Gentrification in Williamsburg: Is Your Neighborhood Next?

02/26/2013 11:50 AM |


Do you think there was ever a point where it could have been averted? Where the rezoning could have been scuttled?

I don’t know. It’s a 120-page plan, this thing called 197A, which was about what to do with the neighborhood, about schools and garbage collection and all the issues that a neighborhood has, and I don’t understand enough about the working behind the scenes at the city council or the city planning office, but it seems like it would have taken that community group to get virtually everyone in the neighborhood aware and basically lying down in the street or something. I mean, what would it have taken for that to not have passed the city council? I mean, I don’t know. People ask me this, you know—Why weren’t people out in the streets? Why weren’t there demonstrations?—and I think that once it’s set up so that there’s a small group who is determined to make these changes happen, and once they vote, once they’ve done that, it’s done.

So, basically, even lying down in the streets will really only lead to the protesters being picked up and moved?

Mmhmm. And also, let’s say, we can all think, “We’ll vote in a different mayor, one who isn’t so rapacious about development.” So that’d be good. And if, in the next election, we can bring in a whole new set of people who might not support that kind of development, that might contain the problem or lesson the problem. But we also have this precedent of Robert Moses who worked entirely outside of the workings of the city government and did everything he wanted. And as often as people lay down in front of his tractors, he just rolled over them. Jane Jacobs had some successes with him, but there were just so many parts of the city that were just wiped out by him and his highways.

Do you think it’s even possible at this point to vote in a mayor who isn’t so keen on development? The direction that this city has gone in, certainly under Bloomberg but also prior to that, seems to be unstoppable. The whole idea of New York now, the idea of safety and progress going hand in hand with development and wealth, seems so firmly established. So how do we change that trajectory?

Well, all these politicians are obviously getting elected by getting a lot of money from people, so once they’re in they’re beholden to a lot of people. And it is really frustrating to see that happen over and over again. We now have this incredible income disparity, much huger than has ever existed before, and even if the government makes some effort to start taxing the rich more, still to get back from that disparity is going to take a long time, if it happens at all. And in the meantime, you have New York City filled with extremely rich people and extremely poor people and very few people in the middle and so that circumstance makes it possible for Bloomberg and these developers to continue doing all this. And so it’s very hard. You know, I don’t want to be a pessimist, I don’t want to be a doomsayer, but I look out at this and I think, Wow. This city has been transformed very profoundly and, I think, permanently in a way that has made it lose its character. The character that I, living here for 35 years, love.

Right. And you can’t ignore what’s going on in some of these neighborhoods that always seemed untouchable.

You know, part of the reason for making the film was so that people could say, “Uh-oh. Is that about to happen where I live?” This happened—it just spun out of control. It was so much bigger than anybody thought. And it is a permanent and massive change and what if every other neighborhood in New York had that happen to it? So, it’s a bit of a cautionary tale, I think, to people who live in other parts of the city. Which is sort of the most you can do. You know, I have no prescription on how to make that not happen again, just to say that we should be aware of what’s happening.

Where do you see New York going in the next ten years?

I don’t know. I think it’s going to be quite altered, and I think, not necessarily for the better. I was talking to someone recently about Bloomberg and they said, “C’mon, Su. He’s done some good things. Think about the bike lanes.” And, I thought, that’s true. I mean, I’m a big biker, it’s good to have all these bike lanes. But I would say that part of his impulse for making the bike lanes is to make the city greener and easier to bike in, but it also makes the city nicer for those people who want it to be “nice.” So it serves his purpose of sort of suburbanizing New York and so, I really don’t know. I’m going to stay here. I love New York. But I think it’s in a very scary point of change right now and I don’t see the change being stopped.

Gut Renovation premieres at Film Forum March 6

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen

2 Comment

  • I was born and raised in Williamsburg. It was the greatest eclectic community around during the 50s and 60s. But it fell into a deep well of despair and dis-repair during the 70s and 80s.

    The rezoning in Williamsburg has brought it back to life. Thank God for forward thinkers. Thank God for those who look to the future and don’t get mired in the past. It’s a beautiful thing to see Williamsburg thriving again!

  • Williamsburg looks great now.