In collaboration with Youth Speaks, a writing program that offers free after school poetry workshops for NYC teens, the Brooklyn Rail is proud to bring you the words and visions of the city’s up and coming writers. Knox Robinson, a Youth Speaks mentor and an editor-at-large at The Fader magazine, helped coordinate the project with us a way to expand teens’ narrative a poetic abilities as well the literary voice of the paper itself.
“The young people I’ve met at Youth Speaks have an intense relationship with the word and the acumen to back it up,” Robinson says. “I wanted to take that writing—much of it just a few line breaks away from straight reportage—and see what happened with it in a different context.” The New Skool Journalism workshop takes its inspiration from boundary-breaking new journalists such as Hunter S. Thompson, who fused standard journalistic practice with literary devices to create a new form for relating the classic five Ws.
The first series of intensive workshop sessions saw the young writers focusing on the environmental issues affecting life in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg. With fresh eyes and critical voices, a small cadre of teens from around the city engaged in creative free writes and fieldwork. Taking pen to paper and with cameras in hand, they interviewed local people and took in the setting. What follows are their portraits of a shifting community under the shadow of power plants and demographic change.
In many poor neighborhoods of New York, including Williamsburg, Brooklyn, gentrification is taking place. Two or three individuals now rent out apartments that were once rented out by entire families. Old time residents are being displaced from their homes because wealthier individuals are offering to pay twice the rent. What is occurring is not uncommon to New York; gentrification has taken place for many years. Neighborhoods occupied by lower class minority residents can sometimes become popular among middle class artists who are looking for a place to live. The rent is often cheap and the apartments are close to the city. The landlords of these apartment buildings realize that they can get more money from the new residents, so they start charging $1200 per month for apartments that used to be worth $400 per month. The newcomers, in search for a place to live, are willing to pay the extra hundred dollars. Those who can no longer afford the rent are forced to leave and find new homes. John Ciciali, a 34 year old who has lived in Williamsburg for eleven years, is bitter about the issue. His friends were all displaced and he no longer has any in his neighborhood. Ciciali is not alone. Many residents who have lived in Williamsburg are noticing the same thing.
Williamsburg is a heavily diverse neighborhood. There are obvious boundaries as to where the new middle class, artsy, trendy section ends to the Latino, poorer section begins. Walking through Williamsburg is fascinating—there is so much to see! Graffiti artists leave their signatures one every wall, old furniture is sold on every corner, and stickers, events, and drawings are posted on every “No Parking,” “Stop,” or “No Dumping” sign. People are dying to leave their mark whatever chance they get, and that is what makes Williamsburg the diverse neighborhood that it is. There are signs of both individuality and community here. Individuality is present in the graffiti, in the writings on the walls, and community in the various socioeconomic groups that reside in the area. There is little community, however, between the various groups. Perhaps there is even tension.
It has been throughout history that whenever various socioeconomic groups live in a certain area, conflict may arise between the groups. Each group is trying to survive, and thus, they are competing with one another for government funding, parks, and playgrounds. Sometimes a larger issue such as where the latest power plant will be placed is of concern to these various groups. While one part of the neighborhood wants it to be placed in the other, the other part of the neighborhood wants the opposite. If only they lived on Park Avenue, then they wouldn’t have this problem. Why are these neighborhoods arguing over where a power plant should be placed?
The answer is not so simple. Organizations such as Neighborhoods Against Garbage (NAG) have been dealing with this issue for approximately seven years now. They have been trying to get the government to stop dumping all their garbage on Williamsburg. Radiac, a low level radioactive processing plant, for example, is a block away from the Grand Street Ferry Park where residents go and play Frisbee, walk their dog, or take their children. NAG is located on Kent Avenue. It is a non-profit organization run by volunteers. Though their mailings are mostly only in English, they have managed to create a following of people who are interested in helping the neighborhood get rid of the superfluous garbage. Robert Bratko and Abigail Neville agree that although gentrification has caused many old time residents to lose their homes, it has also helped to increase NAG supporters. Because most of the people who are moving into the neighborhood are young, NAG is able to reach out to a new audience, perhaps a more motivated following that is willing to protest and organize to demand their rights.
Williamsburg offers a unique environment where various cultural-socio-political-economic groups can come together. The young and the old, the poor and the wealthy, the artists and the businessmen, the piles of garbage and the “No Dumping” signs, the trendy spots and the bodegas, the rustic and the urban, the industrial and the familial. I wonder what Williamsburg will be like in ten years from now: will the Latino section still exist or will it be pushed to the outskirts of New York? Will garbage still be the mark of the neighborhood? Will it be the next SoHo? Who knows? For now, Williamsburg is Williamsburg. A place of irony, for many, and for those who know it well, a place like no other.
