The Newtown Pentacle

Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi

old gardens

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– photo by Mitch Waxman

Williamsburg is iconic “Brooklyn”, but it was very much its own city until relatively late in the game. Technically, the city of Brooklyn ended at the Wallabout Creek, and that’s where the upstart city of Williamsburg began. Williamsburg had earlier broken away from the larger municipality of Bushwick which it had been a part of during the colonial era, when it was known as “The Strand”. During the terror induced walk which carried me from Manhattan back to Astoria in a somnambulist haze, Williamsburg was a magnetic pole which attracted a humble narrator, at least according to the images I found on my camera card.

Such folly amuses that thing which cannot exist in the Sapphire megalith of Queens, which neither thinks nor breathes but instead hungers.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

A wasteland of nettles and thorns called the “cripplebush“, and both the Bushwick and Wallabout Creeks served to isolate the Strand from its neighbors in olden times. Accordingly the coastal town looked to New York, as Manhattan was called, for a trading partner. Williamsburg had natural advantages in the age of mercantile trade, deep water docks and such, and grew rapaciously.

At one time, this little city represented 10% of the wealth present in the entire United States.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

When the Bridge came, Williamsburg had already been absorbed by the City of Brooklyn, and even the City of Brooklyn itself has been “consolidated” within the City of Greater New York (which began the period of Manhattancentric development and urban planning), but even then it didn’t quite fit into the “borough of churches and houses”. Williamsburg’s population were former Lower East Siders, born and bred in the mean streets of industrial Manhattan- unlike the baronial farmers of Flatbush or the staid German brewers of Bushwick.

Tenements went up, and great factory and mill complexes arose. Legendary fortunes were achieved, whether in the sugar business or petroleum or in garment manufacturing. The head count in Williamsburg kept on rising.

photo by Mitch Waxman

The first half of the 20th century saw Williamsburg become a smoking industrial center, with confluences of rail and harbor traffic which made it a difficult place to live. Again, the experiences of my own family are mentioned, who left the area for the southern and eastern districts of Brooklyn during the Great Depression. Owing to it’s heritage on Manhattan’s Delancey Street, the character of the neighborhood retained the familiar ethnic makeup of a few Germans, many Jews, and Italians.

A unique urban patois emerged in the locally accented form of english, the sound of which is best described as “Bugs Bunny has a Williamsburg accent”.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Grand street is named to match its counterpart on the New York side, and although its head is known as Borinquen Place in modernity, once this was the site of what we might describe as an intermodal transportation facility.

Robert Fulton’s Grand street ferry, a steam service, shuttled Brooklynites and Manhattanites back and forth across the East River. On the Williamsburg side, horse and electric streetcars waited to move passengers inland (the Q59 bus replicates one of these routes today). From here, you could reach Jamaica or Newtown if you needed to. If one desires to go to either location from this point today, you’re best served by heading back into Manhattan and routing from there.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Williamsburg always had a certain Jewish character to it, especially after the Bridge opened and the so called “Jewtown” or “Ghetto” of the Lower East Side began to deflate. The Hasidic population arrived mid century, when the neighborhood entered a period of hard times. Additionally, a new population of Caribbean islanders who had arrived contemporaneously in New York with the Hasidim (who favored cheap rent and pre war apartments to house enormous families)– the Puerto Ricans- began to leave the lower east side and cross into infinite Brooklyn.

Ethnic neighborhoods tended to move together- as a loose group, in my observation, during the late 20th century. My own family, with our Italian and Irish counterparts from the “old neighborhood”, continued moving eastward- my parents settled in Flatlands, and many members of the clan went first to Nassau and then Suffolk counties on Long Island.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

In my panic induced stupor, I seem to have focused in on an amazing artifact at 455 Grand Street. Notice that the lock is in the center of the carved wood of the door? Unless this is a modern imposture, it would indicate that the wood in this door was harvested no less than century ago. The google tells me that the modern occupation of it’s surrounding structure houses a recording studio, and it’s historical occupants had some sort of plumbing problem in 1908.

Can anyone fill a humble narrator in on this plank of centuried goodness?

Written by Mitch Waxman

July 12, 2011 at 3:08 pm

3 Responses

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  1. […] Old Cathedral, continued down Delancey Street, went over the Williamsburg Bridge, staged into Williamsburg, and continued up Grand Street in the direction of that assassination of joy called the Newtown […]

  2. […] your humble narrator across the East River from St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in Manhattan into Williamsburg and up Grand Street to Maspeth and the baroque intrigues of the Newtown Creek- wound down into […]

  3. […] your humble narrator across the East River from St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in Manhattan into Williamsburg and up Grand Street to Maspeth and the baroque intrigues of the Newtown Creek- wound down into […]


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