Gridded Street Plan (1827) 

With the connection to Manhattan via steam ferry, the development of Williamsburgh began to take off; it’s beautiful shoreline soon gave way to docks and warehouses, shipyards, distilleries, an iron foundry, spice mill, hat factory and the largest glue factory in the country. People poured into Williamsburg because of the many jobs the heavy industry provided. During this time, streets like Fourth Street began to add a mix of residential and commercial properties. Along with other early Brooklyn neighbourhoods, housing along Fourth Street, then an unpaved dirt road, was probably dominated by wood-frame construction. Places like the North American Hotel on Fourth Street between N1st and N2nd Street became social and political hubs. Williamsburgh soon became an official city, losing the h at the end to become Williamsburg. Just a few years later, the City of Brooklyn annexed Williamsburg, but Fourth Street remained a local hub. Churches lined the street, and the police precinct was built on Bedford, also serving as one of two of the local neighbourhood brigades.

By the 1880’s, mansions began springing up in what is now the Hasidic region of Williamsburg, and the Times referred to it as the “aristocratic” Bedford Avenue. With the increasing wealth came physical improvement to the streets and concrete pavements were built. During this time, Fourth Street, or the Williamsburg part of Bedford Avenue, remained a mix of churches, shops and growing industrial spaces.

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Bedford Avenue (1890)

The opening of the Brooklyn bridged marked a major shift in the socio-economic and cultural atmosphere of not only Bedford Avenue, but also of Williamsburg itself. Despite the many immigrant groups that came across the bridge like the Poles, Slavs and Italians, Williamsburg bridge was soon dubbed “the Jew’s highway” and Bedford Avenue slowly became a center for newly Jewish Brooklyn.

In 1924, today’s L train, the 14th Street-Eastern District Subway opened, connecting Bedford Avenue to Manhattan. James Nevius, writing for Curbed NY, notes: “But higher rents were elusive. As the Times noted in 1930, a survey by the Williamsburg Chamber of Commerce found "a few decaying ships...tied to rotting piers of the East River" and "streets lined with cold-water flats where fine estates once were the rule." Bedford Avenue was a noted exception: many landlords had installed plumbing, and some rents were as high as $11 per room, but commercial vacancies were a problem.”

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 Bedford Avenue (1923)

The Depression and World War II brought a flourishing Puerto Rican population to the south side, a lot of Poles to the north side and Greenpoint, and a tight-knit Satmar Hasidic community to the south of Division Avenue. However, while Williamsburg was truly a unique community, and a burgeoning manufacturing city, after the Depression and the war, industries fled the city and Williamsburg’s infrastructure greatly eroded.

 

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Bedford Avenue (1937)

In the 50’s and 60’s, Williamsburg experienced a great housing shortage with the influx of Puerto Rican and Hasidic families into the neighbourhood. These large, low income families lived in small, old quarters and often doubled up with grandparents and other relatives. The competition for housing led to tension between ethnic groups. Around the 60’s onwards, the neighbourhood was best described as “blight” as everyone was finding it harder to live and work in the neighbourhood. In addition to the housing shortage, jobs were cut as the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the Schaefer Brewery Plant, and many other waterfront factories shut down. With so many people out of work, buildings were left to decay. In the midst of the hard times of the 60’s and 70’s, Williamsburg’s ethnic groups established community organisations that helped turn burned out buildings into new housing, preserved a local firehouse, created health care centers, home care services, food stamps programs, and helped small stores survive and expand.

Along with this improved housing came increased commercial activity, and this was soon was followed by gentrification. In the 1980’s, artists and students unsatisfied with rents in Manhattan began to take over and move into industrial spaces to live and/or work. Denise’s parents actually moved into the area in a time when the gentrification process had already begun, yet Denise talks about the incredible difference between the Bedford Avenue of her childhood and the Bedford Avenue of today’s Williamsburg. One might question if the difference was really that stark, and the answer is yes, it probably is. When the first wave of artists and the like moved into the neighbourhood, they put in effort to assimilate with the local community and immerse themselves in it’s already existing culture. People talked to their neighbours, participated in community activities and tried to become part of the the community’s intricate patchwork. However, with this influx of young, predominantly white people into the neighbourhood, soon there came galleries, shops, restaurants and rising rents and property values. This acquired for Williamsburg, and especially Bedford Avenue where a lot of these new “hipster places” popped up, a “hip” credibility, even though people gradually stopped assimilating and participating in their community because they were here for the amenities and for the hip vibe, not the community. Thus, the Williamsburg’s Bedford Avenue of today is starkly different from the Bedford Avenue it was even a decade or two ago.

A History of Williamsburg's Bedford Avenue