I am gripped by these voices in my ears. Through my earphones I am listening to an audio documentary about the Southside of Williamsburg, narrated by members of certain of the neighborhood’s fast fading communities – Hispanics, Hassids and others. I follow instructions on where to direct my feet and gaze, transposing vibrant scenes and characters, inaudible to others, onto the streets around me.
In the 1980s in Los Sures, as the Southside of Williamsburg is still known to its Hispanic inhabitants, life overflowed onto the streets, which were filled with violence and drugs; survival was top of the agenda. Los Sures was the poorest neighbourhood of New York City, with a population of 20,000 Hispanics, suffering from abandoned real estate, crooked landlords, racial tension and inadequate local resources. The voice of a long-time resident tells me “Violence ruled the street. The movies were right outside… the action was there.”
This is one of Williamsburg’s many realities related to me on the audio documentary. Titled Southside Stories, the walking tour is part of Living Los Sures, a collaborative project made up of many documentaries over the course of the last four years. The project takes as its starting point a 1984 piece of cinéma vérité by Diego Echeverria, which looked at the hostile conditions of the time, but also the strengths of the community: culture, creativity and a hope to lift themselves out of their sordidness. Southside Stories finds voices of remaining members of that splintering community, as well as some new voices. Its stated hope is to ”reunite a neighborhood around a sustainable future.”
Although the speakers are quite alive (they were interviewed in 2013), the imagined world that plays behind my eyes seems like the past – it feels as though I am conjuring ghosts. I stand outside what used to be a crack house, peering up into the windows, while a former drug lord regales me with the play by play of a drug deal – telling me whose job it was to stand at what street corner on the lookout for cops – and about the “line of junkies from the beginning of the hallway all the way down to the second floor, everybody buying drugs.” Nearby, I feel the bustle of La Villita bakery, as I stand in the middle of the sidewalk, imagining a scene that’s now been replaced by a boarded up shop front. An overnight doubling of the rent pushed them out of business – but in any case, the bakery had catered to the workers in the Domino Sugar Factory, whose closure had long since sent them packing.
Some of the stories are set in the present. The Caribbean Club on Grand Street is very much still going, thanks to the endless dedication of its founding owner and touchstone of the community, Maria Antonia Cay, known by regulars as Toñita. The audio documentary calls this “the last remaining Puerto Rican club” – thereby designating it the exception and the sole survivor of its kind. Toñita’s mantra is that the club will stay open until she can’t stand any more. But after that, then what? Toñita’s daughter has chosen to move back to Puerto Rico where life is easier, and as for her friends: who can now afford to pay $2,800 a month for the same one bedroom apartment that went for $250 in 1984?
These few original businesses are perceived as curios, time capsules, relics of days gone by. It feels as though they will soon form part of another stratum in the layers of people who have lived here. Bohemian, young middle class residents move in and new businesses cater to these wealthier clients, transforming the face of the high street and the focus of the neighborhood.
What happens to your sense of self, I wondered, when it is built around a world that no longer exists? Some think of themselves as out of place in their own home, as new residents take root: “Everybody’s going to Florida,” says a voice in the documentary. “We’re the only schmucks that stood here. But you know what, this is our neighbourhood, this is where we grew up. People look at us … and I feel like a foreigner.” As long time residents become sparser, their sense of community and self-recognition weakens. Some long time residents go so far as to “I loved it here, I love it here now, I love it even more now with all these restaurants. “I just miss my people that are this place.”
This fading out of long time residents is not for lack of tenacity. There are those who make their presence felt by taking the strongest stand available to them against total transformation of the area: they refuse to sell their property. An eighty-six-year-old Puerto Rican woman named Carmen is a caretaker of a disused lot which was owned by a man who in his lifetime refused to sell it to developers. She continues his tradition: she does not sell the priceless land, but instead tends to the plants and a life-size stuffed gorilla toy who stares out at passers by, dressing him in different costumes. He’s been in that spot for years, his mouth agape in amusement at the world changing around him.
