Adelaida Perez's Interview

Adelaida Perez moved to South Williamsburg with her family from Puerto Rico in the early 1950's, setting out to begin a new chapter in their lives. 

John Haywood: Hi, I am John Haywood. This is take one of the interview with Adelaida for Displaced Urban Histories. This is the oral history. Bueno. So nice to see you again Adelaida. So i just kind of wanted to get to know really how you came to find yourself here in Williamsburg so many years ago when you first moved here. What was the reason?


Adelaida: Uhm, well I have lived here for 60 years. Uhm my parents brought me here when I was 12, and I came to [Southport?] to live with a lady. And then we moved to 32 [Siegel?] Street, which now is [Lindsey?] Park, and there I went to intermediate school. And then I moved to South Fifth and I went to Junior High PS 196, which was an all-girl's school. Now it's mixed. And after that, I finished high school in Eastern District uhm in Marcy Avenue, which now they moved to Bushwick. I uhm, I married in '66 and I have five kids. Now I have 7 grandchildren. And I have worked for Domestic Violence, which was my last job as a crime victim specialist. I also worked for Puerto Rican Family Institute which deals with mental patients. I have worked with Chase Manhattan Bank in Park Avenue. And I'm still in the Board of the North Brooklyn Commission. And I'm still an advocate and very active in the community and in politics and business and wherever they need me. And I'm very happy to uhm spend time with the NYU students which my son graduate from, NYU. He had a Bachelor degree.

John: I didn't know that.

Adelaida: Yes, I told your teach here.

John: Um-hmm

Adelaida: And uhm so after that he moved to California and he got his Master's in Philosophy. And uhm, well now I come to different centers not because of my age because I think I'm still 15. And uhm to learn new things and to keep myself healthy and make all the people happy. Because uhm I go to different centers to get ideas and bring it to the other centers. And uhm, on Monday, I crochet bags out of paper bags, and I do jewelry and refrigerator handles. Uhm, so, and I love painting. I haven't taken painting yet because I don't have the time. And I love to travel. I just came from California. This Friday, I'm going to Florida. And, I came from Puerto Rico a couple of months ago. I went to Spain and France and Italy. And uhm well, I went to Spain to see where my great great great grandparents used to live, and it was a great experience.

John: It's interesting to see that transition from old and then now you're here and everything like that. So, what is it like now, because you've mentioned traveling, that there are a lot of people who travel to South Williamsburg from Manhattan. There are a lot of people who kind of visit and visit the shops and the restaurantss and the new... So what does that feel like for you?

Adelaida: Uhm, yes. Well at the beginning, when I came here, I felt like home because I came with my parents. My uhm, the south side in every corner, there used to live an uncle. And some of my neighbors, I felt like I was still in Puerto Rico. And uhm, mostly was Jewish people. And uhm now, the community has changed. We have beautiful buildings, which I'm happy and very ethnic wise. I love to deal with different cultures, but now I feel like they're stepping on me and they're taking the whole pie to themselves. Uhm, like uhm well when... I used to go to church in the south side, now I have to take a bus. The church is smaller. And where I live, I used to see it and look at the sky and hear the birds and see the trees and fresh air. Now, when I see through my window, I don't see anything. I don't have no air, and I feel like I'm trapped. And uhm, there's no stores for me to shop around. All they have is liquor store or uhm karate or whatever they have. So, uhm, it's unhappy in one way but then I feel like I'm I don't have nowhere to shop around.

John: So how did.. So, you said that in terms of shopping, there isn't a lot for you anymore.

Adelaida: Um-hmm

John: So what was the normal day like for you when you were growing up in Williamsburg versus a normal day now. I mean, obviously, there's a difference in your interests now that you're older. But I think that... What would be something that you would have seen yourself doing when you were younger, and you could imagine yourself still living here and you didn't think it would change? What are some things that you think you would have done versus how now you live in the reality? What is the difference there?

Adelaida: Uhm well, during my youth, I used to walk from school, go t o school, visit my family, uhm, went shopping. And uhm, well now, like I said, I can't go shopping in the neighborhood. And I still go to chruch, and very active. And I go on trips. But I wish some of the things were still here.

