By Michael Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 21, 2007
So this is truth: About eight nanoseconds ago Williamsburg was the national-magazine-certified coolest hood in America, with more vaguely employed white hipsters per square inch than anywhere on the continent. There are 22 clubs and 61 art galleries and enough pubs pouring fine Belgian beers to pitch any 22-year-old into a state of bleary-eyed ecstasy.
Makis Antzoulatos was fine with all that.
But something nagged. As the neighborhood went hyper-hip and rents spiked, where would all the Puerto Ricans go? Or the old Poles who run the delis, and the Italians in East Williamsburg, where you can wander into a pasta joint at 11 p.m. and get a plate of scungilli and okay-but-slightly-headache-inducing Chianti?
Antzoulatos gathered pierced hipsters on the bare floor of his tenement living room and founded Gentrifiers Against Gentrification. They vowed to make common cause with Puerto Rican teachers and Italian bus drivers -- who, not incidentally, gave Williamsburg the working-class edge that made it hip in the first place -- and repulse the moneyed waves.
Whatever. Condos kept flipping. Antzoulatos dialed for a moving van.
"I realized the struggle was about negotiating the terms of departure," says Antzoulatos, 28, who now lives in a working-class precinct of slightly less rapidly gentrifying Boston.
Much has been written about gentrification and its discontents, but in few places has the speed and finality of that transformation been more startling than in Williamsburg, a formerly working-class Brooklyn neighborhood of 180,000 people along the East River. A wall of luxury glass towers is rising for 25 blocks along the "East River Riviera." Wander inland and check out the needle condo towers with three-bedroom places retailing at $1,135,000.
Overnight, another preserve of working-class American culture is rendered unaffordable to thousands of families -- and to the hipsters themselves. Want to know the next move? Toll Brothers, the nation's preeminent McMansion builder, has built a new luxe waterfront condo. Its ad features a preppy and distinctly unpierced blonde and the line: "Williamsburg, All Grown Up."
Anthropologist Neil Smith of City University's Center for Place, Culture and Politics has tracked gentrification with an obsession worthy of Ahab. He's charted the transformation of blue-collar neighborhoods, from Shaw in the District and San Francisco's Mission to the wharfs of London and the canal-lined streets of Amsterdam. This isn't the old block-by-block stuff, the grinding rehab of old rowhouses by scruffy young gentry. He's convinced he's found a new beast.
"We are witnessing the corporate and geographical restructuring of cities -- the wealthy are suburbanizing the center and pushing the poor to the fringes, and it's turbocharged," Smith says. "Artists are disposable -- developers just toss them out in hopes they'll colonize the next 'hot' neighborhood.
"And no one bloody knows where the working class will go."
As Williamsburg turns urban Disneyland, those who own homes, a small fraction, see values spike and pass the dough to their kids. Everything becomes safer, hipper, there's better sushi.
"Follow the gays and the artists -- they restore cities. It's that or wither away," says Frank Braconi, director of the Citizens Housing and Planning Council of New York.
As for the working class?
"A high-school-educated person," Braconi says, "stands a much better chance of prospering in Atlanta than in New York."
But that raises the question: What does become of millions of middle- and working-class residents who represent the majority of New York, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles? An edgy mix of races and classes has for generations defined the world city. Now coolness does the suburban dance.
Elvin Wyly of the University of British Columbia authored a Fannie Mae report that found mortgage lending in Williamsburg has increased in recent years at twice the national average -- and most of those dollars go to upper-class families. "We are transforming class character of the American city," says Wyly. "There's nothing 'natural' about it."
"The struggle in the 1970s was to force banks to loan in poor neighborhoods," he adds. "Now we're trying to slow the banks down."
Change comes with particular poignancy in Williamsburg. Residents wrested their neighborhood from blight's maw long before the gentry arrived. From 1986 to 1995, New York City poured $750 million into Williamsburg and Greenpoint, and tenants created thousands of low-income cooperative apartments. When factories shuttered, boutique manufacturers and artists took root, employing laborers at good wages.
