Who ‘Ruined’ Williamsburg? Blaming Developers May Be Satisfying, But It Misses the Mark

The first, and perhaps most memorable scene of Gut Renovation—Su Friedrich’s 81-minute documentary screed about development in Williamsburg—comes a little

The building in Williamsburg where Ms. Friedrich used to live.
The building in Williamsburg where Ms. Friedrich used to live.

The first, and perhaps most memorable scene of Gut Renovation—Su Friedrich’s 81-minute documentary screed about development in Williamsburg—comes a little over 10 minutes into the movie when Ms. Friedrich, filming from the window of her loft apartment at 118 North 11th Street calls down to a group of suited men (who are, presumably, developers) and screams, “you’re ruining the neighborhood.”

Is is that fury-filled charge that best encapsulates the entire film and indeed, Ms. Friedrich’s editorial/personal/professional perspective on what went wrong in Williamsburg and who is to blame.

It is, in many ways, a movie of interiors—a first-person film about one woman’s experience of loss in the wake of the real estate boom that transformed Williamsburg, and one that that completely glosses over Ms. Friedrich’s own role in that transformation. Ms. Friedrich paints herself, and other artists like her, as the victims—never the perpetrators—in the saga of Williamsburg’s gentrification and development. Though she does, at one point, credit artists with engaging in community activism that made the neighborhood a better place to live.

The much despised Edge.
The much despised Edge.

This struck us as at best one-sided and self-serving, and at worst, deceptive. Either way, it was a simplistic way to examine a very complex issue. Whether or not you believe artists who moved into the Williamsburg’s industrial spaces in the late 1980s and early 1990s are partially to blame for Williamsburg’s current state, they were, without a doubt, catalysts in its transformation. (Notably, when a Crown Heights community board recently voted against the conversion of an unoccupied factory to live/work space for artists, they cited gentrification.)

The most poignant aspect of Gut Renovation is not Ms. Friedrich’s decision to frame (literally, from the window) the culprits as developers, the rich, and their designer dogs—”you’re ruining the neighborhood!”—but the echo of that allegation.”You’re ruining the neighborhood” raises thorny questions that Ms. Friedrich never tackles in the documentary, questions that lie at the heart of the debate about development and gentrification and which cannot be ignored. Whose neighborhood is it? How long do you have to live in a place to claim it? To change it? Who deserves to reap the benefits of neighborhood transformation? And who bears the responsibility for that transformation?

Gentrification is generally seen as working in two stages—with artists, bohemians and the middle-class (by upbringing, if not by bank account) moving into poor, underdeveloped areas of the city and, in time, making neighborhoods attractive for the second-wave gentrifiers—the rich, the developers. Wealthy Manhattanites and developers don’t generally—or really, ever—target outer-borough neighborhoods that have not already been remade by an upwardly mobile middle class. Not that those first-wavers should be blamed, necessarily, for making a place more palatable, but they are part of the process of change.

Moreover, first-wave gentrifiers may be pushed out by the second-wavers, but they are not the ones who suffer the most. They have options, choices, decisions about where to go and whether to buy. For all its vitriol against rich people and their designer dogs (at one point, Ms. Friedrich quips that her partner says she should call the movie “I hate rich people”), Ms. Friedrich—a filmmaker and a Princeton professor—does not examine, or disclose, her own financial and cultural advantages.

And advantages they are. Near the end of the film Ms. Friedrich and her partner are trying to decide whether to buy or rent—the ability to chose speaks volumes. Buying is simply not an option for many of the people displaced by gentrification. And when Ms. Friedrich  left Williamsburg in 2009, she bought a townhouse in Bed-Stuy for $449,000—which is roughly equivalent to what studios and one-bedrooms were selling for in The Edge at the time. This is one of the villainous condos that she lambasts in the film. Crimes of aesthetic taste notwithstanding, at least some of the condo buyers were no doubt closer to Ms. Friedrich’s economic class than she would care to admit. The moral lines, the question of good neighbors and bad neighbors, of responsibility and victimhood are murkier, too.

Even as the furor raised by Gut Renovation quiets down, the issues of development and gentrification remain central to the future of the city. Which is why they deserve a more thorough airing than Gut Renovation gave them and why we recently called Ms. Friedrich to discuss the film, and to ask many of the questions we felt that she hadn’t. Among the more surprising things we learned is that to her, the movie is about development, not gentrification “It’s not that some people move in and others have to move out. They’re connected, but sometimes, it happens more organically and sometimes it happens more deliberately.” (We would argue that you can’t tell a story about displacement and development without also talking about gentrification.) Below is an abridged version of our conversation, which lasted almost two hours.

The Observer: Do you feel that you, or other artists, bear any of the responsibility for what happened in Williamsburg?

Ms. Friedrich: No. Look at Park Slope, that changed and there weren’t any artists to speak of in that neighborhood. I think it’s sort of a popular narrative to say that the artists move in, then the neighborhood changes. The artists get blamed, but that’s backward.