John: And the church... You say that you still go to church. That church is now moved.

Adelaida: Yes. I still go to the church, but it's smaller. So when we have people that come from different places, there's no space to put them. And I have to take a bus. So I can't go everyday. I used to go and clean, and uhm, have different activities which I can't do now. And so now, I try to keep myself busy at the center, in the community. Like this program that you have. You know? I like to... I participate in every program that they have. I participated with Union [Tac?] that did a documentary on [Lasures]. And now they're showing the movie this month. And my daughter is there.

John: So was there a moment for you when you really thought, okay, the neighborhood has changed. That it kind of hit you, and that's when you knew it's changed. Was there any moment like that for you or was it just a slow progress of change?

Adelaida: Yeah, it was slow. You know in the beginning, when I used to go to the store late, I used to see a couple of people that look different from me. And uhm, now, we are the strangers. We are the strangers. And sometimes, when I go to the supermarket, I tell them what happened? You don't have Puerto Rican products or whatever. You know, after we did all the shopping now you don't care about us.

John: So, other than kind of the shops and things like that. Do you feel that there has been an upside in that? You mentioned all the community centers and these things. Were these there before or is it a recent, is it a more recent kind of development that there are the community centers and the community-oriented programs that have come about now?

Adelaida: Uhm well I guess the centers have been here maybe 30 years. So 30 years, since I was young, and I was working, I didn't know they were here.

John: So your childhood was obviously very different from the childhood that your children had. What were some differences there between your childhood and the childhood of your children?

Adelaida: Uhm well... My childhood here in this country?

John: Yeah.

Adelaida: Okay, Uhm, well nowadays the youth get bored easily. Not me. When I didn't have nothing to do, that's when I started inventing things. And I tell them, you know, use your mind. But now with that analogy, uhm, they don't pay attention to you or they don't know what's going around. All day they're in the phone or the computer whatever. And uhm, I'm glad that I was born in those days. I'm still old-fashioned.

John: So for fun when you were little, when you were growing up... For you, you really just kind of found your own fun in the neighborhood. You made you own...

Adelaida: Yes, and we have trips form church. And I became the president of the youth, so I used to take them to different colleges for conference or different groups. And uhm, oh we did plays in church.

John: What were some places when you were growing up in South Williamsburg when you were younger, what were some places that everyone gathered? Were there was like a community -- not necessarily a community center --- but if everyone went to one restaurant or people you saw, like people that you knew at the restaurant or at the church or you know.

Adelaida: Uhm, well we had a lot of movie theaters. In Broadway, there were three movie, Spanish movie theaters. In Grandham they have two. And so they closed all of them. And we tried to keep one of them at Broadway. And so now they have a cinema in South First, which is closer to me, which I'm glad that at least I have one theater. And uhm, well I don't dance, but there used to be a dance hall two blocks from my house. So people gathered there. And uhm, well they used to visit families. That's how they entertained themselves.

John: So with those movie theaters, that kind of brings about the question of language because those were Spanish movie theaters and in the neighborhood, there were a lot of Spanish speaking people. Do you feel that you are still as comfortable, or everyone -- not just you but the people that you know -- are still as comfortable using Spanish constantly or do they feel that they have to use English, or is it... yeah.

Adelaida: Yeah, well this cinema is only English speaking movies. I think it was  3 weeks ago I saw a movie, Miracle From Heaven, and I was surprised because they did it in Spanish. And it was beautiful. Well, to me, it doesn't matter if it's Spanish or English, but I know some people that newly comers. Right now, most of the new comers are Mexican or Dominicans or people from Columbia or Ecuador.

John: Um-hmm. Is there... So I remember a while back, in one of our meetings, someone mentioned the fact that, you know, there was a breakdown because it was Puerto Rico aqui, here, and then there was the...

Adelaida: Italian.

John: Yeah, and then Italian here. Yeah. So is that separation still exists to some degree or is it just all completely mixed?