Nor did natives object when their old neighborhood slipped on a new dress.
Luis Acosta, a 61-year-old former seminarian, won't wax nostalgic for the day a teenager bled to death on his front stoop. Nor does Rob Solano, the thickly muscled son of a Puerto Rican knish vendor, object to the wasabi-and-poblano-sauce restaurants; it beats convincing his girlfriend to ride the L subway line to Manhattan for a dinner out.
You walk into South Williamsburg and find Rabbi David Niederman, black-hatted and bearded, standing by the automotive river that is the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. His ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jewish sect washed ashore with a dozen families 50 years ago and built a 50,000-strong shtetl that repelled the crack gangsters of the late 1980s.
"We thanks God for making this world safe," Niederman says.
But dislocation looms. The median family in Williamsburg earns $27,466 and spends 45 percent of its income on rent. The three-piece-suited newcomer hails from the financial sector, where the average salary is $195,857. "How do we compete with this tsunami?" Niederman asks. "Our insularity is no match for this money."
Hasidic Jews march to protest the intrusion of another luxury loft -- Busta Rhymes lives there. Polish and Puerto Rican families put hand-lettered signs in their windows -- "Speculators Beware: This Building Not for Sale!" -- and burn candles in protest.
And still the moneyed waves wash in.
Acosta, dark hair swept back to his shoulders, walks across the bones of a once-great industrial land. He points out blackened stumps of piers where freighters docked and grassy lots where spice warehouses stood. He touches the brick wall of the Domino Sugar Factory, which two years ago employed thousands but now stands vacant, and sweeps his hand at Williamsburg. An onion-domed Russian Orthodox cathedral still dominates the skyline. Poles and Puerto Ricans, Italians and artists, they battled arsonists and heroin gangs, city bureaucrats, and sometimes each other.
They always won -- until now. Acosta doffs his fedora and waves to the south.
"That is our future now." He points to a blue condominium tower rising near the Williamsburg Bridge. A water taxi will ferry residents to Wall Street. "Which means we have no future at all."
* * *
The future of America's cities happened here once. Robber barons built foundries and factories, and immigrants poured into the most industrialized county in America. Catholic parishes and breweries rose. No one with a strong back starved -- or went thirsty.
Five-foot-tall Angela Ortiz, 74, with hair dyed red, and gold hoop earrings and a pink jumpsuit, and hands tiny and wrinkled, talks about raising three daughters and working in a union textile factory. "Work, you could always find, and with work you have happiness," says Ortiz.
She climbs creaking stairs to her apartment. Panting, she points through the kitchen to a fire escape entwined with Christmas lights. "My balcony," she says.
The Williamsburg that Ortiz loved turned to ashes. From 1969 to 1974, the city lost 215,000 manufacturing jobs, including 60,000 in the textile industry. Arsonists made bonfires of buildings. In 1975, officials tried to shutter Engine House 212 in Williamsburg. Families and parish priests sat in until it reopened. Veterans of the Williamsburg struggle led the way in rehabilitating apartments and building day-care centers.
Acosta migrated from the Young Lords -- a militant Puerto Rican nationalist group modeled after the Black Panthers -- to El Puente, a neighborhood nonprofit. He and his campaneros founded a school and a health clinic, which still sits on Driggs Avenue where, as it happens, a wine store next door now sells a fine $30 Malbec.
A young couple, in matching black-on-black jeans and T-shirts, sip coffee and discuss the joys of $749 Stokke Xplory strollers. "The telescoped handle is so cool," she coos.
Acosta wags his eyebrows. "We were formed out of rage at the decay around us," he says. "When I told my family I was going to live here in the 1970s, man, they thought I was nuts."