Blonde-haired and wide-eyed, a delighted little girl frolics by a waterfront. She keeps throughout the rocks, searches for discoveries of flowers on the soil beneath her, plays with her energetic dog who skips jovially in accompaniment, and giggles as her father supervises from behind. Looming behind the gates to her side is a 47 megawatt power plant.
It would have been a typical enough scene—a youngster playing in a park. This is, however, not your typical park. Located on Grand Street of Williamsburg, it embodies a space that would be labeled suffocating for even an apartment on Park Avenue, and is enveloped on either side by a looming power plant and the Domino Sugar Factory. Though parks are scarce in Williamsburg, this particular grassy patch took 10 years to establish—10 whole years for a space holding no more than a few benches, and smothered by the boundary gates on either side.
Lounging on one such bench is a somewhat tattered man decked out in black with dark shades and a duck-taped helmet, his bike leaning against the side of the bench. His name is John and though he doesn’t reside in Williamsburg, he’s been coming since the mid-80s. He authoritatively states that the main difference he has witnessed in Williamsburg over the years is gentrification. “An area that’s been impoverished is being scaled up and accessible for certain people. Now, folks are not being able to afford houses,” he states. In regard to the hard-to-miss cute and artsy cafes that line certain nearby streets, John says, “a certain cultural element from the Lower East Side exists here now. Like these Bohemian types,” he chuckles, “for lack of a better word, bring a certain culture that may not have been here otherwise. But the Latinos and Polish have been here for a long time.” As for the stingy excuse for a park, John thinks, “business here could be done with a greater regard for the physical environment.” Though a long time visitor, John has seen an almost non-existent increase of parks and natural public areas since the 80s.
As a first-time visitor, I find Williamsburg speckled in barbed wire that corners off clustered areas of garbage piles and mini-junkyards, as well as colorful graffitied collages. Unpredictable rows of secluded deserted streets fade abruptly onto streets streaked with music streaming from car windows, and one’s choice of any type of food: for the variety of the restaurants represents the varying backgrounds of Williamsburg’s citizens. The power plant’s impending shadow upon the little girl’s wide eyes is as out of place as the priorities of Williamsburg’s decision makers; priorities that need to be straightened out as badly as a little girl’s giggle needs to be heard over the roar of a power plant.
The black dog is chased to the wasteland beneath the Williamsburg Bridge. Friends of the two boys chasing the dog run to see the scene better, shout commentary, laugh wildly. The dog lends excitement to a Saturday afternoon spent around an equestrian statue in a cold November sunshine. The dog is forgotten; the boys return to the afternoon. Wheels move on ramps: wooden boards leaning against the steps around the statue. The whir of skateboard wheels on pavement blends with the sounds of traffic; the small park is surrounded by these noises. Situated across the street from empty lots, Williamsburg’s tiny parks are another example of the neighborhood’s contradictory relationships: complacency and dissatisfaction, awareness and ignorance, yuppies and immigrants, housing shortages and abandoned buildings, the industrial waterfront and the trendy coffee shop district.
Eric poses on his bike near the bench where Jesse, with a hurt ankle and skateboard, sits. They say they need a place where they can just go and ride. “Look how we’re skating here, on wood,” says Eric. To find a skatepark, they say, they have to go to Bay Ridge or Chelsea Piers. They haven’t heard of any plans to build a skatepark on the waterfront in Williamsburg, but they think it’s a good idea. They get complaints abot skating on the street from old people. Jesse wonders why they don’t turn an empty factory into an indoor park.
These boys aren’t the only the ones in the park. There are people on the benches, people who’ve come to sit and watch the skateboard, people who’ve come to sit and watch the skateboards, people who sit because they want to watch their neighborhood, a man with a dog looking to find an available patch of grass.
The man with the dog complains that the parks in the area are “pretty lame.” “That park down there?” he gestures. “There’s a power plant built down there. That makes it ass.” Another man on another bench is satisfied with the parks. “There seems to be a park in every neighborhood,” he says somewhat abstractly. Then he noted that he doesn’t go to parks very often.
Over the last century the city has used Williamsburg, as a dumping ground. The neighborhood, although residential, is stuck with industry’s big robots rusting out and smelling like something sweating and dying by the road. Over the years the consequences of this pollution have left more than just a bad smell. All of the waste transfer systems and power plants have proved to be disastrous to the community’s health causing asthma and even cancer to develop in some of its residents.
“It is not very likely,” as the Brooklyn Rail’s Meghan McDermott points out during an interview with NAG, “that the city will put a power plant on Lexington Avenue.” “I think it’s safe to assume that,” NAG volunteer Robert Bratko responds chuckling. The heavily industrialized Williamsburg is host to the Domino Sugar Factory, several power plants and Radiac, where low level radioactive waste is collected. And there are corporations still pushing garbage inside the neighborhood; the city’s justification being, put garbage where it started and let it build into the sky.