Adelaida: Well, maybe, you know... I never had problems. Uhm I guess because of my appearance, people think that I'm Jewish or.... And uhm, but sometimes, I was in the park where Lindsey Park is and we have to run because the Italian own that boundary. So if you were in the wrong place, you have to run because they'll attack you. Yeah. My husband had a fight with an Italian guy.

John: Ooh, gosh.

Adelaida: Yeah.

John: Uhm, so for you, is there like a... When you were growing up versus now, is there like a taste like in terms of the food that you have. What did it taste like to be young in South Williamsburg and versus now?

Adelaida: Uhm, well I still keep my boots and I teach my kids to when I still uhm when I cook, there's a diversity. You know? I still uhm cook food from Puerto Rico and Italian and I like to try different dishes. So, it doesn't bother me because still we have some... One of the things, we hardly have any bodegas. So mostly, it's uhm, people from India, which is okay. But they don't have the products that we need. And so uhm in the house, I have no problem with that.

John: So, I think that one thing that oftentimes comes about when a neighborhood changes is there are a lot different people coming in at night. So, what does that look like here in South Williamsburg like after ten o'clock at night when everyone kind of comes in and... What does that, is that different now than when you were growing up or...

Adelaida: Oh, yes. Well before, in the 50s, you could go stay up late and nothing will happen then. The guns came and it got kind of dangerous. And now, it's a little but safer, especially [Bedsford?] Avenue. I don't know if you have seen a lot of ants? That's how it looks. [laughter]. It's very crowded, which is okay. You know?

John: Is it loud at night for you to sleep or is it...

Adelaida: Uh no, no, no. Near my house is quiet, but I have heard people complaining about so many bars. Like in Kent Avenue, which was the waterfront, it was only factories. So now, most of it is bars. And they're complaining that they drink outside and there's a lot of noises. And also, I work in a factory once but my father paid. And specially when they took out Chafer[?] beer and Domino, that uhm, so many people were left out without a job. And I know at their age, I guess they never went back to work. That was hard.

John: So for a lot of people, I would assume, especially when those factories went out of business or when they closed down the factories, and also the fact that a lot of changes happened and people don't have the places where they used to work, to work anymore.

Adelaida: Yeah.

John: So how... For a lot of people who work here, how do you think that affects them?

Adelaida: A lot because uhm well, if they were young, maybe they went back to school and uhm like in my case, I used to work in Wall Street and, you know, different places outside here. And the last days I worked around here. I worked in the Chafer Building. I was a secretary, and Domino Sugar. But that was temporary. So it didn't affect me too much, but the other people, it did affect them because some of those factories moved out and they contract. So I guess they were left out without a job. So it was hard for them.

John: So for... How has, uhm in general, which I think that this is... This is another thing that oftentimes comes with a neighborhood change. How has real estate kind of market affected the people that you know?

Adelaida: Tremendously. Uhm, because when they say, "Oh, we're building affordable houses", affordable for whom? We cannot pay $2,000 or more than that. And uhm, so the problem is that, well, they share the apartment but we have families. So, we cannot do that. So we have heard those a lot.

John: Do you know anyone personally who's been, had to move out of their apartment into somewhere else just because of rent and landlords and stuff?

Adelaida: Uh, yes. I know a lady from my church. They told her to move out... Well, the whole building. And she ended up homeless from three years. Finally, because it's hard to apply for housing. It takes times. So she was homeless or three years. So, I'm lucky that I have Section 8, and I say, well I'll be the last four people to live here. [laughter]

John: Yeah. So I think that another question that I had in terms of not only that you're here now -- and I think that you would like to stay -- but if the neighborhood change much more, would you still think that you would want to live in South Williamsburg and Los Sures?

Adelaida: Yes, because uhm I don't drive. My kids told me, "Oh, why don't you move with us?" I said, no, I don't drive. I'm a person that I don't wanna say that now. I like to do stuff, I have church here, I have my family. So, I will stay. Now, if they raise the rent real high, I will have to leave. I won't be able to live here.

John: So do you think that in general, though, because I think that with the neighborhood change and things happening over time..

John: That. A lot of that had happened. But then there's good as well. Is there anything that you find happening with the change that's happening that way?

