In 1638 the Dutch West India Company first purchased the area's land from the local Native Americans. In 1661, the company chartered the Town of Boswijck, including land that would later become Williamsburg. After the English takeover of New Netherland in 1664, the town's name was anglicized to Bushwick. During colonial times, villagers called the area "Bushwick Shore." This name lasted for about 140 years. Bushwick Shore was cut off from the other villages in Bushwick by Bushwick Creek to the north and by Cripplebush, a region of thick, boggy shrub land which extended from Wallabout Creek to Newtown Creek, to the south and east. Bushwick residents called Bushwick Shore "the Strand." Farmers and gardeners from the other Bushwick villages sent their goods to Bushwick Shore to be ferried across the East River to New York City for sale via a market at present day Grand Street. Bushwick Shore's favorable location close to New York City led to the creation of several farming developments. In 1802, real estate speculator Richard M. Woodhull acquired 13 acres (53,000 m²) near what would become Metropolitan Avenue, then North 2nd Street. He had Colonel Jonathan Williams, a U.S. Engineer, survey the property, and named it Williamsburgh (with an h at the end) in his honor. Originally a 13-acre (53,000 m2) development within Bushwick Shore, Williamsburg rapidly expanded during the first half of the nineteenth century and eventually seceded from Bushwick and formed its own independent city.
Williamsburg was incorporated as the Village of Williamsburgh within the Town of Bushwick in 1827. In two years it had a fire company, a post office and a population of over 1,000. The deep drafts along the East River encouraged industrialists, many from Germany, to build shipyards around Williamsburg. Raw material was shipped in, and finished products were sent out of many factories straight to the docks. Several sugar barons built processing refineries. Now all are gone except the now-defunct Domino Sugar (formerly Havemeyer & Elder). Other important industries included shipbuilding and brewing.
On April 18, 1835, the Village of Williamsburgh annexed a portion of the Town of Bushwick. The Village then consisted of three districts. The first district was commonly called the "South Side"; the second district was called the "North Side", and the third district was called the "New Village". The names "North Side" and "South Side" remain in common usage today, but the name for the Third District has changed often. The New Village became populated by Germans and for a time was known by the sobriquet of "Dutchtown". In 1845 the population of Williamsburgh was 11,500.
Reflecting its increasing urbanization, Williamsburgh separated from Bushwick as the Town of Williamsburgh in 1840. It became the City of Williamsburg (discarding the "h") in 1852, which was organized into three wards. The old First Ward roughly coincides with the South Side and the Second Ward with the North Side, with the modern boundary at Grand Street. The Third Ward was to the east of these, stretching from Union Avenue east to Bushwick Avenue beyond which is Bushwick (some of which is now called East Williamsburg).
In 1855, the City of Williamsburg, along with the adjoining Town of Bushwick, were annexed into the City of Brooklyn as the so-called Eastern District. The First Ward of Williamsburg became Brooklyn's 13th Ward, the Second Ward Brooklyn's 14th Ward, and the Third Ward Brooklyn's 15th and 16th Wards.
During its period as part of Brooklyn's Eastern District, the area achieved remarkable industrial, cultural, and economic growth, and local businesses thrived. Wealthy New Yorkers such as Cornelius Vanderbilt and railroad magnate Jim Fisk built shore-side mansions. Charles Pratt and his family founded the Pratt Institute, the great school of art & architecture, and the Astral Oil Works, which later became part of Standard Oil. Corning Glass Works was founded here before moving upstate to Corning, New York. German immigrant, chemist Charles Pfizer founded Pfizer Pharmaceutical in Williamsburg, and the company maintained an industrial plant in the neighborhood through 2007, although its headquarters were moved to Manhattan in the 1960s. Brooklyn's Broadway, ending in the ferry to Manhattan, became the area's lifeline. At one point in the 19th century, Williamsburg possessed 10 percent of the wealth of the United States and was the engine of American growth. The area became a popular location for condiment and household product manufacturers. Factories for Domino Sugar, Esquire Shoe Polish , Dutch Mustard and many others were established in the late 19th and early 20th century. Many of these factory buildings are in the process of being converted to cultural or residential buildings.
The population was heavily German but many Jews from the Lower East side of Manhattan came to the area when the Williamsburg Bridge was completed. Williamsburg was a financial hub rivaling Wall Street for a time, with its two major community banks: the Williamsburgh Savings Bank (chartered 1851, since absorbed by HSBC) and its rival the Dime Savings Bank of Williamsburgh (chartered 1864, now known as the DIME, has remained independent). The area around the Peter Luger Steak House, established in 1887, in the predominantly German neighborhood under the Williamsburg Bridge, was a major banking hub until the City of Brooklyn united with New York City. One of the early high schools in Brooklyn, the Eastern District High School, opened here in 1894.
In 1898 Brooklyn itself became one of five boroughs within the City of Greater New York, and its Williamsburg neighborhood was opened to closer connections with the rest of the new city.
Just five years later, the opening of the Williamsburg Bridge in 1903 marked the real turning point in the area's history. The community was then opened up to thousands of upwardly mobile immigrants and second-generation Americans fleeing the overcrowded slum tenements of Manhattan's Lower East Side. Williamsburg itself soon became the most densely populated neighborhood in New York City, which in turn was the most densely populated city in the United States. The novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn addresses a young girl growing up in the tenements of Williamsburg during this era.
