North vs. South in Williamsburg
The New York Times carried a cover story on its Thursday Styles section that explored the cultural divide in the trendy Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, Northside vs. Southside. It is a startling example of how news organizations glorify gentrification by treating the long-time residents of a neighborhood as an afterthought and wallowing in the lifestyle of the newcomers. Here is an excerpt:
Grand Street is more than just the dividing line between streets that are numbered north and those numbered south. The border has become Williamsburg’s equivalent of the Mason-Dixon line, cleaving the neighborhood into two: a sleek, moneyed “North Williamsburg” and a gritty, hyper-authentic “South Williamsburg.”
To the denizens of South Williamsburg, the north is now a glitzy playground of glassy condos for banker types, chain stores and hordes of tourists from Berlin; Tokyo; Paramus, N.J.; and, worst of all, Manhattan. They’ve turned the area, especially around the Wythe Hotel, into Brooklyn’s answer to the meatpacking district.
The South, they argue, has maintained its bohemian D.I.Y. roots, with its indie boutiques, bearded mixologists, artists’ lofts and working-class families: in sum, the “real” Williamsburg.
The problem is that the article dismisses the long-time population of Latinos, Hasidic Jews and Italians in two paragraphs, and gives no real consideration to their impact on the culture of the community. They're nearly invisible. One would never know that Latinos are by far the majority of the Southside. In the 2010 census, the Southside's three census tracts are 53 percent, 65 percent and 72 percent Latino.
Last spring, one of my journalism students at Brooklyn College, Elizabeth Elizalde, explored how Latino groups were taking steps to preserve the Latino culture of the Southside.
To talk about the "real" and "authentic" Southside without considering the Latinos' contributions is ridiculous.
I'd rather see a story on whether the Latinos and the white newcomers are interacting. I checked with Xavier Bosque, director of the Southside Community Mission, a non-profit group that works closely with the area's Catholic parishes. He tells me that little by little, the groups are finally beginning to work together. Just yesterday, a community garden opened - the newcomers are good at getting resources from government that can benefit the whole community, he said. White parents and Latino parents are mixing at schools and daycare centers,he said, and the white parents want their children to be in bilingual classes so that they learn Spanish. This, he said, has lifted the quality of the education overall, "something we never saw before." There are serious barriers -- language, for one, and rising rents that force Latino young people to relocate -- but,he said, the more upbeat developments "are signs that something is happening. It's going to take time to know each other." There will be some mingling of the cultures, and the Latino culture has a lot to offer to the cultural connoisseurs who are arriving.
As for the Italians on the Northside, I am told that although their numbers have diminished, it would be a very big mistake to say they are almost entirely gone. Philip Franco, who grew up in the neighborhood and is now a Catholic school principal in Queens, says the local parishes continue to offer services in Italian, there are still Italian social clubs, and that many Baby Boomers have remained in the neighborhood while renting out apartments to hipsters. And, as the Times article does note, the Hasidim certainly aren't going anywhere.
The Times is home to some writers who have a keen sense for the dynamics of gentrification, so I won't say that what appears in its Style section typifies what's in the entire paper. The larger problem is that the more lifestyle-oriented news media -- covering food, restaurants, real estate, style, culture -- are so bent on celebrating what's trendy that large segments of the public are basically invisible to them. That the overlooked people are often low-income and from minority groups heightens the injustice of this. It creates the atmosphere for public policies that further accelerate gentrification, leading to more displacement.
About the Author
Paul Moses, a professor of journalism at Brooklyn College/CUNY, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009).