Williamsburg, Brooklyn has become a neighborhood known for its wide array of bars, boutiques, restaurants, hotels, and a bustling night life that attracts New Yorkers in droves.
Hop on an L Train headed from Manhattan to Brooklyn on any given weeknight, and you’re almost guaranteed to be pushed onto a car full of hipsters, students, artists, and others whose ultimate stop is Bedford Avenue in the heart of North Williamsburg.
But the Williamsburg most people think of when they hear its name is only a small portion of the neighborhood. To the south, a community of Hasidic Jews thrives and keeps to itself. And to the southeast, an area known as “The South Side” is home to a diverse Latino community.
The South Side is characterized by residences occupied by families, and blocks of colorful shops much different than the posh and trendy boutiques and organic grocery stores North of Metropolitan Avenue near the banks of the East River. Lavanderías, panaderías, bodegas, furniture stores, nail salons, and mom and pop Mexican, Dominican, and Puerto Rican restaurants pepper the neighborhood where patrons hastily walk to conduct their business.
But the neighborhood is changing, and quickly. Rezoning, gentrification, and a lack of affordable housing are rapidly spreading farther east as North Williamsburg and its population continue to grow. Newer apartment buildings can already be found as far east as Montrose Avenue and Leonard Street, and more are coming.
Hugh Kelly, a real estate developer and clinical associate professor at NYU’s Schack Institute of Real Estate, says it’s a problem that’s been plaguing New York City for years. As Manhattan grew more and more expensive, young professionals moved East into Brooklyn seeking lower rent alternatives. But redevelopment and higher rents followed.
“That is a concern in more established residential neighborhoods, and is a concern in Williamsburg itself, which is not only a very densely occupied, but occupied by any many different kinds of ethnic groups,” Kelly said.
A lack of affordable housing is likely the main culprit for a decrease in Latino residents in Williamsburg. According to 2010 census numbers, the Latino population throughout the neighborhood has decreased by 14 percent, which is a growing concern for community members and leaders alike.
“According to the Census, we’ve seen a decrease of 10 thousand Latinos in the 34th District since 2000,” Malcolm Sanborn-Hum, Communications Director for City Council Member Diana Reyna of the 34th District which includes the South Side.
Sanborn-Hum also said the problem is playing out in a couple of key ways: New people are moving farther east than before, thereby pushing existing residents out, and landlords are dumping tenants either to charge higher rent or to sell properties for renovation.
“Unfortunately, it’s a side effect of Williamsburg becoming the ‘ground zero’ of cool places to be,” Sanborn-Hum said. “We see a lot of predatory behavior on the side of the landlords, and it’s creating an increased lack of affordable housing.”
Recently, a plan to redevelop the old Domino Sugar factory on the waterfront just north of the Williamsburg bridge has sparked intense debate amongst residents.
In 2005, as part of Mayor Bloomberg’s waterfront development plan, the Department of City Planning rezoned Williamsburg and its northern neighbor Greenpoint. A proposal to develop the Domino site was subsequently accepted by the city council 2010. The plan was abandoned by the original developers, but Two Trees Management Company, which renovated much of Dumbo in Brooklyn, purchased the project.
Though changes have been made to the building plan since Two Trees took over (including a promise to reserve at least 660 units for “affordable housing”), many residents fear the development will exacerbate the problem the South Side already faces.
“We do not need any more luxury apartments in Williamsburg!” exclaimed Amanda Crandall to cheers from attendees at a community board meeting in late November. Crandall, who has lived in Williamsburg for 30 years, expressed her disdain for the project and also aired concerns that though the developers are promising affordable housing, they won’t deliver.
Stephanie Eisenberg, who has lived in Williamsburg since 1996, was also in attendance at the meeting and shared Crandall’s sentiments. To her, though, pointing to gentrification as the main reason for the affordable housing shortage in Williamsburg doesn’t fly. In a later interview she said, “It’s not gentrification, it’s class warfare. And it’s not new. It’s been going on for a long time, and the people in charge know it.”
Eisenberg is also the owner of American Metal, a metal products manufacturer that has operated in Brooklyn since the late 70s, and she’s been working in Williamsburg since 1977. Before she moved to Williamsburg, she lived in SoHo, a neighborhood that underwent a similar transformation.
“I was in SoHo for many years, and that place has just become a complete nightmare,” Eisenberg said. “In Williamsburg now, our shortsighted mayor was pandering to the big developers instead of actually listening to the needs of the community, and there has been so much damage has been done under Bloomberg, that it’s almost too late to change it.”
Two Trees management insists it wants to preserve the diversity and culture of the neighborhood and that it will make good on its promise to provide more affordable units than its required to.
“I can point to Dumbo,” says David Lombino, the Director of Special Projects for Two Trees. “What you saw here in the last 15 years – our commitment to the neighborhood, investing in culture, investing in public education, of being mindful of the larger community, of making sure that it retains a unique cultural feel – I think that’s what you can expect in Domino.”
Eisenberg pointed to what the neighborhood of Dumbo has become since Two Trees’ development.
“They say, ‘Oh, we want do for you what we did in Dumbo!’ Really? They transformed it from businesses to a majority white residential neighborhood with practically no Latinos. The average income there is $162,000 a year now,” she said. “Thank you very much, but keep Dumbo to yourself. It’s a dead neighborhood.”
Though Domino has not yet become a reality, the plan is being pushed forward, and the community board is set to vote in December. Its impact is yet to be seen, but the reality of a shortage of affordable housing remains.
“Just follow the L line, and you’ll find gentrification taking place,” Sanborn-Hum said.
Though many are trying to fight the gentrification through community activism, cooperation with local leadership, and even legal action in some cases, the extreme cultural change that comes with it seems to be something that will continue, even into the next mayoral administration.
“Having lived in Brooklyn for 64 years, one thing that is for sure is that the character of Brooklyn is constantly changing. People love the neighborhoods that they live in, and so change as that comes is always a difficult thing to manage,” said Professor Kelly. “The three primary needs in life are food, clothing and shelter. And so shelter is really a critical element.”