The third installment of our exploration of New York City neighborhoods takes Crowd DNA NYC to Greenpoint, where factories are closing and highrises are rising...
21 February, 2020
Journeying out for the next chapter of our Neighborhoods series lands us in Greenpoint, the northernmost section of Brooklyn, where we speak with natives about the neighborhood’s determination and strong work ethic.
Greenpoint is set on the banks of the East River, built up against the backdrop of Manhattan’s skyline. Previously an integral part of the factory circuit and lumber industry, the tenants of hard work and steadfastness still remain. However, as the once dominant factories close and rezoning laws allow for waterfront highrises, Greenpoint’s demographic and cultural patchwork is quickly beginning to change.
“From box factories, rope manufacturers, meat markets, or what have you – Greenpoint always had the essence of hard work.”
Greenpoint stands at the far north of Brooklyn, but feels nestled between Brooklyn and Queens. Much of Greenpoint’s hard working, blue collar immigrant population has been replaced by neighborhood transplants from near and far. Even so, the spirit of determination lives on – it just manifests in new ways.
When European settlers landed on Native American soil (now New York City), they referred to the lush, tree-covered tip of land jutting out into the East River as ‘Greenpoint.’ In the mid-1600s the land was settled on by the Dutch West India Company and farming began. Along with being a base during the Revolutionary War, Greenpoint’s population was comprised solely of five interrelated farming families.
Fast forward to the 1830s when Neziah Bliss, an entrepreneur, married into one of these farming families. After the creation of a turnpike into the neighborhood, Bliss introduced a ferry service to and from Manhattan. Soon after, Greenpoint was annexed into the city of Brooklyn and became recognized for the production of everything from sugar to ships. In fact, ships built at the Greenpoint waterfront were integral in the Civil War. Some of the warehouses in which maritime rope factories operated still stand along the waterfront.
Both Greenpoint’s farming and industrial pasts are not forgotten. Their legacies are forever recorded on the neighborhood’s street signs, with names like Box Street (for the box factories) and Ash Street (for the ash trees). Greenpoint native, Paul, described the significance of this: “It’s cool because a lot of the early settlers got their names on these streets because they made an impact. That’s very unique. When you dive into the essence of who these streets are named after, the origin of the neighborhood is still very rooted in European and specifically, Polish roots.”
Greenpoint’s Polish presence began during the Revolutionary War. As Paul described, street signs and monuments still tout prominent Poles in New York’s history. For example, the Kosciuszko and Pulaski Bridges, both named after war heroes, still link Greenpoint to neighboring borough, Queens.
During Greenpoint’s industrial boom, immigrants from around the world flocked to the neighborhood to man factories and warehouses. Like Chicago and Detroit, Greenpoint became a hub for blue collar Polish immigrants. Today, Chicago boasts the largest Polish population in the US, but Greenpoint follows close behind in second.
Since the early 1900s, ‘Little Poland’ became home to Polish newspapers, credit unions, meat markets, bakeries etc. For over 100 years, Polish was spoken in the streets and shops; and families of as many as three generations lived together in the neighborhood. However, in the early 2000s many Polish businesses were faced with the challenge: react or disappear.
In the early 2000s, rezoning laws allowed for 175 blocks of Greenpoint and next door waterfront neighborhood, Williamsburg, to be built on. The introduction of new luxury housing, a park, and retail space along the river, caused Greenpoint’s population to surge. Around the same time, Poland entered the EU, making the UK an appealing location for Polish transplants, allowing them to be closer to home. This, however, caused a decline in Greenpoint’s Polish population.
Meanwhile, rents began to skyrocket as young newcomers from near and far flocked to Greenpoint’s charming streets, the addition of luxury housing now bringing even more appeal. Business owners stand as neighborhood constants, witnessing population changes first hand. Greenpoint native and local barber, Gustavo aka Goose, recounts the evolution through the hair he’s cut.
“In the 80s, by the water on 10th street, it was all drugs and prostitution, but then someone took the time to look at the area and the view and say, ‘Hey we could build something here. This is something really special.’ And [the waterfront] is what it is now.”
Greenpoint’s now well known neighbor, Williamsburg, experienced perhaps one of the most rapid sweeps of gentrification in Brooklyn. However, while Williamsburg’s Bedford Avenue is now littered with big corporations like Whole Foods and Apple, Greenpoint has found a way to preserve the independent spirit of its quaint mom and pop shops.
