Under the Surface: Bushwick Through the Eyes of A Gentrifier

The bodega man knows it, the street shows it, Bushwick is changing.

Hamood, the bodega man started working at his dad’s in 2009. He tells me “when I moved over here there were a lot of problems — shooting in the street. Right now the neighborhood has changed.” Hamood seems to be right, the neighborhood has changed. Anyone can see the changes on Google Maps.

Street View’s photos of my neighborhood range from 2013 to 2015 so they do not necessarily show the same Knickerbocker Avenue that I have come to know. Various vacant lots displayed by these images are now new shops. Numerous staples in the neighborhood such as the laundromat and the grocery store have revamped their images.

“When I moved over here it was a lot of Spanish people. Most of them left. They started fixing up the apartments. We used to pay a thousand a month. Then a thousand-two, then four,” explains Hamood. Whether you like it or not, gentrification is happening. Each piece of this process is a different story. Bushwick via birds-eye-view on Google, another person like Hamood might experience something completely different from behind a cash register.

Both of these locations exists within a few feet of each other, but the perspectives tell completely different stories. Costanza Grocery [left] is now a high class market that was recently deemed as a ‘Bodega [that] Brews Coffee in Brooklyn’. In contrast a birds-eye-view view of the same area shows a hidden message about race.

Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area I experienced my fair share of gentrification. Even from my position of white privilege I was aware of how it was uprooting communities and their established identities. I deeply disliked these new people moving into the towns around me, turning San Fransisco into a homogenous mecca for gluten-free Google executives.

So, for me, moving to Bushwick was confusing. It was something I needed to do financially, but did not want to do because of my perspective on gentrifiers — one of which I had become. I knew I could not avoid being a gentrifier, but it became my goal to not become the kind of interloper I disliked. I decided to try to interact with the neighborhood I was moving into so as to not to alienate myself or the people who were there before me. I made observation and conversation part of my daily life by walking the streets and talking to people.

When I started walking I looked at my neighborhood through the eyes of a newcomer. With my experiences at home, I saw the streets through the lens of gentrification and change. I saw the neighborhood as a physical structure. I felt that I could see the differences between the shops that were new and the ones that were tried and true. Telltale signs like Puerto Rican flags or artisan signage made it clear which establishments were for hipsters and which ones had been part of the neighborhood. However, spending time in my nook of Bushwick, I began to see a different story unfold.

Even within my relatively small neighborhood there are multiple communities coexisting. Take for example my block: Melrose Street between Knickerbocker and Irving. Bottles, cans, trash, and the remnants of gutter punk electronic projects riddle the sidewalk. It is not clear from how it looks, but this is a thriving block — a melting pot between gentrification and neighborhood schemes. Across the street from an anonymous looking church stands a multicolored corrugated wall. Behind this wall is an open space where gender-fluid hipsters screech and yell in outlandish musical performances. Past this shanty of a venue, uninhabited industrial buildings lined with barbed wire and graffiti extend to the end of the block. However, across the street, rows of both old and new apartment buildings cater to college students and a few remaining longtime residents.

Melrose Street between Knickerbocker and Irving

This block changes by day. It is a space that can be bustling, or empty at any given time. Melrose is not bound to its zoning laws. It operates according to the people.

On certain days Melrose acts as a workspace for the neighborhood’s entrepreneurs. Often times a handy fire hydrant acts as a multipurpose tool. This hydrant is a car wash, a shower, an unlimited well for a pressurized hose, and an endless river that has managed to begin reclaiming the sidewalk, letting it return to its roots as swamp like foliage. Another free resource for the businessmen of Melrose is a plethora of recyclable aluminum cans that are constantly sifted from the trashcans outside of the apartment buildings. Trash accumulates in piles outside of permanently parked cars, only to be collected and moved by anonymous white vans. Sometimes the sidewalks of Melrose are used for impromptu barbecues and play places for children, dogs, cats, rats and birds. Behind the gates of the unmarked church, children play games, and sermons occur each Sunday. Still, on other days the streets can be completely empty with no one in sight.

The infamous fire hydrant

However, every once in a while Melrose acts as a venue for the residents of the surrounding Bushwick streets to come together for a potluck style church gathering. Festivities include singing, dancing, preaching, bands and most importantly, booths of people sitting behind tables, each with a unique flag showing the passerby where they come from. Melrose is not only a street, it is a community within itself.

Three blocks away Hamood sits in his father’s bodega, completely unaware of anything happening on Melrose Street. “Make money, feed my family, go on vacation, come back, work, that’s how I do” says Hamood. “When I’m here, I don’t hang out around the area. I just go to work and go home. I live in Marcy. My friends live in downtown [Brooklyn]. We go over there, smoke hookah and play basketball.”

By contrast, 80 year old Carlo, a longtime denizen of the neighborhood is aware of just about every person and event going on within a 2 mile radius. Sitting on his stoop, Carlo interacts with everyone that he comes in contact with, and they all know him. Fifteen years ago after retiring from daywork, Carlo was recruited to become the superintendent of his building. In his new position, he feels safe that he will not have to leave despite rampant gentrification. Sitting with Carlo for one hour proves how well loved he is. Every person from every walk of life talks to Carlo — old, young, Puerto Rican and white. He has gained this support by talking and being an active part of his neighborhood despite the endless changes.

Before moving moving to Bushwick I had a concrete understanding of gentrification. But after spending more quality time with my neighborhood my perspectives broadened. From the longtime residents to the impermanent partygoers, each individual is part of the neighborhood. Likewise, gentrification impacts individuals but individuals also impact the fabric of the community equally. As a new resident I want to play a role in the community and not live separately from it. The first time I talked to Carlo I asked him if we could talk more another time. He agreed and told me to bring my roommates so that we could all hang out and cook together. Just as I look forward to that meal, I look forward to becoming more of a part of this neighborhood I have come to know.