When Kermit Westergaard and his wife Azadeh moved to Ridgewood from Williamsburg, Brooklyn in the summer of 2007 it looked like any other working-class neighborhood in Queens. Westergaard, a native of the Upper East Side, saw an opportunity in Ridgewood for property ownership that was quickly diminishing in Williamsburg, East Williamsburg, and Bushwick. Kermit’s father, John Westergaard, a pioneer of the financial services industry and advisor to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, had passed away in 2003.1 Kermit, one of four children, decided not to follow his father’s path on Wall Street or in politics; instead he decided to have influence through real estate and, unbeknownst to the local community, he began a 15 year project of transforming Ridgewood, Queens that is just now coming to fruition.
Named the “country’s knitting mill capital,” Ridgewood has long been a manufacturing base, with immigrants from Germany, El Salvador, Albania, and Nepal, and Coptic Christians from Egypt. The 1977 blackout, which ignited riots across Brooklyn, rapidly changed the neighborhood. Geraldine Ferraro—who was running for Congress as a Democrat at the time—began a campaign for the largely white neighborhoods of Glendale and Ridgewood to have their own zip code. This was a radical shift from early in the century when many Ridgewood residents viewed themselves as Brooklynites. The campaign was successful: in 1982 Ridgewood was given a new zip code, and the rebranding effort to portray Ridgewood as a separate community from Bushwick began with its first tangible success.
In 1983, just a year after the Ridgewood rezoning, 3,000 homes were listed in the National Register of Historic Places. 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.”2 The classification of Ridgewood as a historical district brought in greater government funding, immediately raising property values. "In a very short time, we'll be a household name," Mr. Kerzner predicted.
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 re-branding of Ridgewood, Queens, were already current. 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. “Ghetto outcomes” resulted from “ghetto culture,” according to Moynihan’s report.3 These ideas, perpetuated by Westgaard senior—coupled with the political actions of white Ridgewood residents—created the conditions for the new project of community design and curation, as pernicious as previous efforts, that is now underway in the neighborhood.
Kermit Westergaard is the co-founder and partner of Valkyrie Realty, a commercial leasing company which he founded with John Burnham, and owns seven buildings in Ridgewood under his own name. The last of these buildings, 6822 Forest Avenue, was purchased in March 2019 for 2,000,000 dollars.4 According to Justfix.nyc, a database of landlord information drawn from public records, Mr. Westergaard has spent nearly 10.5 million dollars since 2013 on buildings in the community.5 This is not including his 1908 row house, which was bought in 2007 and highlighted in the 2008 New York Times article “A ‘Farmhouse’ Near the L Train.”6 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.
Valkyrie Realty, which is not a property group, has scouted businesses from outside the neighborhood to move into Westergaard’s buildings; this will inevitably drive up rents through a subtle manipulation of commerce, industry, and identity in Ridgewood. To many long-term residents the influx of upscale businesses has appeared to happen organically, rather than as a result of one person's project to outprice residents and transform the neighborhood. The businesses in Westergaard’s buildings include: Sundown, an upscale cocktail bar; Forêt Wines, a natural wine store opened by the owner of Ops Pizzeria in Bushwick; and now Rolo’s, an Italian restaurant, currently under construction and started by the owners of Gramercy Tavern in Manhattan. (Rolo is the name of Westergaard’s dog.)
All of the businesses chosen by Westergaard and his partner at Valkyrie Realty are similar in their appeal to a certain taste. Burnham and Westergaard are looking for “young, creative professionals, and the business community” to fill in the real estate. Burnham sees Ridgewood as a new Carroll Gardens or Cobble Hill, rather than a continuation of Bushwick or Bed-Stuy. With the pandemic resulting in the closure of numerous businesses, an opportunity has arisen for the wealthy to exploit the fragmentation caused by economic catastrophe.
The distinctions between Westergaard’s buildings and the more established Polish and Egyptian businesses in the neighborhood illustrate the social-class nature of taste.7 What is found to be visually appealing, or good tasting is almost always a class marker rather than a preference that arises organically. The choices made by Valkyrie Realty and Westergaard follow this principle. Rather than make blatant attempts to drive out poorer communities and people of color, Westergaard uses carefully planned aesthetic decisions to naturalize the process of gentrification.
