The Disappearing Bridge

2012 August 23
by Ando Arike

The Williamsburg Bridge will soon disappear from view on lower Broadway.

When I first moved to Williamsburg in the fall of 1995, the things that charmed me most were the vast expanses of sky overhead, so unlike the view from Manhattan’s canyons, the palpable presence of the East River, visible at every turn, and of course, the Williamsburg Bridge, towering over us like some protective iron fortification, reminding us of our distance from the island across the river.  The neighborhood then was a decidedly low-rise, low rent place, seemingly forgotten by the rest of New York, and its uncluttered sky and low population density gave it the ambiance of a village with its own time zone and tempo.  I put it this way in a retrospective essay in 2005:

In the summer of 1998, when we published our first issue, Brooklyn, New York City, and the world were very different places.  More peaceful, to be sure.  Less in thrall to the aggressions of money and power. Williamsburg, although the neighborhood had recently been “discovered,” still seemed adrift in some alternative postindustrial universe, an autonomous zone happily uncoupled from Manhattan’s treadmills. There was a freedom in the air that had much to do with low rents and the larger economy’s apparent lack of interest in us. I think of the spontaneous voodoo artwork at the old Amtrak yards along the waterfront at North 7th. The intoxicating vapors wafting from that spice warehouse on Berry Street. Sunbathing and picnicking on piers that were quickly collapsing into the East River. Swimming in the river at night, with Manhattan’s lights spread out before us like strange constellations.  Time seemed to flow a little more slowly here, the sky was broader, and the breeze often smelled of the sea…

Is this a Holiday Inn in Scranton or a new residential tower in Williamsburg? (Hint: it's located at Broadway and Kent Ave.)

Today, following the huge building boom/land rush of the last ten years, our local tempo will soon catch up to manic Manhattan’s and the sky is narrowing with every passing day. In the blocks around my apartment this means that we are quickly losing sight of (current lingo might call this “visual access to”) the Williamsburg Bridge, a structure that has defined the cityscape around here for over a century. Already, the openness of lower Broadway, with its once wide vista of the East River, is starting to close in. The rush to build higher and higher—and make ever-larger profit on every square foot of land—is robbing us of our landmarks, reshaping the very texture of living here, the sense of scale, the feeling of rootedness.

Corporate mediocrity as a lifestyle statement

Under buildings that loom high above us, the everyday act of walking down the street is transformed, pressurized. As building heights and volumes rise, residential neighborhoods become “vertical suburbias” where street-life is diminished by mall-like facades of glass—everybody feels like a tourist. For instance, look at the artists’ renderings of the redevelopment of the northside of Kent Avenue and you see relaxed, happy people milling about freely; the reality, today at least, is much more alienated and alienating: one feels dwarfed and insignificant in such cityscapes. This is totalitarian architecture, asserting at every turn the omnipotence of the corporate state: the bland, shiny face of bureaucratic power. It is “the projects” for middle-class whites—with the concepts of “opulence” and “luxury” tacked on by the real estate developers.

To return to my 2005 essay’s central questions:

What originally attracted many new residents here, aside from lower rents, was a neighborhood that had preserved a certain human scale—a scale in which people do not feel dwarfed and inconsequential, where an ecology of human interaction can flourish in a give-and-take among equals. The redevelopment of Williamsburg was necessary, and no doubt, inevitable.  Will it be possible to keep development from going to far?  Does New York—or the world—really need more opulence, more luxury?

North 6th Street: "Jardin" -- It's French for "garden", English for "extraordinary lifestyle"

No, we don’t—and as our scientists have insistently warned, the Western appetites for luxury are causing catastrophic ecological disruptions around the globe that may prove suicidal for the human species. But despite such warnings, the corporate vision for the 21st century includes transforming New York and many other cities into exclusive enclaves for the upper classes, replete with faux Bohemias for the “creatives,” the rich hipsters, the young managerial-professionals, and the like (but certainly not struggling artists.) Already, the process is far along in Manhattan, which is rapidly forcing out the last of its poor  and working-class residents, converting their neighborhoods into playgrounds for the demographic cohort Jermiah Moss has dubbed “yunnies” (Young Urban Narcissists).

Thus has U.S. global imperialism turned inward, with the multinational Corporate Hive-Mind thursting into underexploited sectors of American cities its invasive humanoid tentacles—i.e., the “cool hunters” who sniff after artists—targeting neighborhoods for faux Bohemian “redevelopment” and forcing the natives to flee when rents and other prices skyrocket. As in Margaret Atwood’s prophetic dystopian novel Oryx and Crake, the future upper middle-classes will live in sterilized corporate-ruled enclaves that are gated city-states unto themselves while the rest of us are consigned to a precarious and pauperized existence in “plebeland”, the increasingly lawless, diseased, and ecologically damaged suburbs and hinterlands. Perhaps this is where we’ll find new Bohemias…

One Response leave one →
  1. 2012 September 19
    rightbank permalink

    Re “cool hunters” who sniff after artists: In her recent book, THE GENTRIFICATION OF THE MIND, Sarah Schulman writes: “Some people blamed artists [for gentrification], even thought artists had lived in this neighborhood [LES] for over a hundred and fifty years. The theory behind blaming the artists was a feeling that somehow their long-standing presence had suddenly made the area attractive to bourgeois whites who worked on Wall Street. At the time there was no widespread understanding of how deliberate policies, tax credits, policing strategies, and moratoriums on low-income housing were creating this outcome.”

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