Before the hipsters, before the waterfront concerts, before Smorgasburg and the Brooklyn Flea, and way before that Dunkin’ Donuts on Bedford Avenue, North Williamsburg had a very different look and feel. In the 1970s and ’80s, the area was home to a working-class community of Polish immigrants, many of whom worked in nearby factories. The neighborhood now known for its nightlife would become desolate after the factories’ third shift let out. Yes, there were bars — mostly beer-and-shot joints — but you’d be hard-pressed to find restaurants or venues with live music. Yet, it was during this time period that Williamsburg’s gentrification began.
One person who had an inside look at the neighborhood’s transformation is Felice Kirby, owner of Teddy’s Bar and Grill. Born and raised in New York, Kirby took on a career in community organizing that led to her involvement in Vietnam War protests and the welfare rights movement. Social work brought her to Williamsburg in 1979, and she bought Teddy’s — one of the New York City’s oldest bars — in 1987. The brewpub has made a mark over the years: In 1988, it became the first place to serve Brooklyn Brewery beer on tap. It has also been used as a shooting location for shows such as Boardwalk Empire.
YACK spoke with Kirby about three key moments from 1975–85 that pushed ahead the transformation of Williamsburg: 1) the city government threatening to shutter firehouse Engine Company 212 on Wythe Avenue in 1975, 2) a prostitution epidemic in 1983, and 3) artists living illegally in warehouse spaces during the mid-’80s.
Here are her stories:
1970s: The Fight to Save a Firehouse
“In 1975, New York City was in dire economic straits — the city was facing bankruptcy. Mayor Abraham Beame chose the course of laying off tens of thousands of workers and closing libraries and firehouses, cutting back on school programs, and consolidating every municipal agency. Throughout the city, anybody who was a regular working person was very upset. People were getting laid off. You didn’t know what the future was.
“The one place where the neighborhood rose up to fight this government decision was right here in Williamsburg. In 1975, this was a working-class white immigrant community. Most people’s jobs were working in a warehouse, driving a truck, working in a retail facility. There were so many manufacturing jobs in the area — people walked to work. In this neighborhood that was so poor, there had already been service cuts over the prior decade as the economy went downhill, so when Mayor Beame decided to close the local firehouse around the corner, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
“The civic associations came together under some of the young, more radical people and social workers that were here. They occupied the firehouse, Engine Company 212, for two years, ending in 1977, when the new mayor, Ed Koch, came to the facility, shook the leader of the protest movement’s hand, and said, ‘Congratulations, you fought City Hall and you won.’
“When these guys won in 1977, they became heroes. A movie was made called People’s Firehouse #1; they were on the front page of newspapers. With the firehouse reopening, they decided to stay together and become a non-profit corporation that would seek to improve the local economy and save buildings from being abandoned. I got hired as their first professional, paid organizer.”
Early 1980s: Prostitutes Descend on North Williamsburg
“I came to Williamsburg to work in 1979. It was completely blue collar and there were a ton of immigrants — undocumented workers from Poland up and down every block. No one spoke English. I knew a lot of weird stuff because I was a tenant organizer. One common thing was that landlords would rent cots and people would sleep in shifts like the old tenement apartments on the Lower East Side. I could prove it because when the mailman delivered the mail, when he dropped open the mailbox you could see 10 or 20 names for one apartment.
“There were bars on every corner but they were mostly beer and shot bars: The TV would be on; there would be no live music. There were very few places to eat, with a convenience store every couple of blocks. At night, the streets were deserted. On the three shifts when factories opened or closed there would be a flood of people coming out of the factory gates along Kent Avenue or some of the side streets, and then it would be quiet.
“We had typical issues of abandoning communities. For example, in 1983 the police department started to enforce against a street prostitution problem on Fulton Street [in downtown Brooklyn] and they drove the street hooker traffic to northside. So, during these factory shift changes when the trucks were leaving the factory gates, there was a gauntlet of prostitutes. And in the summertime they’d be taking their clothes off trying to solicit the traffic for business.
“As the weeks went on, the prostitutes started wandering down the sidestreets, either to pick up johns or taking johns in their car and turning tricks on these residential streets. One day a couple having sex in a car offered some money to a kid — I’m not sure what for, maybe to buy them cigarettes. But the kid ran home and told his parents, and then the residential community went ballistic. My job as an organizer was to help the people form a protest movement and approach the police, the DA’s office, march in the streets, and try and get the street prostitution traffic out of our area.”
Mid 1980s: An Artist’s Community Starts to Rise
“In the early ’80s, the only signs of gentrification were artists in the lofts. They weren’t such young people — painters and sculptors in their 30s who were selling their art and were able to pay rent and maybe even buy a building. They loved the fact that the neighborhood was quiet. By the mid ’80s there was a small but growing number of younger college-educated artists who chose to live here because the rent was really cheap and it was close to Manhattan.
“As a community non-profit, we discussed the efficacy of these people living in loft buildings that were built for work. The city did nothing to regulate the illegal use of these lofts. They didn’t impose the fire codes or the multiple dwelling codes. Nobody was supposed to be living in these buildings — the artists were paying rent to a landlord who had no right to be renting to a tenant. It was supposed to be for a business. But if artists wanted to use them, why not? They weren’t hurting anyone.
“It didn’t seem like there would be a seismic change in the neighborhood until some of the artists started organizing raves and other events — underground but very public gatherings. One night in 1984 there was a big warehouse show on South 4th Street in an area two blocks away from one of the most significant drug cutting and packaging blocks in the whole city. Limousines were driving up from Manhattan with wealthy famous people like Debbie Harry getting out and going up to the show and the party.
“At that point, we as the organizing team all said, Wow. The abandoned buildings and the cheap rent are going to cause the neighborhood to face gentrification down the road. We never thought anybody would pay good money to live in the crummy buildings made of wood with plastic facades. The change in the rent role of those buildings is what has driven a lot of the longtime poor people out of the neighborhood, because even those crummy buildings became desirable housing.”
Present Day: Trying to Keep the Neighborhood’s Spirit Alive
“There was another recession when President Reagan was in office in the late ’80s — things kind of slowed down and didn’t really heat up again until the ’90s. From the ’90s on, it’s been a juggernaut of change: new people coming to the area, property changing hands, new developments, and lower-income people moving out, either because their rent is unaffordable or if they owned their buildings, this was their one chance in life to cash in.
“Gentrification is inevitable and hard to judge. When there’s an economic vacuum, some business venture is going to come into that vacuum and see a way to profit. I hope and think the nonprofits and business associations will support the independence movements. We might win some zoning law changes making the architecture of the ground floors of buildings inhospitable to big box stores and chains.
“You have to have a mix. The biggest players — the big developers, the bank underwriters, and the real estate brokers are killing the goose that layed the golden egg. If the neighborhood is nothing except chain stores it will not be interesting to newcomers, to property buyers, to artists, to creative people. We need to work together to keep the sense of community, and not merely chase the highest dollar. There has to be some sense of giving back and building community.”
Editor’s Notes: Kirby is still an active member of the Williamsburg community board. Engine 212 was closed by the city in 2003, but the property was later signed over to local groups. The building is now being turned into the Northside Town Hall Community and Cultural Center. Visit Teddy’s Bar and Grill at 96 Berry Street.