Real estate in New York sounds like an oxymoron for some hipsters in Williamsburg. In a 2001 New York Magazine article about the 11222, broker Penny Pear says, “This place is so hot — it’s sizzling! This is the best-kept secret in New York, I swear!” The neighborhood has evolved from a dingy rat hole into a family neighborhood. In 2001, the neighborhood thrived on starving artist types renting tiny, mostly illegal rooms; almost a decade later, million dollar penthouses sprung up by the East River. The morph of Williamsburg is a curious one, and its zip code neighbor contributes to this as well.
For years, black, Hispanic, and Italian families owned homes and thrived in a mini-melting pot of cultures. They worked in the factories by the East River, enjoyed the almost abandoned L subway stop, and generally kept to themselves. Polish families mainly stayed in Greenpoint and worried about their unknown neighbor to the West: Williamsburg. The neighborhood was not safe, and the police had a hard time controlling the gang and drug situation that flourished there. Janina Narbutowicz recalls: “I worked in a clothing factory along Kent Street, by the water, and I would leave before it got dark. I would not risk walking home in the dark, it was too dangerous.” Eventually, the Hasidic community in Williamsburg decided to gut some of the factories and buy some homes off the original settlers. There are buildings popping up every day in Williamsburg, but there is still an unresolved issue: where do the hipsters go?
Although the neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Greenpoint are primarily Polish, the young urban professionals, or “yuppies” have moved into the neighborhoods at an alarming rate since 2001. As with many rapid cultural changes, they were not received well. Halina Siano, an older Polish lady with a thick accent and a 20 year Greenpoint resident says,” They sat on my stairs smoking marijuana and talking about art until the sun came up. Then, at 9:00 AM they would knock on my door and ask if I had a room for them to sleep.” Of course, like many longtime Polish residents, she did not offer them a place to stay. She explains, ”My neighbor rented an apartment to a couple of men for two weeks. One day, she awoke to smoke filling her apartment below. The men decided to burn their trash on the third floor fire escape.” Stories like this circulate among Greenpoint homeowners, warning them of the crazy yuppies. Izabela Nowak speaks about a renter who painted a feces mural before vanishing from her rented room. Klaudia Kowalska had a midnight doctor’s office in her first floor apartment. “How are we supposed to trust these people? They have proven how they can act,” says Siano.
Out of curiosity, I found my closest hipster friend, dressed in ripped leggings, a plaid shirt, and Ray-Bans, and inquired about some apartments for rent in the area. I was up first so I walked up to the home in question, chit chatted with the Polish homeowner in Polish, and was shown the apartment. She gave me a price of $1000 monthly for a one bedroom, one bathroom, kitchen, and living room apartment. Not too bad. Two hours later my hipster friend did the same. She was shown the apartment and told she could have it all for $2500 monthly. The huge discrepancy in rent speaks to the local homeowners’ bias against hipsters. We experienced the same results in three more open houses.
Polish people are not shy about their disgust at the behavior of yuppies. Janina called the police on a tenant who smoked marijuana in his apartment. Siano’s neighbor had to repaint the outside of her home from the fire damage. Nowak would not tell me how she removed the feces mural, for discretion. The women simply told me, “ we do not trust them.”
An interesting phenomenon that a visitor to Williamsburg will notice is that graffiti is an important way of letting your feelings be known. The neighborhood has memos written everywhere you look about hot issues such as gentrification, abortion, and the economy. In 1998, a stenciled phrase appeared on walls and sidewalks in Williamsburg saying, “YUPPIE GO HOME.” The graffiti sparked interest and a loud response about it ran on notbored.org. A yuppie spoke out against the fear that people felt in renting apartments. He said, “Young, Upwardly-mobile Professionals have no home to go back to, no matter where they sleep and store their stuff. To be a yuppie is to be at home nowhere and to be a tourist everywhere.”
If they want to stay, perhaps these hip nomads will find ways to gain back the respect of their Polish neighbors.