Art is reflective of its surroundings, its people, and the time. Whether you live, work, or frequently congregate in a neighborhood you are always witnessing and taking in the view around you an art is one of the most widely attractive views a city can offer. Williamsburg, Brooklyn is a city known for its art, and even more specifically its graffiti art. But Williamsburg’s street art has changed along with the neighborhood over time. The starving artists that thrived on Williamsburg’s abandoned factories are no longer present and in my interviews it was rare for anyone who worked in Williamsburg to live there as well. Williamsburg’s newest residents are no longer starving as the city has become quite marketable and expensive with the addition of art galleries, boutiques, and restaurants along with a revival in the real estate industry. Williamsburg resident Shane Armstrong discussed, “Once the zoning changed from commercial to residential it [places] went for as much as 850,000 a square foot.”
All of my interviewees agreed that the art in Williamsburg has definitely evolved, in some cases for the better but definitely not for graffiti art. The intent of graffiti art has modified and been taken over by new forms.
Coming from different backgrounds and walks of a life, my interviewees all happened to men in their late 20s and 30s who worked in/ for Williamsburg’s various shops and cafes. Out of all the people I spoke with only one person actually lived in Williamsburg and has been in the area for 5 years. While they all of course had a great appreciation for the art in the area they recognized that not everyone felt that way. “I love it, [the graffiti art] its really great but not everybody likes it.” “Rich people are moving in and don’t like dirty streets.” Even one of my interviewees, Dylan who we met on his first day of work and has only been in New York for a year was aware of the uniqueness of Williamsburg’s graffiti art. “There is a lot of diversity in the art. It’s not the kind of art you can find at the MET.” When discussing the change of pace in graffiti art here he was reminded of 5Pointz and how the neighborhood was known for its graffiti art but was torn down so new high priced condos and high-rise buildings could take its place. “I’m afraid it’s going to happen here, it’s gong to become like long island city. Hopefully its not going to happen, but it’s a possibility.” When I posed the question of whether they thought had evolved because of gentrification, Anthony an employee at a local candy shop was adamant about the decline in art. “I don’t think its evolution I think it’s de-evolution because the graffiti is going down.” Graffiti art once reflected the starving artist majority and the young hipster community but this newfound gentrified neighborhood is now a bustling city where its residents are living comfortably and can afford to dine, shop, and be entertained while paying no mind to the price tag. The only Williamsburg resident even noted that Williamsburg is now “One of the most expensive, wealthiest places to live in.” But he always touched on the fact that New York has always been an artist city, were driven by artists since day one.” While the intent and form of graffiti art has changed due to gentrification these new mural pieces are paid for as advertisement, which greatly benefits the artists. “There’s a lot of murals going up, and it’s a lot cleaner over here.” The Dunkin Donuts mural is a prime example of this new kind of graffiti art reflective of the evolution of Williamsburg as an artist neighborhood. Because as Williamsburg resident Shane said, “Art is awesome and there’s a lot of it here.”
To my surprise, unlike other places I have tried to talk to random strangers for a project, people in Williamsburg were more then happy to talk to us and also very nice. We interviewed five people, most of them working in stores on Bedford Ave. The area itself is very vintage looking, almost everything seems to be made out of wood in stores, restaurants, and cafes. The most interesting places were actually the cafes and stores, which were opened in old warehouses.
Most of the people we talked to did not actually live in Williamsburg. Four out of the five people we interviewed lived in places like Bushwick or Upstate New York. Only one of them had been living in Williamsburg for the past five years. The rest of them had also only been working in the are for the past two to three years which could also explain why they can’t live closer to where they work sine the prices in Williamsburg have gone up really high in that period and it would make more sense for them to live in another area close to Williamsburg.
When we asked the five people we interviewed what changes they had seen in the neighborhood over the time that they had been working or living in the neighborhood, they all seemed to agree that the neighborhood had gone under a lot of changes. They all had some similar point of views but all of them had a few things that had changed for them personally or they were scared of those things eventually happening in the future.
