Are We Still In “Williamsburg”?

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[“Williamsburg Bridge," by Thomas Hawk, Flickr]

What has become of Brooklyn, the prized borough of New York, home to many Puerto Rican families who live for the very same “American Dream”? A historical borough, which has gradually changed over the years since they arrived in increasing numbers after the United States’ 1898 acquisition of Puerto Rico at the end of the Spanish-American War.

Even as early as the 1920s Puerto Rican migrants began to build communities in places like Brooklyn that would forever change the cultural identity of New York. Today there is a large sector of Puerto Ricans in the South-side neighborhood of Williamsburg or “Los Sures”; a place where Puerto Rican flags are raised high, demonstrating a true compassion and respect for the beautiful island of Borinquén. It is where one can experience the work of many local artists who have created remarkable murals, showing what it is to be Boricua. Just by walking down to the corner of Berry and South 1st alone you will see the beautiful mural “Nurture Nature” on the wall of José de Diego Magnet School for the Visual Arts (named after a Puerto Rican lawyer and poet).

Yet, a serious problem of concern is gentrification and its effect on the Latina/o and Puerto Rican communities.

One effect is population loss. According to the Center of Urban Research of the City University of New York, in general the “Hispanic” population dropped, from 4,036 in the year 2000 to 3,459 in 2010. Looking at Puerto Ricans specifically, the data also shows a decline. According to Brooklyn Neighborhood Reports, in 2000 12.1% of the total population living in Community District 1 (East, North-side, South-side of Williamsburg and Greenpoint) was Puerto Ricans. But by 2007 and 2009, only 10.2% of people living in this Brooklyn district were Boricua. The numbers do not lie.

Gentrification also causes radical economic stratification in Williamsburg – a divide apparent between the north and south-sides of the neighborhood, according to one news report last year. You can see it for yourself; if you go to the North-side one will see rising penthouse lofts whereas in the vibrant Latina/o South you can see the true grit of a thriving – but struggling – community. There is also the threat of the North-side’s expensive tastes driving out local businesses. One news report details a South-side resident who used to be able to shop at a local bodega, but it shut down and is now a feeding ground for new-comers. The report also describes resistance to the process from institutions like El Puente.

There is also resistance to gentrification from organizations like the Southside United HDFC- Los Sures, founded in 1972, which develops and preserves affordable housing.

The Puerto Rican people are preserving our historical foot-print in the community with El Museo de Los Sures. On its website, its Executive Director Ramon Peguero states that the “museum will ensure that we do not forget South Williamsburg’s roots or those who have fought for the rights of established residents.”

Despite what’s happening to the Puerto Rican people in Williamsburg today, it is important to realize there still is hope, for there is a stronghold, a continuous movement to preserve Latina/o and Puerto Rican cultures. And the work of such organizations are a testament of the great possibilities for the Puerto Rican people.

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Gabriel José Maldonado

Poet, Gabriel José Maldonado (also known as Neo-Literato) was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. He is a graduate student at Bank Street College of Education, where he majors in Museum Education. In his spare time, he loves writing poetry and taking photos throughout his travels. In the future, he intends to pursue a career in preserving Hispanic and Latina/o cultures, because being Puerto Rican has made him proud to spread our culture through the arts.