Andrew Parsons and Laurie Sumiye’s “Of Memory and Los Sures” screens at the IFC Center on Thursday as part of DOC NYC in the program Then & Now. The short film interviews longtime residents of Williamsburg’s Southside against archival material and present-day imagery to create a portrait of the rapidly changing neighborhood. We spoke to them about the project.
What makes South Williamsburg unique?
Andrew: I think part of what makes Los Sures unique is how it persists in memory. When you walk up and down the street you see social justice murals from the 80s and 90s as well as portraits of those caught up in gang violence. At the same time you have these ghost signs and old ads from businesses from the 50s or so. It’s a bit of a musuem—but it really comes out when you talk to long time residents.
There’s an interesting tension between the history of the neighborhood and how it exists in memory. It’s a neighborhood that has a history of ethnic diversity: Germans pre-1950s, Puerto Ricans after the great-migration, and Dominicans more recently. So in memory there’s a nostalgia for this great working-class neighborhood cohesion that existed in all of those phases. But at the same time, it has a history of gang-violence and was hit hard by the crack epidemic, so memories are often marred trauma and conscious of not wanting to romanticize those aspects as well.
Laurie: I think South Williamsburg is unique because it has retained its Latin culture and flavor, even in the face of gentrification. The community is well-defined in a geographical area of North Brooklyn with homegrown organizations that still actively support it, like El Puente, Southside United HDFC (Los Sures), Williamburg Charter Schools, to name a few. Visually, the social justice murals by Los Muralistas de El Puente that dot the neighborhood gives it a specific identity and personality. You feel a specific youthful energy, hope and local culture in a way that you don’t see in other parts of the city.
How is its history different from that of the Northside?
Andrew: The main difference is that the Northside was never a Hispanic neighborhood; through most of the 20th century, it was primarily Italian and Polish. Williamsburg in general is a neighborhood of immigrants, and its shared history is one of many different immigrant groups.
While making this film, Luis Gardenia Acosta told us that Latinos all over the US knew of “Los Sures” because it was such a dense Puerto Rican population in New York City. But to give a real view of its cultural value in context to the rest of Northwest Brooklyn, he’d take visitors on a walking tour from the North to the South. “I would actually do this United Nation’s mile start in the Northside,” he told us, “where Polish was freely spoken on the streets, come to the Southside on Bedford… where the voices and the language would change as you cross Metropolitan Avenue and all of a sudden you’re hearing only Spanish. And then you would go into the Hasidic neighborhood where you would hear Yiddish mostly.” He said what made it unique is you get your idea of American norms challenged but “at the same time, it still has that sense of hometown America.” So since the great migration of Caribbean Hispanics in the 1950s, there’s been a real cultural diversity to the neighborhood and its history that’s a real point of pride.
What’s driving the transformation of the neighborhood now?
Andrew: It’s a blend of high-valued real estate because of how safe the neighborhood is and how close it is to Manhattan, and also the long-time residents who want to maintain the vibrant past and the stability that they’ve achieved in the neighborhood, too. Everyone wants to have a fair share and take part in the ongoing development of the neighborhood.
Laurie: The neighborhood also has become a desirable neighborhood for newcomers coming to live in New York; Williamsburg has an international reputation now. I regularly see young and old tourists coming from Manhattan to shop, dine and drink here.