Feeling grown up and fed up with the dorms, a couple of years ago I moved off the NYU campus to a neighborhood called Williamsburg in Brooklyn. I had learned in a NYC history class that the region was…uh, “purchased”… and renamed as “Breukelen” by the Dutch West India Company in about 1638 from a group of Lenape people – who had, of course, lived in the area since long before. Over the last few hundred years, Williamsburg has seen copious settlement and relocation as the layers of history get caked on and washed away. In the past century alone, there have been number of ethnic and religious enclaves, such as of Puerto Rican, Italian, and Hasidic people. But by the time I first visited in 2008, much of the area had already developed into an exemplar of flannel-wearing hipster-types; notably overpriced boutiques; froufrou coffee shops; and dimly lit, indie-music-playing bars. Though many older, beautiful and detailed as well as some dilapidated industrial buildings still exist, the establishment of sleek apartment buildings and chic shops and restaurants has been on the rise. And thanks to the residential re-zoning of its waterfront in 2005, one can literally see a rise – high-rise, shiny, glass apartment buildings along the East River casting shadows below.
Interestingly, when I moved here almost two years ago, Williamsburg was fading as the NYC “it” neighborhood to gentrify. Many ‘urban pioneers’ had already begun making their way deeper into Brooklyn, ‘discovering new worlds,’ opening new small businesses and raising rents and eyebrows. Me, I was excited to finally be out of the drab college dorms and ‘on my own’ in a neighborhood that I found fun and intriguing, though also admittedly a bit problematic. There is a noticeable scarcity of Latinos in my classes and dorms at school (and not to mention during much of my adolescence in the southwest suburbs of Chicago), so it was also refreshing that many of the people living in my building and neighborhood are Latino (primarily Puerto Rican) families. I thought I’d be comfortable in my own skin.
However, I also had to realize another fact: I am a college student whose rent is majorly subsidized by her mother, trying to escape the bustle of Manhattan (yet be one train stop away from it), get more bang for my buck in an apartment, and live in a cool place with good restaurants to blow all my spending money on. I have been known on a Sunday to read Foucault and while sipping some direct trade coffee para curar la cruda that I got after checking out some too-loud whiskey bar the night before. Given facts like these, I am surely closer to the ‘urban pioneer’ end of the spectrum than I’d like to be. My thick, dark, wavy hair; brown skin, Spanish speaking abilities; and Mexican blood might be obscured by my dress and talk that is markedly different from many who have lived in this neighborhood for decades. Having similarities to both gentrifier and gentrified somehow makes me feel more out of place.
Does anyone hear me blasting Héctor Lavoe and Marc Anthony sometimes, too? Since nobody ever says “good morning” to me in Spanish, what ethnicity or language background might I exhibit? Does a person have to be white to properly fill the mold of gentrification propagator? A woman once told me during a short elevator ride of how she has lived in the building for almost thirty years and has seen the neighboring people and businesses change over the years. As she said goodbye and walked down the hall to her apartment, I wondered to myself what it must been like back then. Were the neighborhood and people more authentic than now? In talking about issues like gentrification and immigration, people often talk about what or where “belongs to” whom and who is infringing on that which belongs to someone else. But with a history of forced and indirect displacement like we have in this country, who gets to decided where the historical and physical lines of “true” ownership and belonging are drawn?