Zoning Out: The Politics of North Brooklynby Robin Rogers-Dillon
During the excessively hot summer of 1997, I was evicted from my illegal loft in Williamsburg. Being eight months pregnant, I didn’t fight it. The woman I rented from—who, oddly enough, was eight months pregnant—told me she was being threatened by the landlord. No babies in the building. Child protective services. Inspectors. I didn’t stick around. By September I was tripping over mice in my new Greenpoint apartment. Like many other trust fund-deficient Brooklynites, I was moving north. We were priced out of Williamsburg. Luckily Greenpoint had acquired a discrete charm. The sun was brighter, the trees remaining after the unfortunate Beetle incident were majestic in their isolation. And we could afford the rent without having to diaper the baby in old copies of the New York Times.
For a few years, I was woken up every two hours by garbage trucks. I paid my rent dutifully and haunted hardware stores for mousetraps. Then I did something extremely radical. A child of rent control, I was reared in a small Manhattan apartment with a trapeze in the living room. But last summer, I did the unspeakable. I bought a house. I’m still dealing with the shame. Worse yet, I became a landlord—a word I couldn’t say without spitting until my mid-20s. But there it is. North Brooklyn is a mixed-up place right now. I understand. I feel its pain. We’re all running from one thing and trying to grab something else. My 3–year–old son just can’t accept that he is not Polish. The pierogies of his youth are a fraud.
North Brooklyn is full of people with meager to moderate resources fighting to save a way of life. In 1975 Adam Venesky led a protest against the closing of Greenpoint’s Barry Street Firehouse. After protestors took over the Firehouse, the city relented and the Barry Street Firehouse came to be known as the People’s Firehouse. It’s a great story, and not just because “the people” actually won but also because they saved a Firehouse. Shout it out: We will not let our houses burn! I love unambiguous images because reality is so messy. “The people” in North Brooklyn are, with the possible exception of a few hipsters hot off the L train, not wealthy. They can be passionate to the point of zealotry over art, community, family, or religion. Stop a random person on the street and ask them what is worth more than money, what would they fight and die to protect. You won’t be laughed off the street. Everyone here has something. Nobody wants their house to burn.
The interlaced neighborhoods of Greenpoint, Williamsburg, and Bushwick house a precarious balance of Hasidic Jews, working artists, trend watchers, and real estate agents. Polish families patronize the local stores and restaurants where English is unnecessary; Italians, Latinos, and African Americans raise their families in neighborhoods they preserved when no one else was interested. There are new Asian immigrants as well as descendents of Irish and German immigrants. Assemblyman Joseph Lentol, who represents the 50th District, boasts that “I probably have the most diverse district in the state.” It is diverse and it is changing. Williamsburg, most obviously, is changing, but so are the other neighborhoods.
Greenpoint is an area where people traditionally have been quite strongly rooted. David Reiss, who is running for City Council, was canvassing the area one day when he met a man who had “been here for 71 years.” Reiss, who hoped to learn more about the neighborhood, inquired, “You’ve been in Greenpoint for 71 years?” “No,” the man replied, “I’ve been in this house for 71 years.” Change comes slowly to the north tip of Brooklyn. Even Assemblyman Lentol lives in the house where he was raised. It is a community filled with working and middle class families. Grown children buy the houses that their parents owned. People aren’t rich, but they aren’t poor. The average household income today is around $40,000 (adjusted to 1997 dollars), not much different. It is a community where, as one resident put it, “you can hear the noodles boil.”