Brooklyn Union Gas in the early 20th century consolidated its producer gas production to Williamsburg at 370 Vandervoort Avenue, closing the Gowanus Canal gasworks. In the late 1970s an energy crisis led the company to build a syngas factory. Late in the century, facilities were built to import liquefied natural gas from overseas. The intersection of Broadway, Flushing Avenue, and Graham Avenue was a cross-roads for many "inter-urbans", prior to World War I. The inter-urbans were light rail trolleys, and ran from Long Island to Williamsburg.
After World War II, the economy sagged. Refugees from war-torn Europe began to stream into Brooklyn, including the Hasidim whose populations had been devastated in the Holocaust. The area south of Division Avenue is home to a large population of adherents to the Satmar Hasidic sect. Hispanics from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic also began to settle in Williamsburg. But with the decline of industry and the increase of population and poverty, crime and illegal drugs, Williamsburg became a cauldron of pent-up energies. Those who were able to move out did, and the area became known for its crime and other social ills.
On February 3, 1971, at 10:42 p.m., police officer Frank Serpico was shot during a drug bust, during a stakeout at 778 Driggs Avenue. Serpico had been one of the driving forces in the creation of the Knapp Commission, which exposed widespread police corruption. His fellow officers failed to call for assistance, and he was rushed to Greenpoint Hospital only when an elderly neighbor called the police. The incident was later dramatized in the movie Serpico, starring Al Pacino in the title role.
On May 11, 2005, the New York City Council passed a large-scale rezoning of the North Side and Greenpoint waterfront. Much of the waterfront district was rezoned to accommodate high density residential uses and mixed use with a set-aside (but no earmarked funding) for the creation of open waterfront park space, as well as strict building guidelines calling for developers to create a continuous two-mile-long string of waterfront esplanades. Local elected officials touted the rezoning as an economically beneficial way to address the decline of manufacturing along the North Brooklyn waterfront, which had resulted in a number of vacant and derelict warehouses in Williamsburg.
The rezoning represented a dramatic shift of scale in the ongoing process of gentrification in the area since the early 1990s. The waterfront neighborhoods, once characterized by active manufacturing and other light industry interspersed with smaller residential buildings, were rezoned primarily for residential use. Alongside the construction of new residential buildings, many warehouses were converted into residential loft buildings. Among the first was the Smith-Gray Building, a turn-of-the-century structure recognizable by its blue cast-iron facade. The conversion of the former Gretsch music instrument factory garnered significant attention and controversy in the New York press primarily because it heralded the arrival in Williamsburg of Tribeca-style lofts and attracted, as residents and investors, a number of celebrities.
Officials championing the rezoning cited its supposed economic benefits, the new private waterfront promenades, and its inclusionary housing component – which offed developers large tax breaks in exchange for promises to rent about a third of the newly created housing units at "affordable" rates (which amount to upper-middle class pricing). Critics countered that similar set-asides for affordable housing have gone unfulfilled in previous large-scale developments, such as Battery Park City. The New York Times reported this proved to be the case in Williamsburg as well, as developers largely decided to forgo incentives to build affordable housing in inland areas.
A Williamsburg landmark, The Kings County Savings Institution was chartered on April 10, 1860. It conducted business in a building called Washington Hall until it purchased the lot on the corner of Bedford Avenue and Broadway and erected its permanent home, the Kings County Savings Bank building. It is on the National Register of Historic Places (1980) and was the seventh building to be landmarked in New York City in 1966. "The Kings County Savings Bank is an outstanding example of French Second Empire architecture, displaying a wealth of ornament and diverse architectural elements. A business building of imposing grandeur, the Kings County Savings Bank "represents a period of conspicuous display in which it was not considered vulgar, at least by the people in power, to boast openly of one's wealth. From its scale and general character there is nothing , on the outside, that would distinguish the Kings County Savings Bank from a millionaires mansion.
The Williamsburg Houses were designated a landmark by the Landmarks Preservation Commission on June 24, 2003. The 23.3-acre (94,000 m2) site was the first large-scale public housing in Brooklyn.
The modern architecture buildings were designed by William Lescaze, whose PSFS Building in Philadelphia was the first successful International Style building in the U.S. The project, first proposed in 1934, was a collaborative between the U.S. Public Works Administration and the newly established New York City Housing Authority. More than 25,000 New Yorkers applied for 1,622 apartments and most units were occupied by 1938. The twenty 4-story buildings are angled 15 degrees to the street grid for optimal sunlight. The structures have tan brick and exposed concrete accented by blue tile and stainless steel. The buildings were restored in the 1990s by the Housing Authority, in consultation with the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
In 2007 three buildings of the Domino Sugar Refinery were also designated New York City Landmarks. The original refinery was built in 1856, and by 1870 it processed more than half of the sugar used in the United States. A fire in 1882 caused the plant to be completely rebuilt in brick and stone, and those buildings remain, albeit with alterations made over the years. The refinery stopped operating in 2004. In 2010, a developer's plan to convert the site to residential use has received support in the New York City Council.