Bushwick Scene

Jacob Silberberg

Bushwick, Brooklyn, August 27th, 2009, 10:29 a.m

This is the sixth and final chapter of City Limits’ 2009 magazine issue on Bushwick, a community at the center of New York City’s map and the epicenter of 21st Century change.

In the summer of 2009 the signs seem unmistakable that 11237 is changing before its residents’ eyes. There is a kitschy thrift store just north of Flushing Avenue. A Thai restaurant—a gentrification canary in the coal mine if there ever were one—has opened. Some of the grocery stores are selling organic yogurt and gourmet potato chips. But the scene’s significance depends on whose eyes you’re looking through.

Where people stand depends largely on what side of the real estate market they sit. Property owners tend to applaud the influx of new faces. “They’re putting up new buildings,” said a woman who called herself Miss Wynter and was handing out Jehovah’s Witness material one July day. “People used to just throw garbage. People are moving in who care. It is true that rents are going up, but it doesn’t bother us, because we own.” There’s no question that more affluent residents can bring some benefits to a neighborhood. People who’ve studied the decrease of crime in Bushwick, like Ric Curtis and Travis Wendel of John Jay College, point to gentrification as an important force in attracting—through the influence of the real estate industry—police attention to places like 11237.

Others doubt that the change is as significant as some think. Landlord Edward Kormin says much of the 11237 area is too rough for most people with means to want to live there. He rented to an artist a couple of years back. “They wrote on his door ‘Kill the Hippie,’ ” he says of his other tenants. “So they chased him out.”

Patrick Huang, the Realtor, has watched the influx of white professionals and says that some Realtors call the area Wyckoff Heights rather than Bushwick. But he has not seen and doesn’t foresee the rise in housing prices and rents that would suggest the demographics are really changing. “For a long time, the price has been very stable. For the last 10 years, the price hardly moved. We don’t really have anything that drives the real estate market,” he says. “Big landlords don’t need to invest here. It just doesn’t appeal as much as other areas.”

The contours of the area’s real estate landscape could dampen gentrification’s impact. The lack of big parcels in 11237 sets it apart from the rest of Bushwick, according to Adam Schwartz. “It doesn’t have the kind of density that buildings have in 11206 or 11211,” he says, referring to Williamsburg and Greenpoint. “So when a landlord buys a building, the impact is noticeably smaller.” That slows neighborhood change. And for years, the abundance of vacant lots in Bushwick has cushioned the area from displacement: The empty properties mean that a developer can build housing for the affluent without taking over the homes of the poor.

Even the signs of change have to be placed in context. The new things stand out because they are still few in number. One Saturday this summer, three couples came to see Father Kelly about getting married in his church. The surprise? “They were white people,” he says. There are other indicators Kelly has seen: an upscale wine store on Wyckoff, a condo advertising its proximity to Peter Luger Steakhouse. Still, he’s not sure this is Bushwick’s biggest worry. “They’ve overrated the gentrification thing,” he says. “There are more yuppies moving in than I perceive. But it is not a demographic change that will be more than a blip on any screen.”

The recession and immigration status are bigger concerns, says Kelly, than whether arugula is going to appear at the greengrocer’s. The economy is also on the mind of Lopez, who worries about gentrification but sees a silver lining in the downturn. “The best thing that has happened to us is the market has slowed down. We’re very happy,” he says, smiling slowly, pointing especially to the 13-story building on Grove Street that is having trouble selling its condos. “We’d love to see it stall,” Lopez says.

* * * * *

On the afternoon he was interviewed for this magazine, Lopez stopped the conversation and ordered two aides to take his visitor on a tour of his works in the neighborhood. On Gates Avenue, he’s built a youth center that serves 400 kids every day in after-school programs and houses a 260-student secondary school that’s running well ahead of the citywide improvements in graduation rate. A few blocks over, there’s his 240-bed nursing home, which replaced an older facility that moved out a few years back. Just outside of 11237 is the Rheingold site, a seven-acre former brewery and brownfield that Lopez, with help from the city and state, cleaned up and rebuilt with a mixture of housing—mid-rise rentals, affordable co-ops, two-family homes.

Lopez’s staff and allies talk about him with an air of awe. “We have been blessed with a great politician,” is how Maritza Davila, a community organizer at RBSCC, explains Bushwick’s improvement since the 1970s. She means Lopez. Over the main entrance to one of the Rheingold buildings, in foot-high letters set in stone, is the phrase, “Thank You Assemblyman Lopez.”

