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What's Eating Williamsburg
The Hassidic Community Protests
by J. Stefan-Cole

"How 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?


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