The Observer: But isn’t anyone—an artist or otherwise—who makes it more attractive to a developer at least partially responsible for a neighborhood’s change?

Ms. Friedrich: When I moved in, I was not putting a demand on the neighborhood for its change. If the next people come in and start making the demand, those are the ones who are changing it. I can understand why that looks like it makes a lot of sense. But if you’re looking at it from a vantage point of someone who really doesn’t have much money, who is financially equivalent to the Polish lady who works at the beauty parlor, then you see it differently.

The Observer: But it still acts as a catalyst for change, doesn’t it?

Ms. Friedrich: It does play a role, but if you are an artist that needs a bigger space—you can’t make your art in an ordinary apartment situation. Industrial spaces that are abandoned are really the only places you can go.

The Observer: But when people start moving into industrial spaces, landlords realize they can increase the rents and that pushes industrial tenants out.

Ms. Friedrich: But the artists I knew were not paying lots of money, the industries in our building were paying the same rent as we were. That was probably true in some cases, when people were moving in who could pay more. But people were moving into places that were super cheap because they were for the most part places that had been empty or abandoned. You have to look at why the city had been leaving those industrial spaces open.

The Observer: So can you blame the city?

Ms. Friedrich: There are so many stories, I find it very difficult to say that it all happened in a particular way. I really feel that, even though I made a film about it, I made it about my personal experience. I’m very cautious about making absolute statements about things. But I would say that what I learned over the course of the film—from reading Ida Susser [a Hunter College professor], the city very much contributed to the trajectory of that neighborhood, in the same way as developers did.

The Observer: Are the residents who are moving into Williamsburg now to blame?

Ms. Friedrich: I think residents do share responsibility for how a neighborhood changes. If there is blame to be passed around, I would say that it should be shared. I know a guy who is paying $700 a month for his apartment in Williamsburg, another guy in his building is paying $7,900. The people who are moving in have to ask themselves what role they have in a neighborhood’s change.

The ObserverAre they both to blame, then?

Ms. Friedrich: I think the guy who moved in 23 years ago and fixed up a neighborhood that was in bad shape and paid his rent on time, I don’t understand why he is at fault when someone with a pile of money moves in and pays $7,900. It’s the city and landlords and developers who think, we’re going to get as much as we can and get more and more and more of it. I feel sympathy for people in Williamsburg now, really feel sorry for them that are moving into places that are really badly built.

The Observer: So what do you do to about the demand for housing? How do you accommodate it?

Ms. Friedrich: First of all, Williamsburg is almost as expensive as Manhattan now. I think people in Brooklyn are freaking out, and I think, also, again, it would be really fascinating if someone decided to do a survey of 40 of the condos in Williamsburg to find out how many of the people living there, recent arrivals or people who moved to, how many are foreigners, pieds-à-terres, Russian tycoons and all that. Foreigners—that’s another way the ante keeps going up.

The Observer: How can development be done better?

Ms. Friedrich: I am not a city planner, I don’t know enough about it, but my sense is that as a sensible human being is that you build more… we do need more housing but we don’t need more luxury housing. If a city government is being sensible and realizing that its population is completely stressed out about its housing, they should be doing everything they can to reduce the stress.

The Observer: Part of the problem, for the city, is that developers won’t build affordable housing without incentives.

Ms. Friedrich: There are always ways for a government to move its money around, there are ways. They are giving those developers profound financial privileges. There are projects in which some people make phenomenal amounts—I just don’t believe it when the city cries poverty.

The Observer: How could development and the rezoning in Williamsburg have been done better?

Ms. Friedrich: It could have been done better if they had done what the community had proposed. The community worked on a huge plan, a 125-page report in detail, it was about improving things in the neighborhood. Pretty much all that was ignored when they rezoned it and let the developers come in.

The Observer: What were some of its recommendations, the differences between the community plan and what happened?

Ms. Friedrich: [After warning it’s been a long time since she read the report]: The industries were more mixed with the residential, things about the scale of building were different, the idea that the waterfront would have these towers on it as opposed to becoming something accessible as parkland.

The Observer: Should Williamsburg have been rezoned residential?

Ms. Friedrich: Well, no, because it made it really hard for the industries to stay. When I first moved in, I thought it was fantastic to live by them. It really gets under your skin, the experience of really being around these places, walking around a bay and seeing people making cardboard boxes. I think they should have been supported, there should have been more efforts to bring industries back in, even at the cost of the artists.

The Observer: You lived in a building that was zoned commercial from the time you moved in [1989] until 2005. Essentially, the rezoning made what you were doing—living in a space that was zoned for commercial use—legal. Should it have stayed illegal, with artists allowed to remain there? Do artists deserve more privileges and rights than other people?

Ms. Friedrich: I just don’t think of privileges and rights any more than if you have a farmer and they till a field for 20 years, they have a right to it. There is something to be said for that, it is the equivalent of common law marriage. If you put your heart and soul and labor into something for so long, does that not count? I think it counts. Then someone comes in and says, “fuck you.” Our building was sold for $16.5 million. That’s what I tell people when they ask why we didn’t buy the building.