Others see Lopez in less angelic light. He has been faulted for his use of campaign funds for personal expenditures, for residing outside his district and for his unfriendliness to fresh talent in judicial races in the borough. According to some critics, Ridgewood Bushwick is his personal patronage mill, with employees close to him—including those to whom he’s been linked romantically—earning generous salaries largely funded by taxpayer dollars. He uses public funds to pay for the publication of Bushwick’s only community newspaper, the Bushwick Observer, which is devoted mainly to promoting Lopez. Its front page once posted a banner headline over a photo of the assemblyman: “A Living Legend.”

“We have a tin-pot dictator” is how Kelly sees it. “Vito Lopez controls the apparatus of the entire Democratic machine around social-service programs.”

The reality is that the images of Lopez as a savior or a scoundrel are not mutually exclusive. Schwartz puts it simply: “The neighborhood could not have done what it did without Vito. It would have been impossible for Bushwick to come back.” The amount of government resources that have gone into reviving the neighborhood wouldn’t have arrived if Lopez didn’t have the political capital to get them. Of course, those dollars went through his organization and furthered his grip on power.

It’s that link between Lopez’s political prerogatives and his neighborhood improvement that led to a rift between Lopez and Councilwoman Diana Reyna, Lopez’s former chief of staff. After Reyna opposed fast-tracking city approval for a proposed RBSCC building at 295 Jefferson Street on the grounds that other worthy development projects should be considered first, Lopez endorsed Davila to challenge her for her Council seat.

“It’s a very pragmatic organization, Ridgewood Bushwick. It’s not about policy. They don’t jump into fights on principle. It’s ‘What can you do for me if I do something for you?,’ ” says Nicole Marwell, the Baruch College professor who studied the Lopez organization for several years.

In the midst of speaking with City Limits, Lopez took a phone call. “Yeah, I just talked to Andrew Cuomo,” he said into the receiver. “He wants to have lunch.” Lopez gets citywide candidates, would-be state leaders and even presidential hopefuls to come to his doorstep. The area’s congresswoman, Nydia Velázquez, is a rival to Lopez but loses most of the showdowns, observers say.

But there are two forces even Lopez—whose locus of power since his first election in 1984 has been 11237—can’t outmuscle.

One is time. Lopez is 68 and has endured serious health problems. In a neighborhood so dependent on one political figure, what happens when he fades from the scene?

Another is the real estate market. The Bloomberg years, and some Bloomberg policies on zoning and luxury development, have brought an influx of affluent young professionals into Lopez’s fiefdom.

If Vito Lopez has done good for Bushwick, what happens to the neighborhood when his political apparatus starts to run out of voters? Can the power of the boss survive the era of the billionaire?

* * * * *

Lopez says he does not intend to retire. And when he is no longer in power, he is confident that the people who benefit from his social-service empire will force his successors to keep up delivery. “Every year we have a Thanksgiving party and a Christmas party for the seniors. Everyone gets a meal and a gift,” Lopez says. “The seniors wouldn’t tolerate it not happening. We’ve helped empower groups of people with certain expectations that they’ll hold on to for a while.”

If they can hang on to the neighborhood, that is. Gentrification threatens a lot of the status quo in Bushwick, not least Lopez’s two pillars of power—his service network and his political base. On one hand, the threat of overinvestment challenges an organization like Ridgewood Bushwick that built itself to respond to disinvestment in a forgotten neighborhood. (Lopez, for instance, still talks about the importance of homeownership, a goal increasingly out of reach of his working-class constituents.) And on the other hand, once the newcomers start coming in, the voting pool changes. The more affluent arrivals probably won’t need affordable housing, much less a Thanksgiving meal or Christmas gift, in exchange for their vote.

The Lopez empire has no choice but to fight the change. “I think what they will want to do is protect and preserve affordable housing for the people they consider to be their constituents. Ridgewood Bushwick, they need their people to stay in the neighborhood. There isn’t an interest for them to adopt a new constituency,” Marwell says. While Lopez has made common cause with political enemies before—like the Hasidim who are now his partners in the bid to redevelop Broadway Triangle in southern Bushwick—in the name of survival, it’s not clear that he and the newcomers want the same things. There may not be a deal to strike.

