'Discovering' Williamsburg

Working-class residents are the ones forced out to seek new frontiers

Rob Solano, a 24-year-old journeyman electrician who has lived his entire life in Williamsburg's Southside, said he never thought an artist would move into his neighborhood. That was for the white section of Williamsburg to the north—not for a poor Latino community where the typical household earns well under $20,000 a year.

But about four years ago, the first artsy shops opened near his family's home on Bedford Avenue between South 4th and South 5th streets, and quick as you can say "Brooklyn Soho"—the name of a new deli on the next street—his way of life was endangered.

Rents, running $300 to $500 a month before 2000, jumped to $1,500 and even $2,000 as hipsters moved in to escape Manhattan prices. Solano said he soon found that many of the people he knew were moving out of Brooklyn, and even out of the city, because they couldn't afford the rent.

Williamsburg: Growing pains
photo: Staci Schwartz
Williamsburg: Growing pains

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"This is the biggest thing," he said. "Everyone's in Pennsylvania now."

With the Bloomberg administration pushing a new waterfront zoning plan that will accelerate the rapid rent hikes in Williamsburg, it will only get worse for plenty of longtime local residents. Since rents are also up sharply in Bushwick and East New York, there are few alternatives but to leave Brooklyn, which once epitomized working-class America. And while city planning and housing officials say that their zoning plan will create an "inclusionary" program leading to 2,300 more units of affordable housing in Williamsburg and Greenpoint, it won't necessarily help the poor who are being driven out of the Southside.

That's not my conclusion: It's in the city planning department's own environmental impact statement. Even though half of the affordable units are to be reserved for Greenpoint-Williamsburg residents, the March 4 document notes, "not all of the potentially displaced population are expected to be able to rent these units." That means a "significant adverse impact" remains, at least in part.

Translation: The fine print shows that the city's plan is a risk to poor Southside residents, especially those in small buildings not protected by rent regulations. Face it: Rents will rise based simply on the prospect that more luxury housing will be built in the area, and the present Southside residents, including many hipsters, will be long gone before the first affordable units are available to them.

Rachaele Raynoff, spokeswoman for the city planning department, said the rezoning offered "an incredibly aggressive affordable-housing program." She called the environmental impact statement "extremely conservative" and said it showed that more affordable housing would be created than lost.

But the study was not all that cautious about protecting the poor. Using a timeworn justification for urban renewal, it essentially said the rezoning can proceed because poor people were already being forced out anyway.

Some, such as resident Manuela Butler, would like to remain—and in decent housing. "Before, we used to sit at the table with mother and father and children. Now you sit with two other families," she said. "The kids get married, they just come in with the parents."

John Mulhern, director of the Southside Community Mission, said he sees the signs of a population shift at Sunday services in Transfiguration Roman Catholic Church on Marcy Avenue. The number of worshippers has dropped from 1,500 five years ago to 900.

"We're losing a significant number of people to Florida, principally to the Orlando area," Mulhern said, adding that others went to Maspeth and Ridgewood for cheaper housing, some to Allentown and the Poconos.

"New York will be a healthier city if we can have a mixed economic base," Mulhern said. "It is unhealthy to make huge parts of the city uninhabitable by working-class families."

Southside Mission has helped organize Churches United for Fair Housing, which is pressing the City Council to put more units of affordable housing into the Bloomberg administration's controversial waterfront rezoning.

Reverend Jim O'Shea, a priest who helped organize the campaign, said he is rankled when news accounts refer to the neighborhood as a "frontier" and the newcomers as "pioneers." It's "like Columbus," he said.

I hadn't thought of it that way before: This is the language of colonial oppression. It's time to see the story through the eyes of the Southside. "It's amazing how it happens," said Solano, a church organizer. "You just need one thing, like a Starbucks, and then everyone comes in the hundreds."

 
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