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el puenteThe Music Director does the math. Ask a random New Yorker about Williamsburg & Bushwick & ya’ll would be lucky to get a random answer. On a good day one might hear well-meaning speculation– “isn’t that were S. Cono comes from?”– or maybe some honest ignorance– “I’m not sure, we just moved here.” Old line activists might offer an education in garbage, power plants, zoning & rezoning; true crime fiends The French Connection, Carmine Galante & the July 13-14, 1977 blackout. (Serpico is a wash—Peter Maas’ book is excellent; Sidney Lumet’s film, a subpar effort, which, he, Elton John, Al Pacino, John Cazale & Charles Durning would far surpass in Dog Dog Afternoon.) If music be the food of love, one of Brooklyn’s best hip-hop crews of the 1990s, the tellingly-named Arsonists, came out of Bushwick, while the single most thrilling MC to emerge in the past few years is Joell Ortiz, a Puerto Rican from Cooper Park Houses in Williamsburg. I doubt his accomplishment has yet been used to sell any condos nearby but give the real estate fabulists time, Grasshopper, give them time.

718 partnaEnter into this affray Nicole P. Marwell, a Wisconsin-raised, Chicago & New York educated, former Bronx-resident sociologist who currently teaches at Columbia University & the Baruch College School of Public Affairs. While the history of Latino Kings County has yet to be written— despite the fact that “Spanish” BK is just as old as, say, the Italian one—Nicole’s book, Bargaining For Brooklyn, will be a substantial resource for whoever does write it. How so? Because Nicole gets deep into one of the most important & least glamorous aspects of understanding a city of the haves & the ain’t-got-shit, the mysterious—to outsiders— world of “community based orgnanizations” (CBOs). In Brooklyn, the best known of these groups is probably ACORN, & even their notoriety is due more to Bertha Lewis’ failed devil’s bargain with Bruce Ratner on the so-called “Atlantic Yards” project than any of their other, less disputable initiatives.

Not all CBOs are alike, however, & because of this, Nicole spent years working with eight different groups in Williamsburg & Bushwick. Some were secular, some church-based. Both partook of a much less flashy but essential ground-level politics a very far cry from that obargaining for bkf the highly paid lobbyists whom an already-wealthy real estate racket uses to advance its profits at the least cost to themselves. It’s been said, from La Lechonera de Coqui in Castle Hill to Angel’s Lounge under the elevated BMT tracks on Broadway, that CBOs are born to lose. This may or may not be true; Berger & Marwell have their opinions but I suggest that we also remember the inspirational words of Bennie (Warren Oates) in Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia: “Nobody loses all the time.” We shall see, Saltamonte, we shall see.


Brian Berger: For those who’ve not read the book– how did you choose to study Williamsburg & Bushwick?

Nicole P. Marwell: When I was first conceptualizing the research, I had three priorities. The first was to get the hell out of Chicago, where I was doing my doctoral degree, and get back to New York, where I had gone to college and lived after graduating. The second was to do a comparative study between two poor neighborhoods… one that was seeing some success in community-based revitalization efforts, and the other that was trying to do revitalization work but not really succeeding. The third was to focus on neighborhoods that had majority-Latino populations – at the time, the mid-1990s, most research on poor neighborhoods focused on African Americans, and I wanted to bring the issues of poverty faced by Latinos into the discussion.

So my first priority meant the study would be in New York. My second priority limited the potential study areas to New York City neighborhoods whose populations were between 20% and 40% poor; in the convention of the academic social sciences, this range meant “moderate-poverty” neighborhoods (as opposed to “high-poverty” of over 40% poor, and “low-poverty” of under 20% poor). My third priority limited the potential study areas even further: to “moderate-poverty,” majority-Latino neighborhoods. According to the 1990 Census, there were 14 New York City Community Districts that met these criteria. I then chose the two neighborhoods that were most similar to each other in terms of poverty level, proportion of Latino residents, and geography: Williamsburg and Bushwick.


