javier portrait.jpg

In conducting my interview for this exhibit, it was fascinating to speak with lifelong South Williamsburg resident Javier Cabrera about his trials and tribulations in the neighborhood, and his thoughts on the vast changes that have occurred within it over the course of his life. Though my express intent going into the conversation was to question Javier about his experiences with the gentrification of Williamsburg over the past several years, it became clear that we were discussing much more than that very early on in the project.


Our interview covered most of Javier’s life and experiences in the southside of Williamsburg. We began by discussing how his parents moved from Puerto Rico separately and met at a factory that Javier believes was on North 3rd street. The details of their employment and former living situation, as well as the years during which all of these events occurred are a little blurry or impossible to obtain, says Javier, due to his mother’s old age and lack of memory. Despite this, their immigration to Brooklyn almost certainly occurred during the mass exodus of Puerto Rican and Dominican immigrants to Williamsburg from the 1950s-1970s [1].


After covering how his family got to the south side, we began discussing the supposed “bad old days” of the area and, to my surprise, Javier seemed relatively unfazed by the era. According to him, there was not much blatant tension and or violence that he intimately experienced. Javier was a teenager at Williamsburg public and private schools in the late 90s and early 2000s, and though he does recall a fair amount of drug use, gang membership, and the like, he seems to hold no truly traumatic memories of his adolescence.


On this issue, Javier said “It wasn’t THAT bad. There were definitely bad seeds, though, which made no sense. Maybe it was because of the things that happened, who knows, but it wasn’t THAT bad overall. Like, in comparison to a lot of other neighborhoods, I think New York City gets a really bad rap, but I don’t think it’s as bad as what a lot of people think. I think the time that movie was documented, those times, that era, was way worse. I was lucky not to have been born around then. Maybe I wouldn’t be around”  [13].


The interview, to me, is most interesting in how Javier is more concerned with the issues that have plagued the southside of Williamsburg both before, during, and after the area’s rampant gentrification. We spent a fair amount of time discussing the crime that occurred in the neighborhood, most prominently being the drug use. Javier told me that, though there was a more serious and debilitating cocaine problem in the area prior to his adolescence, there was a marijuana issue in the area during his teen years that he thinks has only increased since his teenage years. He did note that he thought people were wisening up and moderating their use in a more responsible way than they had in the past, though.

In a direct transgression of our natural “Gentrification is bad” sensibilities, Javier spent a lot of time talking about how it was hypocritical for longtime Latino residents of the south side to criticize the “new people” as we referred to them (essentially meaning white middle-class hipsters and white upper middle class yuppies). To him, this seemed like a continuation of a near “welfare queen”-like mindset that he sees in many of the area’s people. Though this belief was not at all what I was expecting, Javier proceeded to move on to different fascinating opinions about the area.


One of the biggest takeaways of the interview for me was how Javier conveyed the way in which gentrification, despite affecting various residents through rent hikes, neighborhood shifts, or full on displacement, did not eliminate many of the problems that existed in the neighborhood prior to its occurrence. Also, Javier conveyed in a really fascinating way how, in a low income neighborhood such as Los Sures, the effects of gentrification aren’t completely visible or accessible to the area’s residents immediately. Despite this, Javier had lots to say about the pace of the gentrification and high rise-ification of Williamsburg;

“The thing is, with me in particular, I was going through my own personal drama at that time but it wasn’t during my teen years. I was already an adult -- already in my 20s by the time I started noticing the changes, like things getting built. But it was in a slow pace, y’know? That’s the only thing. It was a slower pace. But then eventually it just went up really fast, like you’d notice the changes. We knew that buildings were getting built. We didn’t know what it was. We thought maybe it was for us or for other people. We didn’t realize. The thing is too, I just don’t understand why they didn’t move people from our buildings to those buildings, and then repair the broken buildings. Like, they could have done that. Instead they just kinda built new buildings and hiked up the price instead of like, trying to put it at the same price. I understand that it’s better, but at the same time, these buildings could have been in a better state but you didn’t bother to fix them. And then now, they’re trying to increase the price of it, and the value of it with these new buildings that are in better conditions, also because people can afford to go there and then you’re trying to just profit off the same people that you’ve been trying to screw over for so many years. I don’t understand that”  [13].

Inspired by our interview, I set out on a quest to research the goals, history, and future of Sts. Peter and Paul's Parish, specifically their location on South 2nd street which will soon be demolished and moved onto the Berry street location where Javier went to school. I also set out to discover the past, present, and future of the rapidly changing South 2nd street, and to examine the rezoning laws that led to the "new buildings" that make Williamsburg what it is today.