In fact, no matter what the action of long time residents, this transformation is inevitable and as old as New York City. Sixty-five years ago, E.B. White put it like this: “New York never quite catches up with itself, is never in equilibrium.” Many different cultures have lived here with fierce affection; nearly 80 years ago, Henry Miller declared himself in his 1936 novel Black Spring as a “patriot of the Fourteenth Ward” (as the South Side was then known), though his Williamsburg was yet another version: “Where others remember of their youth a beautiful garden, a fond mother, a sojourn at the seashore, I remember, with a vividness as if it were etched in acid… the ironworks… the black hands of the iron-molders, the grit that had sunk so deep into the skin that nothing could remove it, not soap, nor elbow grease, nor money, nor love, nor death.”
He too was distressed by Williamsburg’s transformation; after his parents moved to Bushwick, he decided to return to Williamsburg to attend the Eastern District High School on Marcy Avenue, hoping to find the life and warmth he’d known there as a child. Instead, he found his old haunts “like a dirty mouth with all the prominent teeth missing, with ugly charred stumps gaping here and there, the lips rotting, the palate gone.” He was complaining of the changes brought about by the abrupt influx of Italians and Jews spilling over from the Lower East Side after the opening of the Williamsburg Bridge.
There is a common phenomenon in New York, whereby different ethnicities live in what amounts to parallel universes on the same map space, whether it’s Los Sures and the Southside, Loisaida and the Lower East side, or 紐約華埠 and Chinatown. They are kept apart by their different languages and engage with the elements of the area that refer to their own culture. Williamsburg has belonged to many – both then and now – and has always been a neighbourhood of different groups living cheek by jowl. In fact, this moment is one of the least fractious in the area’s history.
The neighborhood is teetering on the brink of transition into a new phase of identity, but this does not mean that its long time residents should feel relegated to the status of outsiders. There are various ways in which a sustainable future can be forged for those that remain. As an outsider, and a Londoner used to easy vitriol directed toward gentrification, I am surprised by the level of acceptance of change. I meet a man who tells me he prefers Los Sures as it is today: “I’ve been living here nineteen years. [Back then] you had to hustle, people were dying – now it’s sweety pie.” He proceeds to try to sell me cocaine “the good stuff from Texas,” before telling me about a place in Williamsburg that he enjoys – the Southside Community Garden, into which I am peering.
In the documentary, Adam, an N.Y.U. graduate and new resident also extols the pleasures of the garden. Previously, the space was a rubbish dump alleged to be two storeys high, but in 1993, members of a Los Sures improvement project turned it into its present incarnation, which is parceled out to locals, for free. This includes Adam, who realised the significance of the garden when he was writing the required application letter explaining why he would value being a part of the garden: “I realised the only time that you effect change is the change that’s the closest to you, that you can make in your community… Williamsburg didn’t really feel like a community ever. The neighborhood’s changing; it’s very transient and it’s always evolving, so it’s really hard to latch onto community here… [This is] the most solid community effort that I’ve seen in this neighbourhood.” His participation forms a connection from the older generation of Williamsburgers to the new, through which accretions of the area’s history can form to remain a part of the landscape.
The documentary is a platform for local voices to sound in the intimacy of your ear, and for these stories to be witnessed as the story of a neighborhood. It bridges the gap between past and present narratives, allowing long time residents to be celebrated and recognised as a part of today’s Southside, by others and by themselves. On the receiving end, stories have an intense power to engage the empathy of the listener, breaking down all manner of barriers.
Southside stories is not just for the stories though. It actively strengthens the community: the listener is encouraged to interact with locals along the way: each participation creates new stories and carves its own imprint. It’s a jumping off point – having participated in the tour, the listener should feel more comfortable interacting with other cultures of the neighborhood. Perhaps in the future you will be enticed into The Caribbean Club, where you have learnt that anyone is welcome and conversation flows freely, or join the Community garden you hadn’t noticed before, or befriend the postman now that he has a name (Irvan). The hope is not only to identify the issues, but to prompt the social connections, awarenesss and understanding that will instigate real life solutions.
Spelling is Americanized for an American publication.