27 September 2006

Is Queens The New Brooklyn?

And Astoria the new Williamsburg? Given that half the people I know in New York City either live in or are planning to move somewhere out along the ass-end of the N line, I've long suspected that I too might end up in one of those cute row houses in Archie Bunker and George Costanza-land.

I actually find it painful to employ the "new Williamsburg" cliché, aware as I am that it's already been bandied about for a couple years now, but I'm at a loss for another way to express it. The parallels are unavoidable: tantalizingly near, with Manhattan's spires looming as a spectacular backdrop to what might otherwise look like the mundane streets of a forgotten outer borough; frustratingly far, in that both neighbourhoods are dependent on a single, notoriously unreliable subway line. Most importantly, Astoria still has what Williamsburg once did: rents cheap enough (by New York standards, anyway) to lure ambitious young musicians and artists desperate to perform on the biggest stage of all but hopelessly unable to afford any of the city's more traditional hipster districts.

Add to that a core of homegrown hipsters (calm down, kids, I mean the word in the nicest possible way) who actually grew up in Astoria and whose bands and shows have started to attract like-minded individuals from around the country, and you've got the same formula that's transformed one neighbourhood after another in New York City. But because Astoria was never as decrepit or crime-ridden as the East Village or Williamsburg (or most of Brooklyn, for that matter), it's possible the transformation might happen far more rapidly.

Latest harbinger of Astoria's encroaching hipness: this new film, A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints, which, if this review is to be believed, promises to do for Queens what Saturday Night Fever did for Brooklyn. Well, in a low-key, indie arthouse sort of way, but still... I'm starting to get the feeling that by the time I finally get around to moving to Astoria, I'll no longer be able to afford it.


Psmith said...

It's incredible how many of the people I graduated with have moved to Astoria. There are seventeen of them (that I'm aware of) within ten blocks of me.

Chadd Derkins said...

I don't see Astoria ever becoming a "Williamsburg" in terms of it being a haven for young artists, musicians and modern-day beatnik types. There is too much of a European club-hopping vibe here, so the youth culture here will always be of the danceclub-and-cafe type. I know everybody hates Williamsburg, but I wish we had at least a little bit of that "rock and roll" vibe going on in Astoria. Oh well.

Jonathan said...

Too many upstanding, middle class white people and immigrants-made-good own homes in Astoria for it to truly gentrify. Unlike the down-and-out hispanic families of Williamsburg, I don't see the Greeks, Russians and Indians of Astoria being forced out by a bunch of young, blond-haired idiots. The rental market might get a little more filled up by hipsters, but I doubt it will be too major. Besides, Astoria isn't particularly attractive to hipsters now that the G train barely goes past Court Square, and all the clubs are in Brooklyn now, which means that in order to lug over to play Northsix, you'd need to take multiple trains.

Furthermore, far western Queens isn't the new Williamsburg. Williamsburg is the new Astoria/Long Island City. Back in the '80s, LIC was supposedly the next big neighborhood - my uncle moved there and rented a rowhouse - and then the real estate collapse of the early '90s fizzled that out.

Larry Livermore said...

The part of Williamsburg where I was living was largely Italian "immigrants-made-good" who are now making out even better by renting or selling their homes to the second and third wave of migrating hipsters. It's not so much a fact of being "forced out" as making a rational decision to take advantage of changing economic conditions. Many immigrant and middle-class families want nothing more than to be able to move out into the suburbs or out of New York altogether, and this affords them that opportunity.

Granted, the "hipsters" best situated to move into neighborhoods like Astoria are not the punks and borderline squatters who were the shock troops in the initial invasion of the Lower East Side, Williamsburg, et al. - they're more likely to be found out in places like Crown Heights - but rather the kind of post-college, 20-something hipsters who now dominate Williamsburg but soon will no longer be able to afford to live there. P Smith and Chadd Derkins, though they would rebel mightily - and justly - at being called hipsters, would fit into this general category, as would dozens of their friends who also live there.

