Bushwick, Brooklyn From Down and Out to Up and Coming

Kale pizza, street art (don’t call it graffiti— instead think eye-popping, colorful murals, like Danielle Mastrioni’s ode to late rapper Biggie Smalls), hour-long waits at the newest, hottest restaurants and soaring rents have all become hallmarks of Bushwick.

This north Brooklyn neighborhood is bound by Williamsburg to the north, Ridgewood, Queens to the northeast, East New York to the southeast, and Bedford-Stuyvesant to the southwest. It has become a destination for creative types who have been priced out of Williamsburg, where condos now go for up to $4 million, and are now migrating north in droves. Businesses, restaurants, art galleries and artisanal markets are following close behind.

With the hipsters and higher-end businesses have come Brooklyn’s highest overall rent increases. According to a recent study conducted by the brokerage firm MSN, between July and August (yes, that's a one month time span) the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Bushwick jumped from $2,040 to $2,647 a month—a 29.76% increase.

It’s hard to believe that just a couple of decades ago, this mainly Hispanic, working-class neighborhood was in the grips of a crime wave and drug epidemic. In fact, the six-acre Maria Fernandez Park, located in the heart of the neighborhood, was named after a woman, who was killed in 1989 after trying to evict drug dealers from the neighborhood. Today the park is filled with families, skateboarders, and an off-the-leash dog park.

Native New Yorkers

Prior to the arrival of Europeans in the 1600s, the Lenape people inhabited what is now Bushwick. The Lenapes were the first Algonquin-speaking people from whence all others in that language group descended.

In 1638, the Dutch West India Company secured a deed from the Lenapes for Bushwick, and Peter Stuyvesant chartered the area in 1661, naming it “Boswijck” meaning ‘little town in the woods,' or ‘heavy woods’ in 17th century Dutch. The area was used primarily for farming food and tobacco.

A quarter-century later, a group of French and Hugenot settlers, a Dutch translator, and a former slave who had purchased his own freedom formed a settlement on a plot of land between the Bushwick and Newtown Creeks. The settlement came to be known as Het Dorp by the Dutch, and later Bushwick Green by the British. The main thoroughfare was Woodpoint Road, which allowed farmers to bring their goods to the town dock. In 1683, the English would take over and unite them under Kings County.

Growth of Light Industry

As Brooklyn grew in the 1840s and 1850s, factories that manufactured oil, sugar and chemicals were built in the area. Inventor Peter Cooper built his first factory—a glue manufacturing plant—in Bushwick. During this time, German emigrants were the dominant population.

By the 1890s, Bushwick was dubbed “The Beer Capital of the Northeast” because the area had established an impressive brewery industry, which included “Brewer’s Row”—14 breweries operating in a 14-block area of the neighborhood. At the same time, dairy farmers collected grain and hops for cow feed and sold milk and butter to Brooklyn residents. There was also a thriving industry for blacksmiths, wheelwrights and livestock feed stores.

With the success of the brewing industry, certain parts of Bushwick became extremely affluent. At the turn of the 20th century, brewery owners, doctors and other well-to-do residents commissioned mansions along Bushwick and Irving Avenues. New York City mayor John Francis Hylan kept a townhouse on Bushwick Avenue, and the neighborhood was a thriving cultural center with several vaudeville playhouses—including the nation’s first theater with electric lighting, the Amphion Theater.

After World War I, the neighborhood's German population was slowly supplanted by Italian immigrants, mainly from Palermo, Trapani and Agrigento. By 1950, Bushwick was one of New York City’s largest Italian-American neighborhoods. Private social clubs sprang up, including Santa Margherita di Belice, which remains the oldest operating Sicilian organization in the United States.

Tough Times to Better Days

By the 1960s, Bushwick’s demographics had changed yet again. The Italian families moved out, and working-class African-American and Puerto Rican families moved in. Rising energy costs and other factors had prompted the beer companies to move out of the area as well—and as a result, the neighborhood’s formerly robust economic base eroded.

The departure of industry hit Bushwick hard, and by the mid-1970s, about 50 percent of the neighborhood's residents were on public assistance. The area slowly turned into a no-man’s land of abandoned factories, empty lots and burned-out buildings as some landlords sought to cut their losses and collect on insurance through arson.

During the infamous 1977 citywide blackout, Bushwick saw some of the most devastating looting and property damage of any neighborhood in the city. The blackout's aftermath left even more unsafe buildings and empty lots, and the business vacancy rate along Broadway hit a desolate 43 percent. The neighborhood now lacked both adequate housing and retail presence.

By the 1980s, a new wave of immigrants moved into the area, many of whom were from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic and more recently countries in Central America. Around this time, the Knickerbocker Avenue shopping district had acquired the unfortunate nickname ‘The Well’ because of its seemingly unending supply of illicit drugs. In 1990, Bushwick recorded a truly dismaying 77 murders, 80 rapes and 2,242 robberies.

In 2000, the state of New York and City along with Office of Assemblyman Vito Lopez spearheaded a program called the Bushwick Initiative with the goal of improving the lives of Bushwick residents through various quality-of-life programs. The programs were aimed at reducing crime, improving housing, revitalizing commerce and improving sanitation and public parks.

A decade-and-a-half later, it seems to have worked—Bushwick has become one of New York City’s most desirable neighborhoods, though the gentrification of what was formerly a working-class stronghold has not been without blowback and criticism—both from community activists and longtime residents who fear being priced out of the neighborhood they've called home for a generation. One thing is certain; Bushwick is just the latest example of the adage that the only constant thing in New York City is change.     

Christy Smith-Sloman is a staff writer at The Cooperator.

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