Greenpoint, located just across Newtown Creek from Queens, is one of the northernmost neighborhoods in Brooklyn. The neighborhood is just to the north of Williamsburg and is adjacent to the East River. Currently, the neighborhood is home to a large number of Polish residents. In addition, a sizable portion of residents are Latino. In recent years, the process of gentrification has begun to spill over from Williamsburg, and the neighborhood has attracted scores of young professionals and artist looking for cheaper rents.
The urban form reflects the hybrid nature of Greenpoint. First, its industrial past is still evident. There are many factory buildings still intact. Some of them are still operational, and others have been converted into commercial or residential loft spaces. In contrast to the industrial portions of the neighborhood, many side streets feature low-rise town houses or even brownstones. These idyllic side streets have a suburban and family-friendly feel. In recent years, rampant development has given rise to large glass-and-steel luxury condo buildings. Many have popped up along the waterfront near the Williamsburg border in hopes of attracting buyers from Manhattan.
Manhattan Avenue is one of the popular commercial areas in Greenpoint. The street features many businesses, including Polish restaurants and bakeries. In addition, there are grocery stores, meat markets, banks, pizza places, pharmacies, electronics stores, and dollar stores. Many of the businesses on this street cater to the Polish population of the area, but there are also places that seem to cater specifically to the newer residents of Greenpoint (a Thai restaurant, a sushi place, a second hand store). Other commercial strips in the area also feature coffee shops, cafes, and bars that also appeal to new arrivals to Greenpoint.
The neighborhood has a number of parks where people can gather, socialize, and play sports. On the Williamsburg-Greenpoint border lies McCarren Park. The park features a turf playing field, track, and passive recreational space. In addition, the McCarren Pool, which was formerly abandoned then used for a concert venue, is in the process of rehabilitation and will reopen for its original use. Currently, a skate park on the Southern side of the pool complex is open. In addition, McGorlick Park and the East River State Park provide access to open space for Greenpoint residents.
The challenge for Greenpoint will be to accommodate the existing Polish enclave, the newer Latino immigrants, and also young professionals, artists, and others who have recently relocated to the area from Manhattan. Context sensitive solutions for newer residential developments must be considered to preserve the unique aspects of the neighborhood. In addition, income disparities between the different groups that are living here must be addressed in terms of affordable housing, social services, mobility, and access.
As immigrant-heavy communities in Manhattan are ripe for redevelopment, gentrification seems to be a constant struggle. I set out to learn about gentrification in the Lower East Side (LES) and realized that the remaining traces of ethnic enclaves represent a large community of immigrants that still call LES home. The Avenue of Immigrants Walking Tours help you navigate LES and highlight many culturally significant places throughout the neighborhood. Many of the locations have survived the most recent wave of gentrification, but some have been replaced.
Some of the most significant and interesting locations were the streets that demonstrated the cultural “mash-up” that is a result of many different immigrant communities living there over the years (see East Broadway photos). Some other notable locations include: historic Chinese owned businesses, Puerto Rican/Latino cultural centers, an art and activism center, religious buildings, and places to eat. For example, Quong Yuen Shing Importing is in the heart of Chinatown and is noted as one of the first locations to provide “key services to early Chinese male immigrants;” the building at this address appears to serve a similar purpose today. Other landmarks on the tour have been replaced and new development has begun. This was the case for Gretel’s Bake Shop, “a Jewish Bakery established in the early 1930’s,” which is now a vacant lot owned by JP Hester Inc. (for other tour location examples, see photos). The Clemente Soto Velez Center is an institution that “promotes artists and events that reflect the cultural diversity of the Lower East Side and the city as a whole.” The Velez Center is an example of the community-based organizations that could be integral for supporting residents in LES through gentrification and the transition to different types of development.
Much of the redevelopment is expected, but it puts economically vulnerable communities at risk for being pushed out of their homes. I spoke to Anne Frederick at the Hester Street Collaborative about gentrification issues and their impact on immigrant communities. Her organization tries to make public space redevelopment more transparent and inclusive by engaging LES immigrant communities in the capital process. By coordinating with “anchor organizations” in the region, The Collaborative has managed to nurture the community and include community voices that may not have been part of the decision-making process. Frederick explained that “these types of services can hold a community together and help people leverage resources to pull themselves out of poverty and support each other.”
After speaking with Anne and experiencing many sites on the walking tour, I realized that a neighborhood that many regard as being lost to gentrification actually still has strong ethnic enclaves, newly arriving immigrants and a fairly strong sense of community. The identities of these communities shine through in commercial signage, businesses that offer cultural services, community centers and religious establishments that can be seen throughout the walking tour. In this shifting landscape, Hester Street Collaborative is taking positive steps to protect residents and reach out to these establishments that deserve a say in the redevelopment of their neighborhood.
PHOTOS FROM THE TOUR:
LINK TO TOUR GUIDE: http://www.hesterstreet.org/exhibitions-publications.html