What's Eating Williamsburg
The Hassidic Community Protests
by J. Stefan-Cole
long did it take the Twin Towers to fall? 8 seconds. How
long will it take to save Williamsburg from the artists?"
This is an unofficial translation of a
poster hanging in Williamsburg, Brooklyn where
the Hassidic community is taking on the artists, hipsters
and real estate hounds. Protests have been part of life
here ever since I arrived in the early 80's with the first
wave of migrating artists, but I have to say that sign is
a first for loopy anger.
The Oz syndrome hit the Burg about twenty years ago: sleepy,
crime-ridden manufacturing area discovered by artists who
are in turn discovered by real estate savvies. A rumor made
the Lion think the Wizard could make him brave, and the
Tin Man believe he'd get a heart. Rumor brought me here
though Williamsburg never glowed seductively from a Yellow
Brick Road, and it has remained urban ugly. I've watched
in amazement as my crazy venture grew in value, waiting
for the curtain to pull back on a fake Wizard, but the illusion
has held and the investment dollars keep rolling in from
the uber-Oz, Manhattan.
My original neighbors told me they were no longer afraid
to sit out on their stoops because artists had chased away
the drug lords and low-wage whores servicing our then treeless
streets. We now have more trees, few street ladies, and
places to buy the type of fancy foods that used to require
a trip across the East River, exquisite cheeses, good wine,
cornichon. There was a brief golden age on the Northside
with artists living alongside old time locals as derelict
buildings transformed into homes. No changes so radical
as to make anyone nervous. Tensions, though, were brewing.
There is no question the Hassids settled the Southside
first, and that at this point they would like nothing better
than for the arriviste to go back to Kansas. Deep in its
cultural center, Hassidom is a different world. English
isn't heard on sidewalks; store signs are in Yiddish and
inside some shops sell old fashioned-looking shoes and clothing.
The feel is of a movie set for pre-World War II Poland.
One practical problem Hassids face as an insular, anti-secular
society is a tendency to encourage reproduction which results
in housing shortages within their own community. The drift
of current development into the Souuthside could exacerbate
this even more. Situated south of Broadway, sandwiched between
manufacturing and the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the Hassid community
fought hard to change existing zoning to residential, and,
once the way was cleared, home building went into overdrive.
New houses mushroomed, two and three family blocks, along
Kent Avenue (which some call the West Bank), suggesting
the Victor Emanuel style of pastry architecture.
Puerto Ricans living behind the building frenzy began to
feel squeezed. Any federally subsidized housing requires
a mixed populace, but Hassids cannot use elevators on the
Sabbath, so, in high rises, qualifying Puerto Ricans have
to live on the top floors. Things like that rankled. There
was a renaissance of unity though when a city garbage incinerator
was proposed for the Navy Yard, just opposite the new Hassidic
housing. No one wanted the incinerator in their backyard
and for a glorious moment all factions in Williamsburg spoke
as one voice. Angry meetings and loud protests got the message
across, and, for who knows how many promised votes, mayoral
candidate Rudy Giuliani promised to let the plan drop. Certainly
the rallying cry from the Hassids'--an incinerator right
in front of the Jews!--helped win the day.
Scenesters showed up as the hub around the L train sprouted
galleries and eateries and bars. The Burg became the place
to be; big sky, affordable housing and a certain anti-Manhattan
esprit de corps. On the Southside though, Los Sures, militarized
by the garbage stack protests and wary after duking it out
with the Hassid's, began to organize. First time, Latino
home-owner subsidized housing popped up under the Los Sures
aegis. Most are badly built and look like something you'd
expect to see in Queens, but a minority coup nevertheless.
An abandoned apartment house was turned by the city into
homeless housing, a cry went up over that but the predicted
crime wave never materialized and the homeless were absorbed.
In spite of ethnic turf spats there has been room enough
in the Burg to avoid major culture clashes, so far.
Artists must leave a trail, like snails or slugs, that
realtors find glowing in the night. As they opened-up shop,
Northside rents began to climb with the inevitability of
an anti-Newton truism: what goes up goes further up. The
day of low rents died with a whimper, so too that of the
cheap fixer-upper. Williamsburg went up for sale and morphed
into the new Oz; the night life, the attitude, the mystique.
