The opening of the Wlliamsburg Bridge in 1903 signaled a new era for Williamsburg and Greenpoint. The genteel society of Manhattan was apprehensive. New England evangelicals who had close relations to Manhattan churches were alarmed for their brethren. Lyman Abbot, a prominent New England counselor to progressive evangelicals, could not bring himself to have much faith in Brooklyners. He warned that the bridge would open Manhattan to Brooklyn, which was “full of devils.”
The disparagement was not taken too kindly by pastors working in the trenches with “the huddled masses” coming to Brooklyn from overseas. In fact most local evangelical churches saw the bridge with a different spiritual polarity. They could have pointed to the contemporary observations of sociologist Max Weber during his visit to Manhattan and Brooklyn in 1904 who believed that he saw an out-of-control Protestant ethic of relentless work and money-making while its originators, the mainline Protestant churches, were fading away. Weber wrote that at his two dinners in Brooklyn, one in Cobble Hill and the other at Brooklyn Heights, his German friends contrasted the "more devout" Brooklyn with the secularized Manhattan. Brooklynites saw a rush of new settlers from Manhattan as refugees from Manhattan miseries.
The Brooklyn evangelicals worked to accommodate an intensification of ethnic and religious diversity. Fresh-off-the-boat immigrants from Germany, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Poland, Russian and elsewhere found housing that was cheaper and better than that in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Those already living on the Lower East Side could also move to Brooklyn by walking across the bridge. Lovers from the Lower East Side could meet their objects of desire on the bridge, then make their nests in Williamsburg.
Immigration and the birds-and-the-bees increase meant that the population in Williamsburg increased from 105,000 in 1900 to a high of 260,000 in 1920. Buildings were torn down so that new ones could be built to accommodate more people per building. The density of population became one of the highest in the nation. The Lower East Side cycle of attraction of many immigrants then a deterioration of the buildings started to repeat itself in Williamsburg and Greenpoint. Life-styles became strained by deteriorating housing and poverty, yet there were also an increasing number of jobs available.
Industries were moving to or expanding their factories and warehouses like the Havemeyer and Elder Sugar Company (which is now Amstar) and Pfizer Pharmaceutical Company in Williamsburg, and Astral Oil (which became Standard Oil) and Continental Iron Works in Greenpoint. At the turn of the century Henry O. Havemeyer put his Domino stamp on the public’s very idea of sugar by inventing the small sugar carton and making the domino-sized sugar cubes to go into them. Churches were actively forming new ventures also.
In the 1890s a small group of European Jews who had become followers of Jesus as the Messiah started some storefront establishments in Williamsburg. Eventually, their efforts led to a significant national movement of Jews among the evangelicals, including an impetus to persuade the U.S. government to support the re-establishment of Israel.
Rabbi Leopold Cohn was the most significant Messianic Jew in Williamsburg at the turn of the century. In the 1890s soon after his arrival from Hungary, he became a believer in Jesus. After some theological studies, he established a storefront church in Brownsville, Brooklyn, then one in Williamsburg while renaming his organization Williamsburg Mission to the Jews. At first it was located at 17 Ewen Street, then at 13 Manhattan Avenue. The mission then bought a four-story building at 235 S. 4th Street, right next to the ramp off the Williamsburg Bridge. Later, Cohn established a center at 141 Hewes Street known as “The Home for Jewish believers.”
Mary C. Sherburne, a Gentile volunteer in Williamsburg, wrote a description of Cohn’s operations. She noted that “Cohn preached on Saturday afternoons and Thursday nights” at an auditorium for 160 people. On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday he preached in English. He even enlisted his children to distribute tracts. She noted that “Joseph started at nine years old.” The son would also lecture at churches to ask for donations and on his way home would immediately buy food because supplies were so low. Cohn spent free evenings and days going door to door in Williamsburg to talk about his faith.
The idea of Messianic Judaism slowly gained ground. Cohn opened a second branch of the Williamsburg mission and started a popular clinic on Throop Avenue with physicians from a variety of faiths. He also opened a Jewish farm in Connecticut as a retreat center.
In the 1900s the energetic Cohn started a Russian Jewish meeting. One contemporary remembered, “One Saturday afternoon, father came home and said that he had just passed the missionary store on Grand Street. ‘They are doing good business these days,’ he said. ‘As I passed, the door opened and I saw the place crowded with people.’” Other immigrant groups also founded their own churches.
In 1904 an Italian congregation founded the First Italian Baptist Church (later to become Devoe Street Baptist Church). (After Guiseppe Garibaldi’s fight to create a modern unified Italy, several of his associates became Protestant leaders in the new nation.)
In the same year the number of Puerto Ricans coming to Williamsburg increased after the United States granted non-citizen nationality status to Puerto Ricans which meant they could freely move to the United States.
The next year Polish evangelicals founded the First Polish Baptist Church. Simultaneously, Swedish Lutherans founded the Lutheran Church of the Messiah.
The door to the Twentieth Century opened with a bang of church planting by Williamsburg and Greenpoint evangelicals.
Next Monday: "Biography of Williamsburg and Greenpoint evangelicals through a biography of a Church"
Also see the other features in our series "A Journey through Williamsburg & Greenpoint religions" --