I'm curious why you differentiate between "immigrants-made-good" and "down and out Hispanic families." True, there is more poverty among Hispanics, but they also tend to be more recent immigrants and are probably following the trajectory most other immigrant groups have passed through. And of course, many of them already have "made good" and moved on to other neighborhoods. It feels as though you're using them - as many anti-gentrificaton are wont to do - as poster children for a political point rather than as individuals and families, some of whom will prosper from improving neighborhoods and some of whom will not. Bear in mind that Williamsburg was not always a Hispanic neighborhood, either; had you been living there when waves of Hispanics started moving in, surely you wouldn't have protested that "they" were taking over/ruining the neighborhood. Why should it be any different when waves of young middle class white people do the same? Neighborhoods and cities are not static quantities; they are living, breathing organisms, ergo, they change, constantly.

Forgive me, by the way, if I've read something into your point that you didn't intend to say. I'm just so used to having this argument with other gentrification critics (usually white middle class people who moved into the neighborhood in question a couple years before all the other white middle class people did) that I return to it almost by default when the subject comes up.

Jonathan said...

I'm not entirely an anti-gentrification critic, or rather, I don't buy into the whole "all the minorities are being forced out" logic that most people without much experience in New York assume. I do tend to get a bit annoyed when a bunch of post-collegiate Iowa State graduates move into Brooklyn and start gushing about New York, but having been here for long enough, I know that most leave after five years of partying.
I should have been more clear in my distinction between the whites of Astoria and the whites of old Williamsburg. The Italian population of Northside had been declining for years before gentrification - starting in the 1960s - because of a sort-of squeezing in on either side from the Poles of Greenpoint and the new Hispanic residents of Southside (which, actually, has been Hispanic-dominated for a very, very long time. it was a strongly Puerto Rican neighborhood from the '50s onward). Furthermore, Northside, even then, was far from "The" Italian Community in New York. it isn't even close. Now, I'd say Staten Island holds that dubious honor (after 21 years on this Island, I feel safe in making Italian cracks) but even before the Verrazano, Northside was behind neighborhoods like Middle Village, Howard Beach, Bay Ridge, Bensonhurst, Fordham, etc etc. So it's easy to see how easy and, in all honesty, relatively painless the gentrification of Northside was. Many of the Italian families were not forced out, as you correctly say and as I should have clarified, but they are also not moving out of the city. Many of them sold their ugly Northside frame houses to idiot kids for millions, and then turned around and bought a nice brick townhome in Bay Ridge, or a suburban house with land in Staten Island, or a semi-detached in far eastern Queens.

