The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world

The Draw of Difference

Looking at the recent transformation of Williamsburg in New-York, Julia Borowicz questions the perceived authenticity of trendy post-industrial neighbourhoods. She invites us to look beyond the aesthetic, and understands what makes attractive spaces.

Julia Borowicz

Julia Borowicz

Cities: New York-Newark

Topics: Housing, Place promotion, Property and real estate, Poverty and inequality, Arts and culture, Architecture and urban design

Authenticity is a word that has received significant attention recently, used frequently by developers, real estate agents and sales professionals to sell things as disparate as watches, tacos and neighbourhoods.

We are continuously refashioning spaces and products that appear to be authentic and are drawn to idea that what we have is the real thing. When we speak about authentic neighbourhoods or spaces today, they are usually the ones that contain a certain level of liveliness, grittiness, or realness, they contain memories, they reveal ties, they are home to different storefronts, restaurants and groups of people. Williamsburg, Brooklyn in New York City serves as an amplified illustration, though by no means the only one, of the power of authenticity in our urban environments. As a newly settled resident of the neighbourhood, I experienced a sort of "Baader-Meinhof phenomenon" with the term authenticity, seeming to stumble on its irresistible offerings at every corner, only there was no fallacy to its frequency.

One of Williamsburg’s most popular tales is that of its reemergence, symbolised by its newest wave of bars, restaurants, hotels and luxury towers. This, represents not simply a mere upscaling of a less remarkable past, but rather that of a burgeoning area, born and reimagined, yet containing the most authentic of the past’s splendour. It has made its way to the global kaleidoscope of "it" neighbourhoods. Williamsburg represents an old industrial neighbourhood that has experienced a renaissance or rebirth, regarded as "the epicentre of the Brooklyn renaissance" by public officials.

Yet, what is meant when a neighbourhood is reborn, revitalised, regenerated, or discovered?

A Hot Commodity

Despite the attention paid to authenticity, it is rarely broken down, defined or interrogated. This in part has to do with the situated nature of the term, authenticity, rather than being a catch all descriptor or phenomenon, has everything to do with one’s own position and past experience. We need to push our own understanding of authenticity further, to include not just an admiration and acceptance of the spaces associated with this aesthetic, but also of the people that produce them. These are the people for whom Williamsburg has been home long before its so-called re-emergence.  Authenticity, or what can be understood as the real or genuine, has recently turned into a hot commodity.

Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is a neighbourhood whose appeal is felt around the world. The image of the neighbourhood is one of trendy transience, embodied in a chic cosmopolitan populace, and diverse cultural and culinary offerings. Yet another reality is also present, that of deeply rooted communities with strongly forged connections and everyday struggles to remain in place. Ironically, within these two stories of the neighbourhood, the widely held appreciation and marketing of the aesthetic authenticity directly results in the removal of those who originally contributed to the atmosphere of the place and the perceived authenticity, namely artists, immigrants and working class communities.

The appeal of this aesthetic has meant that Williamsburg has become the number one gentrifying neighbourhood in New York City. Earlier this month NYU’s Furman Center released a report, State of New York City's Housing and Neighborhoods in 2015, that identified Williamsburg as the neighbourhood with the most rapidly rising rents, at a 78.8 percent increase since 1990. Gentrification can be understood as the class restructuring of an area, in which lower income groups are pushed out of a neighbourhood not simply through rising rents but also through the escalating costs of goods and services that replace old businesses and cater to the new demographic moving in. Thus, the current value placed on authenticity comes with a sort of distancing in which we admire but are unencumbered by on the ground lived realities. If we recognise authenticity as an important ingredient in making a neighbourhood attractive and successful, we need to understand how it is produced—rather than just the aesthetic result.

Class Re-structuring

When taking a closer look at Williamsburg, we can see that class and ethnicity play a critical role in differentiating individuals and communities from one another. Clear geographical and social boundaries continue to permeate the neighbourhood despite the diverse group makeup. Williamsburg is home to a large Polish population, to the North and Hispanic population, namely Dominican and Puerto Rican, to the South. These communities are some of the most vulnerable groups, with many individuals having lost their jobs and homes with the closing of manufacturing jobs and ensuing neighbourhood transformation.

