Tag Archive | "Gentrification"

It’s Babies-burg Now

Strollers are replacing hipsters in the streets of Williamsburg these days. In fact, walking out of the Bedford Avenue subway station, one might be equally likely to bump into either.

The neighborhood has witnessed the number of babies and toddlers snowball as the area gentrifies. This process has now rooted family, the most traditional of institutions, in a community famed for liberal thinking and artistic counter-culture.

This shift has also opened an array of commercial opportunities for new establishments focused on this niche and made some traditional Williamsburg businesses start thinking in kid-friendly terms. Still, with increased competition and changing tastes, the few toddler shops that have been in the neighborhood since before the baby boom might soon get kicked to the curb.

In 2005, the city passed an extensive rezoning of Williamsburg’s waterfront to allow residential construction along the area. A major influx of people followed in the next few years, mostly young professionals attracted by better real estate prices, the short commute to Manhattan and the artsy feel of the neighborhood.

Williamsburg toddlers. (Photo: Alejandra Russi | City Beats)

“Manhattan is too cost prohibitive if you want any space,” says Yvonne Thomas, 41, mom to a 4-year-old, who has lived in the neighborhood since 2009. “People starting a family want at least two bedrooms. You get more for your money in square footage here.”

The total population of Williamsburg averaged 116,602 between 2005 and 2009, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In 2010, it grew to 121,938, and the number of children under age one increased from 1,785 in 2000 to 1,968 in 2010.

Williamsburg’s Northside Preschool opened an infant and toddler center in 2009 with two classes and has opened two more since.

“We try to keep things small and manageable,” says Yolanda Uzzo, the educational director. “But the waiting list is definitely becoming longer by the minute.”

This baby vogue has not gone unnoticed in the neighborhood’s establishments. The Knitting Factory, traditionally a venue for up-and-coming bands, has hosted “sing-a-longs” for toddlers in weekdays during the daytime for several years, but in the last year the turnout has more than tripled.

“There’s a strong word-of-mouth effect going on with the parents in Williamsburg,” says Ari Brand, one of the performers. “Last summer there were about 15 families coming to the show. Now it’s about 50.”

More bars and restaurants, including some most commonly associated with the hipster scene, are adapting to the family demographic. Take the case of Spike Hill, a bar and indie music venue. It has just launched a children’s menu for its daytime costumers.

Parents themselves have become more proactive business-wise, making the neighborhood as much about family convenience as it is about entertainment. Several local moms have opened baby boutiques in the past two years, and some small vendors are following the lead. Simon Hyun, an artist and designer who uses screen-printing on t-shirts, started making “onesies” this year.

“You can still be creative with baby clothes,” says Hyun. “I feel like I’m jazzing them up by incorporating my artwork and sense of color.”

Simon Hyun's screen-printed "onesies". (Photo: Alejandra Russi | City Beats)

But some children’s businesses that have been in the area for several years are having a hard time handling the change. Photographer Cristina Dodd, 39, opened the crafts workshop and store Spacecraft four years ago after noticing the neighborhood had nothing to offer her first child. Spacecraft was conceived to cater mostly to the artist community with children.

“During my first years people would come in and spend hours doing arts and crafts with their kid,” says Dodd. “It’s just something an artistic personality can relate to. But a lot of these new residents just want to be on the phone while their kid plays around.”

The only thing keeping Dodd in Williamsburg is rent control. She is 18 weeks pregnant but does not identify with recent Manhattan transplant parent set. The newcomers instead are flocking to newer play spaces with high-end facilities and separate areas for parents to lounge such as Play, Klub4Kidz and Frolic, which opened last month in the luxury condos The Edge.

In 2004, there was already a place with a similar concept called Mamalu that was just baby steps ahead of its time. Former owner Mariela Salazar recalls that people complained repeatedly when she raised the playground fee from $3 dollars to $5 and then to $7 just to make ends meet. It wasn’t enough, though, and she had to close in 2007.

“Most parents that you see now around Williamsburg just have a higher income,” says Salazar. “Mamalu, at the time when it existed, could’ve never been a successful business. It was a great community service, but I’m still paying the debt for it.”

