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“Change or Die”? Gentrification in Brooklyn

With simple clothes and a storm of grey hair, the petite Stephanie Eisenberg does not look like a successful developer and manufacturer. But in fact, she is, and also happens to own one of the biggest buildings in Williamsburg, an area in northwest Brooklyn known internationally for its bohemian attractions.

Eisenberg speaks about the neighborhood as if it were a setting for a mafia movie. In the 1970s, shootings and gang fights were a part of everyday life. "This was not a place you wanted to be,” says the 60-year old woman while sipping a $3 cup of coffee in one of the many upscale cafes on Bedford Avenue.

Now the vibrant center of the area, it is unimaginable that stores on Bedford Avenue used to close at 5:00 pm. “It was a landscape full of abandoned factories and collapsing industrial buildings,” says Stephanie. But for her, Williamsburg was neither a failure nor an eyesore opposite the skyline of Manhattan. Coming from a manufacturer’s family, she was thrilled by its post-industrial charm and she also saw it as a chance for future development. In 1982, Stephanie invested $25,000 into a ruined warehouse building. At that  time no bank wanted to finance her purchase because they saw it as too risky. But she was convinced that she was making the right choice. She bought the building, and let it sit until only a few years ago when she was able to finance a radical restoration. The entire warehouse was converted into a residential building, which offered affordable condominiums to architects and other artists already living in the neighborhood. Today, the building has over 70 units – one of them just recently sold for $750,000. But it was not the profit that drove her engagement. Stephanie tries to play the role of a responsible business-woman. Many years she has been on the forefront for sustainable development on Brooklyn´s waterfront. Her different approach is also reflected by the way she planned her building. There is no door-man and complicated house-entry system and the ground floor houses a nursing school and a music store. "We have 75 families and 35 children. Everybody cares for each other.” This was her effort to build a community. But she is not convinced that other developers follow her rule: “I am not saying you shouldn't develop, or make a profit, but you just have to be sensitive, and realize that you're part of a bigger picture." 

The city's decline and renewal

Thirty years ago, New York was a dying city. The decline of the industrial sector, high rates of crime, pollution and racial tensions forced the middle and working class to leave the city and escape to the suburbs. New York was the perfect example of the process that sociologists and urban planners now describe as white flight, a massive exodus of predominantly white, middle-income individuals having a huge impact on the real estate. The market was so low that, for many homeowners, it was more profitable to burn down their buildings and get the money from the insurance than to rent them out. This simple market observation led to disastrous outcomes. In 1979, Bushwick, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, experienced a wave of fires that burnt vast parts of the district to the ground and completed its economic collapse. 

Sometime in the 90s things started to change. First, New York City was no longer a place where one could get shot in the middle of the day. Rudolph Giuliani's harsh anti-crime, "zero tolerance” policy put the crime level relatively under control. Second, New York City seized an opportunity to become a leading financial and banking center for the world, one that provides services for the fast-paced globalized economy. Third, people from the upper middle class started to return to the city. In the beginning they started to buy properties situated close to the heart of Manhattan, as well as near the financial district. Greenwich Village, once occupied by artists, was one of the first areas affected by this process that is now known as gentrification. From Manhattan, where the costs of living became too high, the highly paid young professionals also known as yuppies began to turn their eyes to the other side of the East River: to Brooklyn.

Brooklyn is New York´s most populous borough that is now home to the most rapidly changing neighborhoods of the City. Bushwick is one of them. Located in the northeast part of the borough, and sharing a border with Williamsburg, it is a perfect location to study the roots of gentrification. The area is dominated by three-story apartment buildings, which are still occupied by many low-income renters. But the plane of gentrification is about to take off. And the “displaced” from Williamsburg have already taken their seat in the cockpit.

The Pioneers of Gentrification

Embedded between colorful signs advertising “Chicken Patties” and second hand refrigerator stores, the entrance to “Good bye Blue Monday,” on 1087 Broadway in South Bushwick, is discreet.  Inside one will find just the opposite. The space is covered with antique trash (mostly from dead people), with puppets hanging from the ceiling, and lights and lamps wherever you look. “I wanted to establish a place for cultural activity. So I turned my retail store into a coffee house, bar and music venue,” explains owner Steve Trimboli, a short, laid back guy in his 50´s.