Williamsburg is a different story. “A conceptual war zone” is how Eve Sussman of the Brooklyn LiveWork Coalition describes it. The debate in Williamsburg is over more than the skyrocketing rents; it is over the soul of the neighborhood. Joe Weisbord, who has lived Williamsburg for over a decade, observes, “Gentrification is not just an economic phenomenon, it is also a cultural one.” Whose neighborhood is it? The change, Joe notes, is not just in the people who live in Williamsburg or in the rents that they pay but also in the use and nature of the neighborhood itself. “Williamsburg is changing from a residential neighborhood to a destination neighborhood exists in layers. The well-off newcomers exist at the surface of a moderate to low-income neighborhood. The average household income for Williamsburg is roughly $27,000. In 1990 it was about $20,000 (adjusted dollars). With lofts renting for upwards of $3,000, there is some real money in the mix. But clearly not everyone has it. Gentrification that at one time filled empty buildings in Williamsburg is now pushing out old residents in favor of new. Wealthy style seekers are replacing working artists. To be fair, the “good old days” had their poseurs too, mostly people tipping over to one side in gravity-defying suspended animation. I’ve swept up enough needles in my life not to mourn their diminishing numbers. But unfortunately, they aren’t the only ones getting priced out of Williamsburg. Assemblyman Vito Lopez notes that his office “regularly gets calls from elderly people who had rents of $600 dollars that have jumped to $1,500—more than their income.” Many have lived their whole lives in Williamsburg. Other low- and middle-income families, particularly in the Latino community, also are getting pushed out.
Bushwick hasn’t experienced the dramatic changes that Williamsburg and Greenpoint have seen. It remains one of the poorest areas in New York. In 1990, 40 percent of Bushwick residents had incomes under the poverty line. Assemblyman Lopez notes that his district, which includes Bushwick and portions of Williamsburg and Greenpoint, is the poorest district in the state. In West Bushwick, which borders Williamsburg, the median household income in 1990 was $15,000. East Bushwick faired only marginally better at around $16,000. The breweries and other light industry that sustained Bushwick are long gone. Roughly 30 percent of Bushwick residents receive welfare. It is a central part of the local economy. With time limits on welfare benefits rapidly approaching, that, too, will be largely gone soon. Although some artists are escaping the high rents and moving east, most are not. Bushwick remains a place where, as one resident recently told the New York Times, “Those who can, leave the neighborhood. Those who stay, don’t have anything. So we are always dealing with the poorest of the poor.” The Bushwick Local Development Corporation is promoting a mixed-use initiative called the “Bushwick Renaissance Plan” aimed at revitalizing previously industrial areas that are now largely vacant. The plan would provide affordable housing, commercial use, day care facilities, and facilities for the elderly. With the downturn in the economy and welfare time limits kicking in, Bushwick is likely to remain a place where food and shelter are top priorities.
A Common Enemy
Every once in a while, Brooklyn explodes. There are riots. One ethnic community lashes out at another. If it gets bad enough, the scars on the landscape and within the communities can last for decades. Rapid change, scarce resources, ethnic and religious diversity are a volatile mix. Nevertheless, there has been remarkable tolerance and calm in North Brooklyn. No riots. Even the “Yuppies Go Home” posters have faded.
Part of what keeps the diverse communities of North Brooklyn from fracturing is the common desire to keep its air from becoming something that it is better not to breathe. Greenpoint and Williamsburg have traditionally been both residential and industrial. There is a hint of naiveté in the newcomers who gasp, “There is industry here! In Williamsburg!” Gambling? In Dodge City? Yet even the long-time residents whose grandparents may have existed more peacefully with factories producing lead paint and metal plating are now concerned about the environmental impact of power plants and waste transfer stations. There is also a sense that North Brooklyn has just had more than its fair share of waste and pollution. Environmental justice has become a common phrase, and people are asking, “Why is it always here?”
It is now local legend that over 1,000 people attended a public meeting held this past June at the Automotive High School to discuss a proposed new power plant. Representatives from every part of the community in the district were there. And virtually everyone opposed the power plant. Peter Gillespie of Neighbors Against Garbage (NAG) explains that the Latino, Hasidic, Polish, and “new” Williamsburg communities have all organized against environmental hazards. “This is one of the best organized communities in the city.” Gillespie also notes that the diverse communities are very unified: “People understand that we are more powerful when we work together.” And the successes are remarkable. The 1996 defeat of the waste transfer station spearheaded by NAG was a triumph. Last year, KeySpan Energy’s and Con Edison’s plans to build a 500 megawatt power plant at the old Market Terminal were defeated against considerable odds. The ability of the community to consistently mobilize shows the strength of North Brooklyn, but the constant need for heroic action also reflects a weakness.