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Flatbush Grows Greener with Gentrification

The Sustainable Flatbush team stands next to its compost bin in the Church community garden. (Photo: Stephanie Vatz | City Beats)

With a crime rate that increased by five percent since last year and the percentage of residents who receive federal aid doubling over the last 10, it would be difficult to describe Flatbush as a community in the throes of gentrification. But the five coffee shops, the six gourmet eateries and the organic food co-op within a six-block radius on Cortelyou Road tell of a more affluent and eco-centric community on the rise.

Local businesses and organizations like Sustainable Flatbush, Compost for Brooklyn and the Flatbush Farm Share are using green initiatives to reach out simultaneously to both communities—old time residents, who tend to be poorer and non-white, as well as newer residents—in an effort to maintain diversity while catering to the interests of young and hip newcomers.

However, there are some difficulties. Sustainable Flatbush, a group devoted to creating open spaces and teaching environmentally sustainable practices, has been successful in gaining a fan-base among newer residents but seems to have trouble reaching the pre-existing community.

In late September, members gathered for an event called “Moving Planet” at the community garden they planted at the Dutch Reformed Church, a Flatbush landmark that was built by the Dutch at the end of the 18th century.

Flatbush residents were supposed to tour the garden, see some composting demonstrations and drop off their own compost, but halfway through the event, only nine people were present and every one of them was already a member of Sustainable Flatbush.

While shoveling dirt around his newly planted flora at the entrance to the church courtyard, Chris Kreussling, who calls himself the Flatbush Gardener,” explained that the violas, lilies and goldenrod flowers that were native to Flatbush were having a difficult time growing now. The soil had changed too much over time, he said.

The neighborhood, too, has changed. Between 2000 and 2009, the U.S. Census reported, the number of white residents in Flatbush increased by 21.8 percent, and the number of Asian residents increased by 18.3 percent, while the percentage of black residents dropped 15.3 percent and Hispanics by five percent.

Income has changed as well. In 2000, when Cortelyou Road was found to be the most diverse tract of land in the United States by the Census, average family income was $30,985. Now, the average is $40,942.

Similar to Sustainable Flatbush in its green practices, Compost for Brooklyn specifically focuses on composting. This organization was founded a year ago by NYU graduate student Louise Bruce who wanted to turn one of the many deserted plots of land in the neighborhood, then filled with trash, into a community garden.

Many of the food scraps that Compost for Brooklyn turns into soil are collected at the Flatbush Farm Share, a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program that provides organic produce from upstate New York to members who, depending on income, pay between $85 and $330 for 22 weeks of produce delivered on a weekly basis.

Despite its sliding scale, the program has had problems gaining membership because members have to sign up for all 22 weeks and pay in advance. However, Flatbush Farm Share member Natalia Sucre said the membership is almost evenly divided into upper- and lower-income members.

“The idea of the CSA may have begun as a kind of transplant, brought in by relatively new community residents,” Sucre said, “but by now, it’s harder to speak of ‘we’ and ‘them’ – or rather, it’s easier and even more realistic not to.”

Amid the green organizations, a new sustainable and low-income housing development called CAMBA Gardens is also being constructed in East Flatbush near the King’s County Hospital. The 209 housing units will have community space and garden areas for tenants, energy efficient systems such as heat and electricity and equipment to provide healthy air quality.

“Tenants in the building will benefit for health reasons with the clean air and close proximity to the hospital and lower electricity bills which is key to their financing,” said Margaret Tabby, CAMBA Housing Venture’s project manager. “And from an agency perspective, we understand that it’s a responsible thing to tread a little bit lighter.”

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Monster Island Block Party

Goodbye to Monster Island

The aged building that housed Monster Island, one of Williamsburg’s last art collectives, is being torn down. Listen to the story of what it meant to be part of this artistic utopia through the voices of the members of Live with Animals Gallery.

Read Robert Owen Brown’s take on Monster Island, here.

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Monster Island

Nothing Gold Can Stay: A Post Mortem on Monster Island


Space Invaders

Space Invaders hang beside the Secret Project Robot stage. (Photo: Robert Owen Brown | City Beats)

A cross adorned with beaded necklaces stands in the center of an art gallery bereft of paintings. Space Invader effigies made of cardboard hang beside a vacant stage. Murals of children’s faces gaze wistfully at a recording studio devoid of musicians.

