Gut Renovation, a new documentary by filmmaker Su Friedrich, opens March 6 at Film Forum and takes a hard look at the changes that Williamsburg has undergone since the implementation of new zoning laws in 2005. Friedrich, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1989, has meticulously recorded all the changes happening in her neighborhood, from each new development that went up to all the small businesses that closed. The project is not only a personal one, but also one that has a wider scope, serving as a warning that what happened in Williamsburg could—and quite possibly will—happen to all of Brooklyn, and New York City at large. I had the chance to talk to Friedrich about this film, and about what she sees for the future of development in New York, and whether or not that future is impossibly grim.
What brought you to Williamsburg to begin with?
Oddly enough, a takeover in another part of a city. My partner’s former girlfriend was living in a really funky loft with two artists in downtown Brooklyn, and the entire block was taken over by Chase to build their headquarters. And so Chase bought out these guys and they had to leave. So, they started looking for a place and they found this place in Williamsburg and then Cathy [my partner]‘s former girlfriend wanted to take a floor and couldn’t do it by herself, so she involved Cathy and then I got involved. So, that’s how it happened. Although, I knew a couple of close friends who were artists who already had moved to Williamsburg, in like ’85 or ’86, so I knew people who were living over there already.
When did you first start thinking of making this film?
Pretty much right after the rezoning. It really was like, go to the corner, get the newspaper, see the banner headline about the rezoning, tell my partner, Oh my god, it happened. And then within a week, we started to hear jackhammers and see the blue plywood walls going up. And it was like, you know, they were ready. They came. Here they are. At first, I just thought, I’m going to make a record. It’s essentially free to shoot video. I’m just going to go out on my bike, I’m just going to go around and make a record. But I soon realized how emotionally involved I was in this process and that I really wanted to take it very seriously.
Seeing the development that you tracked is like watching a horror movie unfold, in a way. It all seems to spread like a virus.
I wanted it to feel like that! I had a lot of trouble figuring out when I was editing how to give the viewer a sense of the space of it. Because in a way it’s kind of massive but then it’s also quite contained and I had started by putting big red numbers on each building, but that wasn’t clear enough, and then I decided to use the map to animate it, through the film. It was a good way to get people to understand the scale and the spreading of the development.
A lot of the major changes happened following the 2005 rezoning laws, and that’s what the film focuses on, but what did you see happening in the intervening years, leading up to 2005? What kind of changes did you see taking place?
That’s a lot of years to talk about! Well, let’s say in the first years—the mid ’90s—it seemed like more artists that I knew were moving into the neighborhood, into industrial spaces. And there were a few more shops opening up on Bedford. You know for a long time there were only two restaurants or one more would open up and everyone would be really excited, you know. So there was some change happening but it sort of went along in a fairly level way for awhile and then it seemed to really snowball in the later ’90s. There was more being said in the media about how this was the trendiest neighborhood in the world, you know, it’s the new bohemia and all that kind of stuff. And I think when we started seeing people talking about Williamsburg as a phenomenon is when we started getting nervous. Because once people are starting to sell a place, you gotta be worried. There wasn’t a lot of building going on before 2005. Here and there was a little something, or there would be things like this little building on 7th that’s glass and steel, but it’s only three stories. But that came up before the rezoning. And we noticed that and thought it was a different kind of structure for the neighborhood. So we noticed stuff happening but certainly nothing like what happened after the rezoning. Prices were going up, more shops were going in, and there were lots of people who worked with the community board, working to create a plan for what could happen with Williamsburg, which was then scuttled by the city and they did what they did. So there were people, like housing activists working in the neighborhood, who could sense what was going to happen, but I think for the most part, the population in the neighborhood—including us—wasn’t aware of the big plan, behind the curtain, and then boom! There it was. It all happened.