Williamsburg also has an Alice in Wonderland effect. The images one absorbs walking in its streets are so extraordinary that they seem fantastic. For example, one of the community’s few city parks is next to a power plant, its gray metal tubes shooting into the sky. A few years ago, Asian beetles invaded Brooklyn. The alien mites devoured almost a thousand of Williamsburg’s trees leaving sick bodies of bark on the street. Bedford Avenue is a mirage springing out of the sand. The street is loaded with hip clothes stores, trendy cafes, and tattooed music studios. A green face hangs out of a building, yawning, with “circa 1850” scribbled below its chin. Standing in the middle of a weedy lot in Williamsburg, I see a mural of a rainbow and a pot of gold called “love.”
Maybe Williamsburg is waiting for an electric influence from over the sky to step in and distract the hungry industries. Maybe, a muckraking Clark Kent type armed with a tidbit of background music. Or maybe the calling is for a political superman with a jangling pocket. Robert Bratko notes that Williamsburg’s older residents didn’t protest. They were Polish, Puerto Rican, and Italian immigrants trusting an American dream. “They were ready to concede that what politicians did was for the greater benefit. With the movement of artists (into Williamsburg) there was much more of a will to protest, to pass out flyers.”
It is likely that people are unaware of organizations like NAG. The average person on the street knows about asthma and the pollution, but they do not know what NAG is or that it is trying to remove polluting industries from the community. And “garbage-as-pollution-as-cancer” is a sneaky little thing. It wraps itself around and outside people’s consciousness so easily that we forget it in the brawl of day-to-day living. A few blocks away from Radiac, kids play baseball pitching across the width of the street. Even a young woman who lived in Williamsburg for only about six months recalls, “I never knew it was polluted. I just though it was ugly.”
There is crazy graffiti tattooed on the sides of hair salons and on gray dust lamp poles. There is an old ad painted on the red wall of building. There are tons of barbed wire seductively mounting a brown overpass, like green vines climbing an old ivy league college. If we can name nail polish Urban Decay, then it isn’t hard to find glamour in garbage. But certainly cancer and asthma are not beautiful. No matter how much of Bedford Avenue begins to resemble a mall, the truth is, there are still kids playing ball a few blocks away from Radiac. But readjusting the view and focusing, you can see the aging but glaring beauty of a people’s will to live even against wheezing garbage and metal pollution.
“It’s not a bad neighborhood. It just looks bad,” explained Rube Pena about Williamsburg. It’s irrelevant that he only works there and is actually a resident of Manhattan. I’m all about Queens, but I also found myself focusing in on the silver linings in the dark clouds that formed over the industrial areas when I visited no so long ago. It was my first visit to Williamsburg. I had heard the rumors. It is known worldwide for its bad terrestrial hygiene. I was not worried. MTV’s Dave Holmes once called my beloved Queens the crappiest part of the city. My friends and I have nicknamed the place I’m from “Nightmare on Elmhurst.” The avenue I live on has more than once been referred to by us as “Not-so-great Britton.” What could be so bad about Williamsburg? I calmly thought to myself as I boarded the R train.
I received a bad omen before the train even made its first stop. A middle-aged not-so-gentle man had let his oversized thermos suddenly fall to the floor. As it cracked open, brown Asian rat ran by the floor so fast, that I could’ve sworn that it was rats running by the floor. The angered accidental culprit got off two stops later. He must’ve thought that his mess would quickly evaporate because he didn’t do the slightest thing to try to clean it up. The other passengers and myself remained on board with our feet slightly hoisted in order to ward off the possibility of a puddle stepping into us. I’m so thankful that the aroma was pleasant. I hate to think what the situation would’ve been like if my nasal passages had objected. Was this what I was to confront in Williamsburg, a whole mess of messes that no one bothers to clean up? Even worse, I knew in advance that the odors in the air over there would be almost too much to bear.
I arrived in Williamsburg. It’s not a third-world neighborhood, but it does have its defects. The welcome mats are replaced by colorful obscenities. The streets are worn. During a thirty minute period in which I was relatively stationary about a dozen garbage trucks passed me. the smell was intense. I adapted to it after a while (as I’m sure that the neighborhood’s residents have long since done), but at first whiff it was almost enough to make me retreat. I was in a pretty barren area and located my first destination. It was the NAG base of operations. The room that I was signaled to enter was about two inches winder than a regular doorway and about fifteen feet in length. The chairs were all victims of rust. I found this to be interesting because ordinarily when someone is expecting company thy try to spruce things up. I think that they purposely make their offices appear wounded in order to over-emphasize the neighborhood’s faults.
