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On Tuesday, June 14, the American Planning Association (APA) New York Metro Chapter’s Urban Design Committee and its Arts & Culture Subcommittee hosted an event on the Southside of Williamsburg that brought together a powerful coalition of community organizers, urban planners, project managers, artists, and producers representing an array of institutions. What brought them all together for Living Los Sures, is a shared commitment to defeating displacement by curbing what at times seems to be an inevitable slide towards rezoning, new commercial development, and population explosion in the city. Williamsburg is the perfect place for this collaborative push against the forces of gentrification, since according to a report by New York University’s Furman Center, Williamsburg has gentrified the most among New York City neighborhoods in the last 10 years.
What this means practically is that landlords are looking for opportunities to force out longtime residents who are poor and raise the rents, thereby making Williamsburg whiter, younger and more affluent. Part of what the partners in this project have done to combat this cycle is to re-historicize the neighborhood, to impel residents to see and acknowledge that the Williamsburg’s Southside is actually Los Sures, a largely Latino district which was one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, even being called, according to the filmmakers, the worst ghetto in America. As Naomi Hersson-Ringskog of the APA Urban Design committee and Arts & Culture subcommittee related to me, she and her colleagues are motivated to use the ongoing story of Los Sures to particularize the issues of gentrification and devise ways to strengthen communities experiencing this process.
Part of the event consisted of a walking tour, during which representatives of the partner institutions pointed out new developments, old structures, and crucial neighborhood assets. It began with Alan Yu of Southside United/Los Sures a community based nonprofit that collaboratively created El Museo de Los Sures, and undertakes the rehabilitation and management of buildings in the district. While standing in the museum we viewed the current exhibition, Displaced Histories, a show of the individual stories of residents seen through the lens of the impact of gentrification on them. Virginia Ribot of Green Light District, a strategic community sustainability initiative launched by El Puente — human rights institution that seeks to connect residents to each other socially and culturally — walked us through the Keap 4th Community Garden. James Ellis who once worked on a Business Improvement District project on behalf of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce pointed out the connection between small businesses and overall neighborhood health. The tour concluded at Union Docs, with a screening of the documentary Los Sures, a film made in 1984 which intimately depicted the problems of Los Sures during that decade: poverty, drugs, crime, abandoned real estate, single-parent homes, and inadequate local resources. The film screening is one part of Living Los Sures, which is partly an omnibus film, a media archeology, and a deep mapping of the city.
Perhaps more than all else this program demonstrates the necessity of several different agents acting together to create the conditions for a creative, supportive and sustainable community: urban planners, artists, business developers, activists, and managers all holding hands to form the village.