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Bohemia Goes Big Bucks

Bennett Baumer Nov 19

The Last Bohemia: Scenes from the Life of Williamsburg, Brooklyn
By Robert Anasi
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012

When I return to the block in Red Hook, Brooklyn, that was home to my first New York apartment ten years ago, I am shocked by the change. An entire block of burned-out buildings has been replaced with new apartments, and the city is remodeling the sketchy footbridge over the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway where I used to dodge heroin addicts and crush their multi-color tabs littering the pavement as I hurried by.

The fact that neighborhoods in New York change is nothing new, and in The Last Bohemia Robert Anasi writes about his life in the context of a gentrifying neighborhood. In the late ’80s and early ’90s the now commercially vibrant section of Bedford Avenue near where the author lived was a hellhole of abandoned storefronts, drug dealers, junkies and homeless people. Readers looking for war stories such as boxing bums, junkies bottoming out and breakups will be rewarded as Anasi took good notes during his starving artist days in the neighborhood.

Still, some readers may roll their eyes at stories of Williamsburg’s pioneering hipsters who have since been priced out of the neighborhood. But then you would miss the book’s gems, such as an account of what happened when Esther Bell, an aspiring filmmaker, met two homeless men:

“The men told Esther that they were Vietnam vets and on their way home from work. Home? Home was under the pool, in a subterranean maze of corridors and pipes. And they weren’t the only people who found the catacombs useful. ‘Sure,’ the vets told Esther. ‘The Mafia dumps bodies down there.’ They claimed to have seen the corpses.”

So how did Williamsburg go from being an urban slum to a desirable place to live with high rents? Geographer and CUNY professor Neil Smith, who died in September, theorized that gentrification was an economic process that sought to capitalize on the actual land price given its current use and the “potential ground rent that might be gleaned under a ‘higher and better’ use.” The trick in development is to decipher when to capitalize on the difference between the ground rent and the potential rent.

In the 1990s, banking deregulation in Washington unleashed capital on Wall Street and investors saw condos where vacant lots once stood. Albany began to allow landlords to destabilized rent-
regulated apartments, turning tenements into potential goldmines. In the 2000s, the Bloomberg administration rezoned the vast waterfront for high-rise construction, and the time was ripe to capitalize.

The book’s cover juxtaposes these two worlds — a scene from a raucous waterfront concert with new condo buildings as a backdrop sits above a photo of a graffiti-covered car parked in a garbage-strewn tundra that melts into the East River.

Anasi does not care much for the new, gentrified Williamsburg and gives the requisite dis to shiny condos, but he also sneers at independent bookstore Spoonbill & Sugartown, which prominently displayed The Last Bohemia throughout the summer. Anasi would have done well to cite Kim Moody’s From Welfare State to Real Estate for analysis of gentrification. While artists certainly play a role in gentrification, organized real estate and financial interests are the primary driving forces, using their political clout to change city policies and develop vast stretches of New York.

For Williamsburg’s starving artist, working-class and Latino renters, who have been pushed out of the neighborhood by rising rents, there are bills pending in Albany that would re-stabilize apartment rents and possibly make permanent affordable housing mandatory in medium and large developments.

Williamsburg can balance newer, more expensive development while protecting its older rent-stabilized housing stock — it just takes political will.