The Faces of Gentrification

The newest victim of gentrication

Brooklyn has been a victim of gentrification for many years now. The movement started in Williamsburg and now, the neighborhood of Bushwick is experiencing the same societal shift. That Manhattanites have taken control of the abandoned warehouses of Bushwick was certainly unexpected. Whether or not the signs were there, the old and new faces of this ever changing neighborhood are living testament to its metamorphosis.

Here was Bushwick then: a stark neighborhood made up of abandoned warehouses where just walking down the street was dangerous, lead by gangs such as the Devil’s Rebels, a band of 15 and 16-year-old boys who roamed the streets at night looking for trouble, knives or guns at hand.

Here is Bushwick now: renovated loft style warehouses inhabited by young artists, heavily tattooed, bespectacled, bearded men in tattered flannels pedaling down the street in fixed-gear bikes, girls with septum piercings shopping in thrift stores, and organic food supermarkets and trendy brunch spots on every corner.

What used to be a neighborhood ravaged by crime and fear has now become a trendy spot for new residents who hopped on the L train and made it past the Bedford Avenue stop. The ultimate question is: did anybody see it it coming?

Bushwick borders the neighborhoods of East Williamsburg in the northwest, Bedford-Stuyvesant in the southwest and Ridgewood, Queens in the northeast, with the expansive Evergreen Cemetery as its most eastbound border. Heated disputes have risen over the years about the difference between East Williamsburg and Bushwick and whether or not they are essentially the same entity. But a large consensus determined the bordering line that distinguishes the two neighborhoods as that of rectangular shape created by Flushing, Bushwick, and Cypress Avenues.

Bushwick, also known as Little Puerto Rico, is dominated by a high volume of Puerto Rican and Dominican residents. A U.S. Census record indicates that the decline of a predominantly white population began at the end of WWII — having reached its peak in 1960 at 90%, it plummeted to 40% in 1970. Today, the Hispanic community makes up a 69.9% of the neighborhood’s demographic, with most of the businesses in the area created to support “national and distinct traditions in food and other items.”

But there has been a steady growth in the percentage of white Americans in Bushwick. In 2010 alone, the white population tripled from 2,500 in 2000 to approximately 7,600. A jump-start in the gentrification process was due to to the shortage of cheap housing in Williamsburg, as a more affluent demographic settled around the Bedford Avenue and Lorimer Street stops on the L train and drove rent to unimaginable numbers, what with the construction of high-rise condos and the like.

View of Manhattan from Bushwick/Photo by author

These new residents funneling from Manhattan and Williamsburg, who couldn’t (and still cannot) afford the rent spike have found a haven in raw, industrial loft-styled buildings. By manipulating warehouse spaces, they have transformed them into creative alcoves. This group of young individuals has also forced a greater demand for stores and services that until their settlement, Bushwick lacked. Many, like Tari Sunkin, owner of Radio Bushwick, saw a business investment in what has become the new hip place to live. Sunkin launched Radio Bushwick as a bar and concert venue to compete against Williamsburg’s Knitting Factory and Music Hall of Williamsburg. It also serves as a radio station featuring music, poetry performances and play and story readings by Bushwick residents. “There is so much talent here and I want to give people a forum,” she said. Within a three block radius, four bars alone have opened in the last three years, including Three Diamond Door, an elegant 1950s themed bar that replaced a fast food joint known as Kennedy Fried Chicken (where employees worked behind bullet-proof glass).

Bushwick’s reputation has not always been that of a sanctuary for young artists. A major blackout in the summer of 1977 across New York City caused Bushwick to suffer the majority of the vandalism, arson, and looting that occurred throughout the five boroughs. The damage was significant, especially in the Broadway shopping district. While shop owners were able to defend themselves against the looters at Knickerbocker and Graham Avenues, 27 stores on Broadway were burned to the ground.

The Bushwick of the 1980s and 1990s were fueled by an abundance of crime and drugs. A New York Times article examined the drastic wave of change within the neighborhood, stating that “In a five-year period in the late 1960s and early 70s, the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn was transformed from a neatly maintained community of wood houses into what often approached a no man’s land of abandoned buildings, empty lots, drugs and arson.” One of the leaders of the movement, Maria Hernandez, fought to evict drug dealers out of the neighborhood. She was shot five times through her window by a 26-year-old homeless heroin dealer. A municipal park has since been named in her memory.

The changes go as little back as 2000, where fights and shoot outs were still a daily occurrence. Kevin Arias, a lifelong resident of Bushwick recalls, “During the shoot outs, my mother just made sure we hid behind cars.” Arias, 23, barely remembers surviving an encounter with a man who brandished a knife to his throat. “I was young so I don’t really remember it happening. But my mom actually broke the guy’s ribs that had the knife to me with a two by four.” Along with Blood gang members, prostitutes also roamed the streets. “My mom had to chase one out of my hallway once,” said Arias.

Despite booming businesses in the 2010s, Bushwick remains a dominantly poor neighborhood; 99 cent shops and low-end clothing stores that line Knickerbocker Avenue are evidence enough of the poverty, not to mention the 20% of residents relying on public assistances to survive. But Arias predicts that Bushwick will be as big as Williamsburg 10 years from now. “It reminds me more of LES, where it’s gritty and dirty but still trendy.” A recent graduate of the College of William & Mary, Danielle Waltrip explained that moving to Bushwick was a decision driven by her rent budget. If money were not an issue, Central Park West would be her ideal place of residency-a convenient location for the 21-year-old membership services associate at the New-York Historical Society Museum. “But now that I live in Bushwick, I really enjoy it as an actual neighborhood, not just a location.”

Long time residents continue to worry about rapacious redevelopment that often comes with gentrification. “NYC has changed overall, not just Bushwick, so it’s no surprise that the aesthetic is changing,” Arias stated.

Waltrip adds, “ I’d say the poverty is still pervasive as is the Hispanic community. But the main advantage of gentrification, to me, is safety.” As long as the rent stays relatively cheap, new residents will continue to push in, sending crime rates down. “I welcome the change,” said Arias. “I’ve seen a lady get punched in the back of the head by some big ass Black guy for no reason. So I welcome the change,” he stated. “No one likes to know they have to watch their back.”