CUNY Journalism Students Document “Bushwick Beyond the Brand”

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photo: City Limits, 2009

Bushwick is one of those neighborhoods in Brooklyn that brings up a lot of…emotion.  “Oh, Bushwick. Oh, you live there.” It’s the artsy, quickly gentrifying neighborhood that’s not Williamsburg. Yet. But, perhaps more importantly, it’s also a neighborhood with a history, with culture, and with a community that is quickly being displaced.  This month, a group of CUNY Journalism students explored Bushwick “Beyond the Brand” to write about aspects of Bushwick which often get overshadowed.

One article focused on asthma in Bushwick, and how asthma throughout the City is correlated with poverty. In addition to high concentration of pollution, the authors interview Dr. Natalie Langston-Davis who credits Bushwick’s older housing stock to breathing problems in Bushwick:

That’s the case with the poorly ventilated apartment Mora shares with her son. Asthma is also exacerbated by children’s allergies to rodent and cockroach droppings, Davis said.

As tenant organizers, we’ve seen the strong correlation between tenant health and building conditions in many, if not all, of the buildings where we work.  One tenant in a building in Ridgewood, Queens (just across the street from Bushwick) is undergoing chemotherapy while simultaneously battling a mouse and rat infestation in her building.  Even if she had the energy to extensively clean day after day, it would hardly be enough to prevent exposure to the dangerous germs in rodent dropping and dust.

Another hugely important topic that CUNY students explored in their project is the the relevance of the M train’s expansion in 2010 on Bushwick’s changing demographics.  When the M train was expanded into Midtown Manhattan, Bushwick (and likely Queens) experienced an influx of higher paying tenants interested in easy access to the city.  Between January and March of 2013, Bushwick rents rose almost 32%, and real estate investors believe those prices will continue to rise:

In 2012, Bushwick captured 28 percent of all multifamily building sales in Brooklyn by Ariel Property Advisors, the highest rate in the borough, according to  the  investment sales firm. “Investors not only believe in the strength of rental market, but can see these buildings as lucrative conversion opportunities in the future,” says Jonathan Berman, vice president of Ariel.

This is dangerous talk, the kind that leads to predatory equity.  When investors buy buildings based on rent “potential” rather than current rents, debt levels become dangerously high.  The only way to sustain the over-leveraged debt is to skimp on services and force out long-term tenants, thus leading to gentrification and the dilapidation of the rent stabilized housing stock. Over-leveraging can happen in rent stabilized multifamily buildings all over New York, but it’s much more likely to occur  successfully in quickly gentrifying neighborhoods like Bushwick or Crown Heights.

Some consider gentrification to be a byproduct, if an unpleasant one, of neighborhood improved and the influx of capital into previously distressed areas. However, it is often the result of choices made by specific actors who prioritize real estate speculation over the human right to housing. One such actor is broker company MySpace RealtyMySpace has recently come under fire from activists and organizers for colluding with bad actors who see harassment and neglect as acceptable behavior when it comes to established, rent regulated tenants.

To check out the other topics CUNY journalism students reported on, click here, and to view a 2009 photo essay published  in City Limits documenting Bushwick’s area code 11237, click here.

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Is Gentrification in Bushwick Inevitable?

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What do you think of when you think of Bushwick?  If you think of hipsters and loft parties, you’ll understand why the older residents of Bushwick are rallying to make sure that the neighborhood will remain an affordable place to live in the future.  In attempts to limit gentrification and displacement in the neighborhood, Community Board 4,  St. Nick’s Alliance, and Councilwoman Diana Reyna are working to re-zone the neighborhood.  According to Councilwoman Reyna, the re-zoning is necessary to keep out speculative developers who are interested in turning Bushwick  into “the next Williamsburg.” Just East of Williamsburg, Bushwick (or Bourgwick- “bourgie Bushwick”) has seen the influx of young gentrifiers, many of them artists, and residents’ fear of spreading gentrification is real and warranted.  So far, it has been difficult for luxury developers to get their grubby hands on prime Bushwick real estate because the majority of Bushwick is currently zoned for manufacturing.  As a result, it has been difficult to convince the city to allow them to build luxury apartments and condos within the neighborhood borders.  But that doesn’t mean they haven’t tried.

According to the Real Deal and industry experts, “Developers are salivating over sites in Bushwick.” Already, there has been a 144-unit luxury rental built in the neighborhood, catering specifically to artists.  And it’s fully occupied. Speculators, meanwhile, are trying all sorts of tricky maneuvers to skirt the zoning laws and convince current property owners to sell.  Sometimes it means offering buyouts, and sometimes it means schmoozing their way in. As Ian Lester, an attorney who represents commercial developers, tells Real Deal reporters:

“A lot of these sellers are old-school, meaning they are literally old,” he said. “The key is listening to a bunch of stories about the old country…they won’t sell to you unless they like you,” he added.

Groups like MySpace who cater to young (mostly white) people moving into gentrifying neighborhoods certainly don’t help things.  MySpace works with landlords (no matter their record of housing code violations or HPD litigation) to bring in higher paying tenants.  Their neighborhood is primarily Crown Heights, but they have expanded in the past several years to Bushwick and Bed-Stuy. (Check out Crown Heights Assembly’s campaign to halt MySpace’s negative impact in their neighborhood!)

Meanwhile, Rolando Guzman, Deputy Director of Community Preservation at St. Nick’s Alliance, tells reporters:

The last thing Bushwick needs is high rises. It needs affordable housing…And there needs to be some rule to prevent the displacement of local businesses and residents.

That is why St. Nick’s and others are working to prevent the same type of luxury apartment boom as what happened in Williamsburg, as well as to “preserve the unique character of Bushwick.”

In addition to working on zoning laws, community members and activists have produced incredible social commentary about the gentrification phenomenon in Bushwick.  Check out East Willy B: The Changing Face of Bushwick, a hilarious online series on about how gentrification, race, and community interaction plays out in the neighborhood.  Check it out here.

Finally, for your comic relief, check out this on point video (also produced by East Willy B) commenting on real estate agents in Bushwick.