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The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2021

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FEB 2021 Issue
Field Notes Railing Opinion

A Response to Max Moorhead’s Curating Ridgewood

I apologize for the length of this response but I wanted to address the multitude of problems with this article. Here goes:

When Kermit Westergaard and his wife Azadeh moved to Ridgewood from Williamsburg, Brooklyn in the summer of 2007…

According to the article cited, they moved to Ridgewood from 14th Street, Manhattan. So right off the bat, the first line of the article is false and it’s all downhill from there.

Ridgewood has long been a manufacturing base, with immigrants from Germany, El Salvador, Albania, and Nepal, and Coptic Christians from Egypt.

Bushwick, which was an actual town founded by the Dutch in 1661 before being absorbed into the larger City of Brooklyn in 1854, was heavily settled by German immigrants beginning in the 1840s. They remained the predominant ethnicity for over a century. Italians, mostly from Sicily, later became an overwhelming demographic majority; in fact, Bushwick was the largest Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn for decades. In the early 1970s, Bushwick began to change again demographically, especially after the last of the breweries closed in 1976, followed by the riots the next year during the Blackout of 1977. The new ethnicities that moved in were African Americans and Puerto Ricans originally, followed by increasing numbers of Dominicans, Ecuadorians, and other Central and South American populations in the 1980s and 1990s. Today, changing demographics have once again altered the population significantly.

Why bring Bushwick up instead of Ridgewood? Because the demographic shifts that occurred in Bushwick over the past half-century—in Brooklyn—were not the same as what happened in Ridgewood—which would be in Queens. The author seems to have great difficulty in understanding that while Bushwick had its own identity as a chartered town and then part of the City of Brooklyn, Ridgewood really didn’t exist as an entity until the early 20th century (after incorporation of Queens County into New York City) when it began to develop as a neighborhood and urban village. More on that later.

The immigrant base of Ridgewood was originally overwhelmingly German (with an influx of Italians), well into the 1980s and beyond. In the late 20th century, the immigration wave was mainly Puerto Rican and Dominican (often moving over the county line from Bushwick) along with groups of Serbs, Albanians, and Romanians as well. The other nationalities mentioned in the article—including large numbers of Eastern Europeans, particularly from Poland, which are not mentioned—have settled in Ridgewood in recent years; the ones mentioned by the author have settled nowhere near to the numbers of the ethnic groups previously mentioned, so it’s odd to include them while omitting the others. And, unlike in Bushwick, the 1977 blackout did not, in fact, “rapidly” change Ridgewood’s demographics whatsoever.

Community leaders were not subtle about their desire to distinguish themselves from their neighbors. “When you see graffiti, you have to clean it up right away,” said Paul Kerzner, then the chairman of the Greater Ridgewood Restoration Corporation. “When you hear of a drug location, you have to scream bloody murder to the police captain until you get results.”

Most civic minded people agree that keeping on top of graffiti and crime are how you maintain a good quality of life in your neighborhood. It’s not a way to separate yourself from another neighborhood but a way to keep your own community livable. This is recognized in the cited 1994 New York Times article, by the Bushwick resident who remarked about Ridgewood, “Now what we have to do in Bushwick is learn how they did it and see if we can do it ourselves.” Graffiti removal and crime reduction, major initiatives in the 1990s throughout the city, were credited for the city’s renaissance and made NYC attractive to live in. The decades-long work of Paul Kerzner, who the author chose to quote but not interview, is a main reason for the neighborhood being a desirable place to move into.

This was a radical shift from early in the century when many Ridgewood residents viewed themselves as Brooklynites.


Rudy’s is one of the few holdovers from the early 20th century—back when Ridgewood was still part of Brooklyn.


To assimilate into white America, the residents of Ridgewood separated themselves from the historically Black neighborhood of Bushwick.

First of all, the above statements contradict themselves. Second, they are all false.

