For decades, Graham Avenue in the East Williamsburg section of Brooklyn has been divided in two. The south end of Graham Avenue which reads “Avenue of Puerto Rico” has been the center of a Puerto Rican-American neighborhood since the 1920s, while the north end of Graham Avenue reads “Via Vespucci” and was mostly an Italian-American influenced neighborhood since the 1800s.
Rumors have it that there is a push to remove the “Avenue of Puerto Rico” from the street signs along the southern end of the avenue while “Via Vespucci” will remain on the north side of the street. This has local residents with mixed emotions.
Local deli runner Mahamad (Poppy), whose father owns Farmer’s Deli, located on the corner of Graham Avenue and Grand street for over thirty years, says that he has always seen the signs that way and never noticed the need to label them.
“Everyone coming in here is white or Spanish but more white than years ago,” he said. “But how do I know who is Italian and who is Puerto Rican? To me it’s all the same.”
Grand Street is the “border” or “division” or the two streets. You cross Grand Street and you are on the side of Puerto Rico, cross back and you are on the side of Via Vespucci.
The Italian influence on Graham Avenue has been there since the 1880s when many Italians migrated to New York City. Puerto Ricans started immigrating to New York City in the 1920s when the 1924 Immigration Act allowed Puerto Ricans to enter the United States with ease and legal status. The new wave of latino and asian immigrants that came into New York City, brewed tension between Italians of Williamsburg and many latinos coming into the neighborhood.
But unlike the ethnic rivalries seen in the 1957 movie West Side Story Italians and Puerto Ricans for the most part managed to live together and share East Williamsburg.
For the last two decades, because of gentrification, both the north and south sides of Graham Avenue are losing their Puerto Rican and Italian community and culture.
The Puerto Rican side had many murals of Puerto Rican flags, Spanish owned shops and Salsa music huts, wall paintings on the sides of buildings depicting the Coqui, a frog native to the island of Puerto Rico and people hanging out on corners playing music, dominoes, and bringing the culture to the streets.
On the Italian side were mostly Italian owned businesses and diners, Italian flags flying proudly hanging from almost all the private houses down the blocks, and men in crisp suits smoking cigars
and having a good time.
Increasing rent prices have forced old residents and their families out of their houses and apartments to more affordable locations and even out of state.
“Us Ricans keep selling out and leaving and the neighborhood gets more expensive each year,” says Jose Carillo, 32 of Williamsburg, who is planning on moving back to Puerto Rico because he can no longer afford his apartment a few blocks from Graham Avenue. “It’s gonna be nothing but whites soon.”
As hipsters and artists move into Williamsburg, local families are also selling their businesses. Many restaurants and stores that used to be owned by Puerto Rican families have been long gone and replaced by new high-rent,taller buildings which would house higher income tenants at triple the price of two or three decades ago or a new bar for the hipsters to mingle in at 1 am on any given night.
This is why the news is spreading about removing the “Avenue of Puerto Rico” from all the street signs down this stretch of the historically Puerto Rican neighborhood. The area is no longer Puerto Rican. However, its history is.
“Well if they remove ‘Avenue of Puerto Rico’ they better remove ‘Via Vespucci’ too,” stated Tony, a veteran of the first Gulf War who lives in a rent stabilized apartment in the Italian section of Graham Avenue who currently got an eviction notice from the Marshals.
Community Board No. 1 in Brooklyn declined to comment. The Department of Transportation said they would get in contact with me via telephone but have not as of yet.