When I told my maternal grandfather that I was moving to Williamsburg, his first reaction was silence, and then a soft, “Well, how ’bout that.” A first-generation son of Polish immigrants, he was born in a railroad townhouse (that housed his entire family between its few floors) in northwest Greenpoint in 1930. He spent childhood years tromping between McCarren Park, Newtown Creek, and the East River docks, amidst factory smokestacks and vestiges of oil refineries, before his parents packed up to Queens for more space. 82 years later, the news that his first grandchild was starting her adult life in that same neighborhood–also in a half-century old railroad apartment–was no doubt startling. “Why?”, he wanted to know. Well Grandpa, you see, there’s this thing called gentrification that took over the old ‘hood…
The tale of said “refurbishment” (or, white-people-takeover) of the Northside Williamsburg/Greenpoint neighborhoods is not a new story, but it hasn’t been quite so artfully told than in Robert Anasi’s memoir-cum-oral history The Last Bohemia: Scenes From The Life of Williamsburg. Anasi moved to a $300-a-month hellhole on Union and Grand in 1991, where he stepped over heroin addicts to get inside his front door. The book is not a woeful remembrance of “the good ol’ days,” though, but plaintively told accounts of neighborhood locals and colorful eccentrics taken from Anasi’s years of notebooks (aspiring writers, take note). Both the born-and-raised and the poor struggling artists pushed out of Manhattan and the East Village by rising rents have a voice, as do long-gone establishments like the L Cafe and Kokie’s (it is what the name implies). It’s history of gentrification by one who lived it; from carney parties in abandoned warehouses to the influx of dotcomers with more money than the artists to the millions of dollars in condos that took over the East River waterfront and forced Anasi, and many others like him, out of the neighborhood for good. Note the photo on the cover: the Williamsburg waterfront, before and after, graveyard of stolen cars to young adult concert venue. A beautiful but totally guilt-trip read that makes you at once pine for what was but also appreciate the ability to walk home alone at night without getting solicited for sex. “Good ol’ days,” maybe, but would you have lived there? Probably not. Even if you’re not a New Yorker, or into history, it’s fascinating.
the nugget: Here is the story of the coke bar that used to be where your trendy artisanal bodega is now. Feel guilty about living in Brooklyn. Be nice to your old Polish neighbor.
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