Trimboli was one of the first exiles from rent-rising Williamsburg to move further east on the subway-map. “It was a nightmare. When I came here 9 years ago, the streets were crowded with prostitutes and drug-dealers. Some brothels and crack houses worked in joint venture.” Today, the freely accessible stage in the bar attracts musicians from all over the world. Along with them come artists, gays, hipsters, and the most frightening crowd of first-wave “gentrifiers”, yuppies. “When a crack house was shut down, they turned it into an underground party space,” Steve says as he points at the “Bodega,” a corner shop down the street which is well-known for its illegal electro parties. “There is more creativity in Bushwick than anywhere else in New York,” says the experienced retailer, who goes with the trend and started his own bar-blog. “Last week I gave an interview for a Japanese newspaper.” This recent media attention however is not the only reason why the area has become a hot spot for newcomers from all over. 

“I’m here because it’s cheap and close to the subway,” says Jenny Mulitano, a young fashion designer from Baltimore. She opened her t-shirt showroom in June, just two blocks away from Goodbye Blue Monday on Broadway. Having her own store-front was her childhood dream. “I could never afford a place like this in Williamsburg”, says the 26 year old.  But in contrast to the store’s name, “Yours truly,” a quite customer-unfriendly door policy has been established: She locks them out. “I don´t want random people to come in, there are so many greasy people hanging out here,” Mulitano says. 

Safety is still an issue in the neighborhood, and speculation is part of the game.  “I want to give it a try. And if it doesn’t get better within a year, I will move somewhere else.”  For now, newcomers like Jenny are careful, especially when they have the feeling of not being welcome. 

“You have to watch your back here,” says Adriano Moraes, a cartoonist and bartender.  His friend got beaten up, but didn’t want to talk about it.  Too often he saw the word “gentrification” used as an excuse for violence.  Adriano himself has a critical stand towards the projected development of the area.  To him Gentrification means “simplification”: “At some point everything will look the same. It changes the personality of a neighborhood. Big chains come in, kill the competition, and destroy the difference. People here don’t have the power to fight this.”  His fears are somewhat real, for the north of Bushwick has started to be labeled as “East Williamsburg,” and condos are starting to rise. “We are all broke here and don’t want to be pushed out again,” says the 33 year-old cartoonist, who has not been yet recognized by the market. It’s hard for him to realize that the place he works at is on the forefront of all of this change. Real estate agents have started to show the bar to potential buyers, knowing that a white outpost in a predominantly black neighborhood opens the mind for speculation. 

Pioneer-Developer Steve prefers the word “redevelopment,” and does not feel responsible for the side effects of his engagement. “You start selling something different than fried chicken and pizza and you are called a `gentrifier´. It’s like blaming the inventor of the wheel for the climate change.” By expanding his music venue to the basement, Steve tries to adapt to what he calls a “natural process.” “For a while it is wonderful, then it gets gentrified, rich people move in, others move out, that’s New York.” And in fact, competition might soon get harder for the first and only bar-owner in the street, as some of the “underground” venues start applying for alcohol licenses. Steve tries to act cool, “I say `change or die´ and I’m prepared to stay.” After showing the newly constructed lounge in the basement, he takes a last sip of his coffee and hops on his bike to get to the subway.