However, when you get to Astoria, it's different. Astoria is, and has been, THE Greek neighborhood in New York, and has become (over the last 10-15 years) the same sort of area for other Levantine immigrants (Albanians, Yugoslavians, etc). It has been much more difficult to gentrify western Queens because a great deal of these people do not want to sell their houses and leave. Astoria isn't the industrial wasteland Northside was, and it benefits them much more to absorb some of these flush yuppies into some of the more sub-par rental stock in the neighborhood (i see a lot of 3 bedroom, dumpy railroad apartments over stores on busy Steinway St or Astoria Blvd on craigslist for relatively cheap) and then benefit from their money and re-invigoration of the neighborhood. The same situation is in Jackson Heights and Sunnyside. The neighborhoods of Queens are strongly middle class (unlike the destitute Brooklyn of the early '90s) and, now that gentrification is such common knowledge, after seeing what happened to Brooklyn, I doubt the good old cantankerous residents of Queens will allow it to happen with such force.
I think this is why we are starting to see the gentrification of some really unexpected neighborhoods of Brooklyn, at what seems like the waning of this particular gentrification cycle (the housing crash and general mailaise New York is seeing now is a lot like '87/'88). Unable to get a foothold in the nicer neighborhoods of close-in Queens, new transplants are moving out to Bushwick, and Crown Heights, and Sunset Park. There's been a punkhouse in Sunset Park for a couple years now, although (unusually enough) it's filled mostly with people who grew up in that southwestern corner of Brooklyn.
Or, maybe I just feel a bit more strongly about Astoria, being Greek and it being a very classical outer-borough New York neighborhood (Northside, let's be honest, used to just be sort of a boring, shitty area), and thus want to blindly hope that it's fate will be different. And, obviously, you're right about cities being living organisms. Gentrification is inevitable, and can be good. However, I think what we in NY are seeing now is the flipside of New York in the '80s. Rather than too many neighborhoods being given over to decay and houses being turned into SROs, etc, we are seeing too many neighborhoods becoming wealthy, white homeowner havens. Too much of either makes the city unpleasant, and I don't think this furious march of gentrification can continue past its current saturation point without New York beginning to lose some of its lustre. Specifically, in this case, becoming a city of the very rich and very poor, and not being able to function properly. Or maybe not. Maybe New York can function solely on reputation and entertainment appeal, drawing poor workers from the quickly ethnicizing Nassau County and upstate NY. It doesn't matter to me - my entire family, by virtue of having lived here for unbroken generations, owns enough property to never be forced out. But I can tell you right now, the de-New Yorking of the city by all of these hayseed transplants (some of whom, admittedly, are my friends) is beginning to make the natives uneasy and angry. More and more situations are beginning to arise like that on east 125th St, where locals hang around outside of the Lexington 4/5/6 stop, waiting to mug people who exit the station with white skin . Earlier this year, if you remember, one victim was robbed of his iPod and chased into traffic, where he died. Although, actually, the kid in this case actually grew up on the Upper East Side.
I've sort of grown out of my blind fury in the face of a changing city. Now I don't feel quite so much hatred when I walk out of a subway station in Brooklyn and see some well-dressed white person. I wait until they open their mouths, and if they don't sound like they're from the mid-Atlantic, THEN I hate them. Gentrification or no gentrification, I still favor people from the Tri-State Area.

Anonymous said...

Jonathan, have you BEEN to Sunnyside and Jackson Heights lately? I'm guessing not, because, while you are right in the fact that they were middle-class to begin with, young professionals are definitely moving into both neighborhoods and are changing the face of the neighborhood. You are just wrong, sorry.

Francisco said...

My friends and I have lived in Astoria our entire lives, grammar school, etc. Now it definitely appears that the people i cannot stand the most are moving in. It is funny because "white people" really do not have a culture of their own, so therefore they tend to invade areas that are culturally prolific. Alright maybe I am being a bit harsh, the term hipster is extremely inaccurate as it would suggest that they are on the forefront of lifestyle. I actually think that those silly hipsters are just too late to the bandwagon most of the time. However, there is no Urban Outfitters here yet so whatever overly thought out daily wardrobe you own would have to suffice. My suggestion, just ease off on the accessories it doubles your fledgling weight. Wait one more thing, it is also hilarious how the early adopters (or maybe adapters) tend to think they are privileged over the "poser" who just moved...you are not, you are just one in the same.

Larry Livermore said...

Francisco, I can see that you are upset and angry and determined to make a point, but ignorant and racist statements like "white people have no culture" are not going to help your case at all.

Besides that, at least half the white people I know who live in Astoria have also lived there all their lives. And as I pointed out earlier, if this mentality ("If you weren't born here, you don't belong here") were in force a few generations ago when Latinos or African-Americans first started arriving, nearly all New York neighborhoods - even Harlem - would have remained overwhelmingly white.

Racism cuts both ways, and so does ignorance. If white people have no culture (which by inference would make them incapable of creating a viable society), then please explain why hundreds of millions of people of color have found it necessary to abandon their own failed states and societies to live in thriving white ones.

Also, if being named Francisco indicates that you're Latino (I only say this because I've known both white and black people named Francisco), it's a bit rich to be dissing "white people," since of course the arbitrary designation "Latino" is not a race in itself, but a blend of several strains, the strongest of which is probably European Spanish (aka "white").