Brian: Had you been to Williamsburg or Bushwick before?

boricuaNicole: I had never been to Bushwick before, but the research brought me into contact with a completely different Williamsburg from the one I had met briefly– before. I went to college at Columbia from 1986 to 1990. In 1989, I had a boyfriend who used to house-sit for one of his professors, who lived in a converted loft on South Ninth Street in Williamsburg. I would take the J train, get off on Marcy Avenue and walk over to the building to hang out, to engage in the daily practice of a white, upper-middle class, elite college student. Ever since I started my research in Williamsburg, I have been trying to dredge up my memories of the neighborhood from that time, but I can’t really retrieve much– and that’s not because of alcohol or drugs! I have a vague sense that there was a lot more vacant land over there in the late 1980s than I saw in the late 1990s. I remember that on the way to the loft, I had to walk past a corner bodega, which then turned into a large, fenced, vacant lot. Some Latino men in their 30s or 40s would always be hanging on the corner, but mostly I avoided eye contact. That’s really all that I remember. Williamsburg didn’t have any identity for me at that time: only the loft building and the people I knew there did. It seems indicative to me of the lack of connection to the neighborhood, its history, its long-term residents, and their interests that I think most of the artist and professional gentrifiers have brought into Williamsburg in the last 15-20 years.

Brian: How did your passion for Latino/a culture develop? Any books, music or films of special importance? One of mine, were I to become fluent in Spanish—or, really, Puerto Rican— would be La Guaracha del Macho Camacho by Luis Rafael Sanchez (in Gregory Rabassa’s translation, Macho Camacho’s Beat.)

hat makes the man

Nicole: As with many interests we develop, it was really kind of an accident. This story starts at Columbia, too. My sophomore year, I was looking for a summer internship in something that had to do with the arts; I was thinking about being an art history major. At the time, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs ran a program called the Arts Apprenticeship Program. They would hook you up either to be an actual apprentice to an artist, or else to work in one of the many small arts organizations that call New York City home. Since I have absolutely no artistic talent, the apprenticeship was out. Since the only skill I had on my resume at the time was that I spoke Spanish (more or less), they sent me to interview with two Latino arts organizations: INTAR Latin American Theater, and the Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art (MoCHA). I called INTAR first, and they never called me back. So then I called MoCHA.

Long story short, I interned there that summer: it was a small contemporary arts space dedicated to artists of the Hispanic diaspora working in the U.S., and it was located on the seventh floor of 584 Broadway, one of the converted loft buildings in SoHo. I ended up working at MoCHA part-time during my junior year, full-time during the following summer, part-time during senior year, and then got my first full-time job there after graduating. I learned so much there, and had so much fun. Unfortunately, MoCHA fell victim to budget cuts, and closed down in 1991. I went off to grad school in Chicago shortly thereafter. Although my interest in Latinos had started in the arts, I was already working to understand the historical, political, and economic aspects of the Latino presence in the U.S. Grad school gave me the time to really focus on those issues, particularly around Puerto Ricans, and eventually led to the research in the Latino community organizations of Williamsburg and Bushwick.


Brian: I suspect most New Yorkers know little of Puerto Rico’s history—not even that Puerto Ricans have been U.S. citizens since 1917. Although a white Profesora, you can actually “pass,” if you wanted, because of your accent.

Nicole: Well, I say in the book’s methodological appendix that during the time I was doing the research, I often found that I could “pass” for some kind of Latina. But that was at least as much a function of my social location as it was my pretty good some-kind-of-Caribbean accent. Most of the people who were present in the social spaces I was in, for the length of time that I was there, were Puerto Rican or Dominican (though there were also some white folks). I was doing classic participant-observation in Williamsburg and Bushwick for the better part of three years, volunteering once a week in eight different organizations, hanging out in people’s homes, going to church, going to parties, attending rallies, lots of stuff like that. Who do people expect to see in those places with that kind of frequency? People like them. That’s how a light-skinned, reddish-haired, Carribbean-accented white grad student can sometimes “pass” for a light-skinned rubia who might be from Puerto Rico, Cuba, Dominican Republic, or, more likely, was “born here” to parents from one of those places.