Adelaida: Yes. Well, we don't see no burnt out buildings. There's beautiful buildings, and the place is cleaner which I'm happy about that. And it's more safer. And there's a diversity of people, which I'm happy about. I have dealt with actors and actresses and, you know, people from politics. So, uhm it's positive and there's some negative stuff.

John: So if you could wave a magic wand, and change three things about the neighborhood or keep three things from the past in today's Williamsburg, what would you choose?

Adelaida: Oh, the first thing, I will move that building. [laughter] I'll leave it close to me, but not that close coz I can't even clean the windows. They'd mess it up. And I will move the church back to where it was. And build some bodegas.

John: And in the bodegas, do they have still, you know, the Goya products, things like that. Is it no longer that they have that stuff or do they still carry them?

Adelaida: There's hardly any bodegas. They close... Uhm stores from people from India whatever, they hardly have any Spanish food. Like right now, I went to California, and they were asking me for Spanish food. I said, "Well if you take me, I'll buy and I'll cook it for you. Then you'll have it."

John: So, I think uhm another question that I was going to ask you, this is more about kind of your kids and how they felt growing up. And this is not... You can't necessarily speak for them if you don't know. But I think that, in general, their childhoods are very different from your childhood or be a good childhood. What would they say about the changes that are happening in South Williamsburg?

Adelaida: Uh, yes. Well at the beginning, now that some of them have moved, uhm they thought that it was a slump taste here, you know. But they kept themselves in the house, and they went to school so they'd better their life. And my younger son that's living with me, you know, he start complaining, oh, they're building this building, some they're taking over. So he feels like he's being caged.

John: Are there people who are a lot more upset about the way that the neighborhood has gone, or is it mostly people that are kind of mixed, or that...

Adelaida: Yeah, I feel that some of them have felt that the neighborhood have been taken over, you know our bounderies.

John: And do you think that in terms of government and the laws that they put in place, do you think they've helped at all or do you think that they have not helped?

Adelaida: Uh, they help a lot, and uhm especially I know [inaudible] I told him when he was five. And I know, uhm, the assemblywoman. And they have done a lot. They have help us. Well, they tried to stop that uhm building. They couldn't do anything.

John: Do you think that the main people who are... If you could say that there's one person who's the driving force behind gentrification and changing of the neighborhood, is there one kind of category of people who are doing it, or do you think it's just kind of everyone at the same time?

Adelaida: Uh, well I guess, you know, they have tried. And that's why I like this community is uhm we're close. And uhm, we know each other. And we know the people from politics. And they have tried but money talks. So, that's why we can't, you know. We can't complain. We don't have the money or the power.

John: So the money is what is really is what's driving the change in the neighborhood that you all want to...

Adelaida: Yeah.

John: Yeah. So, I think that uhm walking down the street now versus when you were little, how has that changed? Like, the feeling that you have walking down the street now, in the public space when you were younger?

Adelaida: Well, I think it's better especially around here. I didn't want to move here. There was burnt houses and gangs, and there was a lot of fighting I choose to go back home because of the gangs, and uhm... So in a way, it has changed for the better.

John: So do you think that in terms of public policing of Williamsburg -- South Williamsburg and Los Sures -- do you think that the public policing that's kind of gone on here has gotten more presence? So there's more police now than before. And how does that make you feel that it's more police now but before they didn't care so much?

Adelaida: Yeah, well, I feel safer especially I have worked with the police, and uhm I had some personal issues that they have helped me a lot. It has improved.

John: So how does your ethnic background influenced your life and your life choices and how your life has gone versus another person who is of a different ethnic background in South Williamsburg?

Adelaida: Uhm, well, I guess I have taught the people to be glad of their ethnic background. Like, I told people from Mexico, "Don't bow your head to nobody." I mean, you're very special, and you should be proud of your country. And I think that's the way I feel that you should keep your roots and teach them to the children. And be proud and let all the people be proud of their roots.

John: Do you feel that people in the neighborhood are proud and are accepting of others? That there's a... You said that before there are a lot of different people who are coming in from different cultures. But I think that, is there a difference there for you between them coming in and them accepting everyone? So is there a sense of acceptance and that everyone gets along well or not so much?