Donna, owner of longtime neighborhood staple, Peter Pan Donuts, gave insight into Greenpoint’s appeal: “It really feels like a small town. That’s why I think a lot of these young people who come from other states gravitate to Greenpoint – because it does have that hometown feeling.”
A recurring theme emerged when speaking with business owners: ‘any loyal customer is a friend of mine, no matter where they come from’. Goose expresses his appreciation for his customers whether they be the third generation he’s worked with, or a neighborhood newcomer. “In all businesses you can’t be one to judge anybody,” Goose explained. “Anybody that’s willing to sit in my chair and contribute to my business is a friend. I love everybody.”
Similarly, Donna discussed her mission to foster community in Greenpoint one doughnut at a time. The doughnut shop owner reminisced on her ability to spark conversation between younger, newer community members and older, longer standing members. The common ground of a breakfast spot making the discussion of life, dreams, and Greenpoint living possible.
While doughnuts and haircuts are universal across the country, more niche Greenpoint businesses have repositioned themselves in creative ways to survive. Take Polka Dot for example – formerly a Polish meat market, now a restaurant serving traditional Eastern European and Polish fare. However, in the face of a swell of new, non-Polish residents, Polka Dot has also added craft beer and kombucha to their menu.
The working class industrious willpower that first settled in Greenpoint to build ships and manufacture boilermakers still remains part of the area’s lifeblood. In the face of rising rents, this steadfastness holds strong in local shop owners working hard to keep their businesses thriving. There exists a need to maintain businesses, but also anticipate the needs of newer residents.
The same goes for Greenpointers as a whole. Paul, who is also a poet, described the persistence of this hard working culture: “It’s a working class neighborhood, so hard work is ingrained from deep cultural roots. My acquaintances and [people I know] still have a lot of that in them. [Greenpoint was] blue collar, but there’s a lot of other individuals here now; from the tech boom or from the artistic curation side, but it’s still remained changeless in a sense.”
Paul is a lifelong Greenpoint native and artist
Goose is a barber and owner of HeadRush
Donna is the owner of Peter Pan Donuts
Angela is the owner of Angela's Laundromat
To understand the culture and heritage of Greenpoint, we’ve captured people and places who stand as institutions and help keep the neighborhood true to its roots.
Remnants of Greenpoint’s grittier, industrial past remain, while its newer, shinier present weaves itself in. This juxtaposition between old and new paints a palpable image of the neighborhood’s changing industry – and, changing population.
Adjacent to Manhattan’s Midtown, Greenpoint gazes out at New York City’s iconic skyline. However, despite its proximity to the other borough, restrictions in public transportation keep the Greenpoint fairly removed from the chaos of Manhattan.
Greenpoint has been said to feel trapped in time, as its streets feel more quaint and underbuilt than neighboring Williamsburg or Long Island City. This is likely due in part to the G train, Brooklyn’s only crosstown train. Unlike other Brooklyn neighborhoods, which sit along lines that funnel into Manhattan, the G never crosses the river.
At times likened to a quaint small town, Greenpoint’s architecture and familiar faces feel cozy to its residents. The neighborhood’s nature attracts newcomers, hungry to escape big city life in a place that feels similar to the small town America they grew up in.
A nod to past industry remains in the The Eberhard Faber Pencil Factory. After centuries of innovating the pencil (creating the first colored pencil and rubber eraser), Eberhard Faber reclocated to Pennsylvania. Its building has been repurposed and now houses brands like Kickstarter.
Not long ago, Greenpoint’s factories created everything from rope to sugar. Still holding a strong sense of determination today, the neighborhood has pivoted. Waterfront warehouses provide a blank canvas for creativity. Brands are putting up Greenpoint offshoots that focus on product innovation, while street artists add color to factory walls.
Still standing as the second largest Polish community in the United States, restaurants like Karczma aim to bring a bit of the old country to Brooklyn. From the decor to the servers dressed in traditional Polish attire, Karczma positions itself as a journey back in time.
Now a prominent landmark, the Astral Apartments once shook up the housing landscape in Brooklyn. In the 19th century, the building served as one of the earliest models of working class housing projects. In their prime, these apartments radically shifted the standard for working class dwellings.
Some Greenpoint establishments swing to appeal to newcomers while others remain strongly rooted in the Polish community. However, evidence of local businesses melding together both populations is clear too.
Unlike many other waterfront Brooklyn neighborhoods, prime real estate lies ripe for redevelopment. This leaves tension lurking under the surface. While long standing residents fear rises in luxury condos, businesses see these spaces as opportunities to capitalize on Greenpoint’s ‘edgy’, creative nature.
21 February, 2020