The City Council primary race this fall between Davila and the Reyna was very much a test of Lopez strength. The tally was close, with a mere 223 votes separating the two, but Reyna prevailed. It’s unclear if the result hints at any erosion of power. An aide to Lopez, Steve Levin, won a Council race in Brooklyn Heights.

Lopez says gentrification can’t be stopped. He’s hoping merely to contain it. This summer he began pushing for a new $800 million state affordable-housing fund to help neighborhoods like Bushwick build a bulwark against market-rate intrusion. But Marwell isn’t sure that groups like Ridgewood Bushwick will be able to shape their own destiny. “A lot of the organizations, their hands are tied. They stepped into a void when no one else wanted to live in these neighborhoods,” she says. “As the population shifts, they’re sort of at the mercy of what’s going on in the larger environment.”

For more than a year, a new Democratic club in Brooklyn—the New Kings Democrats—has been challenging Lopez’s county establishment, pushing for more transparency in the county organization’s decision-making, rule-making and spending. According to co-founder Rachel Lauter, the New Kings grew out of the Obama campaign. “We all sort of got excited about the power that an individual person could have in politics,” Lauter says. “It’s an effort to try to change the model of a traditional political club in Brooklyn.”

Lauter, a second-year Harvard Law Student, has had her permanent home in Brooklyn for three years, and in 11237 for one. There are other newcomers like her in the New Kings but, she says, they are joined by young Latinos who grew up in South Williamsburg. The group’s goal is clearly to reduce Lopez’s power; they’ve already won five dozen seats on the party’s county committee. But Lauter doesn’t think a weaker Democratic machine will mean a weaker Bushwick in the battle for government resources. “I don’t personally think of reforms in the political process as being mutually exclusive with generating good capital for Bushwick,” she says. “I think ultimately, we would all be fighting for the same things.”

Meanwhile, the neighborhood grows more Mexican and Ecuadorean. It’s not clear that those groups will make common cause with the Puerto Ricans and Dominicans that are Lopez’s base. And the undocumented immigrants and other noncitizens among the new Latinos in 11237 represent another challenge: They don’t vote at all. “It does present a political problem,” says Lopez. “Because as the voting base goes down, you have less access to resources.”

For several legislative sessions, Lopez has introduced a bill to allow legal immigrants to vote, but it has not gone anywhere. The immigrants’ children will be citizens and able to vote, and some of them will start to come of age in as soon as five years. The question is whether they will still be able to afford to live in the area by then.

* * * * *

Later on that Sunday in August, the skateboarders in Maria Hernandez Park are joined by a jazz trio with a sound system. They’re there courtesy of a group called Reclaim NYC. In front of the raised plaza they are using as a stage is a sign that reads, “They say gentrify. We say occupy.” The sign could be read ironically: The Reclaim NYC contingent have the look of first-wave hipsters: skinny jeans, thick-rimmed glasses, white kids with dreadlocks. They look like invaders.

But they speak in respectful tones. One member of the group is flinging a Frisbee with some little kids. Another runs an art project for a group of kids, who are getting their hands coated in canary yellow paint. Two others slice vegetables for a meal they hope to share with parkgoers. “First you have to get together and recognize each other,” Fatuma, one of the organizers, says. “This is just a Sunday barbecue in the park.”

Fatuma says the group wants to be part of the existing community’s fight to survive. Self-described anarchists they have a plan to take over a vacant building and make it into a community resource, and they want locals to take the lead. “We’re interested in claiming space and redefining spaces in ways that we want. We believe [our neighborhood] is capable and creative enough to do that,” she says. The group is not interested in remaking Bushwick, she says. “We believe in a different type of redevelopment.”

They don’t mean for their presence to create the wrong kind of change—if they can help it.

Over the past eight years, ZIP code 11237 has taken new steps on a long journey from the nadir of 1977. The successes are apparent. So is the fact that they all have strings attached.

“Overall, the quality of life here seems to have improved because there isn’t as much crime. That goes back to Giuliani’s time. The L train is better, everybody here will agree. And that’s one of the attractions for the yuppies,” says Father Kelly. “Ironically, we don’t want the neighborhood to get too much better. We have to be careful about that.”

Marwell agrees. “Yes, things are getting better in Bushwick,” she says. “But maybe that’s because we’ve pushed people off the map. And that’s true for the city as a whole.”

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