Monster Island, the iconic art center in Williamsburg, was shut down last month to clear the way for an undisclosed new development. Around 40 artists, musicians, and arts promoters had worked in the mural-laden building since it opened in 2004. Because the building is scheduled to be demolished, there was no need for them to clean up before they left.

The four original organizations that leased space in the building all decided to relocate outside of Williamsburg because they can no longer afford to live there. Over the past decade, artists like the ones who worked in Monster Island helped make the neighborhood a desirable place to live: The October issue of GQ, for example, lauded Brooklyn as “the coolest city on the planet,” and most of the article is about Williamsburg. However, cultural appraisals like these have increased demand enough to price out the artists who first made it a “cool” place to live.

Like the bourgeoisie in mid-19th century Paris who moved to la périphérie as new apartments were built outside the city center, the affluent in Manhattan continue to move into Williamsburg to live in newly built condominiums. As these newcomers drive up the cost of real estate, the artists that first revived the area have relocated to Bushwick.

Williamsburg’s revival began in the 1990s, when former industrial complexes, remnants from an era of manufacturing, were converted into spacious lofts. Baited by these cheap spaces where they could both live and work, artists flocked to neighborhood. As a result of this nascent gentrification, crime began to diminish and D.I.Y (an Emersonian-like acronym that stands for “do it yourself” and embodies the ethos that art should be produced, distributed, and promoted independently) venues like Monster Island began to flourish.

“Williamsburg used to be a somewhat dangerous industrial neighborhood filled with drifters, minorities and junkies,” says Zajaceskowski, the founder of Secret Project Robot, an art gallery that was housed in Monster Island. “After more white college-educated kids moved in though, those types got pushed out, and it became a safer place.”

Cult of Youth

Sean Reagan plays for the last time in Monster Island. (Photo: Robert Owen Brown | City Beats)

As Williamsburg filled with threadbare musicians, paint-splattered artists, intimate music venues, and avant-garde art galleries, the neighborhood became a trendy place to live, much like Soho was in 1960s.

For the seven years it was open, Monster Island was a hallmark of cultural pursuits in Williamsburg. The building provided a platform for bands not yet considered commercially viable to build a following and hosted established indie-rockers like Animal Collective and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The tenants rented studios to psychedelic artists like Maya Hayuk, showcased Kandinsky-like paintings, and provided rehearsal rooms for musicians to practice and collaborate.

“For my generation, this was the space to see and experience the arts,” says Sean Reagan, the lead singer of Brooklyn-based band Cult of Youth.

The Haves and the Have-Nots

Monster Island

Monster Island at the corner of Kent and Metropolitan Avenue. (Photo: Robert Owen Brown | City Beats)

In order to address a number of derelict warehouses left over from Williamsburg’s manufacturing days, the New York City Council re-zoned the neighborhood in 2005 so these facilities could be refurbished for residential use. A coup de grace to artists, this meant both the spaces they used as galleries and the live-work units they preferred as housing became fertile ground for expensive real estate to be planted.

“As the dollar-per-square-foot potential for these buildings went up, there became more of an incentive for landlords and developers to convert them into either condos or expensive rentals,” says Danny Schwartzman, owner of the Williamsburg-based real estate firm Linnaeus Group. “So, the larger spaces that artists used got carved into smaller units because it made more financial sense for landlords.”

Spurred not only by Williamsburg’s artistic temperament but also by both the picturesque view of the Manhattan skyline and its proximity to the city, New Yorkers began to move to the area to live in these expensive condos, alongside Europeans looking to take advantage of the exchange rate.

Though Monster Island, a former industrial complex, was not rezoned for residential use, the rezoning did change the community that surrounded it: new chic bars, upscale restaurants and pharmacies replaced vacant industrial buildings in the neighborhood.

“There was a time when people moved here because they wanted an art scene all around them, but I think that more recently people have decided to move here because they were following the artists who first moved in,” says Zajaceskowski.

Among the affluent that have recently moved into the neighborhood, some see the artists as the spray paint totting milieu that drives down property values. And among the artists who have lived in Williamsburg for years, some see those moving into the condominiums as the consumers who drive up the cost of living without adding anything to the community.

“The people who are moving to Williamsburg now aren’t really searching for art,” says Zajaceskowski. “They’re searching for luxury.”

As a result of this second wave of gentrification, the cost of real estate has increased throughout the neighborhood. For example, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment increased from $1,715 per month in 2008 to $2,160 in 2011, says Schwartzman.