The Observer: But if you don’t rezone it, doesn’t that close the neighborhood off to only the people who came first?

Ms. Friedrich: I don’t think anyone was closing it off. If someone wanted to come over and rent one of the woodframe houses, if they wanted to come, they could rent it. If someone wanted to find an open industrial space, no one was closing the neighborhood off to people. The neighborhood was open to people who were open to those circumstances. People who live there now are only people who would live there now. It’s not like they wanted to live in Williamsburg back when it was Williamsburg.

The Observer: Would you say that Williamsburg was the best during the time that you lived there?

Ms. Friedrich: I would never speak for Williamsburg, it has a 200-year history. You could be talking to an Italian woman who lived in the neighborhood, or a Polish woman. A developer came in next door and now our foundation has been compromised. A lot of people in that neighborhood were really run over.

The Observer: But a lot of those people were able to sell their houses for a lot of money because of neighborhood changes.

Ms. Friedrich: If people have been working hard their whole lives, then good on them if someone is willing to pay $2.1 million for it. We’re living in this time when there’s such a mania for money in this country now, the scale for something has become so extreme, there’s such wealth inequality. That’s why people might say something like, “Well, damn, wish I had a house on North 7th that I could have sold.” According to this contemporary narrative, that’s a great thing, that you can make a boatload of money. But you probably lived in it for 50 years and really loved it. People had been there for a really long time, especially the Italians, they went back 150 years. People don’t want their community to be destroyed, just so they can pocket $1 million and move to Boca.

The Observer: If they didn’t want to move, they didn’t have to sell.

Ms. Friedrich: They have to live in a neighborhood that has become really weird and strange. It’s not their neighborhood, their demographic.

The Observer: What about your decision to move into Bed-Stuy?

Ms. Friedrich: The reality is we had to have a place to live, we had a certain amount of money, we tried desperately for 8 months. We have very little money, I teach half-time and my partner doesn’t work anymore, we happened to find a house, owned by a man retiring to South Carolina. The problem I have with this narrative, people asking about moving into Bed-Stuy, there’s an assumption that if you’re moving to Bed-Stuy and you’re white, you’re displacing someone else… I will say in my case, I did what millions of people have done in the history of home buying and selling, one person chooses to sell their home, another person tries to buy.

The Observer: But isn’t it a problem that when people come in from wealthier areas, who can afford to pay more, then the people who live there eventually can’t afford to stay?

Ms. Friedrich: What happened in Bed-Stuy was that mortgage lenders came in and gave a lot of people really bad mortgages and they lost their homes. Then the place goes into foreclosure and a developer buys it. There are a lot of places in the neighborhood have been bought by small developers. They put in an ugly countertop, fake crap, and then they sell it. There is this middle man coming in and upping the ante. First that the banks did what they did, then you have the developers coming in and saying “aha!”

The Observer: But the reason the developers are doing this is because it’s worthwhile. They see changes in the neighborhood, wealthier people moving in.

Ms. Friedrich: When people talk about this, the assumption that I’m moving into a really decrepit neighborhood, that’s because they can’t conceive of the fact that this is filled with solid middle class families, this is not the south Bronx… When we moved in people who owned homes would say, “Gosh we’re really glad that you moved in, we want the neighborhood to be stable.” Any time that anyone who moves in to participate and stabilize, for the homeowners, it’s increasing the value of their homes. My fervent desire, my fervent hope is that all the current homeowners in Bed-Stuy can be more secure because the value of their home is more secure.

The Observer: But the same could be said of Fort Greene—a neighborhood that has now become too expensive for many of the people who grew up there. How do you stop Bed-Stuy from having the same problems as Fort Greene?

Ms. Friedrich: I don’t know, it’s sort of more complicated than I can give an answer to. I find it scary because I think there is the possibility of it tipping over to the other side, of people getting pushed out. [She noted that she made sure to ask what the average rents were in the neighborhood when deciding what to ask for units in her townhouse.] But how do I prevent it from happening aside from not charging an insane amount of rent for the place I rent? I can’t control what other people do.

The Observer: So who’s behind the changes then, if it’s not people who move to a place and live there? Who’s responsible then?

Ms. Friedrich: Again, I think the banks are very much to blame, the banks for getting these things rolling which has further consequences. I don’t know whose fault it is. I don’t think CEOs should get the pay they get. I think we need to rethink a lot of things about how wealth is distributed, then a lot of these other things will improve. It’s not workable for a society to have this situation, particularly because the middle class is disappearing.

Update: Regarding our point that her Bed-Stuy townhouse was in the same price range as condos at the Edge, Ms. Friedrich makes the fair point that the two were not equivalent properties for the price (and an Edge one-bedroom offers no opportunity for rental income). “Our place for $449,000 is 4,200 sq.ft.,” she emailed us. “Places at the WB condos were very rarely below $500,000—they usually started in the high 6’s and were usually 700-1,200 sq.ft.” Who ‘Ruined’ Williamsburg? Blaming Developers May Be Satisfying, But It Misses the Mark