What a Developer Has To Say

"Yuppies just realized that cities are cool," says Brian Ezra, an energetic 28-year-old developer from Brooklyn, "and they love artists." One cannot fully understand what gentrification is all about without understanding the role of artists and creative individuals like Steve and Jenny. Their situation is truly schizophrenic. On the one hand they are victims of high real estate prices, and on the other hand they are a cause of it. "If you are a developer you want to see some sort of investment already in place. Before luxury condos are built, you see homes starting to be renovated and second hand furniture stores existing. Developers are looking for signs of life." And artists provide these signs. Looking for cheap housing and bigger space, they tend to be more ambivalent towards crime and underdevelopment than yuppies. "They are pioneers of gentrification," Ezra says as he smiles while sitting in his office on 6th avenue. He looks a bit like the chief of the West-Indian Trading Company, and as if he is just about to send his first ship with settlers to the New World. 
Artists bear the risk that many developers do not want to take. Moreover, they tend to be white, which literally changes the image of a district. This change of image seems to be a prerequisite for further development. Soon after the pioneer's arrival, the first stores are opened. "Retail follows residential," says Ezra, as he plans to send barbers and goldsmiths to his service-starving settlement. But this time they are thirsty for lattes and organic food. "It eventually becomes a cycle. Higher-end people then become attracted, more restaurants and coffee shops are opened and so on…" It does not take much time to see condos being built and upper middle class families moving in. This then acts as a motive for landlords to raise rents, which in the end results in the displacement of old residents. The progression of gentrification sees no end, and the list of districts affected by this process become longer every year. Ezra concludes, "I can't think of any neighborhood in the city that has deteriorated. New York City in general is being gentrified". 

The Mecca of Gentrification

Follow the L train, or “the gentrifiers train,” as some New Yorkers call it, just one stop from Manhattan and you will land in the heart of it all – Bedford Avenue in north Williamsburg.   Bikes line the street, chained to every non-removable surface possible – stop signs, fences, trees, and parking meters.  Take a look around, and ‘Williamsburg Walks’ signs block off the main drag of the Avenue, with the normal hustle and bustle of car traffic being replaced by young fashionistas clad in sunglasses and cut-off jeans, playing guitar or selling second-hand books. And the customers look the same: Good-looking, cigarette smoking, espresso drinking, twenty-somethings. Walk down Bedford to South 2nd, into Stephanie Eisenberg´s converted shoe polish factory which now houses the creators of Limewire, a free-form music-downloading site; Videom, a space for independent video artists to share their work; and Threadless, a clothing company which allows buyers to create their own t-shirts. High-ceiling lofts with 10-foot windows, colorful walls, and music recording equipment scattered throughout the space, this is the picture of bohemian living that has attracted so much attention to Williamsburg in the recent years. The district has transformed from a historically Polish, Dominican, Puerto Rican, and Hasidic neighborhood to what is now internationally known as the most gentrified place in New York City.  

Looking a little bit further, past the bikes, past the coffee shops, and past the converted live/work industrial lofts, you can see the waterfront, with Manhattan’s gleaming skyline poking out in the distance across the East River. This waterfront is now the real attraction in Williamsburg.  Developers have found it, and in the words of Stephanie Eisenberg, they are saying: “Oh look!  Waterfront!  And the neighborhood has already been stabilized by artists… let’s move in!”  With an estimated 4000 new housing units scheduled for construction, and with many having already broken ground this past year, one cannot help but wonder what the future of this neighborhood will entail.

“The city is trying to create a second skyline, and they’re trying to do it with condos,” says Neil DeMause, a journalist from City Limits magazine. What is particularly interesting about such developments is the fact that the back-to-back lots all have the appearance of being ready for construction, yet very few actual buildings are starting to be built. As of now, only one luxury condo high-rise has been erected in the middle of Kent Avenue, with multi-story glass windows protruding into space like a giant finger. “Why do developers make the effort to claim so much land and then build so little?” asks Neil deMause, knowing exactly what the answer is. 

“Affordable” Housing

A policy known as 421a, originally instated in the 1970s, gave tax breaks to developers in an effort to reverse the surge in suburbanization. “Developers should help to rebuild the city,” explains DeMause with a perfidious smile on his face, “but what they were actually doing was building condos for the upper-middle class, subsidized by millions of tax dollars.”   This policy only changed two years ago, as the City government began to realize the negative effects of development, such as the displacement of people.