A tattooed man outside of Monster Island. (Photo: Robert Owen Brown | City Beats)

Monster Island, by comparison, was cheap. Zajaceskowski and Karl LaRocca, the owner of Kayrock Screenprinting, found the building that became the arts center in November 2004 standing dilapidated at the corner of Kent Avenue and Metropolitan Avenue. Though it was too expensive for them to rent on their own, they decided to split the rent with other people in the arts industry to make it more affordable. If not for their combined financial efforts, says Zajaceskowski, they wouldn’t have been to afford the monthly rent.

“Monster Island succeeded because it was four different groups of people, each working independently but using a cooperative approach to lowering the rent,” says Todd Patrick, who owned rehearsal spaces and operated a music venue in the building called the Monster Island Basement.

When Monster Island began its operations, rent was approximately $10,000 per month for around 12,000 square feet. And because of the terms stipulated in the lease, the monthly cost never increased by more than a few hundred dollars.

“We paid under market value in 2004, and by 2011, we paid substantially under market value,” says Patrick.

The tenants of Monster Island were forced to vacate the building by Oct. 1 after their landlord did not offer an option to extend the lease. If they had tried to negotiate another lease, Patrick says their monthly rent would have been at lease twice as expensive, which most of the tenants wouldn’t have been able to afford.

Other Williamsburg arts organizations have been forced to close because their landlords did increase the monthly rent. Beka Economopoulos says her non-profit arts organization, Not An Alternative, was forced to leave its 1,800-square-foot residence after rent increased from $1,000 a month in 2003 to $2,500 in 2005 to $6,000 this past August. Cinders art gallery was compelled to leave its 450 square foot Havemeyer Street location after the rent increased from $1,800 in 2005 to $2,200 in 2010 to $3,000 this year, says co-founder Kelie Bowman. Both organizations are still searching for new locations.

Bushwick and Beyond

Of the four original organizations that leased space in Monster Island, all of them have moved to Bushwick except Kayrock Screenprinting, which instead moved to Greenpoint. Todd Patrick, who’s also known by his moniker “Todd P.,” is not opening a new recording studio like the one he operated in Monster Island. Instead, he has moved to one he previously established in Bushwick. The two main art galleries, Secret Project Robot and Live With Animals, which also functioned as curated music venues, have moved to joint space at the corner of Melrose Street and Knickerbocker Avenue.

“Unless you’re a big time artist, you can’t afford to live Williamsburg,” says Vashti Windish, co-founder of art gallery housed in Monster Island called Live With Animals. “So a lot of us have turned to Bushwick.”

Momenta Art, an artist-run not-for-profit gallery, has also recently left Williamsburg for Bushwick. In September, it officially reopened at its new Bogart Street location paying the same amount per month but with twice the square footage, says co-founder Eric Heist.

In Bushwick, the rents are more affordable. For example, the average price for a one-bedroom apartment is $1,400 a month, says Martin Rubin, a realtor at Bushwick Realty Group.

Spurred also by Bushwick’s proximity to the city via the L Train, artists attracted to both D.I.Y. music venues like the Silent Barn and galleries like Momenta Art have begun moving to the area.

“Williamsburg has become a suburbia; it is only white, college-grads,” says Zajaceskowski. “Bushwick is still rough and gritty. There are art spaces popping up all over, and there’s lots of diversity.”

However, just as the artists catalyzed the gentrification of Williamsburg, their eastward emigration may be the outset of the same process in Bushwick. Baudelaire once wrote that the shape of a city changes quicker than the heart of a man. Though he was referring to Paris as the city modernized throughout the 19th century, the same maxim could be applied to vicissitudes of any city, including New York. Like Williamsburg and the areas in Manhattan before it, after artists gentrify a neighborhood it becomes more appealing to the affluent. And once these consumers catch up to the culture, the artists inevitably get priced out, leaving their Space Invader adornments hanging in wait of demolition.

“The upside of moving to Bushwick is I feel like I’ve rediscovered what I was looking for in New York when I first moved here. You know, diversity, art and a gritty environment,” says Zajaceskowski. “But I don’t know where we’ll go once we get pushed out of here.”

For more on Monster Island closing, check out this slideshow on by Citybeats writer, Alejandra Russi.

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