Greenpoint is a neighborhood located in the northernmost part of Brooklyn, New York. It borders Williamsburg on the southwest side, Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and East Williamsburg on the southeast side, Long Island City on the north side, and East River on the east side. Historically, it has been known as a predominantly working-class Polish immigrant and Polish-American based neighborhood with lots of thriving Polish businesses. It has often been referred to as Little Poland.
It was interesting to have a team of people visiting Greenpoint with two different vantage points: someone who has never been to Greenpoint despite living in Brooklyn all her life who was able to observe and analyze the neighborhood as an outsider and someone who has lived in Greenpoint for many years and was able to first-handedly describe the changes between the Greenpoint she knew and the Greenpoint we see now. Taking both of our perspectives into account, we came to the conclusion that gentrification has played a dominant role in shaping the Greenpoint we know today.
Pollution was one of the factors that established the origins of the neighborhood and eventually stimulated gentrification. In a 1998 New York Times article, a Polish woman named Irene Klementowicz described her apartment as being “near one of the largest underground oil spills in history”. The neighborhood was aligned with garbage transfer stations and when she would open a window, she would smell what she referred to as “the Greenpoint stink” from the nearby sewage plant. That was just a glimpse of reality of the then predominantly Polish neighborhood. Greenpoint was known for being filthy, unsanitary, and toxic.
For decades, people had to cope with the potential dangers of oil spills in the industrial waterfront. For over a century, 30 million gallons of petroleum from many oil refineries filled Newton Creek and surrounding neighborhoods. Another problem arose more recently. As a result of increased industrial activity, chemicals from contaminated soil and groundwater became Greenpoint’s biggest issue. These chemicals flowed through openings in the ground, polluted the air, and amplified the toxic gases that consumed the neighborhood. The pollutants left over from industrial activity that supposedly were contained in environmental cleanups were observed seeping through pores into people’s homes and basements. Scientists began testing the chemicals that made their way into homes and analyzing how oil spills may not be Greenpoint’s sole enemy.
With the environment in Greenpoint becoming increasingly more dangerous throughout the years, something needed to be done. Around 1998, British Petroleum and Amoco merged, becoming the largest producer of oil and natural gas in the United States. The state government demanded that British Petroleum find a way to clean the area, at whatever cost it takes, because even insurance wouldn’t cover it. British Petroleum said they needed time and the state government refused to permit any construction until the oil spills were cleaned up and the neighborhood became more environmentally friendly. On Greenpoint Avenue, British Petroleum established a cleaning area where they filtered out the garbage and cleaned the air in the process. With the renewal of clean air, Greenpoint saw its largest construction boom ever, hence the transformation of businesses and the soaring rent prices.
Walking along the streets of Greenpoint, we noticed the sidewalks were very clean, there was no garbage on the ground, and there were eco-friendly trash cans. Greenpoint seems to be much more environmentally conscious than it used to be.
Real estate has by far seen the most dramatic transformation. According to NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban policy, average rents in Greenpoint have increased at the exorbitant rate of 78.7%. Average household income has risen by a whopping $53,550. Homes that cost $500-$700 for rent before now cost $3000 for rent.
A man we interviewed explained that landlords often double the rent after the long term leases are up. Although people aren’t as willing to sell their houses right away as are people living in Williamsburg, traditional businesses and long-standing homes are closed down every week because people who have lived here for a long time simply cannot afford to pay their rent anymore. Thus, people open up new businesses that accommodate the needs of the young, rich folk who can afford to pay to keep the new businesses running.
Just observing the different buildings, we felt like we were looking at the past and present all in one. Right next to run-down buildings, old apartments, and homeless shelters were newly constructed $2 million houses and condominiums . Construction and scaffolding lined every block.
According to dataus.io, the median age in Greenpoint, Brooklyn is 31.6. Upon interviewing a resident of Greenpoint, we got to hear the perspective of a native on the age of people now living in Greenpoint. He told us that people between the ages of 20 and 35 have been coming into Greenpoint, unable to afford living in Manhattan and settling for Brooklyn instead. They come from places like Virginia, Maine, Connecticut, and Texas and even from other countries like Australia, Italy, England, and South Africa. They are young professionals and/or artists and have a different approach to life than the established residents. He told us that they are almost like parasites, settling down, starting families, incorporating their fascination with brunch and cafes into the business dynamics of Greenpoint. He felt as though he was being pushed out of his own neighborhood. His family has lived in Greenpoint for 130 years, and he has seen businesses crumbling under the rising rents.