According to the first person we interviewed called Steve, who was a street vendor on Bedford Ave and 6th Street, selling jewelry, scarves and other beautiful things, he was doing as well as he did three years ago but he immediately added that the rent is getting high. Which was exactly what Shane, the last person we interviewed, who actually has lived in Williamsburg for the past five years, said when we asked him the question. According to Shane, “it has become one of the most expensive, wealthiest areas in New York City to live in, a lot of people have moved from Manhattan to here (Williamsburg)”. He further explained the process of how the change has happened by adding “ before the zoning changed from commercial to residential, before they developed the waterfront here and all of this used to be commercial real estate and then once it changed from commercial to residential, it went for as much as $850,000 a square foot”. He also told us how the process started in 2001 while he was actually living in Manhattan. He thinks it is amazing how it has brought so many people here and how all the warehouses have turned into places like Brooklyn Bowl and Output. But he also clearly stated “the rent’s gone up” while talking about the changes, he also added that you can’t find a one bedroom in less than $2000 that too if you are lucky.. He believes they are now trying to get back all the people that moved to Williamsburg from Manhattan back to Manhattan. Even according to Anthony, a man we talked to who worked at a store called Handsome Dan’s, known for selling old vintage sodas, candies and serving snocones. “ A lot of rich people are moving in” to Williamsburg. Dylan, the second person we talked to thinks in less than a year that he has lived in the City, Williamsburg has changed a lot. Personally he used the example of how five points had disappeared which makes him very mad and thinks that’s what might happen to Williamsburg. He is scared that it might turn into something like Long Island City, which is also a place known for the wealthiest of the people living there. One of the ladies working at MeMe Antenna, a cute gift shop that also sells vinyl, speakers, CDs and DVDs, and Anthony from Handsome Dan’s both think the area has also been attracting a lot more tourist recently. For the lady working at MeMe Antenna, the area has also changed for her personally, in her words “ it’s not easy to deal with other people”.
All of them seemed to agree that wealthier people were moving into the neighborhood, which was one of the reasons for Williamsburg witnessing a lot of changes. Something that was common in all of their answers was that they didn’t seem very happy about all the changes except the part about more tourists.
The other theme that they all had in common was that they all are very fond of the graffiti and public art in Williamsburg and agree that it is something that represents Williamsburg. They also had some strong opinions about the art and the change in the art scene in the neighborhood when asked how they felt about it and how they thought it had changed over time with all the gentrification and the area becoming more expensive. Dylan who has not worked in Williamsburg much but has visited the neighborhood a lot said “ it’s (the art in Williamsburg) really diverse, there’s a lot of diversity in the art I believe” he also added a statement saying “ to me Williamsburg is like out of the mainstream kind of art, it’s not like the kind of art you can find at The Metropolitan Museum or any big New York City Museum”. Whereas when we asked the same question to Anthony he said that the art in Williamsburg is going down, when asked why he thought so he added “ because rich people are moving in and don’t like dirty streets” he also thinks it is a devolution for graffiti and gentrification is one of he reasons that contribute to it. His answers made it very clear that he is not happy with a lot of rich people moving into the neighborhood. He was also had one of the most genuine answers to the question out of all the people. Shane on the other hand, who we found installing a bike rack outside a cafe while walking towards the East River Park, decided to look on the brighter side of what the changes had done to the art in Williamsburg. He agrees that the art has changed but unlike the rest of them he talked about the murals, in his words “ there are a lot of paid murals, so the artists have been themselves paid, so they don’t have to go out and break the law.”
All the people we talked to had very similar views overall. They all agreed the art had changed over time. While some of them talked about the negative changes the other talked about the positives. Besides a few minor personal details they all also agreed that the area had gone through a lot of changes and was still changing and that one of the biggest changes was that the rent and prices had gone really high with gentrifiers moving in. Gentrification is also a topic we have been talking about in class and actually going to a neighborhood and talking and listening to people living in a neighborhood going through the process of gentrification was also a very enlightening experience. Somehow talking to people made it easier to understand the whole idea.