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Southside Superwoman

The Southside is a very diverse area of Williamsburg that borders the more trendy Northside and the Hasidic area just to the South. Dotted with a constellation of Puerto Rican flags and salsa beats, you can ask anyone in the street if they would prefer to live in another neighborhood and they will undeniably confess that this is the greatest spot in the whole city. There is something very special about the Southside which is reminiscent of the old school community oriented neighborhoods of New York City's distant past. But, it wasn't always like that here.

It took the building manager of 242 South 2nd St. (Awilda) ten years to get the courage to start changing things in the neighborhood on behalf of her family and friends. Risking her own safety at times, she kicked out the dealers and gangs from this area, making her a famous figure. Acting as a building manager, social worker, and psychologist, people from all around come to her for advice and help. She has made her block a safe home for the people who have been there for years, as well as for the recently arrived influx of artists and musicians who cannot afford the "Lofty" prices to the North. One can only marvel at the selflessness of this exceptional woman.

Awilda, has just come down from the fire escape where she has been stringing lights and we are talking across the street from the building where she has lived for 21 years. Its getting dark and people are chatting about the sleet that is expected to visit at around midnight:

Christiane: The Christmas lights you strung up on the fire escape are a beacon of optimism.

Awilda: I had them delivered from Florida I saw them in a commercial on the TV in one of those shopping networks and I searched and I searched until they lowered the price from 40 dollars, I got them (shooting star lights) for twenty each. I need more flashes to make it twinkle. If they twinkle more it will look better. I always try to make it look different from everybody else; I bring my own ideas, my own fantasies and put them to work.

Christiane: How did you get started here?

Awilda: I took the building out of a lot of problems that it had. It needed a boiler. It needed new windows. More discipline because there were a lot of drugs in there, so it took me about 4 years to clean the whole thing out.

The first thing I did was paint the flowers above the front door. I said if someday I'm gonna leave this building I'm gonna have somebody remember me by this. Its funny because I was climbing up there and all the trucks and everybody would stop and I was like oh my God so I started dressing like a guy I put on a hat and I didn't want nobody to know I was a woman - still they stood there until they saw my face. That was five years ago.

I have to repaint them though, I'm still thinking how am I going to do the top. Next summer I will probably get the nerve to go up there because for that I will have to make a different kind of ladder because I have to redo the fire escape - before I could hang from up there. If I'm still alive I'm gonna do it next year.

Christiane: Well, how long do you plan to stick around?

Awilda: I have a contract for 7 years.

Christiane: How many years to you have left?

Awilda: 6! That means I have to stick to this place for a long time. I'm supposed to get paid 8% of the annual income - I'm not even getting 5%

Christiane: What's the scoop on the tenants in the building?

Awilda: Some inherit the apartment from their parents. I have 3 families here that have been living here for over 45 years - the super and 2 widows. I myself have been here in December for 21 years. There have been a lot of changes in the whole neighborhood. This used to be drug infested. They had gangs, shoot-outs, everything. And still the neighborhood was safe. For the people that were living here it was safe. If you didn't mess with them they wouldn't mess with you, but the kids that were growing up, they were getting into the habit. It was like a cycle and I was like no, this has gotta change. People started moving out and the people moving in were like this has gotta change and everything started happening from there. They started tearing down the abandoned buildings - over here is gonna be a daycare center.

Christiane: What will happen to the roosters then?

Awilda: Oh no, they live in the parking lot next door. They surprised me when I first moved here. I was like oh my God, where am I? The Super use to have them in the basement and they were doing cockfights. Its a tradition in Puerto Rico.

Christiane: What about the Northside when did it get so artsy and monochromatic?

Awilda: Its always been like that. The Northside was mostly Italian, Irish, Polish. It was mixed just like here but there was no Jewish (people) over there. This neighborhood is Puerto Rican, Dominican, Jewish and Italian. There used to be a lot of businesses on Havemeyer but a lot of them have gone away because of the rent. All the businesses that are raising the rents - the commercial associations - you know everybody was minding their own business nobody wanted to get together for nothing. About 7 years ago is when the white kids have come.

Christiane: Did it bother anybody?

Awilda: No not really, you know why because everybody that lives in a mixed neighborhood gets along with everybody else. They interact, they say hello, hi, bye, whatever, but it doesn't effect us at all. We have roots. Whatever you see in a Hispanic neighborhood they try to stick together. It doesn't matter how many other people have moved in - the white people they have no problem with us. Oh my go there goes my neighbor, I don't want him to see me.

Christiane: Why, you don't want him to see us doing this interview?

Awilda: His behavior when he gets drunk - he's a pain nobody wants to talk to him. He's (been) here since before me.

Christiane: Where's he from?

Awilda: Well, he says he's Hungarian but we all believe he's German. He has no family around here, and he has friends. A lot of people care a lot about him, but when he gets drunk, everybody disappears on him. He tries to talk to you right on your face. So regardless of what you try to do he makes you drunk! You don't have to drink with him he gets so close to you . . . you don't need to buy it, it comes for free.

Christiane: So, Why have you stayed in this neighborhood all of this time - sticking your neck out there?

Awilda: In the beginning I got involved because the building was in a big stress. People was about to take it away from us, and I figured that all of these people had been trusting us for such a long time, and if we have been living here for such a long time, why are we gonna let this happen? And I talked to some of the people and they didn't want to do nothing. They were afraid, so I said I'm gonna do something.

I have a whole lifetime here, and my kids were born here, and my family is here, my friends are here so I don't want to go nowhere else. So that's when I started fighting for the whole thing. And working with the community at the same time because whenever the have letters and stuff that need to be translated, fill out applications, get information - believe me I'm like a social worker here - its not only for this building, its for a lot of people in this neighborhood who know me, and they come to me every time they have a problem. And later on my babies growing up and I want her someday in the future to say well this wasn't like this when my mommy moved in here, and now I have a safe place thanks to her.

* Awilda has asked that images of herself be withheld.

Article by Christiane Grimal
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[email protected] | January2001 | Issue 10