We also interviewed a Polish CD shop Music Planet owner, Stan. Dominika remembers going to his store as a little girl and she was somewhat relieved to see that his business was still around. When we asked him what changes he’s seen in the Polish community, he told us that Greenpoint is not the same Greenpoint it used to be; it is no longer Polish. He said that after the European Union opened its borders, many Polish people left. They would rather work in Europe legally than stay in America illegally. Many left to Ireland, England, and France, a 3 hour flight from Poland, compared to the 8 hour flight it would be from America. Approximately 2.5 million people went back to Poland. A lot of Polish people also moved to Queens, predominantly Maspeth and Ridgewood. Walking down Ridgewood, one comes across several Polish stores and bars and though it is not as concentrated as Greenpoint once was, there is a Polish presence in Queens now.
There is a general consensus that Greenpoint has been changing a lot slower than Williamsburg because there is still a sufficient amount of Polish people living here, and we noticed that many Polish business still do exist, but they no longer make up the majority. Nevertheless, the shoe store owner we interviewed explained that Polish people made up about 75% of the population in Greenpoint when he first started working there, and they now make up 10% of the neighborhood. The 25% of the population that used to live here were the Hispanics, including Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, and Latinos, who left because they were old.
Ten years ago, going out at night in Greenpoint was not necessarily dangerous, but it was definitely a bit intimidating. The streets would be rather empty, most of the residents, majority older Polish people, settling in bed and all the stores closing at 8 pm. The main concentration of people that were out and about would be the bodega owners, young Hispanic men smoking on the corner, and the homeless people. Now, upon driving through Greenpoint at 10 pm, we were surprised to see so many young people going out, smiling and laughing. They are a mix of races, predominantly in their mid-20s, heading to the bars that have sprung up in Greenpoint over the past 5 years.
With the displacement of the Eastern European population by the growing “hipster” population, Greenpoint is unique in the realm of gentrification. Inevitably, tension between old and new residents exists. Talking to a native, he stated “you live here and you have no rights”. In his perspective, Greenpoint is so overpopulated with the younger generations that they deprive people like him of parking spots, chances to rent a home because of the soaring prices which the “hipsters” are willing to pay, and a chance for his children to live here. The man told us that before September 11 happened, the “hipsters” called people such as himself “bridge and tunnel people” and are generally labeled as “the leftovers”. He recalled how they called him “a local” recently and told him he can’t sell books, records, and Trump buttons in “their neighborhood”. When he drives in his car, he often experiences altercations with bicyclists who show him the middle finger. He told us that there is a certain level of entitlement that the younger generations feel in regards to Greenpoint.
What is “hipster” culture?
A big question to address is what “hipster” culture really means. It is generally defined as a subculture of people usually in their 20s and 30s who value being unconventional and non-mainstream. They generally enjoy listening to indie, alternative, rock, pop, and folk music, wearing vintage and thrift-store clothing, drinking alcohol, eating healthy, and owning many pets. The so-called “hipsters” look for the trendiest cafes and restaurants, trying to capture “Instagrammable” moments.
During the day, we saw young couples walking their dogs, skateboarding (with babies in their arms), and/or biking. Bike paths and bike lanes consume the neighborhood. Furthermore, the Citi bike docks take up a lot of room on the streets of Greenpoint, limiting the amount of parking spaces that are available. We noticed many runners and little kids in the neighborhood as well.
In the midst of the ever-changing businesses and rent, Catholic schools are closing to cater to the public of a growing number of Jewish and Atheist individuals. Years ago, people would be lined up outside as there was not enough room for everyone inside the churches during the masses and nowadays, everyone fits inside perfectly, with room leftover. The change in demographics in Greenpoint has evidently impacted the role of religion in the neighborhood. The only Catholic school currently open is St.Stanislaus, while years ago, there were three.
When talking to the older residents of Greenpoint, many said that they noticed young people moving to Brooklyn initially because they could not afford living in Manhattan. Brooklyn is a convenient alternative because it is just a few subway stops away from Manhattan. Indeed, the G and L trains provide a quick 30 minute commute to the city from Greenpoint and Williamsburg. The G train especially is known as a staple of Brooklyn. As said by Emma G. Fitzsimmons in her New York Times article “Once Mocked, the G Train is Now Cool. Kind of,” “The G line is no longer a punchline; it is a train New Yorkers increasingly enjoy riding and might even consider cool, though its heavily hipster clientele would be unlikely to say so out loud.” The G train does not run all the way to Manhattan, but it does provide a connection to the L train. It is a less modern subway line than others, with the actual subways being shorter than the whole subway platform, but it is relied on by many Greenpoint residents. There are also many buses running through Greenpoint, providing alternate routes. Additionally, there is an East River NYC Ferry terminal in Greenpoint, another mode of transportation between Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens.