Adelaida: Uh, well around here, I think everybody feel somewhat. They're very friendly, and when I see somebody that comes -- that are recently here -- I tell them welcome to the community.

John: So how have your friendships changed now that I think that, in terms of the difference between when you were younger and now? How is your relationship one-on-one with friends here in the neighborhood changed?

Adelaida: Uhm, I think it helps, you know, it's better and uhm... I teach them uhm not to be racist especially in my family I have people all over the world. And sometimes, when they tell me, oh you look Croatian, you look Polish, I say, well I have a worldwide face. [laughter] You know? I'm happy to be whatever you want me to be.

John: Now, in terms of a turning point within South Williamsburg, was there a time when people were very upset of the change? Was there a time when there were, when most people around you knew that something was not making them happy or knew that something was a problem in terms of the change that's happened?

Adelaida: Yeah, once in a while they go to Albany to fight about housing or to get more money for the community. They do that about every 5 or 6 months. So, you know, they're still, some people are not happy.

John: So there are times about every 6 months, there are people who go and are saying, "We are not happy. There are things that are..."

Adelaida: Yeah. Like, they were trying to close the centers, and that's very important because most of these people live by themselves. They don't have nobody to talk to or maybe they don't have enough money for food, and they need the centers. And they need other kind of organization where they could meet and have fun.

John: So do you think that the sense of neighborhood unity has improved, or got any worse over the years?

Adelaida: Yeah, I think it has improved. Yeah, because before they were fighting [inaudible].

John: So because of the fighting, you think that now is better?

Adelaida: Yes.

John: What do you think caused the stop in fighting?

Adelaida: Uh, I guess people stay[?] educated themselves, and they were able to accept the people the way they are.

John: How are the schools in the neighborhood now versus when you were younger?

Adelaida: Uh, well now they have shadow schools which we didn't have. And I think they're getting too dangerous. Yeah. Too dangerous.

John: Do you think that uhm, in general, have you seen prices in the neighborhood, like the prices in the stores, go up a lot?

Adelaida: Oh, yes, uh especially with the organic products. And sometimes when I go and buy produce from Puerto Rico I said, "You sold me the coffee tree or whatever?" [laughter] Or, "You sold me the whole farm or you sold me a cow for the milk?" Yeah, they have gone up a lot.

John: So those products that you can no longer buy because they're organic and that a lot of people here...

Adelaida: Well, I buy them when I like something...

John: Yeah, but a lot of people here... Yeah. So for a lot of people here, do you think that it's hard for them -- even if they have their houses -- do you think that it's hard for them to live here? Even if they have their houses and they have like rent control or whatever it is.

Adelaida: Yes, it's getting expensive. Very expensive.

John: Are there still places where you can go to find things that aren't so expensive, or is it just everywhere slowly getting more and more?

Adelaida: Well, maybe in the marketas if we find a bodega or 99c stores.

John: So those bodegas, do you think that... Are there people that you know who are owning the bodegas, who were participating in either worked there, or were there people that you knew who worked at the bodegas before and no longer there or no?

Adelaida: Uh, no, yeah, I knew some of them. Especially around my house, there was a lot of bodegas. It's gone. It's only 24 hr deli [inaudible], which is nice. It's 24 hrs, and I like it.

John: What is... I mean, in terms of how many stores are in the neighborhood that you can go to, how many are there within a 4-block, kind of, of your building?

Adelaida: Uh, well I have [C-town?] and the delis. And I think there's two bodegas in [inaudible].

John: Are those store popular or no?

Adelaida: Uh, yes.

John: So those business can still succeed even though everything else is changing, yeah? And I think that uhm another part of neighborhood change that's oftentimes a little bit hard to kind of decide whether it's good or bad is... I mean, I think that, you know, you have like the restaurants, you have the school, you have everything changing, I think that it's hard to decide oftentimes whether or not it's good or bad. The opportunities for other people to come in even to the neighborhood. So do you think that that opportunity for them to move into a neighborhood they otherwise wouldn't, do you think that that outweighs the... Do you think that that outweighs the bad, or do you think it's still good?

