While shooting editorial assignments in Williamsburg on gentrification in 2006, I became intimately aware of the changing landscape and the hardships that longtime residents were facing due to rising rents or evictions. I photographed a tall condo building rising near the Bedford Avenue L train station that the locals had dubbed “The (Middle) Finger Building.” It was a sign of what was to come in the mostly low-rise, industrial neighborhood and the fear existing residents had about the changes. I had already seen East Berlin’s transformation while living there in 1997-98 and again in 2004-05, and realized I was about to have a front-row seat to a massive environmental, economic and social change. So I began photographing my neighborhood, Greenpoint, as well as Williamsburg and Dumbo in 2007.
Some of the changes have been aesthetic, like the PA Grocery Store, which lost its colorful, unique storefront in 2008. Other locations have been completely razed to make way for high-rise condo buildings. Meanwhile, the entrance to the swanky Wythe Hotel, formerly a popular canvas for graffiti, is now home to a doorman. Through the act of rephotographing locations again and again, I am able to bring the viewer along to experience the changes through my viewfinder over several years.
My photographs not only show what has physically changed on the streetscape but also represents the disappearance of the artists, lower and middle income people and industry workers who once roamed those streets and lived and worked in those buildings. According to the Center for Urban Future, New York’s neighborhoods most closely associated with the creative sector saw the largest spikes in rent from 2000-12 (Greenpoint/Williamsburg by 76 percent). I am among those who were priced out.
I’d like to use the project to create awareness about these issues and start a dialog with the people and institutions who can do something to mitigate the negative effects of gentrification and redevelopment, as this issue is not just a Brooklyn one; it’s happening all over the world.
Kristy May Chatelain