Ridgewood was never part of Brooklyn and was always part of Queens with a Queens identity but on the Brooklyn street grid. Ridgewood was originally part of Newtown, a township in Queens County. Residents paid Queens County taxes and were serviced by Newtown fire and police departments. And, unlike Bushwick, which was already a very densely developed area of Brooklyn decades earlier, Ridgewood remained a mostly rural community until the early 20th century, when thousands of yellow-brick flats were constructed on the already-plotted aforementioned street grid. In fact, as per numerous historic atlases from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, what we call Ridgewood today was often called “East Williamsburg(h)” prior to significant development of the area between 1905 and 1915. Like other places in the United States which are near or adjacent to big cities but are not part of them (think West New York or East St. Louis), this part of Queens was never, ever Brooklyn.

Bushwick was never historically Black, as stated previously; it was German, Italian, and, much more recently, of majority Hispanic origin. This is made-up history and does not belong in a publication with the name “Brooklyn” in the title. As also mentioned previously, both Ridgewood and Bushwick had similar demographics for a good part of their histories. They were—and are—adjacent communities with some shared history but are definitely not the same.

Glendale and Ridgewood residents had lobbied the USPS in the late 1890s to be serviced by the Brooklyn post office because 1) it was closer and 2) at the time it was better organized and more efficient than the Flushing Post Office. The reason Glendale and Ridgewood wanted their own zip code after the riots was because the cost of home and car insurance went through the roof, as the rates were determined by zip code. Through the years, the people most likely to label Ridgewood as part of Brooklyn were realtors looking to cash in on its reputation during the brewery era and from the 1990s to the present. As many newspapers and magazines have a vested interest in hyping real estate, they have followed this trend.

The classification of Ridgewood as a historical district brought in greater government funding, immediately raising property values.”

The author clearly needs a lesson in historic preservation. National Register Historic designation does not bring in funding nor does it necessarily raise property values—nor does it actually protect privately-owned buildings from alterations or demolitions; for most, its value is purely an acknowledgement by the federal and state government that a building or neighborhood has historic merit. It does allow some property owners to apply for grants to offset the increased cost of maintaining a historic home, though those grants are difficult to get; also, if the building is commercial (which can include multifamily income-producing buildings) there are tax credits available if the restoration or rehabilitation meets the Department of Interior’s standards (which is not easy). In addition, municipal NYC landmarking prevents a teardown and replacement with a higher density market rate building. If it were a money maker, owners wouldn’t fight it the way they tend to and instead would be lobbying in favor of it.

It would be another 25 years before Kermit Westergaard began his project in the neighborhood, but the groundwork was already being laid, and many of the racist ideas that gave rise to the rebranding of Ridgewood, Queens, were already current.

Racist ideas that are rebranding Ridgewood? You mean people restoring buildings, opening businesses, and investing in a community? As will be mentioned later, this “developer” has not been displacing people, businesses, or community of any kind; the “gentrifiers” that are moving into Ridgewood (which seem to include the author) are doing so throughout the neighborhood, regardless of property ownership. Look to the developers pushing for higher-density luxury development, like the new buildings recently completed or under construction on Woodward Avenue; or perhaps the proposed 17-story “affordable” building which will be, by far, the tallest in all of Ridgewood. Most natives of Ridgewood, regardless of ethnic background, will not be able to afford any apartment in this building. Affordable? No. Gentrifying? No question.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan authored the 1965 government report, “The Negro Family,” which placed the blame for poverty on gender and cultural dynamics within the Black community rather than on institutionalized racism and years of redlining.

Throwing in the Moynihan report makes no sense in the context of this article, as this is not a historically Black community and the author seems to have a poor interpretation of what the report actually says. It is probable that the author included the connection solely due to Westergaard’s father, who was politically and personally close with Moynihan and, frankly, that’s just bad journalism.

It is likely he has purchased many more buildings by registering them with Limited Liability Corporations (LLCs)—a typical move by landlords to bury their identities and erase their role in engineering, curating, and gentrifying neighborhoods.

This makes no sense whatsoever because if Kermit Westergaard was trying to hide what he was doing, all of his properties would be listed under LLC ownership.


