By Ed Morales
Jaime Estades, a lawyer and community activist who has lived in Williamsburg for 22 years, felt the effects of gentrification hit home when it began to affect Public School 84, the school his children attended. “About four or five years ago, when I began sending my children there, it was about 90-95% black and Latino,” he said. “Then all these parents started coming from the Midwest. Then they hired a lawyer to sue that we shouldn’t have the Three Kings’ celebration because of separation of church and state.
“The South Side of Williamsburg, what we used to call ‘Los Sures,’ is completely gentrified, nothing like what you saw five years ago,” Estades said. “The pressure from landlords is intense. It’s not like something where people have time to think for awhile to figure out where to move.”
Rolando Guzman, assistant director for Community Preservation at St. Nicks Alliance in Brooklyn agrees. His organization is advocating for a client, Mercedes Miranda, a 36-year-old single mother with a disabled child from the Dominican Republic, who says she is being harassed by her landlord to leave her Section 8 apartment on Messerole Street in East Williamsburg.
“They told me that I have to leave, that they don’t want any Hispanics here anymore,” Miranda said. “I’ve been living here for 25 years, but one by one my neighbors have moved away.”
Guzman says an increasing number of Latinos in Williamsburg have relocated to the East New York area of Brooklyn and beyond. “The landlords begin with harassment like not repairing their apartments,” he said. “Once you give up a rent-stabilized apartment, it’s impossible to get one in the neighborhood.”
Estades and Miranda are feeling the heat of neighborhood change because all across the city, historically black and Latino areas have been disappearing despite the fact that across the city overall, whites have been unseated as the majority population in New York.
According to a mapping study done by the Center for Urban Research, longtime Latino enclaves like East Harlem, Williamsburg, and Washington Heights all show considerable decline in Hispanic population, ranging across these neighborhoods from 8 to 14 per cent over the last 10 years.
“The Bloomberg administration has been focused on development, on creating an image of New York that attracts big investors,” said Clara Irazabal Zurita, professor of Urban Planning at Columbia University. “It is a top-down approach that has shifted resources and attention from the areas that would benefit Latinos the most, like education, housing, and job creation.”
For its part, the Bloomberg administration has long contended that the development policies it has pursued has always provided for an allocation of affordable housing, even though critics say it’s not enough. And just last month, the mayor announced a $127.5 million-dollar plan funded from his own money, as well as that of philanthropist George Soros, to improve the lot of the city’s black and Latino young men, who are disproportionately undereducated, incarcerated, and unemployed.
Still, the impact of large-scale development on neighborhoods like Williamsburg is one of the hallmarks of the Bloomberg administration. It has overseen a massive rezoning of the city to allow for new housing construction intended to accommodate an influx of people who have the income to resuscitate New York’s economic base.
Director of City Planning Amanda Burden has rezoned about 23 per cent of New York.
Rezoning a neighborhood can have different effects: “upzoning” a neighborhood allows for larger buildings to be built, usually resulting in high rise development, while downzoning limits development to preserve the architectural or historical quality of a neighborhood.
Neighborhoods where blacks and Latinos live have been upzoned. While rezoning is not a new approach to development, the Bloomberg administration aggressively implemented this policy on a large scale as a result of the immediate aftermath of the 9-11 attacks. For Latinos – the vast majority of who rent in NYC— this has had significant consequences.
A new mayor’s plan for a shattered city
The very election of Michael Bloomberg as mayor was the result in a rapid change in the city’s political landscape. Carlos Vargas Ramos, a political analyst from the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, said that in the aftermath of the attacks, shell-shocked New Yorkers became most interested in electing a mayor they perceived as who was capable of reconstructing the shattered city.
Democratic mayoral candidate Fernando Ferrer had been highlighting as he put it “The Other New York”, or communities that had been neglected during the Rudy Giuliani years.
Ultimately, his opponent Mark Green won the Democratic bid but lost to Bloomberg. “Bloomberg’s private sector background and self-assured demeanor allayed many fears among the New York electorate,” Vargas Ramos said.
One of Bloomberg’s first moves was to hire Dan Doctoroff as deputy mayor of economic development. Doctoroff, whose background was in private equity investment, had been pushing since the mid-1990s to organize New York City’s bid for the 2012 Olympic Games.
“Doctoroff commissioned urban planner Alex Garvin to develop a plan for using the Olympics as a catalyst for redeveloping blighted areas across all five boroughs,” said Kathryn Wylde, President and CEO of the Partnership for New York City.
With the failure of the Olympic bid in June of 2005, Doctoroff looked in another direction to keep in place the massive real estate development he had lined up. “The intense interest the Bloomberg administration displayed in the Olympic bid morphed into developing the Far West Side into a mixed-use commercial office district,” said Hope Cohen of the Regional Plan Association. From there, the city embarked on a massive rezoning plan that focused on waterfront neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Greenpoint.
Development at what price?
In the months after 9/11, there was clearly a negative effect on the business and residents of the immediate area around the World Trade Center. In the first year after the attacks, the population in the immediate WTC area decreased by 50%, from 20,000 to 10,000. This helped create a buzz among real estate agents, apartment seekers and residents of uptown communities like East Harlem that younger apartment seekers, who were not battle-tested by the vicissitudes of living in New York, were looking to move uptown, scared off by the general uneasiness about downtown.
In addition, the fact that the land to be used for World Trade Center reconstruction was controlled by the Port Authority meant that development would be dominated by the state and Governor George Pataki, not the city and Bloomberg.
Because the administration would not play a significant role in development of downtown Manhattan, it set its sights on where it could have influence– uptown and the rest of the boroughs. Although the migration away from downtown was temporary, and the area would eventually rebound strongly, the shift in focus created momentum to push development out to northern Manhattan and the outer boroughs.
The irony of what has happened in Williamsburg in particular and other Latino neighborhoods in general, is that community groups like Guzman’s argued to prevent rezoning’s averse effects on their neighborhoods. So, over Doctoroff’s objections, community associations and the city worked out an “inclusionary rezoning” plan that mandated developers to include affordable housing, which would retain some of the original character of the neighborhood.
But inclusionary zoning has been strongly criticized as ineffective. “First of all, the recession has made it very hard to construct high rises. Then you have thousands of people applying for 100 apartments at places like the Edge in Williamsburg,” said Guzman. “The city promised 30% affordable housing but by our estimates they have only provided about 15%. The city has failed on its promise.”
And people like Mercedes Miranda and her daughter will have to continue to fight legal battles to stay in neighborhoods they’ve lived in for decades to avoid the fate of many of their old neighbors.