“The Republicans found a new catch word, “Affordable housing.” And they repeat it over and over,” Stephanie Eisenberg says as she gets visibly angry when she talks about Mayor Bloomberg’s new engagement in the struggle against displacement. Now, in order to qualify for the tax break, developers must make 20 percent of their housing units “affordable” to low or moderate-income individuals. But developers found a way to avoid this: by breaking ground, before the new legislation came into effect, in June 2008. This means that they pretended to start a whole construction project by just digging up land. This is precisely what has happened with the various lots lining Kent Ave on the East River. 

Besides the failing efforts to protect communities from gentrification, the requirements of the so-called “80/20 law” are not as stiff as one would assume. The calculation is complicated. A unit is considered affordable if the rent does not exceed a certain share of the average median income for all of New York City. For a family of four this means a $2300 rent a month.  This is certainly not affordable for a family that makes $28,000 a year - the average median income in Williamsburg.  Eisenberg calls this, “Affordable for the few, misery for the many.”  She also comments that the city is rezoning Williamsburg “so that rich people can look at each other across the waterfront.” And the luxury condos are raising property values throughout the entire neighborhood, pushing out not only residents, but also many local manufacturing businesses that constituted the majority of Williamsburg’s economy through the 20th century. Unlike the displaced residents of Williamsburg, many of whom found shelter in nearby Bushwick, the manufacturers have no alternative as they have to be near their market. “My brother is doing steel work for the subway. Since he moved out, he has to pay his employers to drive the trucks back into the City. They are killing the economy and don’t even realize it,” says Eisenberg.

Meanwhile, the people on the streets of Williamsburg have similar problems. Elijah Wolfson, a 22 year-old photographer and filmmaker, must work as a legal reporter for a financial company in order to afford his $1000/month rent. He voiced his concern that Williamsburg’s infrastructure will not be able to handle the large surge in population. “There are already 2 times as many people waiting to get on the L train into Manhattan at 8:45 in the morning. I have to wait for 3 trains to pass by before there is enough space to get on. It’s only going to get crazier. They need more buses, more trains, or a ferry that goes across the river or something.” Other residents mock the “ugly and cheap” appearance of the newly built condos. For Brian Jacobs, a web developer and guitarist, taste in design was one of the reasons he came to Williamsburg. “It seems that Williamsburg is loosing its very nature.” Moreover, the 28-year-old states that there are no an ordinary banks in the neighborhood, or grocery shops.

Activist Eisenberg also raised the poignant questions of schools, hospitals, and sewage.  “Prevention is a dirty word in New York City.  We don’t believe in it,” she states. With no development plans for anything other than condos, rentals, retail stores, parks, and food service establishments, one cannot help but think that she may be right.

A particularly interesting example of the city’s priorities is their plan to accommodate all of the new sewage that is to come along with the high density housing to be built along the river.  The city, which already has been known to have sewage flooding problems, especially during the rainy winter season, plans to build a rubber “bladder,” which will expand underneath the East River in order to accommodate the extra waste. The rubber bladder will then contract when the rainwater has subsided, and the waste can then run as normal to the sewage treatment facility, according to Eisenberg. Therefore, rather than charging developers to help build a second sewage line through Williamsburg in exchange for access to land, the city is building a giant expandable rubber bladder.  

In the meantime, local manufacturers, ethnic communities, and aspiring artists are forced to move out.  The positives of development, such as increases in safety, the creation of more green space and the influx of commerce and cultural activity, are only accessible to those who can compete with 3 million dollar condos. “Tourism and Wall Street are the only things left in this city,” says Eisenberg, unconscious of her double role in the game called gentrification. “Developers are killing the very reason why tourists come here. They come to see diverse ethnic neighborhoods, artists, not condos. And we all know what happened to Wall Street.”


Interviews with Brian Ezra – Manhattan 8/8/08; Neil DeMause – Manhattan 8/8/08; Stephanie Eisenberg – Williamsburg, Brooklyn 8/10/08; Steve Trimboli – Bushwick, Brooklyn 8/11/08; Jenny Mulitano – Bushwick, Brooklyn 8/11/08; Adriano Moraes – Bushwick, Brooklyn 8/11/08; Jane Jacobs: The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Vintage Books, 1989)

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