To provide some background, in 2005, a major rezoning proposal was passed in City Planning under the Bloomberg administration that saw the rezoning of just over 175 blocks of the Williamsburg–Greenpoint neighbourhood from manufacturing to residential and mixed-use districts. This instigated land speculation that drastically transformed the fabric of the neighbourhood and further hastened the processes of gentrification, a class re-structuring of an area.

Owing to the aesthetic trend of post-industrial spaces, which is considered by contemporary popular culture as being ‘authentic’, such areas are increasingly sought after and contribute to making the neighbourhood a destination. Williamsburg, like many neighbourhoods in post-industrial cities, holds an abundance of residential and commercial spaces situated within old manufacturing buildings, with large open spaces, high ceilings, natural, exposed brick and steel, concrete floors or countertops, rough timbers, exposed bulbs, bare beams, and visible ducts and pipes. However, within all these kind of aesthetic trends, there is very little discussion on the previous uses and the significant restructuring of the workforce. This is particularly problematic as those employed in manufacturing often now find employment in the lower end of the service industry job spectrum, namely hospitality, which does not have comparable wage standards or upward mobility.

Further, manufacturing employed a much more diverse workforce.  According to Michael Freedman Schnapp, public policy advisor and associate lecturer at Pratt Institute, on average manufacturing jobs pay about $16,000 more a year than retail and restaurant jobs and the manufacturing workforce in the City is about 80% people of colour and about two-thirds foreign born. Thus, the recent changes in Williamsburg represent not only a material transformation but also a class and racial restructuring. The diminishing wages coupled with escalating costs means that those formerly earning a living wage in the neighbourhood can no longer afford to work and live in the same place. Despite the renewed attention and resources given to new manufacturing spaces and creative industries, the lack of protection for makers and the immense resources, namely capital, social and financial, required to become a successful entrepreneur, makes this trend one that is unlikely to benefit, and in turn protect, the original populations that contributed to it.

Protecting Authenticity

Neighbourhoods in New York, such as Williamsburg, are being constantly redeveloped and refashioned for a new group of people. As rent control apartments disappear and luxury apartments proliferate, spaces of difference, where local ties could once be found and forged, are now being destroyed. Diverse groups of people with varying income levels are less and less able to coexist in urban spaces. This, irrefutably has been the trend in Williamsburg, as well as witnessed and painfully experienced across New York. Further, this is unlikely to change under Mayor Bill De Blasio’s affordable housing strategy that seeks to remedy the dramatic loss of rent control units in the city through incentivising largely voluntary programs aimed at generating affordable units within high-end development. City-led cultural and economic strategies, in the form of large scale luxury redevelopment, make up the new economic urban policy. Without state laws communities are powerless in protecting the social and physical structure of their neighbourhoods. 

We are in dire need of a strong resistance to reconfigure this narrative of urban development. This also means developing a discourse that begins to couple a strong opposition to displacement with the tangible power of authenticity and difference. Again, if we are to truly recognise authenticity as an important ingredient in making a neighbourhood attractive and successful, we need to understand how it is produced and take measures to protect it. This, in part, can be accomplished through alternative planning and zoning processes, namely, through the cohabitation of economic activities, the creation of a variety of housing options, and the provision of services that meet the needs of diverse groups.

Yet placing such hopes in authenticity may prove futile unless we are able to wrestle it from the domain of the aesthetic. This applies to neighbourhoods not simply in New York, but around the world, which contain their own homegrown authenticity and face similar issues of gentrification and displacement. We have the choice to either establish an authenticity that is genuine and noteworthy, or one that is just another passing trend.

Julia Borowicz is an urbanist with experience in community planning and non profit social justice work. She has recently graduated from the MA Theories of Urban Practice at Parsons, The New School for Design. Her current endeavors as an urban researcher and designer are centered on critical socio-spatial design interventions that engage with issues of difference and challenge systemic exclusion of the public in urban processes.