By: Vanessa MártirThere was a time when you knew your piragüero by name and the owner of the bodega, Miguel, gave your mother credit when the food stamps ran out. The mint green steeple of the Lutheran church on the corner was your beacon and the rents were affordable, though your landlord was a slumlord who hadn’t spent a dollar on the building in years, but there he was knocking on your door on the first of the month.
There was a time you watched the news and saw the stories about the war in Lebanon and what was left of Beirut after the bombings. You remember thinking, “That looks like my backyard.” You could walk down your street and name just about every tenant in every building. They were your neighbors. This was your community. And if you needed a bit of sugar, or a babysitter, or una tasita de café or un remedio for your daughter’s cough, you knew where to go and who to ask. You knew where to get hoja to wrap your pasteles and your Boricua neighbor taught you how to make arroz con dulce and you gave her your grandmother’s recipe for tortillas de harina.
Bushwick doesn’t look like it used to. There are condos and lofts and construction sites all over the neighborhood. Young, White hipsters walk the streets, enter buildings, apartments, theirs. And some look at you like you’re invading their land. Artsy bohemian types with long facial hair and paint stains on their jeans. The rubble and trash strewn lots are gone. There are garbage cans on every corner. And there are penthouses, yes, penthouses, in Bushwick!
But every so often, when you walk around aimlessly, when you get off the main avenues, walk away from the bulldozers and the cranes and the development that just went up with its terraces and Art Deco architecture, away from the cafés and juice bars, you’ll come across a block that reminds you of home.
One of the buildings is boarded up. Its front is charred where the flames licked their burn. Garbage is piled out front. A Tito Nieves salsa floats to your heart from an open window, the window bars red from rust, bringing back the scent of Budweiser and Old Spice cologne, the crunch of the latitas underfoot and the slam of dominoes on wooden tables. There’s a clothesline hanging from the third to the first floor. Three banderas, la Borinqueña, flap in the wind, and you remember love, games of Kick-the-Can, tamarindo piragüas, and the flowers on mami’s bata when she tended her garden with its tomatoes and peppers and sunflowers. You remember home.
It’s a weird nostalgia. The neighborhood is cleaner, there’s art on the walls and quaint cafés that sell $5 cappuccinos. There are juice bars and $15 burgers. A health food market with organic everything. And, there are playgrounds now. But you worry about the costs of this “revitalization.” You wonder why white people had to move here for it to happen. And you worry about your people; what will happen to them when the high rents creep up on their doorsteps? And when you hear there’s a movement to change the name of Avenue of Puerto Rico back to Graham Avenue “because there’s nothing Puerto Rican here” – a hipster said – you want to ask him: “are you just trying to get us out or do you also want to erase the memory that we were ever even here?”
Vanessa Mártir is a New York City based writer and educator.