Sarah Schulman explores this in her book Gentrification of the Mind (2012), which examines the interlocking destruction wrought in 1980s New York by the AIDs epidemic with policies that gave banks greater ability to acquire property in Lower Manhattan. At a time of heightened media attention to the gay community it became easy to notice white gay couples moving into a working-class neighborhood. Gay people were blamed for gentrification when in reality they were scapegoats for the efforts of finance capital and the city government of New York to gentrify poor communities. “While the racism of many white gay men and their willingness to displace poor communities in order to create their own enclaves is historical fact, gentrification would not have been possible without tax incentives for luxury developers or without the lack of city-sponsored low-income housing,” writes Schulman. “That the creation of economically independent gay development is seen as the ‘cause’ of gentrification is an illusion.”8 New York City real estate companies prefer people to blame their neighbors for gentrification rather than to see the role of policy and politics. In the same way, the patrons of the upscale businesses appearing in Ridgewood are not the “cause” of gentrification, but an intentional effect of Valkyrie Realty’s appeal to a particular consumer base. Those behind the financial and aesthetic decisions have made a bet that establishments attractive to those consumers will quickly translate into higher rent and greater profit.
Kermit Westergaard’s efforts are effective in part because many of his stylistic choices are intelligently hip, communicating a higher-class disposition to the intended consumer audience: younger, wealthier neighborhood transplants. With a background in industrial design, Westergaard also owns Elliptical Construction LLC, which has had a part in remodeling the buildings he owns.9 He also founded Made By Two LLC, a “multidisciplinary studio that specializes in the design of residential and commercial environments,” and “creates spaces that possess the warmth of an old country retreat infused with a distinctly modern sensibility.”10 Made By Two has done work for multiple well-known New York City establishments, such as designing the flagship NoHo store for La Colombe Coffee, the now-defunct Northern Spy Food Co., and multiple residential spaces across the city. The photos of Westergaard’s 1908 Ridgewood row house show “painted wide board panels, exposed beams, stripped wooden banisters, and window casements.” The house could be taken fresh off the page of Architectural Digest.11 With his many design and building companies, Westergaard can have full control and autonomy when planning his buildings and establishments.
Class and social relations are easily expressed and most apparent in things: design, food, and clothing. The interiors designed by Westergaard are an extension of the culture brought in to gentrify the neighborhood—they express in their own language the class background of their intended occupants. The retail real estate that Westergaard owns also displays his sense of style and grandeur when it comes to interior design. One property located on the corner of Onderdonk Avenue and Catalpa Avenue, listed on Craigslist as “Trophy Corner Property w/ Historic Details in Fashionable Ridgewood,” is a former funeral home and includes period stained glass and a double-hip skylight. According to the advertisement, “Much of the renovation has been spearheaded by the building's owner, including some framing, insulation, and drywall and the addition of some period-correct, custom stamped tin at the ceiling.”12 The listing names many other businesses that currently occupy Westergaard properties “in an au courant retail community undergoing unparalleled boutique development.”13
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. Built in a Renaissance revival style in 1926, the church offers an “old world feeling” to the neighborhood, and has become a defining feature. The St. Matthias church is also at the heart of Westergaard’s properties. The former funeral home is on the same block as the church. Rolo’s—which was recently featured in Eater NY’s “coming attractions”—is also around the corner from St. Matthias. “A lot of restaurants in Manhattan are built around tourists,” Ben Howell, one of the founders of Rolo’s, told Eater. “We want to be a place where your guests are your neighbors. A place that maintains that tight-knit feeling of being in a neighborhood.”14 The businesses chosen by Westergaard and Valkyrie often feature an aesthetic familiar to young left-leaning newcomers. Many of the businesses advertise support for the Movement for Black Lives, and will feature flyers for housing justice organizations. The fact that retailers are supporters of housing justice further obscures their complicity in the problem.
The inspiration for Westergaard’s properties can be seen in historic establishments such as Rudy’s Bakery and Cafe which—founded in 1934—has served Ridgewood residents since the neighborhood was primarily German. Just a block away from St. Matthias Church, the unassuming pastry shop still maintains a classic décor and exterior. The awning bears the word “konditorei,” German for a pastry and coffee shop. Rudy’s is one of the few holdovers from the early 20th century—back when Ridgewood was still part of Brooklyn—and before the migration of Polish, Egyptian, and Mexican people into the area. The current owner, Antonetta Binanti, or “Toni” as she is known, is not German. Born near Naples, Italy she began working at Rudy’s in the 1980s, when Ridgewood was becoming a historical district. “We’ve never changed anything,” Binanti told the New York Times in 2016. “We still have the old recipes, I’ve just added onto them.”
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.