rrrroooooaaaarrrAs to my fluency and accent, my partner of 17 years, Luis, who grew up in Santurce, Puerto Rico, likes to take credit for both of them. I learned the basics of grammar and verb conjugation (very important to fluency) in high school Spanish class in Madison, Wisconsin. My time at MoCHA, where I met Luis, helped a lot with the fluency, and Luis took care of the rest. He and I used to speak Spanish all the time, but our communication has been getting more and more English every year. These days, I keep my skills honed by watching Primer Impacto and working really hard to understand what they’re saying on the newest reggaeton songs. Definitely no Sabado Gigante.It’s prohibited in our house.


Brian: In the virtual reality—i.e. lies—of the real estate racket and the ersatz journalists who echo it, community organizers are given little credit for their work, past or present. Do you think this is true and have you ever felt—as participant and observer—the work was futile or overwhelming?

Nicole: Yes and yes. And it’s not just the community organizers who people don’t know about: it’s practically the entire Latino population. It’s always amazing to me how elite media accounts of Williamsburg have essentially two storylines: they’re either about the exotic Hasidic Jewish population, or the artist/hipster/real estate nexus. Somehow, the Puerto Ricans and Dominicans who sunk deep roots into Williamsburg during some of the city’s most difficult times are constantly erased from the neighborhood’s presence (Joe Sexton’s 1997 New York Times series on welfare in Williamsburg is an important exception.)

The community organizers at Los Sures, Transfiguration Catholic Church, Nuestros Niños, and St. Nick’s are well-known by city agencies that work with them on housing, employment, childcare, and other issues. But beyond that, poverty and its quotidian struggles – which are the ones community organizers fight – aren’t a sexy story. Drugs, gangs, violence – that’s the sexy side of poverty and deprivation for people who don’t have to live with those scourges.

Community organizers just keep scratching away every day, in unglamorous places like housing court, the offices where the state keeps regulated rent records, basement tenant meetings, and the like. I will say that while the victories often feel few and far between, they are very sweet indeed. But with the 2005 Williamsburg/Greenpoint rezoning, it’s really not clear how many more victories the community organizers will ever see.


broadway memorialBrian: My understanding of the Brooklyn Latinidad goes like this: mostly Puerto Rican and Cuban, with some Spanish, with PR really surging during the Great Migration & the Dominicans coming on strong after 1965. Since then, however, the demographics have gotten more complex. Is there any way to generalize the relationship between Puerto Ricans & Dominicans as the city’ largest Latino population groups & in turn, even if they’re rivals, how do you see them relating to the fast-growing Mexican, Central & South American communities?

Nicole: Lots of people, including lots of Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, will say that Puerto Ricans and Dominicans “don’t get along.”I think it’s a whole lot more complicated than that: otherwise, how do you explain all the Puerto Rican-Dominican marriages out there? Are both Puerto Ricans and Dominicans more likely to marry other members of their own groups? Probably. But again, that’s a function of who you meet, and if you move in mostly Puerto Rican circles, or mostly Dominican circles, then that’s who you’re most likely to end up with. To the extent that individuals have more diverse groups of friends, work colleagues, and so on, they’re more likely to get along with, and maybe even marry, someone from a different background. So on the individual level, it’s hard to say that Puerto Ricans and Dominicans “don’t get along.” Now, on the group level, especially when it comes to group competition for resources and recognition from the larger society of New York, you can sometimes see the tensions more clearly. Puerto Ricans fought their way into New York City politics first (they were here first, of course), and as their population numbers in the city have been declining at the same time that the Dominican population is growing, it becomes a sensitive issue who will win elective office in what are usually mixed-ethnicity Latino neighborhoods.

