In 1792, Richard M. Woodhull, hoping to attract New Yorkers to suburban life, purchased land in the vicinity of North 2nd Street (formerly Bushwick Street), then had it surveyed and laid out in city lots. He established a horse ferry from the foot of North 2nd Street to Grand Street in Manhattan, and opened a tavern. In 1800, he named the area Williamsburgh.
Woodhull's business ideas were ahead of the times, and in 1811 he suffered financial failure. Subsequent ventures by other developers also failed until the Wallabout and Newtown Turnpike was built in the early 1800s, connecting the coast to the interior. Commuting became much easier, and interest in living and working in Williamsburgh grew.
By 1827, Williamsburgh was incorporated as a village. A real estate crash in 1837 hindered development, but little by little infrastructure was put in place to make Williamsburgh a city in its own right. On January 1, 1852, Williamsburgh received a city charter, but within three years, it was consolidated into the City of Brooklyn. For unknown reasons, at the time of consolidation the "h" was dropped from the neighborhood's name.
During the 1830s, Irish, German and Austrian capitalists established their businesses and homes in Williamsburgh. It became a fashionable resort that attracted such notables as Commodore Vanderbilt, Williams Whitney and railroad magnate James Fisk.
Some of the largest industrial firms in the nation grew here, such as Pfizer Pharmaceuticals (1849), Astral Oil (later Standard Oil), Brooklyn Flint Glass (later Corning Ware) and the Havemeyer and Elder sugar refinery (later Amstar and Domino), as well as D. Appleton & Company, U.S. publisher of Alice in Wonderland and Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species. Breweries such as Schaefer, Rheingold and Schlitz, docks, shipyards, refineries, mills and foundries opened along the waterfront. In 1851, the Williamsburgh Savings Bank, the Williamsburgh Dispensary, the Division Avenue ferry and three new churches were established.
With the building of the Williamsburg Bridge in 1903, thousands of Lower East Side Jews crossed the river to a better life in Williamsburg.
Between 1900 and 1920, Williamsburg's population doubled. Immigrants arrived from Eastern Europe, including Lithuania, Poland and Russia. A large number of Italian immigrants settled in the Northside. Many came from the town of Nolani from which the annual Festa del Giglio originated.
By 1917, the neighborhood had the most densely populated blocks in New York City. The block between South 2nd and South 3rd Streets housed over 5,000 persons. In the 1930s, large numbers of European Jews escaping Nazism fled to Williamsburg and established an Hasidic enclave.
From the mid-1930s to the 1960s, public housing projects replaced thousands of decaying buildings. In 1957, the building of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway cut through the Williamsburg (as well as Red Hook and Greenpoint) community, destroying huge numbers of low-income, single and two-family homes.
In the 1960s, thousands of Puerto Ricans came to Williamsburg attracted by the abundance of factory jobs. Through the 1980s, the Hispanic community grew, with the arrival of Dominicans and other Latin Americans. In 1961, Williamsburg had 93,000 manufacturing jobs; by the 1990s, the number had decreased to less than 12,000. The decline in manufacturing left thousands of Hispanics unemployed.
These events would intensify mounting social ills such as poverty, racism, poor health care and inadequate education, which are still in the process of healing.
In the Southside of Williamsburg, the Hasidic community continued to grow. Hispanics found themselves crowded into decaying tenements. Friction increased between the Hispanic and Hasidic communities over government money and housing. In recent years, real progress in working together on environmental justice issues has led to rapprochement on other social issues as well.
During the last twenty years, Williamsburg has become home to a new set of "immigrants." In the Northside, artists discovered the low rents and large light-filled lofts of former factories, joining already established Italian and Polish immigrants. Galleries, restaurants and shops opened, catering to these new residents.
Recently, real estate has been booming. Long-abandoned factories are being converted to expensive condominiums and apartments. New construction of high-rise buildings is changing the face of the neighborhood. Although there is growing concern among the residents that their complex, diverse and affordable neighborhood is fast disappearing, positive change is on the way. The waterfront, fallen into neglect, will soon be revitalized. With both community and growing city support, there is opposition to the siting of additional power plants and solid waste companies. In May 2005, New York City approved zoning changes that would allow for open spaces, parks, affordable housing and light industry. Williamsburg is on the move again.