Perched on an armchair, dressed in black, Marco Ursino, a filmmaker, drew on a cigarette. ”Manhattan is saturated,” he said. ”Williamsburg is the next big thing.”Bahrampour, 2000
At the banks of the East River, located at the northeast of Brooklyn, there is Williamsburg, a neighborhood with more than 32.926 inhabitants and more than 200 years of history. This community has experienced an accelerated process of spatial transformation during the last 30 years. The neighborhood was traditionally known for being an industrial spot and an enclave for both European and Latino migrants. But, more or less since the last years of the ’80s, big waves of colonist from Manhattan started to arrive at the area.
The first groups that arrived in Williamsburg decided to be located in the Northside. At that time, this zone was characterized by hosting all kind of factories and manufactures. Those colonists came mostly from the Lower East Side, a place that was famous due to its artistic and cultural scene. It was a bohemian neighborhood “with just a hint of danger,” in words of Neil Smith.
Precisely, all kind of artists decided to move to Williamsburg: musicians, painters, actors… as well as designers, writers, critics, and art curators. Although before this massive migration some pioneers were already there, the largest bohemian exodus was in 1987. That movement was produced by a competence for the space of the Lower East Side. According to Smith, the most successful artists —talking about money— went to the Soho. The others crossed the bridge to Williamsburg.
Lori Ledis, an art curator, concerts and documentaries promotor from Queens, with her husband Robert Flam were perhaps the first colonist in the Northside. They arrived in 1982 and four years later opened the first art gallery in the zone: Ledisflam at 108 N 6th St. Despite this gallery was closed some years later, it works as a point of reference for the almost 2000 artist that jumped out from Manhattan to Williamsburg.
According to Brad Gooch, who wrote a reportage in the New York Magazine called The New Bohemia: Portrait of an artist colony in Brooklyn, Robert Flam would also be the first person who complained about the massive arrival of artists to the Neighborhood. He saw alarmed how that crow of artist arriving was never-ending. In 1990 LedisFlam closed. The couple decided to emigrate to SoHo.
The most popular route for going from the Lower East Side to Williamsburg was the L line of the subway. That made the surrounded area of the Bedford Ave Station the first focus of dispersion of the bohemia in the neighborhood. An anonymous local painter described to Gooch the situation: “it’s like an army. They march off the train in their thrift-story clothing carrying their art-supply bags and the stretchers on their way to the health-food store.”
Approximately one decade later another group of colonist arrived in Williamsburg. This time they were not coming from a particular place, but they landed in the Northside, the same territory where the first group of colonist settled some years before. This situation produced a battle for space that also derived, among other things, to a process of emigration.
The arrival of the second group got a lot of attention from the media. Their presence in the Northside was taken as a direct attack on the lifestyle not only of Williamsburg but the whole Brooklyn itself. The newcomers had some particularities that made them suspicious of starting a class war between them, the riches, and the working class of the zone, the ones that already were there for controlling the territory.
The new group was accused either of had gentrified the neighborhood or at least of having started that process. Nevertheless, some people think that gentrification arrived in Williamsburg some years before that “war.” Sharon Zukin proposed that this phenomenon happened when the first colonizer group arrived.
It turns that both versions are right. That thing that has been called here as “gentrification” could happen with the arrival of those two groups, if we are talking about urban transformations. Another thing that drew my attention in the Zukin’s paper was that she named the gentrifiers as hipsters. But in this work, those hipsters will acquire the temporal denomination of colonizers.
At this point, I would like to highlight that although Williamsburg has been developed mostly due to a foreign working class potential, the arrival and later stabilization of the two groups I am talking here are part of a completely different process. Even the traditional frames of economy and politics that have been used for talking about gentrification result insufficient.
But despite the concept “gentrification” is not enough for explaining how those urban transformations happen, I decided to keep using that word just as part of the stories of the different actors in an effort for explaining and understanding how and why those changes and assemblages are produced in their territories.
Another important thing is that despite the arrived of foreign people to Williamsburg is not a novelty, the process of transformation I am talking here has some specificities that deserve to be approached as an assemblage of individual trajectories, and at the same time as a part of a heterogeneous set of relationships.
With that idea, I am not looking for a special condition that provides to this phenomenon a sort of spectacularization due to its supposed complexity and unicity. At the opposite. What I really want with this is proposing a methodological necessity —more than a possibility— of explaining the urban transformations far of just being the monocausal result of a specific domain. Also, I want to avoid, using Bruno Latour’s words, confusing what should I explain with the explanation.
Roughly, in both cases of displacement that I am focusing here, we can talk about the rediscovering of an area, the Northside of Williamsburg, that was forgotten by many people in the city, especially from 1950 when a gradually but potent process of deindustrialization started. The culmination of this process happened, more or less, 30 years later.
But that situation was not an exclusive process of Williamsburg. In general terms the factories and manufactures of the whole borough of Brooklyn where moving out, to more strategic places. Also, many of its inhabitants —white middle-class people— were convinced with governmental benefits to abandoning Brooklyn for Queens, Long Island, Staten Island, and New Jersey.
So, meanwhile in the Northside the industry and many people were progressively leaving the area, in the Southside the organized crime and the drug trafficking were taking that place. The situation started in the ’60s until to reach its most dramatic point in the ’80s and ’90s with the rise of heroin, cocaine, and crack in the zone.
At the same time that the drug epidemic was growing, a massive arrival of Puerto Ricans and Dominicans occurred in the Southside. They were attracted by the still working possibilities in the industry of the area. “In 1961, Williamsburg had 93,000 manufacturing jobs; by the 1990s, the number had decreased to less than 12,000.”
Despite that the organized crime and drug trafficking issues were concentrated mostly in the Southside, the whole Williamsburg was a zone that most of the New Yorkers avoided going in. Violence, prostitution, drugs, and in the Northside abandoned and deteriorated buildings, were creating an unpleasant and unsafe image of the area.
Nevertheless, some people saw this in a positive way. The decadent and rustic landscape composed of old abandoned industrial buildings, the working class history of the neighborhood, how inexpensive resulted to live there, and its multiculturality and dangerousness were the conditions that attracted the first group of colonist from the Lower East Side.