As a result of the changing demographics, the businesses cater to the needs of the dominating “hipster” culture in Greenpoint. The Polish CD shop owner told us that many businesses could not afford to stay open because of the rising rent in Greenpoint. Several were under rent-stabilization contracts so they were not effected immediately. Once the rent-stabilization contracts ran their course, prices were hiked up to the point that many stores could not afford to stay open. He said that basically the only businesses that could afford being open in the neighborhood were the restaurants and cafes that catered to the more modern arrivals in Greenpoint.
We saw a lot of vegan and vegetarian restaurants. According to a Greenpoint native we interviewed, a previous Peruvian restaurant became a vegetarian restaurant, with the Hispanic population being the second largest group to be displaced in Greenpoint. Many pubs have been built to cater to beer-drinkers. In addition, we passed by many nature stores, juice stores (for the juice fanatics), medical centers, gyms, and pharmacies like Duane Reade and CVS, some of which have replaced long standing Polish bakeries, cafes, and homes, to accommodate the growing population of “hipsters”, which are drawn to living a healthier lifestyle. We passed by pet stores and many salons with names like Dashing Diva (whose name characterizes the posh essence of the neighborhood well).
Many stores have closed down. In the place of businesses that could not afford to stay open appeared several health clinics, such as CityMD. Cheap Charlie’s, which has been a staple hardware store of Greenpoint for quite some time, recently closed down and it is predicted that it will become a bar because the alcohol-lovers will be able to afford to pay enough money to keep the business running. A small restaurant located on Manhattan Avenue called “Happy End” suffered a similar fate years ago. “Happy End” offered traditional Polish meals, including soups that made the restaurant quite popular among the Polish community. Now, in its place stands a bar called “The Brew Inn.” What was once a place where one could get a quick Polish meal turned into a bar where one can get a beer and a burger. There was also a traditional Polish candy store, the only one in Greenpoint, located on Manhattan Avenue and Meserole Street, that has went out of business. For about twenty years, there were customers filing in and out of the store, searching for their favorite Polish chocolates, and now it stands barren since 2015.
Another business that failed to survive the changing dynamics of Greenpoint was Polonaise. Polonaise was a Polish party venue and it was a staple of Greenpoint; communions, baptisms, and weddings were all hosted there. It went out of business in 2013 and was replaced by Brooklyn Night Bazaar in 2016. There are vendors on the street level, selling indie art, records, and vintage goods. There are also places to eat, drink, sing, and dance. There are often events at the Bazaar, such as band performances, and overall this is a popular place for the young millennials to hang out around.
An interesting business that managed to survive gentrification is Sunshine Laundromat and Pinball. Years ago, this was a simple laundromat with a small booth in which a watch repairman worked. When we visited Greenpoint recently, however, in the place of the watch repairman, there were pinball machines, and even a “secret” bar behind a fake washing machine. We asked a woman working there about what happened to the original owners, and she said that they’re still there. All that changed was that they opened up the bar and the watch repairman left. She acknowledged the fact that they changed to accommodate the neighborhood’s changing tastes and make the laundromat more attractive to others.
The restaurants in Greenpoint have also changed significantly. Before, there really was not too many of them; most of the dining places were Chinese take-out, fast food places like McDonald’s, and traditional Polish cuisine. Now, there are are a variety of cuisines offered in Greenpoint, from Thai to Japanese to vegan to Indian to some remaining Polish places.
The Polish places that remained are very popular among the Polish and non Polish communities in Greenpoint. Peter Pan Bakery is a Greenpoint bakery that rose to fame, with lines going out the door. It was mentioned in several online articles, including on gothamist.com and nytimes.com. Once a hidden gem, it is now a destination point when visiting Greenpoint.
Karczma is a Polish restaurant located on Greenpoint Avenue that too, rose to fame. There is Old World decor and the waitresses wear traditional dresses modeled after dance traditions originating in Krakow. Both Polish and non Polish people come here for the Polish cuisine that is offered, with the pierogi being the most popular meal.