But now the cultural dislocation is considerable in Billyburg, as hyperventilating realtors and a few hipsters have dubbed it. You meet tenant organizer Debra Medina on a balmy weekday. Down Bedford Avenue, musicians play electronica on their guitars and a mime troupe reenacts the slaughter of innocents, and the line at the Verb Cafe goes out the door. It's like lunchtime at Oberlin College.
Medina, 42, strolls down to a new cafe, a blond-wood place with coffee from four continents, that sits within the shadow of the entrance ramp to the Williamsburg Bridge. A young white woman pours and chats with a friend. When this neighborhood changes more, the woman says, she wants to rent this cafe for parties. Medina pivots, leaving her steaming cup at the counter.
"All this veiled language about 'pioneers' and 'settlers' -- it's from the perspective that we're temporary." Medina's feet clip faster across the sidewalk. "We need to speak up or it's all over."
* * *
City officials proposed two years ago to rezone Williamsburg's last industrial areas, hoping to seed a new forest of luxury condos. This was a step too far. Poles, Italians and Latinos shouted pols off stages and demanded affordable housing. And for the first time they joined forces with financially hard-pressed hipsters and performance artists who tossed up protest Web sites and trooped to City Hall to perorate against the plan.
City officials relented; they agreed last year that 20 percent of the apartments should be affordable to the working class. Celebrators pushed through the door at Teddy's Bar, a tin-ceilinged joint on North Eighth Street. Round after round of shots were tossed back.
Late that night, a young activist stood on not so steady feet and led a beery chant:
"No justice! No peace! No justice! No . . . " Then the sky bled red at sunrise and reality leaked back in. Hobbled by poor credit, many working-class tenants cannot qualify even for "affordable" apartments. (A city report estimates the new development will displace 2,500 residents -- very much a low-ball estimate, officials acknowledge.)
The housing bubble supposedly has deflated, but developers flip vacant lots at double the inflated prices of a year ago. When residents proposed landmark status for a massive warehouse in Greenpoint -- which would have slowed a luxury condo plan -- a mysterious fire sent thick clouds of smoke billowing miles into Brooklyn. So the neighborhood circles round, from the arson of disinvestment to the arson of the land rush.
"Clearly the city didn't drive a hard enough bargain," says Martin Dunn, a developer of low-income housing. "What was wrong with holding developers to a mere 500 percent profit?"
Over on Union Avenue, Barbara Schliff, a tough-talking blond organizer of three decades' vintage with the nonprofit housing group Los Sures, stands by a graffitied tenement with 30 Mexican and Ecuadoran tenants. The landlord offered tenants $5,000 to vacate -- he has condos in mind.
The tenants are defiant, but history isn't in their favor. Schliff's voice slides edgy. "I can't feel like this rezoning battle was some great victory," she says. "I feel like in five years we're all gone."
As for the boutique manufacturers who are the postmodern face of Williamsburg? Dawn Ladd, 55, an expat Arkansas artist, owns Aurora Lampworks, which designed the handsome iron lamps in City Hall Park. She points across North 11th Street.
A luxury condo rises. No resident, she notes, wants to hear trucks backing up at 7 a.m. or listen to a $19-an-hour Latino craftsman banging hammer on metal like a mad monk. She purses her lips. "I fought like hell and lost. My next move is out of the city."
Rabi Elbaz, an intense architect, moved here in 2000. His friends are having kids and no one can afford Williamsburg anymore, and besides: How cool is a place dominated by white Manhattanites and hedge funders anyway? "We are becoming like the Hispanics," Elbaz says. "We're all moving."
Elbaz has tracked the gypsy hipsters to Bushwick. Crack and smack gangs once controlled it, but that was yesterday. It's the new land of cool. He's bought an apartment building and is turning it into condos.
And what of Solano, the knishmaker's son? He sits in an old Italian restaurant and fiddles with his penne. He bridles at the notion he's a goner. He has his eye on a subsidized apartment, which he will eventually obtain. "I'm not good enough to live next door to you?"
Then he asks: "Where are most of us going to live?"
Then he answers: "Pennsylvania."