Don’t get me wrong! I know that the situation is bad and I applaud what they’re doing, but they need to confront another problem before they even focus on the bigger garbage issue. A photograph outside the room I was escorted to was taken during one of their protests. About 95 percent of those at that protest were white. I know that it’s only a picture, but a picture not including many patrons from other ethnic backgrounds is just illustrating disunity. I don’t recall if it is framed, but if it is then it is just a symbol of how NAG’s activities are confined to only a certain group of people, rather than being spread all around the neighborhood. NAG claims that it is a diverse group. With the exception of God, I tend to believe things that I see. I gave them a day to show me. I’m only a casual observer, but the politicians that NAG pleads its case to are also only casual observers. They don’t live in the area. They may only judge by what they are initially presented with. Williamsburg is very diverse and NAG should have representatives from all the major ethnic groups in order to show that it is all of the neighbors that are against garbage. I’m not accusing NAG of racism (I don’t them that well). The problem is that apparently no one else knows them that well either.
At least five people who I asked about NAG had never even heard of it. One woman told me that she didn’t know of it and that the majority of the people don’t know anything about it either. NAG sends out a newsletter, the NAG Rag to many people, but the majority of the recipients are probably just putting it in their junk mail pile. The group’s title is a clever little acronym and the title of their newsletter is also clever, but many people may not see it that way. Let’s face it! No one wants to be nagged. And when someone finds that dust from a nearby factory has entered their home and they can’t find anything to clean it with, what’re they going to grab first? They are going to grab their copy of the NAG Rag, because it even says in the title that it’s a rag. I will give some credit where some credit is due though. In a manner that may be described (by those that know enough about it to provide description) as somewhat clandestine (though not by choice, they claim), NAG has had its share of accomplishments.
Since its formation in August of ’94 (the garbage must’ve really been sinking in those hot summer days), it has been fighting to reduce the amount of trash in Williamsburg and surrounding areas like Greenpoint. In January of ’95 they used their influence and made the city’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC) thinks twice about giving garbage giant Nekboh Recycling three million dollars to establish a barging pier for their Waste transfer station. For months, NAG continued to be true to its name, and some of the ears that they reached are connected to the heads of the people that ordered Nekboh to be shut down in July of ’95. This was a huge victory. The celebration was short-lived though as Nekboh was allowed to reopen in August of the same year. This was not an ideal gift for NAG to receive on its one-year anniversary. Dejected, but not defeated, NAG fought on. In the years that followed they continued to do their best to bring awareness to their goal. They’ve made federal inspections of Williamsburg’s trashier sites more commonplace. They’ve made it difficult for those trying to bring more trash into the neighborhood. They’ve made respectable please to those who are willing to listen, but perhaps have not pleaded enough to those who are traditionally not listened to.
Then again, maybe they are trying to recruit more representatives from non-Aryan ethnic groups. I don’t know! Once again, I can only judge by what I see. What I do see is that many people in the neighborhood just don’t seem to need NAG. Many people I found appeared to be perfectly happy with their situation. I entered a Hispanic section of the neighborhood and felt that there was a strong sense of family present. I passed by a hair salon and saw a woman bleaching another woman’s hair. To the right of them there was what looked to be like an eight-year-old girl braiding an equally aged girl’s hair. The young girl was probably the daughter of the salon owner or one of the salon’s workers. Older women were talking up storms (as they tend to do), and were relatively happy while doing it. Juvenile members of the opposite sex were on the street corner practicing handstands up against a brick wall. Older men were on the block un-poisoning cigarettes and playing dominoes. I was even witness to a domestic dispute (over what? I know not. I should’ve been nosy. It was my journalistic rookie mistake), which ended up with the couple in each other’s arms.
Everything was not perfect, but it was good enough. I wouldn’t want to live in a perfect society anyway, because the boredom that would come neatly packaged with the routine conformity would drive me crazy. I’m sure that the artists in Williamsburg would agree with me. As an artist myself, I know that many may be inspired by the harsh scene. The people I saw in this section of Williamsburg know that it’s not the nicest place on Earth, but for many, it’s all they have. Some emigrated from countries that denied them their basic freedoms. Some even came from countries that make Williamsburg look like Paris. To these people the neighborhood doesn’t seem like such a problem. They get past the imperfections by focusing in on the silver lining in the dark cloud. I like Williamsburg. It has character.
Next up: with support from Poets & Writers, Inc., our new skool journalists will be sending you poetic postcards from the vibrant Brooklyn neighborhood of Fort Greene.
DEAN MEJIA is a contributing writer for the Brooklyn Rail.Meghan McDermott
MEGHAN MCDERMOTT is a Local Editor and contributing writer for the Brooklyn Rail.