Sitting Down with Melvin

Melvin Portrait.jpg

Melvin Estrella was born in 1959 in the Dominican Republic and came to Williamsburg with his family in 1969. He still lives in Williamsburg with his wife and is a documentary filmmaker and activist. He offered an amazing perspective on a variety of issues and brought up hundreds of interesting points. Unfortunately I cannot cover all of them so I have decided to focus on two that particularly struck me. 

Firstly, the Estrellas, as Melvin described it to me, did not come to the United States with the intention of permanently settling here. The idea was to come, make money to a degree that couldn’t be done in the Dominican Republic, and then return to the island and live the good life in your older years. In Melvin’s experience, that was the intent of most of the Dominican immigrants who came to New York in the 1960s and 70s. I found this incredibly interesting. I never considered the idea that people who immigrate to the United States do so with the intention of returning to their country of origin. But as Melvin built on this thought he also explained that there were jobs and opportunities in New York when his family came. The generation after his came to the city expecting to find work, but found that that was no longer the case. According the Melvin, that is when the neighborhood started to take a turn for the worse. 

Secondly, when white artists starting moving into Williamsburg in the early 1980s, they were interested in being a part of the fabric of the community. Melvin described these artists taking up residence in Williamsburg as not that noticeable. They became a part of the fabric of the community. That struck me. I think there is a tendency, especially for young ‘good liberals’ like myself to paint everything as black and white. I certainly do that to a degree. I pictured the gentrifier as an evil white yuppie, but to hear that the first wave of these folks who came weren’t that was a wake up call. That isn’t to say that everyone who moved there wanted to be a part of the community though.

Melvin explained that, “the noticeable bunch [of gentrifiers] came in the nineties, 94/95. That is when we realized, ‘Oh my god. This is an issue.’ Yet those who came in the eighties, late eighties, were very cool. Became friends with community people. Were interested in the community. The ones that came after, I would say 98, closer to 2000, that group didn’t...they had different agendas. They wanted to meet their friends. They wanted to meet people they knew and that changed the dynamic of the community. Even people here in the North Side, Polish and Italian people they complained that a lot of the people coming in the years 98 to 2000 something, were not as friendly, were not as interested in them. In sharing the community with them.” That seems about right. This was a story I knew all too well from my various readings and research, but I wanted to zone in that time period, that block of years when the neighborhood really started to shift.  



Sitting Down with Melvin