Before the Hype: Say Hello to Old New York

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I’ve spent the last 15 years thinking, talking, and writing about the way gentrification has changed my beloved borough of Queens. Arguably, Brooklyn natives have been the most hard-hit, as many new settlers bypass Manhattan altogether for Biggie’s borough. We have all  have seen our hometowns ravaged, restored, and/or  re-imagined (depending on how you look at it) in the last 20+ years. Many will blame “those damn hipsters” while eating artisanal foraged avocado-dipped ramps. Others, like me, will give up trying to afford the hype, pick up, and move to the ‘burbs (maybe I gave up too easily on Queens, but I argue that Queens gave up on me. Long story.) While we frequently get real accounts of just how awesome our formerly sort-of shitty-but-oh-so-authentic-and-lovable boroughs are now in the media, we rarely get a clear picture of what has been lost.

Luckily, one of my students, Cindy Medrano, beautifully captures what no newcomer or tourist will ever see in Williamsburg today:  Los Sures.

             Adios Los Sures by Cindy Medrano 
It was the smell that I first noticed. It came and wrapped you up like a cozy blanket, the sazon heavy with garlic and cilantro, the Perry Ellis cologne on the men playing dominoes in front of the barbershop, and the wet sidewalk combined with just the right amount of smog. It was the fragrant smell of my childhood in Los Sures, now called Williamsburg by the usurpers. These smells are all gone now as well as the richly cultivated identity those streets once had. This place is no longer home.

Growing up in Los Sures in the nineties gave you a bankable amount of street credibility. Drug dealers had stash houses, pimps and drug addicts made use of empty warehouses past Metropolitan Avenue and Grand Street. Summer nights we were serenaded by police sirens, loud cursing and the occasional helicopter. It wasn’t considered desirable to claim this neck of the woods; outsiders looked in and saw danger. Insiders saw the same neighbors they’ve known since they could walk in their baby Jordan’s and the same buildings where family holidays were spent eating morro de guandules with pernil, and laughing.

Sure we knew what else was in existence around us, but we were focused on the family we had built and the community, we formed a bubble south of Metropolitan. You had the village raising you. The bodegero who knew your school schedule by heart, the waitress at the corner pizzeria who knew the route you took Monday through Friday, and you knew that your mom expected you to go straight home after school. There was all eyes at all times, like a network of agents guarding from afar in case of any disturbance in the norm. Unless that disturbance was your mom whacking your younger brother down Bedford Ave, they let that happen, they knew the deal.

It wasn’t until 2001 when Mayor Giuliani got tougher on the city that changes began. As it always is the case a coffee shop popped up seemingly overnight. No one here knew what the heck one needed a coffee shop for since it was common knowledge that coffee was either Bustelo brewed at home or a regular coffee you grabbed in a hurry from the corner store to wash down the bacon egg and cheese. That one coffee shop led to an art gallery and a sushi restaurant within six months of opening. The sofrito in the air was overpowered by the roasting coffee beans that the hipster in blond dreadlocks and flip flops bragged came from far and exotic mountains, like we cared. Immediately signs went up claiming condominiums were going to be built, new developments were like a blazing warning sign of impending doom. This was colonization part two, except these colonizers were called hipsters; they brought with them their obscure Indie bands, the inability to parallel park, mom and dad’s money and Clorox to wash us away.

We tried to hang on to Los Sures as much as we could. The community only supported the businesses that had paid in sweat and tears to survive, but the fight was unbalanced. For every dollar used to buy piraguas from Luis (passionfruit is the best, let’s not argue this), they spent six at the Mast Brothers Chocolate. The lines at the butcher was still ripe with abuelas, but the usual regulars started disappearing. Landlords sold properties and upped rents resulting in a mass exodus of have nots so the haves can be closer to Manhattan. The bodega that was the hub for good chisme, potato chips and plántanos was closed. A grocery store, carrying gluten free kale chips and kombucha, paid nearly double the rent for zero of the history. They took the hair salon where my hair was done once a week, every week, where I got styled for prom and where I left over thirteen inches of hair and streaky black tears after a breakup. You know what’s there now? Another coffee shop! They specialize in bullet proof coffee! Gran Mierda! Like that can ever replace the feeling of a fresh wash and set/vent session with Teresa and the bachatica in the background!

What hurts the most is that these people with their avocado ice cream, and scruffy designer everything will never care about what they erased. They won’t know that when Tomas had a heart attack the community took turns helping his wife take care of him, bringing food, driving him to appointments and sitting with him outside to get him some fresh air. They won’t care about the candlelight vigil that took place that cold Christmas Eve night when my family died. They didn’t see how I came back from South Carolina, too broken to brush my hair and too tired to speak; that Elsie put me in a bear hug and whispered how much my dad was proud of me. They don’t care to know that St Peter and Paul was our local parish and we all did our first communions and confirmations there before they made that another luxury apartment building. We are invisible. They won’t think about it when they walk down these streets and go into their doorman buildings, the families they displaced and had to start over. Nope, they won’t.

The last time I walked down Bedford I stood frozen in my tracks. I felt my eyes stinging and my throat starting to hurt. It smelled like a mixture of sterilized street and traces of cigarette smoke. They ripped out the tree we planted made of our hopes and dreams, covered it over with cement and made it a Whole Foods. Our kids got pushed out of schools so little “Juniper and Fitz” can feel at home. They pulled us up by the root like you do a wart.
Just like Columbus, they came, they saw and they conquered. Los Sures was gone like she was never there. We couldn’t say final goodbyes, just hope to keep her alive in our minds. They buried her before we could, they pulled the plug on her and pretended she never was. Yet she was all we had, we tried to give her CPR, but we got shoved aside for bigger pockets and ray bans. I hope she haunts them.

                 Dominican Words Glossary

Sazón: Seasoning. Usually adobo and bouillon cubes, every Dominican household has their own measurements and ingredients.

Morro de guandules: Rice with peas cooked in it, the rice made for holidays in any respectable Dominican household. Delicious because the sazón is point!

Pernil: Roast pork. The main star of any holiday table, the go to protein when you know the night calls for dancing and drinking (helps hold down the liquor with the morro) trying to resist the crunchy, juicy flavorful delicious-ness is impossible.
Bodegeros: The guy behind the counter at the corner store. Always has the 411 on everything, but he doesn’t snitch.

Bustelo: The only brand of coffee that is universally acceptable to older Dominican palettes. Anything else and you might as well not offer it.
Sofrito: The one recipe you must master before being allowed to call yourself a proper Dominican. Made from blending raw garlic, onions, peppers, olive oil, cilantro and fresh lime juice with salt to taste. Use as marinade or base for meats and beans. Smells DIVINE.

Abuelas: Grandmas

Chisme: Gossip, best heard while sipping on Bustelo; the bodegero or your abuela is always the best source.

Plátanos: Plantains, Dominican MVP of produce.
Kombucha: no clue, hipsters love it.
Gran Mierda: Literally Grand Shit, used in the way of big deal, who cares.

Bachatica: Bachata music is the most depressing, usually about messed up love situations. Best when listened to while drinking alcoholic beverages to get the full effects. Mandatory at all Dominican social events.

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