Trying to overcome the massive oil spill in the mid 20th century and working on becoming more environmentally conscious throughout the years, Greenpoint has become home to an array of thriving parks, plants, and wildlife. McCarren Park, a Greenpoint staple bordered by Nassau Ave, Bayard Street, Lorimer Street, and North 12th Street, has been cleaned up and developed. About ten years ago, there was no real events that would happen at McCarren Park; occasionally there would be some baseball games taking place on the fields, but there were no real community gatherings. Every weekend there would be a farmers’ market, where local farmers would come to sell their goods and residents would flock to buy and try them. Over the years, however, there have been more social opportunities for the residents to get out. For example, when we visited McCarren Park, there was a mini soccer practice going on for toddlers on the grass. On a neighboring field, there was a baseball game going on. A resident told us that in the morning, there was a “dog gathering” and a portion of the park was closed off for dog owners to come and socialize with each other and their dogs. The nycgovparks.org website lists many other community wide events that take place at the park, including NYC Senior Games Torch Relay, Kickball Thursdays, Movie Under the Stars, and so on.
Additionally, NYC Parks has added three new barbecue areas in McCarren Park, which include 18 new picnic tables and three large charcoal bins. There are also going to be electronic vehicles to collect garbage and over 50 three-receptacle waste disposal units around the park in an effort to minimize waste around the park. These acts to improve McCarren Park go to show what an important role it plays in the neighborhood. There is far more people walking around McCarren Park than there was several years ago, and it is certainly cleaner than it was back then. Rather than serving as a playground and field, McCarren Park is now a place for social gatherings as well.
Furthermore, the WNYC Transmitter Park on West Street was developed in 2012. It used to be the home of the WNYC radio transmission towers, but now is a popular destination for the residents of Greenpoint. There is a pier that has a view of the Manhattan skyline as well as a fishing spot, there is a playground for little children, and there is a lawn for people to have picnics on and even suntan. There too, are events, such as Films on the Green. Prior to being developed, the area around WNYC Transmitter Park was typically avoided; it was rather empty and predominantly surrounded by warehouses, and so it was somewhat intimidating to walk around there at night. Now, however, with bars and developing condos all around, WNYC Transmitter Park is just as busy during the day as at night.
The Newtown Creek is now home to an array of wildlife. Dozens of birds live around the creek including the Red-Tailed Hawk, the Great Blue Heron, the Osprey, and more. Audubon, New York is a lead advocate for the protection of birds, and it has established the Greenpoint Community Environmental Fund to provide student programs to Greenpoint residents on how to sustain the massive wildlife. The marine wildlife is just as exciting with Greenpoint being home to the Blue Crab, the Moon Jelly, the Horseshoe Crab, the Slipper Snail, and more. Other programs that promote environmental consciousness in the neighborhood are hosted by the North Brooklyn Boat Club, which educate the public on the beautiful waters engulfing Greenpoint. They provide an on-land program as well as an on-water one. Evidently Greenpoint has reached a turning point in its preservation of the environment.
The art in the neighborhood resembled the people of the community due to the avante-garde, trendy, non-traditional nature of both. One of the murals we came across was located right next to the Greenpoint Deli. The mural consisted of an assortment of bright colors and shapes all on top of one another, creating a grandiose and somewhat overwhelming feel to it. It was definitely not something you see every day. The second mural was at the Greenpoint Waterfront and covered a great piece of land. It depicted a girl laying down on a towel, fiddling with daisy petals. It gave off a majestic and yet sweet feeling to it.
The thriving young culture has caused a surge in the availability of graffiti tours. The vast majority of people living in Greenpoint today are obsessed with taking tours around the neighborhood and admiring the artwork all around. In addition, food tours are popular as well. Greenpoint happens to be a cultural hotspot for tourism.
Greenpoint is also well known for being the setting of major productions. The famous Russell Street is home to many TV show and movies, and Blue Bloods and Gossip Girl have been filmed there. Russell Street is known as the Hollywood of New York City.
All the art lovers of Greenpoint have to chance the visit the Greenpoint Terminal Gallery, which is right by the waterfront. There, they can observe paintings, murals, and new exhibitions by legendary artists.
One can argue that Greenpoint has experienced a positive and/or negative transformation over time, depending on how the person perceives these changes. One can’t argue, however, that there has been a transformation nevertheless, with the changing demographics, renovation, rent prices, interests and businesses that cater to those interests, as well as the public’s emphasis on the environment. One’s perception of the gentrification in the neighborhood is inherently dependent on the value they place on each of these aspects. Regardless, Greenpoint is a neighborhood with a vibrant, aesthetically pleasing, and rich culture worthy of exploration.