I grew up in two Brooklyn communities: Williamsburg and Bushwick. These communities, especially the former, are hallmark examples of gentrification. In the 70s and 80s they were poor ethnic parts of the city with cheap rents and high crime. As the gentrification story goes, alternative communities made of of artists and similar folks moved in. Their presence caused new business to crop up, which attracted more people, which lowered crime, which attracted more people, which raised rents, which drove out many of the ethnic residents who could no longer afford to live there.
These are obviously broad strokes, but I’ll assume that if you’re reading this you’re not interested in an in-depth analysis into the causes and effects of gentrification. Instead, I’ll give you the perspective of someone who has seen his community change in good and bad ways and the internal struggle that causes.
Williamsburg and Bushwick have always been communities in flux. When I was living there the residents were mostly black and Latino with a smattering of Eastern Europeans. The landmarks, however, reflected the German, Polish, Italian and Russian communities that used to live there in the early 20th century. The streets have names like Schaefer, Cooper, and Irving. I wasn’t living on Rodriguez Avenue or Lopez Drive.
To me, there was always a sense that this space wasn’t ever fully ours. Some people lived here before us. We live here now. So when some new people starting moving in, it felt like the natural order of things.
At first, the influx of white folks into streets where I had never seen them outside of a police officer’s uniform, teacher’s outfit, or nurse’s uniform brought about some positive changes.
Before them, the kinds of businesses in my community were specific and limited:
- Chinese restaurant
- Spanish restaurant
- Pizza place
- Barber shop/salon
These businesses were simple and functional. They were independent but the customer experience from one bodega to the next was similar enough to feel like they were part of a chain.
The only expansions to this were commercial avenues where you can find stores like Pretty Girl.
The biggest limitation to this model was the lack of places to hang out. With the increase in new folks, more cafes and bars appeared, which increased the number of places you can sit and think.
The L train is a mess, but it was even worse when I was a kid. The cars were old and dirty. It never ran consistently. It’s better now (just super packed).
But the biggest problem with the gentrification of my neighborhoods was that rent prices were pushing out a lot the families I grew up with. Some moved to Florida. Some deeper into Brooklyn. It makes me sad.
The difficultly is that a lot of these folks, especially those of Latino descent, relied on a network of close and weak ties to navigate life. Churches served as community centers and helped connect recent immigrants with community members who could help get them on their feet. As those people moved away, those networks became harder to maintain, which makes it harder for folks who struggle with the language or bureaucracy to make it.
Arguably, I’m part of the problem. I went to college and gained a different set of tastes and sensibilities. I gained an ability to navigate red tape. I moved to Harlem because it’s a community of color that has a deep sense of itself and its history. Plus, it’s got a sweet cafe a block from where I live that serves organic eggs.
Before Harlem, I lived in Bushwick. My feelings about living there are very conflicted. I have so many memories there and love the people. But the diversity that once made it a rich place to live started to feel schizophrenic. It was a place that was not sure what it was – hipster heaven? Latin enclave? – at a time when I was not sure who I was.
I felt (feel?) like both the gentrifier and the gentrified. So I left.