Adelaida: Yeah, I think it's good for them. But for those people that used to own those bodegas, they're out of business. Coz this is new stores that they put, and the street is crowded  especially eco-stores. But if you put a bodega, you have a mechanic business.

John: How many liquor stores are there exactly?

Adelaida: We don't need that. We're not alcoholics. One in each corner. I said we don't need that. And we don't need that. I mean, we don't have alcoholics here.

John: We need one.

Adelaide: Yeah.

John: So I think that uhm... You've spoken a lot now about how the shops have changed and how the liquor stores have kind of come up everywhere and how a lot of people are being forced to go to stores they otherwise wouldn't just because there aren't the stores that they had before. Do you that if stores like they used to have -- the bodegas -- open up now, do you think that if they, if someone bought an old restaurant and transformed that into a bodega because there was a need for a bodega, do you think that bodega would be successful or...

Adelaida: Uh, I don't know. I'm not sure.

John: Yeah. And in terms of restaurants, do you think that the restaurants here in terms of prices and the way that they kind of market themselves, do you think that they're mostly very high end and unaffordable, or are they... Is there different levels?

Adelaida: Yeah, different levels. Well, they told me about a restaurant near, I think it's Bedford, and a sandwich cost $10 or $15. Tiny little sandwich. [laughter].

John: So people would not have paid that...

Adelaida: No.

John. ...when you were...

Adelaida: Not us.

John: Yeah. Yeah, I know.


Adelaida: Not ever.

John: So do you think that the people who are paying for that and going to those restaurants, do you think that those people are people who are coming in from outside the city or those people who are coming in from outside of South Williamsburg, or are those people who live here?

Adelaida: They're all people that have come from the outside. They are these actors, and riders, you know.

John. Is there a one race that dominates the people who come in? Is it Asian, Indian, Latina?

Adelaida: Uh, well around here are Puerto Ricans and Dominicans.

John: But the people who travel in from Manhattan or wherever they come, are they mostly...

Adelaida: Uh, most of them have come from France and... Well, they're mixed because I know there's a restaurant next to my house. They're from Colombia, and there's some Peruvian restaurants. It's different. Mexican, from Spain, uhm, I feel like I'm in Europe. [laughter] You know, the other time, I wanted to buy a flag from Spain, and I was passing by and I saw a flag hanging, and I was happy.

John: So for those people that you know who have moved out of South Williamsburg, do you know what their lives are like now that they've moved? Are they happy that they moved? Are they not so happy, or...

Adelaida: No, uh because if it's old people that they don't drive, you know, they feel bored. Like, this lady that was participating -- and I don't know if she gave the story -- she said she didn't want to move out of here, and uhm which I hope that they make a story about her. She died a hero. I don't know if you have heard of her. And uhm, but they feel bored. They feel like they're being caged in. There's a kind of a wall. So, it's hard.

John: So for Williamsburg, in general, do you see that the future will get better? So, do you think that the Williamsburg will get better?

Adelaida: Uh, yeah, I guess. Well, we can't stop the progress, I mean, and I guess you have to get used to changes.

John: Do you think it will ever get better for you?

Adelaida: Uh, I don't know because we have Section A until 2023. So if they change the rent to 20- whatever, I guess I'll have to say goodbye. [laughter]

John: And do you think that, aside from rent, do you think that the neighborhood will continue to change in a good way or in a bad way?

Adelaida: Well, in a good way, but maybe, you know, we don't want to see so many high rises.

John: So, if there's one thing about gentrification that you think is the worst thing about change in the neighborhood that you think is the biggest problem, what is that for you?

Adelaida: Housing. You could ask her. [pointing to friend next to Adelaida] She's a bit... She lives next to me. She's very depressed because of that building. Oh, wow. So you know, I... Although I cannot go look outside, I'll just go outside and...

John: Alright. Thank you so much, Adelaida.

Adelaida: [inaudible]

John: Yeah. Thank you so much for sitting down with us today. This has been really great. Thank you so much.

Adelaida: It was a pleasure.

Adelaida Perez's Interview