In the community organizations in Williamsburg and Bushwick, there has been significant ethnic transition from Puerto Ricans to Dominicans. You can see this most clearly in the childcare organizations: in the 1970s, the children being served were mostly Puerto Rican; in the 1980s, a mix of Puerto Ricans and Dominicans; by the 1990s, mostly Dominicans; and in the last ten years, increasingly Mexicans and Central Americans. Staff members in the organizations continue to be a mix of Puerto Ricans and Dominicans; I don’t think there was a single Mexican or Central American staffer in any of the organizations I studied during the time I was there – though there were a couple of Ecuadorians.

return of taco santana!I’m still waiting to see what the effects of the growing Mexican and Central American population in New York City will be. Here’s my prediction: as Mexican and Central American populations approach the size of the Dominicans, whatever lingering tensions there are between Puerto Ricans and Dominicans will be put aside, and the new divide will be between the Caribbeans (Puerto Ricans and Dominicans) and the meso-Americans (Mexicans and Central Americans). But again: this is likely to happen in group competitions for resources, and not really so much among individuals.The group competition could also split along lines of citizenship, with the Puerto Ricans (who are, of course, U.S. citizens by birth) on one side, and all the other Latinos on the other. But to the extent that Puerto Ricans were very active in the New York City pro-immigration demonstrations last year, I think this possibility is less likely.


Brian:Do you recall the death of Eduardo Gutierrez, a Mexican, an event which I believe overlaps your time there? (cf. The Short Sweet Dream of Eduardo Gutierrez by Jimmy Breslin). Also, were you in the Bronx when Amadou Diallo was killed?

coffee loveNicole: Gutierrez was killed at the construction site in November of 1999, which was when I was about one month into a research fellowship at the City University of New York. I was working on some research comparing political and community organizations in Washington Heights with the ones I’d already been studying for two years in Brooklyn, and I was spending a lot of my time uptown. So the Gutierrez tragedy was not prominent in my work. You can read this as evidence that the community organizations in Williamsburg and Bushwick were still fairly disconnected from the relatively new Mexican arrivals in the neighborhood. The group most involved with the Mexicans and Central Americans was undoubtedly Transfiguration Catholic Church, whose long-time pastor, Monsignor Bryan Karvelis, had long focused his ministry on the very poorest of his parish’s residents. I do remember a couple of conversations about Gutierrez with people from the church group I was researching. It’s also worth noting that Gutierrez didn’t live in Williamsburg, and so the community organizations there didn’t really have any reason to be connected to him. But certainly the physical context of his death – at a fast-rising construction project with limited safety precautions – was a familiar sight in Williamsburg during my time there.

Brian: Why you couldn’t study the Hasid sides of the Williamsburg situation which has its own issues with poverty & community resources?

kosher deliveryNicole: In the 1940s and 1950s, a number of Hasidic groups settled in Williamsburg – Satmar, Bobover, Pupa, Skver, others – but by the late 1960s, the Satmar were by far the largest and during my time there, I learned about the needs, interests, and political clout of the Satmar Hasidim. My original research design called for doing my fieldwork only in Latino community organizations, and I did not know about the main Satmar organization, the United Jewish Organizations (UJO), until I was already well-enmeshed in the eight Latino organizations. I often observed Satmar individuals and families in public spaces, and also observed the work of the UJO in public hearings, Community Board meetings, and other public venues. I thought about trying to do fieldwork at the UJO when the conflict between UJO and Los Sures (a community development and housing organization serving Latinos in Williamsburg) became clear.