Many of the original artists were pushed out, some moving
east towards Bushwick (which the N. Y. Times has already
dubbed the probable next "outpost of hip young Brooklyn").
Studio rents became a joke as old warehouses were grandfathered
into housing. Not a few artists had made nice investments
for themselves, becoming landlords and parents (I'm always
shocked when I see a clean little baby being pushed in a
pricy pram along our far from pristine streets). I doubt
there will be a single empty lot left in the North or Southside
by the end of the decade and the building boom includes
plenty of Hassidic projects with Hassid landlords renting
to arty-types. However, as developers stretch south to Broadway,
Hassids are sounding the alarm. I don't quite get it. As
a painter friend who came a year before I did said, "Are
they kidding? It's too late to protest now."
Throw into the mix the idea some Hassid's have that artists
lead bad lives that will bring trouble to their community.
Many Hassids believe that the arrival of bars and an active
nightlife scene has brought questionable morals to the community.
Do they mean hipsters or artists? The real catalyst behind
the current protest is the wildly expensive condominium
complex being created out of the old guitar manufacturing
Gretsch Building on Broadway. The Gretsch will not be housing
artists, not unless he or she is a big, big earner. Rapper
Busta Rhymes is reported to have bought into The Gretsch
for a million dollar piece of the Burg. When something like
that happens the whole field is split open, whatever talent
got here first can wave goodbye unless they secured themselves
by purchasing when the place was cheap.
Is this the slug trail of filthy lucre? Is this post-hip
Williamsburg? Don't know. Are the galleries here to stay?
Are artists? Who knows? Change has been in the wind like
a drumbeat for at least five years, so the Hassid protest
is ill-timed, to say the least. To demand moderate and income
housing now among the high end Gretsch market is like yelling
Wait! in the middle of a stampede. I put a call in to The
Gretsch sales number for any comment but no one returned.
Their website calls The Gretsch the "gateway to Brooklyn,"
and claims its proximity to Soho and Tribeca and the "exciting
shops on Bedford Avenue." No mention of the Hassidim
right next door.
I called Rabbi Zalman Leib Fulop who was quoted in NewYorkMetro.com
as saying the growth of the artist population in Williamsburg
was a "bitter decree from heaven." A sign hanging
smack in front of The Gretsch sales office says the condominiums
are not welcome. After a ten minute run around I was told
the Rabbi would have no comment.
Change happens. It would be nice if it happened equitably,
but that's an uphill hope in a fairly Darwinian world. The
Hassids are taking their turn, but they are naïve to
blame artists. If artists created Oz, and hipsters put it
on the map, they are not necessarily reaping the fruit.
But, then again, artists, and hipsters, don't necessarily
go for stagnation; change is part of the play.
Like a lot of other early settlers, we borrowed from family,
and anyone with a dollar to spare, so we could buy and not
be chased out again by gentrification. If we hadn't bought,
I'd be writing this from Bushwick. There is plenty I don't
like about recent developments, will a power plant be placed
on the waterfront for one, and how about the
closing of the Domino Sugar Refinery, a staple since
post Civil War? Mayor Bloomberg wants thirty-five story
apartment complexes built along the Greenpoint-Williamsburg
waterfront. Is there a guaranteed market, or will that end
as a visionless glut? Where would those families send their
kids to school? Or are only rappers and singles moving in?
Still, in many ways recent developments have made my life
easier, and as far as I'm concerned the prices being paid
for The Gretsch version of Oz are sucker prices, and I don't
know that those shelling it out or raking it in will be
better off in the long run. The maw of development isn't
going to stop chewing anytime soon; you're pretty much either
a spoon or a morsel. I personally feel like a pepper mill
sitting on the side of a giant mouth. I'm always ready to
protest an injustice, but, in the first place, there are
so many, and in the second, I can't see standing around
in the cold shooting rubber bands at a bank. I think the
Hassidic community will survive. As for the rest of Williamsburg,
we could try renaming it Soho-East?