Unforgetting 1980s Williamsburg, NYC

Illustration by Abigail Smith

Illustration by Abigail Smith

Two tall, trendy women marvel at luxury lofts at a happening intersection in Williamsburg, Brooklyn:

“This placed used to be a dump!” One of them trumpets her words into the surrounding winter air. “Nobody used to live here!” As I walk home on this 2003 afternoon, I hear these words reverberate across the sides of buildings, each return of her voice erasing me further from memory.

Who exactly was this Nobody?

Was she referring to my Puerto Rican family, who labored in that very factory building, now turned condo lofts, at which she marveled? These family members served decades of indenture in factories all across Williamsburg, driven by dreams of buying one of those dirt-cheap buildings just off Bedford Ave. Nobody. She certainly must not have been referring to the St. Vincent DePaul parish on North 7th Street, whose Catholic school I attended for eight years and at whose church I altar-boyed—the school building was recently razed for the construction of condos, the Church building itself gutted and converted, again, to condos. Nobody. Certainly not at the very intersection at which she said that, where in 1987 I handed my first Valentine a ribboned box of chocolates and received a peck on the cheek stirring first emotions. A dump.

As I walk home, I realize this isn’t really my first time hearing these words. I’d heard them 15 years earlier, when I walked into a newly opened café on Bedford Avenue and the young woman behind the counter, having gabbed up a storm with the suburban transplants before me, scowled at me like I was ruining the decor. I’d spent the previous day at Domsey’s (the original one from the 80s, on the waterfront) seeking out vintage digs that might help me look the part. That’s because, despite the “Yuppie go home!” graffiti appearing across the neighborhood, I saw these artists as deities of cool, and thought that maybe identifying with them might elevate me above fellow high -schoolers steeped in freestyle music and gold teeth. But I guess despite my efforts, too much of the Boricua still reeked from me. One of the natives had crawled into the cafe! When I ordered a cortadito, the barista became even more severe: “We don’t sell that.” When I pointed to an item on the chalkboard menu, she corrected me: “You mean a cortado.” I had no idea a “cortado” was a trendy thing in her scene, and she had no idea that her scene had appropriated the drink from the Latin Caribbean culture represented in the entire neighborhood around her, which occasionally added an -ito to the drink’s name in sign of affection. I pressed a dollar into the tip jar, and felt as I stepped out of the cafe that I was walking off the pages of history.

This was in the early nineties, when I was in high school. In English class, we were reading Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, taught by a young instructor who came to our school as part of the fledgling Teach for America program. The week before, he’d asked us to write a response paper on how Europeans “viewed” the African jungle they were exploiting. When he first gave the assignment, the question seem too abstract for me to care. But as I walked out of that hip café, the question re-emerged keenly. In class we’d read a passage in which the European narrator Marlow looks at a map of Africa—a space still blank because as yet undiscovered.

“The European imagined Africa as open—empty—like a womb waiting to be filled—impregnated—with himself.”

His words shed new insight into what I was experiencing in the neighborhood. The powerful had traveled the long dark trail of the Congo River—the netherworld of the 1980s L train—in order to inhabit the “virgin forest” of Brooklyn.

“At the same time that the European saw the jungles as empty and fertile,” he continued, “ he saw it as possessed with forces that could bite off your balls!” We students broke into laughter, but his voice silenced us with absolute urgency: “They saw the forest as a space that was not only feminine and impregnable but also horrific and dangerous. So while on the one hand they desired to fill the space with themselves, they were terrified by its power. The snakes and vines and creatures of the night jungle. The dark landscape seductress.”

I wanted to reject this seemingly morbid assessment of Conrad’s novel, but page after page only confirmed it. I wanted to deny this assessment history, but day after day in the neighborhood made it the more cuttingly real. Conrad’s novel opened doorways of insight into not only what I was experiencing, but also the many family and friends I’d grown up with—José, María, Alcántara—as their eyes flashed up and down the street and they sought to give verbal shape to new bereavement—“De’ neighborhood is changing.”

I wrote my final English paper on the soundscape of the African jungle. In The Heart of Darkness, going down the Congo River was like “traveling in the night of first ages, of those ages that are gone, leaving hardly a sign—and no memories.” As the colonists journeyed, they heard “the tremor of far-off drums, sinking, swelling, a tremor vast, faint; a sound weird, appealing, suggestive, and wild.” The gurgle of nocturnal creatures amidst African trees. The yacking of Puerto Ricans on the stoop. Hip hop blaring from tinted windows. Salsa from a distant backyard. The animal life of untamed Brooklyn jungle. In my paper, I showed that it was only by braving the chilling soundscape that Conrad’s “pioneers” could usher enlightened order into this “land that time forgot.” As a local boutique owner told the Washington Post in 2005: “When I moved here seven years ago, Williamsburg seemed like an industrial wasteland. Now instead of dangerous it’s bourgeois and a receptive neighborhood for creative people.” A storefront Pentecostal church closed; the punk record shop Earwax took its place. A luxury complex opened under the name “Colony 1209.” Progress, order, civilization. Ushered in by pioneers like Andrew Tarlow, star restaurateur and Williamsburg “founding father” who, echoing Conrad’s “emissaries of light,” claimed, “I always had faith in this neighborhood.” Now, even that most Stygian of corridors into the darkness, the L train, has its own luminous police presence. A musician plays in the Bedford station. And the bioacoustics of animal life transfigures, gradually, into indie rock.

But under the new soundscape of echo-drenched guitars, I hear a forgotten world. As I meet up with my artist friends for cocktails, I hear my grandmother calling me for dinner from down the block—¡M’hijo, ya está la comida! I turn around; it’s nothing, just tourist college kids. I hit up an avant-guarde restaurant with a writer friend and smell a passing waft of rice and beans: a psychosomatic connection to the Puerto Rican cuisine that once stewed in that commercial space a decade earlier. (If I described this to my friend, would he understand?) Long-gone old timers on the corner, smoking Dominican cigars to the rhythm of plena—sounds vibrating still, deep within the streets.

And me and my boys playing stickball, running from one cardboard base to another, clamoring in celebration and dismay when we roof the ball we’d all chipped in to buy. First kisses, Catholic school uniforms, and the countless Nobodies of the world that no longer is.

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Erick Sierra

Erick Sierra

Erick Sierra lives in Pilsen, Chicago. Visit his website at www.ericksierra.com.