However, there were two big reasons why I decided that fieldwork at UJO would not be possible for me. The first was that the leaders of the UJO were all men, and they followed strict religious prohibitions on contact between men and women who were not relatives. I saw this as a major barrier to approaching the UJO in order to seek permission to do fieldwork. The second reason was more complicated. I was working very closely with Los Sures, and there was so much tension in regards to UJO that I believed I would jeopardize my relationships at Los Sures if I were to venture into UJO. This is one of the differences between being a reporter and being a participant-observer. As a participant-observer, my relationships at Los Sures had been established over a months-long period, and extended into multiple aspects of peoples’ lives: I not only assisted staff members with their work, but I met their families, ate meals with them, knew things about their personal lives, and so on. While participant-observation still maintains a level of critical distance from the subjects of researcdominican flag dayh – it is a “naturalistic” form of research, not a transformation into becoming one of the “natives” – the method requires a kind of commitment and personalism absent from either journalistic interviewing or social science interviewing. I made a judgment about the fallout that would result from getting involved with UJO, and decided not to.

As far as the future of cooperation between Latinos and Satmar Hasidim in Williamsburg, even if there is some common ground between them in an alliance against the newly-arriving gentrifiers, I think that the competition over low-income housing and other resources in the neighborhood is simply too tight to give rise to any type of collaboration. In some ways, it’s become a moot point. The Satmar are already building housing and community facilities in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Clinton Hill, and Bushwick (Community Boards 2, 3 and 4), extending south from their original settlement in the southernmost section of Community Board 1. The Latinos, in contrast, are sandwiched between the Satmar (on the south) and the hipsters and luxury-condo professionals (on the north). The Satmar have stopped fighting for more space in Williamsburg: it’s mostly gone already, and it’s a lot easier to expand southward anyway. The northside folks keep pushing south into the Latino section, and pretty soon it may be the case that the Latinos are simply pushed out.


Brian: A long running argument among WWIB staff is who has greater Borough pride, the Bronx or Brooklyn. Your thoughts? Does Manhattan even figure into it?

noche de rockNicole: I’ll answer the easy part of that question first: Manhattan doesn’t rate in the fight between the BX and the BK. As to the central issue, I can see why it’s a long-running argument. You may have noticed, in the book’s appendix, that I was actually living in the Bronx while I was doing the research in Brooklyn. And no, I wasn’t living in Riverdale; it was the northeast Bronx, in the Castle Hill section. My gut tells me that the Bronx wins the borough pride contest, but I second-guess myself with Brooklyn pretty quickly. So maybe it’s best to withhold judgment on this one.

Brian: One of the most interesting things about Latino NYC is the proliferation of record stores— although they almost all sell more than just music. In Williamsburg, there’s even the popular singer Johnny Albino was a shop on Moore Street. Imagine if some of the old Brooklyn doo-woppers had stores still? Anyway, what’s up with Latino record store & do you have any current musical favorites, in any style?

Nicole: It is kind of amazing that the Latino record stores survive in this era of digital music distribution. I was so happy to see the Latin music store in the Times Square subway station re-open a few months ago; I never thought it would really come back after they shut it down during the renovation. Someone should figure out how that managed to happen. There are a couple of small chains – like Nivel Musical – that have several stores, but mostly these stores are independent operators. I don’t know how they do it, except that maybe, as part of the “digital divide,” a lot of their custojohnny albino, johnny coolmers don’t have computers and don’t do digital. My own musical tastes tend to reinforce the notion of a Caribbean vs. meso-American divide: give me salsa, merengue, reggaetón any day of the week, but please – and I’m sorry about this, really I am – don’t make me listen to ranchera, banda, norteña, or any related music. I will, however, definitely take mariachi over bachata (blech!). My favorite song today: the Cliks doing “Cry Me a River.”