Environmental racism is frequently cited as the reason that Greenpoint and Williamsburg are dumped on so often. That is probably true to a point in South and East Williamsburg. But a number of recent projects target the North Side of Williamsburg and Greenpoint, two of the only places in New York where my blond hair isn’t a distinguishing feature. Greenpoint used to be virtually all white. Professor Andrew Beveridge of Queens College notes that in 1970 over 95 percent of Greenpoint residents were white. In 2000 that number had dropped down to just over 75 percent—still an astoundingly high number given the ethnic diversity of North Brooklyn as a whole. So pure racism is unlikely to have played a large role in Greenpoint’s environmental skirmishes.
Williamsburg is a more complex story. About half of Williamsburg’s population is Latino, although the percentage may be declining. According to the 1990 census, 56 percent of the population of Williamsburg was Latino. The most recent census figures show a decline to about 46 percent in 2000. The decline is not just proportional (the percentage of Latinos declining as a result of new groups moving in)—the absolute number of Latino residents dropped by over 10,000 in that decade. Assemblyman Lopez argues that the apparent decline may really be an undercount: “There are 1,000 to 20,000 more people living in the Williamsburg/Bushwick community.” In the last 10 years, Lopez explains, there has been an increase in immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and other Central American countries. These groups, he adds, have been “historically resistant to participating in government questionnaires and counts.” Economic displacement may be another factor in the decline. South and East Williamsburg are home to a large number of minorities and people in poverty, arguably even more than official counts would suggest, but it is not poverty and racism alone that make the areas targets. Bushwick is overwhelmingly African American, Latino, and poor. But that isn’t where the power plants and waste transfer stations are being built.
Two key problems faced by Greenpoint and Williamsburg is far less sexy than racism and class conflict; they are zoning and location.
Large portions of Greenpoint and Williamsburg are zoned for industrial use rather than commercial or residential use. Developers pick this area because they can build here. The zoning of the area is an historical overhand. It wasn’t long ago that industry was a welcome part of the largely working class communities that depended on it. So the zoning of the area fit what it used to be, but not what its residents, in many cases old and new, want it to become. The location is also easily accessible by Con Edison’s electricity grid. And of course the waterfront access makes it suitable for waste transfer. The zoning and location make the area attractive and potentially profitable to these industries. People who own the land can get more money for it by selling to these highly profitable and undesirable industries than for most other uses. City and state governments want to make sure that waste is disposed of quickly and that electricity is provided consistently. One might quibble with their priorities, but it is true that voters get testy when garbage rots in the street or there are blackouts –brings back memories of the 70s. So there is little inherent incentive for government to change the zoning to impede this type of development, which leaves the community chronically vulnerable. Win one fight, and another pops up.
Votes, Protest, and Political Irrelevance
“Park Slope and Brooklyn Heights don’t have meetings with 1000 people,” says David Reiss. “They don’t need them.” He continues, “Greenpoint and Williamsburg are very political communities, but they don’t vote. Park Slope and Brooklyn Heights aren’t as political, but they vote.” In fact, North Brooklyn does have low voting rates, with the very notable exceptions of the Hasidic community. And votes and money are what make the political world turn, zoning regulations included.
Voting in North Brooklyn follows distinctive cultural patterns that shape its political leadership. Two caveats before I describe some of the dynamics involved in North Brooklyn elections: First, people here are, for the most part, quite happy with their local elected officials. Constituents often praise assemblyman Joseph Lentol and Assemblyman Vito Lopez in particular. Second, there is an old saying that the two things you don’t want to see made are laws and sausages. It is usually a good idea not to look too closely at elections, either.
The most politically influential group in North Brooklyn is unquestionably the Hasidim. The Hasidic leadership can deliver voting blocs so powerful that candidates in statewide races seek their support. The voting blocs are, of course, even more critical for local elections. The immense power of the Hasidic voting blocs has sometimes brought resentment from other groups, especially Latino groups, who feel that they receive proportionally fewer services. Historically, hostilities have centered on funding of more affordable housing. In recent years local politicians, notably Ken Fisher, have worked to foster a more equitable distribution of resources and also better relationships between the Latino and Hasidic communities in Williamsburg.