There is another loss that occurs when a neighborhood becomes homogeneous in culture. “Difference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic,” said Audre Lorde.15 But as landlords and developers look to fashion Ridgewood into a boutique neighborhood—plucking favorite restaurants and cafes from white neighborhoods and transplanting them into Queens—we begin to lose touch with the multiplicity of identity that made Ridgewood unique in the first place. Much like TikTok, or an Instagram feed, where one only follows people and companies from similar backgrounds, a gentrified neighborhood erases any opportunity for new assemblages of people and movement, removing the possibility of converging minds and opinion
Those who look to state and local governments to control gentrification have been disappointed. 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. He recently said on Facebook that defunding the police is “perhaps the worst idea in NYC government history.” Standing in front of a pro-police “Back the Blue” rally in August of 2020, referencing a bill he introduced to repeal the chokehold ban, he bemoaned that “cops can't put their hands on a perp, it’s ridiculous!”16 Another Ridgewood politician, Assembly member Cathy Nolan, has refused to take action on the current eviction crisis. The Tenant Safe Harbor Act, which was extended by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s executive order through January 2021, only protects those who can prove financial hardship due to COVID-19, thereby excluding undocumented residents and those with cash incomes,17 placing the responsibility for proving financial hardship on residents and leaving out the most vulnerable workers.
Local organizations such as the Ridgewood Tenants Union have taken direct action to fight displacement and evictions in the community. Woodbine—an organizing hub based in Ridgewood since 2014—has hosted workshops, readings, and a weekly communal dinner for those in the neighborhood. After years of building relationships within the community, the organization was poised to transform itself into a mutual aid hub as soon as the COVID-19 pandemic began to surge. “Last month, following the state-of-emergency declarations from the governor and the mayor, it became clear that we would be forced to cancel all of our normal operations,” they stated in April 2020. “We made the decision to transform Woodbine into a relief hub for Ridgewood.”18 This included joining forces with Hungry Monk, a homeless outreach organization based in Covenant Lutheran Church in Ridgewood. Woodbine launched a food pantry in their organizing space, which began delivering food to those in need. “What we want is to turn this shared experience into a process of collective self-organization in the face of intensifying crisis,” said Woodbine in July.19
The concept of mutual aid has been elevated from academic and anarchist circles into common usage during the pandemic. As the state continues to fail in delivering aid and relief—and as corporations continue to profit in record numbers—other Americans have begun the process of sharing resources, and bringing autonomy back to local communities. The organizations being formed now want to go beyond temporary relief from the pandemic economy to be a new and necessary infrastructure that more of us will depend on as exploitation deepens. The wealthy—including Westergaard—have thought ahead to protect their class interests. Mutual aid is an example of working people beginning to do the same.
This past fall Woodbine decided to find a new location in order to expand their services with Hungry Monk. In a survey they conducted of available real estate they found 166 open store fronts within a small radius of central Ridgewood. Many of these spaces had been vacated due to the pandemic. As the economic catastrophe worsens landlords and the financial elite will continue to purchase property and remake the city to their liking. They have long been prepared to exploit the fragmentation that comes along with collapse. It is up to the working people of Ridgewood and other neighborhoods to be equally prepared, to become aware of and to mobilize against the territories designed by real estate companies to attract wealthier residents. Through mutual aid networks, and building autonomy for working-class people, the city can maintain its place as a hub of converging identities. As much as Mr. Westergaard and others want to remake Ridgewood into the new Cobble Hill, we have the ability to keep it distinctly Ridgewood.
- Walsh, Mary Williams. "John Westergaard, 72, Dies; Founder of Mutual Fund." The New York Times, February 10, 2003.
- Firestone, David. "Stopping Blight at the Border; Two Paths for Ridgewood, Queens, and Bushwick, Brooklyn." The New York Times. August 25, 1994.
- "The Moynihan Report Is Turning 50. Its Ideas on Black Poverty Were Wrong Then and Are Wrong Now." In These Times. June 30, 2015
- $10,494,000, to be exact
- Williams, Stephen P. "A 'Farmhouse' Near the L Train." The New York Times. May 11, 2008.
- Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, trans. Richard Nice, and Tony Bennett (London: Routledge, 2015).
- Sarah Schulman, Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), pg. 39.
- "ELLIPTICAL CONSTRUCTION LLC." ELLIPTICAL CONSTRUCTION LLC · 467 Woodward Ave., Ridgewood, New York 11385. https://opengovny.com/corporation/4829538.
- "Made By Two: For the Love of Design." Made By Two | For the Love of Design. http://www.madebytwo.com/about_kermit.html
- "Made By Two: For the Love of Design." Made By Two | For the Love of Design. http://www.madebytwo.com/enviro_rowhouse1.html
- Warerkar, Tanay. "Gramercy Tavern Vets to Debut Cozy Wood-Fire Restaurant In Ridgewood This Fall." Eater NY. August 27, 2020.
- Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider. London: Penguin Books, 2019.
- Ridgewood Tenants Union on Twitter, https://twitter.com/RidgewdTenantsU/status/1321879261247143936
- Kully, Sadef Ali. "Nearly 10K NYC Eviction Notices Filed This Summer, a 74% Drop." City Limits. October 2, 2020.
- "Organizing for Survival in New York City." Commune. April 30, 2020.