Brian: This is unpleasant to think about but is there a limit to the increasing segregation of NYC? This is complex question, so let me outline the symptons I see. First, there’s a large-scale superimposition of affluence in places like Williamsburg, the lower parts of Park Slope and downtown Brooklyn. Second these so-called “luxury” buildings are, for the most part, seperate from other housing stock & are designed in ways antithetical to street life—likewise, if you can afford to sit in a central air conditionied apt, who needs the sidewalk? Lastly, despite demographic numbers, the media pays so little attention to the diverse Latino & other populations, it seems they’re either on their own, or taken for granted & sold out repeatedly, as in the Bronx. The city is also plainly indiffierent, or hostile, to working industry in Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Gowanus, Red Hook & so forth so the total impression I see/feel is an ever increasing seperate-but-unequal city. This is “interesting,” to be sure, but also maddening (to me), especially when the manifestations of wealth are so often fucking banal.

labor daysNicole: It’s de rigueur in urban studies circles to say that New York will soon distribute its inequality in the same way that European cities do: an affluent inner core, surrounded by increasingly disenfranchised outer rings, extending out into the near suburbs. After all, the affluent still need their nannies, janitors, taxi drivers, and other service workers, so they can’t banish them completely. One of New York City’s saving graces on this count may be its public housing stock. Unlike in many other cities, where public housing is being torn down under the federal HOPE VI legislation, New York City’s public housing has been a relatively great success: a majority of NYCHA residents are employed, and while “projects” in New York certainly have their problems with crime, they are far safer than most other big-city public housing. Furthermore, NYCHA projects are distributed quite widely throughout the city, although certainly there are big concentrations in marginalized areas like the north Bronx and east Brooklyn. But there are also projects in Chelsea, the Upper East Side, the Upper West Side, and the Lower East Side – all solidly high-income neighborhoods. Folks living in projects in these areas have been worrying about the privatization – or demolition – of their homes for years now, and that anxiety is only growing as all the amenities in their neighborhoods go so far upscale it’s hard to just buy groceries these days. And if the federal government continues to pull maintenance subsidies out of public housing, there may soon be apparent cause to destroy the increasingly dilapidated structures. But if that happens, it will be the result of deliberate decisions by policymakers to beggar this housing and force its closing. If we care about a city that is economically, socially, and racially integrated, we should all be paying more attention to what’s going on with the management and financing of public housing. Best case – though dreamlike – scenario? Build MORE public housing in the city.

Brian: Given all this, what gives us hope, & where does a sociologist go from here? I take some solace in the streets & that their polyvalent reality is still there: Dominican piano bars, Puerto Rican poets, a jillion tacquerias, bachata madness, etc.

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Nicole: Well, I’m working on a new book about the Latino middle class in New York. In the 1960s and 1970s, a generation of Puerto Ricans, some Dominicans, and some other folks took their free CUNY educations, an expanding public sector workforce, and affirmative action in the private sector to become upwardly mobile into some version of the middle class. Their children, however, have come of age in vastly different economic times: education costs more, you need more of it than you used to, housing costs a whole lot more, and it seems a lot harder to do as well for yourself as your parents did. Actually, that’s a story that a lot of Americans in the 25-35 year old age range could tell about themselves.

The book looks at adult children of the Latino middle class who have done well for themselves, and also at those who are struggling to make their way. It teaches us not just about the new generation of Latinos, but also about the changes in our city and our country that are affecting the future of us all. If you know anyone who would like to be interviewed for the book, send them my way…

Profesora Marwell can be contacted via her Columbia Lions homepage. For more on Nicole’s Latino/a Study, sociologists rock MySpace too.


The eight CBOs Nicole studied (or, rather, did “participant-obseration” as they say in the sociology biz) for Bargaining For Brooklyn include the I.S. 111 Beacon Center; the New Life Child Development Office; the Ridgewood-Bushwick Senior Citzen Council Housing Office; Saint Barbara’s Catholic Church; the Nuestro Ninos Child Development Center; the Southside United Housing Development Fund (Los Sures); Transfiguration Catholic Church; and the Williamsburg Beacon Center.


Junius Van Sinderen adds: The Publisher requessted I make the slightest note regarding a possible conflict of interest. Brian Berger’s book, New York Calling was published by Reaktion Books, which is hustled by the distribution arm of University of Chicago Press in the United States. Nicole’s book, on the other hand, was published by the University of Chicago Press itself. Should either author profit directly from this interview, I’m sure they’ll split the dough with those of ya’ll who ask.

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