Lamenting the L Shutdown—in Polish

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In Greenpoint, it’s not just new residents who worry about the effects of a subway closure

The L line shutdown announced last July could spell problems for the pace of gentrification in Greenpoint. Average condo sale prices in Greenpoint have already seen an eight percent drop in the last two quarters, from $796,000 to $759,000 in 2016, according to The Real Estate Board of New York’s residential sales report.

But it’s not only the owners of hip coffee shops and artisanal food stores and all the young professionals living in high-rises on the water who are worried. Polish Americans—who were in the neighborhood before the new development—are concerned too. Some of the local Polish people, at least, say they appreciate the positives that often come with gentrification, and don’t want to lose them. Like lower crime rates. “I remembered just about five years ago, you wouldn’t want to walk down by the water at night,” said Daria Turosz, an account manager for the last 15 years at Exit Realty in Greenpoint.

The North Brooklyn neighborhood was long considered the Little Poland of New York City, but rising rent prices have been displacing the Polish community in the area. The Polish population in Greenpoint has decreased over the last 10 years, since about the same time the city rezoned property along the waterfront in Williamsburg and Greenpoint, which spurred new housing that attracted tenants with more money, thus raising rents. Turosz said most of the apartments in Greenpoint are Polish owned, but instead of renting out to only Polish people, as in the past, landlords are renting to everyone, seeking higher rents and thus pushing out the older Polish tenants.

Justyna Rzeszuío has lived in Greenpoint for four years. She moved from Poland in September 2012, and works at a Polish Bakery. Rzeszuío said sometimes the younger gentrifiers don’t understand the Polish culture in the neighborhood, using a Polish grocery store as an example. “They think it’s weird how many people speak Polish,” she said. “Like one of our stores, Beifdronka—it’s a store you would see in Poland, but it’s different here.” 

Her only worry is that some of the older Poles are being pushed out. “It’s crazy! Some of those places down by the water are going for like $4,000,” Rzeszuío said.

Some shops along Manhattan Avenue—Greenpoint’s main drag—still have Slavic lettering in their signage and the Polish Slavic Center, one of the largest Polish-American centers on the East Coast, is located in Greenpoint. The center is a nonprofit social and cultural services organization with everything from English classes to table tennis clubs. Greenpoint’s Polish-born population was 13,623 in 2000, but in 2009 it was 8,626, out of the 34,719 people who live there, according to census data. The median income is around $60,000. In 2000 the median income was about $53,000.

However, where some might believe the takeover of baby carriages, dog parks, and multi-million dollar waterfront high-rises is a bad thing, not all the Poles agree. “We like that this neighborhood is for everyone,” Turosz said. “The crime isn’t as bad anymore, and there is a lot to do.”

And crime is indeed down. From October 2015 to October 2016, there were 1,047 crimes in the 94th precinct—Greenpoint, and Williamsburg—including 91 felonies and one murder. In 2000, the same precinct reported more than 1,000 felonies in a one-year period, according to New York City crime statistics.

During the 1980’s and the 1990’s, two significant waves of Polish immigrants settled in Greenpoint,  according to a report, the New-Build Gentrification and the Everyday Displacement of Polish Immigrant Tenants in Greenpoint, Brooklyn study, by Filip Stabrowski, a professor of anthropology at Hunter College. At that time, Greenpoint was more industrial. In his study, Stabrowski describes how the rezoning of Williamsburg and Greenpoint waterfront areas in 2005 from industrial to residential effectively started the displacement of the Polish American community in the Brooklyn Borough.

Verdre Green has spent most of his time in Greenpoint since 2006—a year after the approved rezoning—and has seen the changes. He works at Pop Chart Lab, a company that makes artistic charts of cultural touchstones like the history of beer and the taxonomy of kitchen knives. “The culture was heavily embedded in the community; it was a Polish neighborhood,” Green said. The Williamsburg hipsters weren’t moving into Greenpoint, he added.

But now, when Green walks down Manhattan Avenue, he said he doesn’t feel the same Polish influence as before, although he still thinks there is some “Polishness” there. “It still has the same quality and aspect of being a Polish neighborhood, without being so overwhelming,” Green said.

While many of the Polish residents say they have accepted the new feel of their neighborhood, some still miss the days when there were fabric shops on every corner and people wore handmade clothes because the department stores in Manhattan were too expensive, according to Ron O’Keeley, a store manager at Brooklyn Industries on Manhattan Avenue—a millennial clothing store with electronic music playing in the background.

O’Keeley said he’s heard younger customers talk about the impending L train shutdown, which will begin as soon as January 2019, more than his Polish customers. The younger customers are concerned more that the G train, which runs through Greenpoint, stopping at Nassau Avenue, and Greenpoint Avenue. They fear the L shutdown will make Greenpoint Avenue more congested because all the people who rely on the L in Williamsburg will flood the G.

“I haven’t really heard any of my older clients talk about the L,” he said. “It’s been more the people you would usually see in Williamsburg.”

O’Keeley said his store gets a lot of Polish women, and it’s not just the trendy crowd. But the older Polish men still question the modern fashions, he said. Walking over to a coat rack, he pulls out a tight fitting winter parka with a fur hood.“They’ll be like, ‘This is men’s?’

“I’ll say ‘yeah,’ then they’ll nod their head, and will usually go to Army/Navy,”O’Keeley said. “But that’s like the older Polish guys. They aren’t of a lot of words.” Army/Navy is a more traditional clothing store, next door to Brookyn Industries,  which hasn’t been gentrified.

While O’Keeley hasn’t heard much from his Polish customers about the shutdown, that doesn’t mean that at least some of the Poles are concerned. Officials should come up with an alternative situation to make it easier for New Yorkers to get to the city, said Bożena Kamiński,  President and CEO of the Polish & Slavic Center. “Many residents of our neighborhood use the L line, and the lack of such a connection between Brooklyn and Manhattan would be very problematic,” Kamiński said.

The L train is responsible for getting hundreds of thousands of people between Manhattan and Brooklyn. The line runs from Eighth Avenue and 14th Street in Manhattan to Rockaway Parkway in Brooklyn. After considering multiple options that included shutting down one tube at a time in the tunnel, the Metropolitan Transit Authority decided to suspend service from Bedford Avenue to Eighth Avenue in Manhattan for 18 months starting in January 2019, according to the MTA.

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