Williamsburg’s Last Domino: A Gentrification Time Bomb?

08/18/2010 5:00 AM |

The day we meet, Farr’s tattoo-covered arms poke out of a blue t-shirt; a dark ponytail juts out of a Cardinals cap. It’s hot and sunny, and he has a day or two’s worth of beard. Thirty-nine years old and a proofreader by profession, Farr is a lifelong resident—give or take a few excursions into other neighborhoods with girlfriends. He’s had family in the area since the 1950s, when many Puerto Ricans migrated to New York City, although he tells me the South Side’s Latino population goes back at least 100 years.

An “agent provocateur” in the neighborhood for 20 years (“I like that so much better than ‘activist'”), Farr has plenty of problems with the Domino project. But they don’t have to do with overtaxed infrastructure, or the abundance of luxury housing, or simple Marxist binaries of rich versus poor. For him, the Domino site is emblematic of everything that’s been wrong about 30 years of gentrification, decades remarkable only for their mediocrity—a mediocrity that the Domino project will exemplify.

It begins with aesthetics. The Kent Avenue corridor, from Schaefer Landing to Northside Piers (the Domino site would be the last, ahem, domino to fall), will become notable for its dull, homogeneous architectural style. “A kind of Lego blockism,” Farr calls it. “Playground architecture.” (The landmarked buildings at the Domino site today, which the Havemeyers didn’t just own but also helped to design, date back to 1882; they are thought to have replaced others destroyed by fire, and their brick-and-metal designs were primarily a pragmatic matter of fireproofing.) “You’ve got 11 acres of prime waterfront real estate?” he adds, excitably. “You’re seriously gonna put up a bunch of building blocks?”

The political fights, like that between Levin and Bloomberg, are illusory, Farr contends: each side represents the typical, the narrow-minded—those who can conceive of development only in terms of new office space or condominiums. “It’s a failure of imagination,” he says. “A man like Levin should go Alexander the Great on motherfuckers!”

For the Domino site, Farr has suggested, instead, a community college, which would help erase what he tells me is the greatest distinction between the neighborhood’s locals and its transplants: a college experience. Williamsburg has always had white people, but the post-white-flight whites have tended to have more college educations than their predecessors. And because they’re young, and have been in college not so long ago, Williamsburg has become the “superimposition of a college campus on an urban locale.” A college town without a college.

While we talk, hanging on the scaffolding railings outside the northernmost of the old Domino buildings, the conversation quiets; a group of men approach, whom Farr has pegged as security guards. He warns me that they may harass us. I very nearly hold my breath.

But they pass without incident, only glancing at us. “That one in the blue shirt is definitely security,” he tells me after they’ve gone. “He kicked me and my friend out of here once. We were taking pictures.”

Farr, who may be more of a big-picture man than a pragmatist, tells me the neighborhood has, in recent years, consistently fallen short: that, if America during the George W. Bush years could be characterized by squandered opportunity, the same could be said of North Brooklyn during the Bloomberg years. (“It’s almost like George Bush moved in.”) In the aughts, Williamsburg saw a dramatic rezoning and a rush of large-scale development, but ended up with little to show for it besides a shuttered firehouse. When thinking about Williamsburg, Farr says, we need to stop thinking about the stores, about the strips of pan-Asian restaurants that prove the area’s hipness. We need to stop thinking about what’s being consumed, and start thinking about what’s being created.

“The thing about Domino Sugar,” he says, “is not what it builds but what it will replace. Or displace.” When people talk about the gentrification of Williamsburg, they don’t talk about what it has created, but only about the “bad things” it has replaced. For the gentrifiers, the former landscape needs to be destroyed, or at least gussied up beyond recognition—the past needs to be razed so a new culture can be overlaid, a culture that then celebrates its own superiority. To claim that gentrification has improved the community, Farr tells me, is “preposterous.” How did the boutiques on Bedford Avenue make life better for the Latino community? Gentrification is not about what’s been achieved but about the illusion that achievement has occurred. The idea. The feeling.

Farr contends that CPC sees Domino as the culmination of this “progress.” “What a sad culmination that would be,” he says.

Later, we’re standing under the northernmost building’s shadow, on South 2nd Street, saying our goodbyes. A storm’s approaching, and the sky is a dramatic mess of gray. “Every time I look at the building on a cloudy day like today, ” he tells me, ” I think of Lovecraft.” We break apart, and the sky does too, pouring down rain: a real summer storm has arrived, and North Brooklyn’s soon-to-be Gold Coast will never be the same.

6 Comment

  • Thanks to Stewart for reporting on this formerly neglected issue that is now gaining widespread consciousness. If anyone wishes to continue the discussion, seek me out on Facebook, and also join the Urbanum Tremendum page.
    –Dennis Farr

  • So much of new construction in Williamsburg is abandoned- this is not a good idea. Also, what’s going to happen to Grand Ferry Park?

  • So, developers generally don’t care about what’s best for the cities they operate in. What else is new? Williamsburg is over. It almost makes you want to leave NYC–go some place where the looming threat of eviction-by-gentrification isn’t always on one’s mind. It’s exhausting keeping up these battles for one neighbourhood after the other, especially because the money always wins.

  • @Drybrain, if “Williamsburg” is “over,” then you have never been. I’m gambling that you’ve never been “involved” in a fight or in a spectacular but have, like the newer generation visiting Williamsburg, always been a spectator. No. I’m sorry–don’t confuse your laying down with looking at the sky. Your attitude may be fine and good for you, but for me, I have yet only begun to fight.