When did Williamsburg become a Jewish area? When did the mafia form locally and how active were they in North Brooklyn? Who are some of the many famous people who come from Williamsburg? As a published author who specializes in North Brooklyn history, I get asked these questions often and I decided to write a book that answers these questions and many others about the area. The book I just published, “Williamsburg Transformed,” traces local history from 1903 until the end of World War II in 1945, a period when much of the area’s culture formed.
The construction of the Williamsburg Bridge in 1903 transformed Williamsburg into one of the largest areas of immigrants in the United States. Williamsburg became home to a huge community of Eastern European Jews and Italians. These two groups had a massive influence on the development not only of New York City, but also American culture. Williamsburg produced legendary artists like Man Ray, Max Weber and Ben Shahn. It spawned writers like Henry Miller, Betty Smith, the author of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” and Daniel Fuchs, whose “Summer in Williamsburg” is a cult favorite.
It also spawned famous criminals. The book covers the prohibition era when local mobster Joseph Bonano fought in, and emerged victorious from, the Castellammarese War, which resulted in the establishment of the five family mafia commission that governed mafia relations. It also produced infamous Jewish gangsters like Bugsy Siegel and the boss of Murder Incorporated Louis “Lepke” Buchhalter, who became public enemy #1 and was eventually, electrocuted for his many murders.
Today many young Brooklynites define themselves as socialists, but this is nothing new. The book chronicles two Williamsburg socialists, Bert and Ella Wolfe who co-founded the American Communist Party before realizing that Communism was a deeply flawed system. They later became staunch anti-Communist intellectuals. The book also tells the story of the many local socialists and anti- fascists who sneaked into Spain and joined the Republican army to fight against the Fascists in Spain. It also relates how local Leftists already during World War II were blacklisted for their political beliefs, a prelude to McCarthyism, which cast a pall over America in the 1950’s.
The book also depicts the lives of average people during this era including Jewish garment workers and Polish sugar refinery workers. Reading Williamsburg Transformed allows the reader an insight into what it was like to live in the neighborhood during this era. It is a product of extensive research both in historical newspapers and in books written by and about characters in North Brooklyn. If you want a stronger sense of local history, then you will enjoy reading “Williamsburg Transformed.”