He also founded Made By Two LLC …

Made By Two (keyword: two) is a joint effort by Kermit and his wife, a woman of color, who is absent from the article save for the first line, either because of the author’s misogyny or because her skin color doesn’t fit his woke narrative. He links to Kermit’s profile but not hers as if this Harvard-educated entrepreneur doesn’t exist.

Ridgewood is one of the only neighborhoods in New York City whose streets are not organized around a subway stop. Instead, it is centered around St. Matthias Roman Catholic Church.

The author’s claim that the neighborhood of Ridgewood was organized around a Catholic church is breathtakingly ignorant. The community itself was built in the first two decades of the 20th century along a predetermined grid carved out of former farms. Most towns in NYC were populated before the subway existed; the subway just increased access between Manhattan and those places and, in most cases, added significant additional development due to said increased access. Additionally, the majority of Germans moving to the US during this era were Lutheran and the area’s first Lutheran church was organized almost 10 years before St. Matthias.

There is another loss that occurs when a neighborhood becomes homogeneous in culture.

There’s no proof that Ridgewood is becoming homogenous. It’s more diverse than ever with thriving businesses that appeal to a wide range of demographics. The 2010 census stated that Ridgewood was approximately 49 percent Hispanic, 39.8 percent white, 7.7 percent Asian, 2 percent African American, 0.1 percent Native American, and 1.4 percent from other races or two or more races. I would not describe that mix as “homogeneous” in either demographics or culture.

A guy with local roots owning seven buildings that he renovates according to his own aesthetics isn’t much of a threat. A much bigger threat consists of outside building owners who buy rent stabilized buildings that they operate as slumlords. Those owners also are undertaking new market rate construction which is driving up prices. These units are being inhabited by transplants from white areas of the country outside of New York City (such as the author) who are driving out people of color whose families have lived in Ridgewood for decades.

The political makeup of Southwest Queens continues to sway conservative, and multiple representatives from the area have supported legislation that only further displaces people of color and working-class residents. Robert F. Holden, who represents District 30 in Queens—which includes Glendale, Maspeth, Middle Village, Ridgewood, Woodhaven, and Woodside—has been an adamant opponent of the Black Lives Matter and the police abolition movements.

A discussion about abolishing police is dropped in the middle of a piece about gentrification and it makes no sense, especially since communities of color are the ones who are most opposed to this idea. It’s generally white gentrifiers who are the biggest proponents of this movement and I’d love to know how police can be blamed for “displacing” anyone. From I. Daneek Miller, the co-chair of the Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus of the City Council, who represents a district in southeast Queens that is 90 percent African American:

While it might be easy for some legislators to demand defunding of the NYPD categorically, it is a much more real and nuanced conversation for communities like ours that have legitimate public safety concerns and rely on a working partnership to combat gun violence and other quality-of-life issues.


You would be hard-pressed to find a Black homeowner in Southeast Queens who agrees that dramatically reducing the size of the police force is a worthwhile endeavor.

This complicates the author’s statement about how many of the businesses in Westergaard and Valkyrie’s buildings support the Movement for Black Lives, featuring “flyers for housing justice organizations. The fact that retailers are supporters of housing justice further obscures their complicity in the problem.” Businesses shouldn’t support something that they—and apparently the author—believe in because of who their landlord is?

Not one person mentioned was interviewed for this article; instead, quotes were lazily cherry-picked from other articles and taken out of context to fit a narrative. Cathy Nolan and Robert Holden were cited as being conservative government reps and bearing a lot of responsibility, yet most of the properties in question are in districts represented by the very left-leaning Senator Michael Gianaris and Council Member Antonio Reynoso. Somehow, they escaped criticism for the gentrification and displacement that has gone on during their tenures. Reynoso frequently rubber-stamps rezonings that make living in his district more unaffordable but gets a pass on it; now he is running for Brooklyn Borough President with no one from the Ridgewood or Bushwick communities raising the issue.