The Hasidic community in Williamsburg can account for as much as 10 percent of the total votes in a district election and nearly all of those votes are delivered to the same candidate. What makes their voting bloc even more powerful is that it is most often given to the frontrunner (typically the candidate chosen by the Democratic Party), virtually assuring the candidate’s victory even before the first primary. The Hasidim—who in Williamsburg, it should be noted, consist of two sects that do not necessarily support the exact same slate of candidates in every election—often will support Democrats over Republicans, who might be closer to their personal politics, in order to back the winner. But picking a winner isn’t an exact science. That Hasidic community misplaced their bets on Mario Cuomo over George Pataki in the 1994 Gubernatorial race and suffered a loss of influence as a result. But locally the system works pretty well.
The strength of the Hasidic voting bloc is compounded by the low voting rates of other groups. Until 1982, the Polish community of North Brooklyn held considerable political power. Then the 50th district was redrawn to include the heavily Hasidic communities of Williamsburg. At the same time, a new wave of Polish immigrants began to settle in Greenpoint. Prior to 1985, the Polish community was primarily made up of Polish Americans, not Polish immigrants. As with all groups, when immigration increases, the number of illegal immigrants and non-citizen residents increases too. Neither group, of course, can vote. Compounding the problem of having proportionally few eligible voters is the fact that many of the new Polish voters are Republicans. In a borough controlled by the Democratic Party, Republican votes aren’t heavily courted.
The new Asian immigrants share the citizenship issues with the Polish community and are at the moment numerically small. The Italian American and African American communities are fairly stable. The Italians do vote, but not with the same numbers or organization that Hasidic community does. The African American community is what Assemblyman Lentol calls “a sleeping giant”—they have among the lowest voting rates of any group but they have the numbers to be quite powerful. Latinos occupy a distinct position in local politics. The Latino community had a comparative advantage over other groups because, in addition to the many Latinos who are American-born, Puerto Rican “immigrants” come with citizenship rights. As immigration trends are shifting toward the Dominican Republic and other Central American countries, Williamsburg loses this advantage and inherits a problem alluded to by Assemblyman Lopez—these new immigrant groups have a far greater distrust of government and politics than their predecessors. This could cause the already low voting rates of Latinos in North Brooklyn to fall even farther.
The “new” Williamsburg residents look much like their non-Hasidic neighbors. They are politically active, but many don’t vote. If posters and tabling are any indication, many of the new residents who do vote will vote for the Green Party. Even in a European-style parliamentary system, minor party votes are risky. In Brooklyn, which barely lays claim to a two party system, third party votes are not an obvious route to power. The appeal of the Green Party is arguably strengthened by local environmental concerns. Yet Protest votes are a luxury. If the most educated and affluent newcomers in Williamsburg adopt a fashionable disgust with the whole system, the community is unlikely to yield much political power. And political power is what this community needs
North Brooklyn is precariously balanced right now. The renaissance of Williamsburg and Greenpoint has revitalized the areas, but rapid gentrification is also placing tremendous pressures on the poor and elderly of those communities. Local artists and working families are being priced out of the communities that they built. Eviction is brutal under any circumstances. For people who have spent years building their lofts and community, changing the loft laws is a fight for survival. As Eve Sussman from the LiveWork Coalition puts it: “We’re under siege from all sides. The neighborhood is at war. They are trying to destroy the culture we’ve created.” New housing is being constructed, but almost exclusively at the high end of the market. Bushwick, meanwhile, is looking for its own renaissance, but one that brings jobs and housing to the people already in the community rather than pushing them out.
The voting dynamics of the area make it easy for the broader political system to ignore Greenpoint, Williamsburg, and Bushwick. Local elected officials, much like their constituents, often engage in heroic efforts on behalf of the community and accomplish more than they should be able to accomplish. But North Brooklyn barely registers on the politics map. Since the key group of voters in the area votes with the projected winner, there is little reason for the political power system to pay much attention to the community as a whole. Money and votes are the currency of politics. North Brooklyn doesn’t have either. So nobody changes the zoning laws to protect the area’s long-term interests at the short-term expense of people who have both power and money. Real change will come when the people in North Brooklyn who have worked together to put out so many fires become politically strong enough to go after the zoning structure that keeps generating the sparks.
Robin Rogers-Dillon, a resident of Greenpoint, is an assistant professor of sociology at Queen's College.