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Oral History Preserves Bushwick One Story at a Time

Chelsey Sanchez May 24

Issue 246

Cynthia Tobar, courtesy of Cynthia Tobar.

At an April Community Board 4 meeting in Bushwick, city planners were repeatedly interrupted by the audience. “Affordable to who?” locals wanted to know, as the Department of City Planning outlined a proposed rezoning of the neighborhood that it says would create more green space and affordable housing in return for allowing developers to build higher. Seen by some as the next Williamsburg, the neighborhood is already going through dramatic demographic changes and longtime residents are on edge, concerned about being priced out.

The Indypendent spoke with Cynthia Tobar, an assistant professor and head of archives at Bronx Community College, about her oral history project, “Cities for People, Not for Profit.” By interviewing residents, artists and activists, the project aims to document the ongoing effects of Bushwick’s gentrification and to establish different points of connection between neighborhood newcomers and old-timers.

How did “Cities for People” come about?

I was walking through the neighborhood one day, close to Morgan Avenue, and there was this art space. The gates were open and I walk in and there are all these artists working in an abandoned parking lot. It starts to come to me how, years ago, something like this wouldn’t have been that feasible in the neighborhood — all these supposedly gentrifying white artists coming into a neighborhood to create art. I started talking with the person who was running the event, and I said, “I would love to interview folks here about the changing face of Bushwick from their perspective.”

That’s how it started, with me documenting the artists in the neighborhood, the young ones who get labeled as scapegoats of gentrification. The more people I interviewed, the more it became apparent that, regardless of race and background and privilege, everyone is being squeezed out of the neighborhood.

Then, I wanted to reach out to the local activist community, to get these folks at a table talking about affordability, gentrification and housing in New York. Just trying to get the different perspectives of, “Where do you see this coming?” and “How is Bushwick a case study for this larger battle for working-class people?” and “How can we keep New York City vibrant and diverse, while trying to not succumb to the pressures of these elite structures dominating the city?” How many more Starbucks and Bank of Americas do we need, really, in a neighborhood?

It’s interesting that you mention that young white people are blamed for gentrification, yet, they’re still being squeezed out too. It seems to speak to these higher forces that are at play behind the scenes.

It also sort of demystifies the process, right? Because it’s always easy to point and start that divisive conversation about who’s to blame for all this. But how do we turn the page and move toward finding concrete solutions? I wanted to use the stories I was collecting as a catalyst to get people together.

How can people from other neighborhoods or cities replicate this project?

We have an activists’ toolkit, which has resources and information on other projects that are documenting housing inequity in the city, because my project is not the only one in Bushwick or even in the city. The idea is also, rather than just it being an archive, people can use the stories as sources of information for their activism or their scholarship or just to inform themselves.

The last few years of the project, I’ve been working a lot in collaboration with other organizations. We had a series of events over the summer called “Bushwick Love Letter,” which was the project started by the 5 Boro Story Project. We had these public programs in order to link the stories we’ve been collecting and putting online with spaces outside of the digital realm, to engage face to face and bridge the digital divide, because not everybody has access to technology in the same way.

We used the stories as a springboard for more conversations to bring people together because what we see now is that displacement just further stratifies people. Now people are even more distant from one another. If you’re in one of these god-awful housing developments that have concierge service and all kinds of amenities within the same building, what would compel you to even leave to say hello to your neighbors? It amplifies the class divisions that exist between people. Public programming is great because we’re reaching out into the community and meeting people where they’re at.

When I first heard about this project, the idea of oral history seemed like a surprising and even archaic choice. Is the communal aspect part of the reason why you chose to put this project together?

I’m a first-generation Ecuadorian American. My family — we love stories. It’s the most tangible first point of connection you can make to anybody. Like, “Tell me your story. Tell me your background.” You’re getting a person’s perspective, whether or not that’s factual. Memory’s a funny thing, but it sort of lets you get to the core impact events have on people, especially when you think about linking it to social justice issues. I think of oral history as this wonderful tool that provides a counternarrative to history-making, which we need. We need to open up the historical narratives to include marginalized people who have been left out of the narrative.

Could you speak on your personal history with Bushwick?

It’s got a very special personal resonance for me. I feel that, of all the neighborhoods I’ve lived in, Bushwick has always welcomed me when I’ve been at my lowest. There is just a certain level of independence and freedom that I’ve always associated with living in this neighborhood. There was my neighbor who passed away a few years ago. Bless his heart, he used to grow corn stalks and weed in his backyard. But no one bothered him. Everybody just does their own thing.

I was a single mother living on my own and this was the only affordable place I could find to live and survive while I was trying to pick up the pieces of my life and move forward. There’s a striver mentality to Bushwick, which is something I don’t want to see disappear. But, we can only have that if we welcome all members within our community and have this be an available place for everyone. I love this neighborhood and I refuse to leave. I’ve invested in it and I want to get to a space where it can be not just for folks who want to make a profit, but a place for folks who have sacrificed and lived through the worst moments of the community to stay.

What are some tangible strategies that people can use to combat gentrification?

I’d say building a sense of community, even if it starts within your own block or within your own building. I don’t know how they do it in these fancier buildings, but the smaller, old-fashioned six-family buildings, you got to bump into your neighbor at some point in the stairs. Say, “hello.” Learn a little bit about them. Look out for one another. Get plugged in with the local activists. Show support to the local businesses and the supermarket. The C-Town down the street may not have your petits cornichons and fresh mozzarella, but if you need a box of cereal and milk, go and support the local businesses here, too. Also, plug in to existing activist organizations that are doing the heavy lifting of having to deal with City Council members, and rally and attend the meetings.

What do you think is in store for the future of Bushwick?

It will be a different Bushwick. It can never stay the same. But I’m hoping that there is an increased level of awareness with all the people coming in. Just be aware of the past. As long as there are those of us that choose to stay to help inform and educate and remind people of what our past has been, that can help inform a better future.

Read and watch the oral histories that Cynthia Tobar has collected at CitiesForPpl.org.


Photo credit (top): georgia/Flickr.