Changing Dynamics

Gentrification does not happen in a one fell swoop. A couple of artists moving into a neighborhood does not mean that it is gentrified and all is lost. Melvin was very careful to emphasize this point. He clarified this by saying that, “The community [members] always wanted to share the community because we all wanted the benefits that come with some gentrification…People come in and bring in new businesses, new possibilities  and things that you can do within the community…The conflict came when the community felt that they are being displaced. So there’s no trade. Nobody minds a trade. The problem is when everything becomes one sided.”

As I wrote earlier, Melvin described the earliest ‘gentrifiers’ with a certain fondness. He recalled how eager they were to immerse themselves in the community and become apart of the larger fabric of the neighborhood. He, and many other long time residents of the neighborhood, noticed a different demeanor in the people who began to move to Williamsburg in the late 1990s and early 2000s. These people seemed to have no desire to be a part of the community and only wanted to associate with people similar to them. This switch in the type of person moving to Williamsburg struck me so I decided to not only go digging for research through the usual online databases, but through the online New York Times online archive as well. I wanted to know, what were people saying about Williamsburg when this change was happening? 

“Undoubtedly, sections of Williamsburg suffer from severe blight. Residents, however, are quick to point to the solid Italian and Hasidic communities as well as to the emergence of an artists' enclave along the neighborhood's northern waterfront.” This quote is from a Times article written by David Dorian in 1986. Titled, “If You’re Thinking of Living in; Williamsburg,” the article paints a picture of Williamsburg as a diverse and burgeoning community. Dorian even goes as far as to compare property prices in Williamsburg to those in Manhattan. When reading the article it really feels like Dorian is trying to sell his readers on the idea of Williamsburg and encourage them, artist or not, to consider setting up shop there. The article came out right around the time that Melvin articulated to be the seeds of Williamsburg’s consuming gentrification. From the tone of the article it seems that Williamsburg was still largely ‘undiscovered’ except for the few artists that took up residence there at that point. It also seemed that there was still a balance of sorts in place. 

By the late 1990s, the art scene in Brooklyn was in full swing, especially in Williamsburg. Artistic types fled Soho in droves when they got whiff of the large and cheap spaces available across the bridge. The art section of Times certainly speaks to this movement. I found a plethora of reviews of exhibitions in Williamsburg. Only one of these articles mentioned the possible effects this could have on the neighborhood. Roberta Smith, in her review of a 1998 installation casually remarked, “Time never stands still in the New York real estate market, of course, and the chief harbingers of the next hot neighborhood have often been artists, propelled by a need for cheap studio space and aided by an appreciation of the architectural potential of neglected buildings.” After that she makes no mention of real estate. She doesn’t even explicitly say that Williamsburg is going to become unaffordable to the locals and the artists who initially moved there, but it seems she is implying it. 

I imagine these numerous articles about the burgeoning art scene in Williamsburg only helped usher in the people that did not want to be a part of the community. It is interesting that article was published in the same year that Melvin said the droves of gentrifiers came into the neighborhood. Another article that I unearthed from 2001 by Tara Bahrampourspoke to the mainstreaming of Williamsburg. It was rather satirical, making fun of Williamsburg residents fearing a soon to be opened Starbucks, but it does mark a moment that many people in gentrifying neighborhoods fear. A common joke (but very often accurate assessment) is that once a Starbucks, or Urban Outfitters, or any chain establishment of that nature opens, the neighborhood is finished. Bahrampour writes, “The specter of a Starbucks coffee franchise has floated down Williamsburg's streets ever since this neighborhood started attracting refugees from Manhattan…But some say it's only a matter of time before chain stores move in, a prospect that galls those who treasure their neighborhood's tradition of small independent businesses.” Was the Williamsburg of today inevitable? I would sadly say yes. What happened to it has happened to hundreds of other neighborhoods and it will most likely continue to happen. 

Changing Dynamics