Beyond Hipsters: Williamsburg’s Tough Economic Realities

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When the Times decided recently to look at how the recession was affecting life in North Brooklyn, the headline read “Parents Pulling the Plug on Williamsburg Trust-Funders.” The story, which describes several twentysomethings looking for their first jobs, and a landlord who can no longer get parents to guarantee rent, was hardly designed to elicit much sympathy: Williamsburg is, for the media especially, a long-standing punch line. The piece traffics in the stereotype — now presumed to be fact — that the neighborhood is a sort of slacker Oz of the young, rootless, and skinny-jeaned living off of generous parental subsidies.

Of course, there’s no question that Williamsburg, on the surface at least, has become a post-collegiate settlement zone. It irks longer-standing residents: These days, it’s common at community meetings for speakers to announce how long they have lived in the neighborhood. Listening, one is tempted to conjure up a metric — no matter what, it seems that insidious gentrification always began five years after the speaker, now indigenous, arrived. The prevailing assumption, reinforced by stories like the one in the Times, is that a small minority of working-class stalwarts are sticking their thumbs in the dike against a tsunami of Chuck Basses.

But not everyone walking down Bedford Avenue with a headband and an ironic T-shirt has a trust fund, and the majority of them probably don’t even live in the neighborhood. Head into other parts of the area, and you can see Williamsburg’s reality. According to statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, the most recent and reliable data, Williamsburg continues to lag behind other parts of New York in terms of income, with significant populations needing social services such as food stamps, soup kitchens, housing assistance, and SSI. In 2005, 47.1 percent of Community Board 1, which contains Greenpoint and Williamsburg, was on some type of income support. The median income for the area in the last twelve months was $39,663, well below the city median of $48,631. In 2007, 38.3 percent of residents in the 11211 Zip Code were below the poverty level.

The truth is, it’s tough to be poor in Williamsburg. Because of its industrial past and a present steeped in denial about its economic realities, social services are few and far between. Anti-displacement and low-income-housing groups are underfunded and overextended. There is only one operating homeless shelter, with twenty beds. The nearest food-stamp office is in Bed-Stuy. Local soup kitchens and food pantries are overwhelmed. “We’re serving 200 people a week,” says Ann Kansfield, pastor at the Greenpoint Reform Church and the head of the Greenpoint Interfaith Food Team, which serves both Greenpoint and Williamsburg. “Where are these trust-funders? I want them to give us money!”

There’s probably a reason the trustafarians are so elusive: In the last twelve months only about 2.9 percent of Williamsburg households made over $200,000 annually. The reality of Williamsburg, beyond the mythical trust-funders, is that it is a community of people mostly struggling to get by, with a few wealthy residents grabbing headlines — the way New York has always been.