Rolo’s, an Italian restaurant, currently under construction and started by the owners of Gramercy Tavern in Manhattan …

The author may want to visit Rolo’s. If he does, he will actually see that they are serving food cafeteria style, it’s not all that Italian, and it’s not really all that upscale. Most wine bottles cost 25 dollars or less, cans of soda cost 1 dollar, salads are priced at 5 dollars, and full meals are available for 17 dollars. So, it was a bit unfair for the author to target a place before it was open and automatically assume it would price out neighborhood residents when he didn’t reach out to them to discuss their business plan.

Let’s talk a little more about Rolo’s and Rudy’s—“authentic” vs. “simulation”—and the insane paragraph where this comparison is being made, which is a perfect example of the wrongness that permeates this piece:

The pastry shop may have gone unchanged but changing attitudes and demographics have given Rudy’s a new meaning. When German, Polish, and Italian immigrants came to Ridgewood in the 1920s and ’30s they were still seen as “other.” To assimilate into white America, the residents of Ridgewood separated themselves from the historically Black neighborhood of Bushwick. Half a century later, the idea of European white heritage—and an old-world style—appeals to wealthy landlords and gentrifiers. In the eyes of Mr. Westergaard, Rudy’s, like St. Matthias, adds charm to the neighborhood. Rolo’s—and other businesses selected by Westergaard—are only simulations of Rudy’s and other authentic restaurants in the neighborhood. If real estate prices continue to rise, the simulation may be all that is left.

1. As stated previously, Germans came to Ridgewood when it was built over a century ago. Italians came after, with the Polish population a relatively recent addition during the past 25 years or so. Germans, who were the most populous demographic in all of what is now New York City for most of the 19th century and well into the 20th, were definitely not seen as the “other”—more often than not, they were running the show. By the time Italians were moving into Ridgewood en masse, they were not seen as the “other” as well. The Polish population really cannot even be connected to those two earlier ethnic groups that predominated in Ridgewood; they are more in keeping with the other recently settled “non-gentrifiers” who came to Ridgewood starting in the 1990s.

2. As stated previously, Bushwick was never an “historically Black neighborhood” as the author seems to believe.

3. The idea that the author believes that there is some sort of White Supremacy/White Nationalist behavior going on in Ridgewood by its landlords is truly insane. So, other parts of Brooklyn that have gentrified in recent decades—such as Fort Greene/Clinton Hill, Prospect Lefferts Gardens, Sunset Park—who have seen massive influxes of wealthy white folks moving into it (far, far more than in Ridgewood, clearly) would be defined in the same way?

4. Let’s talk about “authentic” vs. “simulation”—Rudy’s, which opened up as a German pastry shop in what was a majority ethnically German neighborhood at the time, has survived because an Italian bought it a half century later and has kept up the original recipes, more or less. While Rudy’s is a staple of Ridgewood (long may it survive!), how many other places that have opened in the last decade will make the transition from the author-defined “simulation” to “authentic” in a few years’ time? And why would the author connect the “new” owner of Rudy’s, who started working there in the 1980s, with the era when parts of Ridgewood were designated in 10 separate National Register historic districts (again, no protection given to the owners)?

If you were to ask anyone who grew up in Ridgewood in the ’70s, ’80s, or ’90s what they think of having an influx of new stores and restaurants, they would likely be ecstatic. If there really are 160 empty storefronts in the area, it’s best to not drive away people investing in the community by printing inflammatory nonsense because you disagree with their décor choice.

There is nothing more insulting than an outsider trying to rewrite a neighborhood's history based on their own preconceived notions of community identity, race and immigration, but that’s what Max Moorhead has done. It seems he made no effort to speak with anyone that he is trying to protect. He even managed to create tension in the mutual aid community by emphasizing one organization over a longer operating one. In 2021 the emphasis is on unity, yet this obvious hit piece aims to unnecessarily create division.

Read Max Moorhead’s article >>

Contributor

Christina Wilkinson

is President of the Newtown Historical Society

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FEB 2021

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