My Williamsburg, Now Theirs: Returning to a Neighborhood Changed
By Jenna Reyes
It’s an unspoken fact amongst L train riders: the closer your stop is to Manhattan, the better off you are financially. Every day during the morning and evening rush hour commute, swarms of people attempt to get on and off at the Bedford Avenue station. Most of the people squeezing their way into the no-vacancy carts when boarding and later forcing their way out of the train when exiting, are visibly wealthy⎯young businessmen with briefcases and well dressed women with designer handbags. Williamsburg has undoubtedly changed.
While gentrification is clearly to blame, change is inevitable. I’m not here to complain about hipster girls and boys that took over the neighborhood that I grew up in. I’m here to tell the story of my Williamsburg (the neighborhood that I left one way and returned to find a completely different place 14 years later.)
Growing up in Williamsburg was tough, but my parents did the best they could for my brother and me. At the time, neither my mom nor my dad had anything more than a high school diploma. My mom got pregnant at 15 and married at 16. My dad, who was 23 and a mailman, was our main source of income. Our situation wasn’t ideal, but it was also not uncommon where we lived. Some of our neighbors were much worse off.
We lived on South 2nd and Bedford when I was born. Back then that area was called “the South Sides” or “Los Sures” if you spoke Spanish, which you probably did if you lived in that neighborhood. Los Sures was not somewhere you wanted to go if you didn’t have to be there. It wasn’t unusual to see needles or empty dime bags on the sidewalks. There were tons of drugs and drug dealers who sold in the area. You couldn’t walk down the street without seeing one. A couple of times people were shot in broad daylight. That was the norm. My father, of course, refused to let my mother leave the house alone. After a couple of years, my mom got a job and we moved.
It wasn’t much of a move considering we only moved a few blocks down to Driggs Avenue, but it was better than nothing. The apartment had two bedrooms, a bathroom, a living room and a tiny kitchen and dining room that my mom hated. The entire apartment was bland looking, infested with roaches and dark due to the lack of natural light. Rent was only $550. She couldn’t complain. I lived in that apartment from the time I was 4 until I was 8.
“Williamsburg has changed, and it’s
probably for the better.”
The neighborhood was slightly better, with the exception of the bodega around the corner constantly being robbed. Now that both my parents were working, my older brother was responsible for me most of the time. I remember walking to and from school together and not being able to play outside after dark. My mom would call the school every morning to make sure we made it there okay. We would call her when we got home from school to tell her we made it back.
In 2001, just a month after 9/11, my mom, my brother and I left New York. My dad wasn’t able to get a transfer from work until months later, so he stayed behind. But my mother couldn’t wait any longer. She was desperate to get us out of what she felt was the most unsafe place to raise her children. My brother and I left the city in tears bound for Massachusetts in a crammed U-Haul. As bad of a place as it was for us to grow up, it was all we knew. Our transition to Massachusetts life was rough but ultimately was what was best for my family.
In 2005, I turned on my TV and saw Young Jeezy and Akon’s “Soul Survivor” music video (which was shot in front of my old apartment building) on my screen. I freaked out. For the next 10 years, I remained completely disconnected from New York although it always stuck in the back of my mind. I missed my friends and often wondered how different my life would have been had I stayed in the city. Alas, life went on. I attended college in Boston, graduated and decided to get my master’s degree at NYU.
I was excited to become a New Yorker again. My parents worried but knew that things would be different than they used to be. They were right.
One of the first things I did when I got to New York was visit that same Driggs Avenue apartment. To my surprise, the neighborhood was completely different. Sure the apartment building looked the same, but everything else was unfamiliar to me. The bodega was replaced by a bookstore, the cars speeding down the street were replaced by trendy bicycles, the salsa music blaring from my neighbor’s window was replaced by silence.
Williamsburg has changed, and it’s probably for the better, but that doesn’t make it any less weird to me. Whenever I’m in the area (usually shopping or at a bar) I can’t help but think about how ironic it all is. How could the place that my parents moved me out of now be the place everyone wants to be?
I now live in Bushwick, in a neighborhood that reminds me a lot of where I grew up. It has quickly become my new Williamsburg but I know it’s only a matter of time until it changes on me, too.