Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Bushwick Celebrates Gay Pride

This story in EDGE, as indicated by this blogger's previous posting, made him more proud to live in a neighborhood in which the LGBT community continues to make a difference. Gentrification continues to transform Bushwick into one of New York's more popular artist havens. This transformation has had a significant impact on the community which has called Bushwick home for generations. The impact of gentrification remains the cliche New York story in many ways. It, however, must be told because of the real people and real lives it continues to impact.

On Saturday, June 16, gay men, lesbians, transgendered and straight allies took to the streets of one of Central Brooklyn’s most rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods to proclaim their presence and declare their pride. More than 60 residents joined activists and others to march through the heart of Bushwick in the neighborhood’s second annual LGBT Pride celebration.

Organizers postponed the march after they said the New York Police Department did not give them the proper permits. Gays & Lesbians of Bushwick Empowered founder Dee Perez, who grew up in the neighborhood’s Hope Gardens housing project complex, told EDGE before the march she hoped to send a powerful message to local residents. "We have to let them know we call this our home," she said. "We are letting folks know June is Pride month and Bushwick should be proud too and stand up.

Perez and GLOBE members joined "Make the Road by Walking," a grassroots Bushwick-based organization that advocates on behalf of the poor and immigrants, and TransJustice in a route down Knickerbocker Avenue toward Maria Hernandez Park. Shoppers along the bustling thoroughfare seemed at times confused at the sight of a Pride march through their neighborhood.

Perez remained unfazed. "I want folks to see there is an LGBT community here," she said. "It’s important we have things like this--marches, centers and groups--not just in Manhattan and in Park Slope."

Manny Rodriguez, like Perez, has lived in Bushwick for most of his life. He proudly pointed to those who took part in the march--lesbian mothers of color, transgender Latinas, gay men, and White women--as proof of how the neighborhood continues to change. "To have a march to show people we are here and we are not going anywhere is great," Rodriguez said. "This shows... things are getting better."

The predominantly Latino neighborhood suffers from an identity crisis of sorts despite the gentrification that has transformed many parts of Bushwick in recent years. Spiraling crime and the urban decay that blighted many Brooklyn neighborhoods ravaged Bushwick during the 1960s and 1970s, exacerbated by the white flight from these formerly largely Jewish, Italian and Northern European immigrant neighborhoods. Looters and arsonists torched dozens of businesses along Broadway during the post-blackout riots in 1977; like Brownsville, the area never recovered.

Then came Billyburg, as Williamsburg is now affectionately known among the boho elite that has taken over the neigborhood.

Chased out of the spiraling prices for apartments in the East Village, then the Lower East Side and now Alphabet City, trendy Manhatttanites took the hipster highway, the L subway train, to Bedford and colonized the former mean streets of Williamsburg. By the late 1990s, the former Irish, Hispanic and Hasidic denizens of the hardscrabble neighborhood were confronted with coffeehouses, nightclubs and fusion restaurants.

As Williamsburg became more and more expensive, the boundaries of the neighborhood spread into Bushwick, which developers and real estate agents have re-named East Williamsburg and even Wyckoff Heights--especially areas along the newly automated L-train. The new gentfrying immigrants are now spending seven figures for newly constructed condo lofts along Wyckoff Avenue and neighboring streets. Northeast Kingdom, a restaurant which opened in 2005, Wyckoff-Starr, a coffee shop which opened last October, and a handful of other businesses have opened to cater to this influx of artists, hipsters and priced-out Manhattanites.

Bushwick resident Ben Nelson moved into the neighborhood earlier this year from Crown Heights. He told EDGE he occasionally sees gay and transgender people outside his Jefferson Street apartment. Nelson said he feels more comfortable in Bushwick as a gay man than in his former neighborhood. "The neighborhood as a whole doesn’t seem to respond negatively towards gay people," he said.

A recent upsurge of gang violence has caused renewed concern among Bushwick residents. The NYPD arrested 32 young people, dubbed the Bushwick 32 by the media, last month as they walked to the subway to attend a slain gang leader’s funeral on Coney Island. Perez said that a 17-year-old was murdered earlier this month near her home. "You see this shit happen right in your face," she said.

This writer, who has lived in Bushwick since 2004, was mugged last summer as he walked home from the L-train. Perez cautioned, however, against the categorization that Bushwick is more violent than other neighborhoods. "This [violence] is everywhere... not just in Bushwick," she said. "You hear it happening in Jacksonville, Florida, and in your neighborhood."

Rodriguez agreed. He added Bushwick has indeed become safer since the early 1990s due to local efforts. "The neighborhood started to clean itself up before the lofts and condos went up," he said.

Rodriguez concluded, however, gentrification now itself poses a greater threat to local residents "Five years ago, I could have rented this apartment across the street for $600, $700 or $800," he said as he stood outside Make the Road by Walking’s Grove Street offices before the march began. "Now it’s $1,200, if that. I never thought I would see that in this neighborhood. A lot of people here are struggling day to day to pay rent and other bills."

East Williamsburg resident Francey Russell said the perceived threat of violence may deter Manhattanites and others who may want to visit or live in Bushwick. She added, however, that the area’s relatively affordable rents will continue to lure people into the neighborhood.

Nelson agreed. "Bushwick is starting to mirror the East Village quite a bit," he said. "There’s a very diverse crowd of bohemian artist types. The gay people here are more like the East Village type as opposed to Chelsea."

Perez conceded more gay Manhattanites, Williamsburgers and others will continue to move into Bushwick as it become a more attractive place to live. She told EDGE, though, her work will continue. "You should feel safe in the community where you go home," Perez said. "You shouldn’t have to take the train 40 minutes away just so you can be in an area stereotypically where it’s supposed to be safe."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Bushwick was mostly Italian and Christian German, not Jewish.