Often lost in the rapid cosmetic and economic changes that have come to define Greenpoint/Williamsburg is the community’s past reputation as a hotbed for social activism. At an event hosted by the Neighbors Allied for Good Growth (NAG), near the Williamsburg waterfront Thursday, dozens came together for a history lesson on the battles residents waged and continue to fight against the city and federal government.
The evening’s headliner, Ida Susser, presented her recently re-published book, Norman Street, a non-fiction study of Greenpoint and Williamsburg during three years of the fiscal crisis from 1975-1978. Susser, now a Professor of Anthropology at CUNY’s Graduate Center, said her inspiration for the book came from then-President Richard Nixon’s heavy cutbacks to social programs and how they affected the so-called “silent majority” of the working class.
“[The Nixon administration] said the silent majority—the working class—was silent and in favor of Nixon and women were silent and supportive of his cutbacks and destructive ideas,” said Susser. “I wanted to come to this neighborhood to understand if it truly was a ‘silent’ majority. How were the individual neighborhoods of lower class and working class people going to respond to the fiscal crisis?”
Sound familiar? Susser said she felt compelled to re-publish her book after the most recent fiscal crisis took a turn for the worse in 2008. She drew parallels to today’s skirmishes over the shrinking role of government to Nixon’s push towards privatization at the expense of social services. She described one neighborhood protest in particular; the fight over the closure of a local fire station, which residents “occupied” overnight on Thanksgiving, eating, dancing, and demonstrating into the wee hours of the morning.
Christine Noschese, another of the evening’s guests, documented this protest in her film, “Metropolitan Avenue”, which captured some of the neighborhood’s struggles against re-zoning, gentrification, and budget cuts. Noschese showed a 15-minute excerpt, focusing on the community’s resistance to the expansion of the S&S Corrugated Paper Box factory, which threatened to leave the city if it couldn’t expand into residential areas, a foreshadowing of the zoning and real estate conflicts that have marginalized much of the senior population in the region. Many audience members were struck by how little has changed in over thirty years.
“Something I was struck by in watching the movie was the struggle the seniors face in the past,” said Filip Stabrowski, a tenant organizer at the North Brooklyn Development Corporation. “Seniors are desperate and doing everything they can to remain a part of the community and senior housing is still something that is desperately needed in this community.”
Other presenters included Megan Sperry, whose film, “The Domino Effect”, chronicles the final days of the Domino Sugar Factory, a former landmark institution of the neighborhood that shut down in 2004. Developers purchased the land, and had plans to turn it into high-rise luxury condos despite promises made by the city—which are documented in the film—that the space would continue to be used for manufacturing. But the factory site remains untouched as developers play hot potato with the land rights, thanks in part to the continued defiance from neighborhood activists.
“This neighborhood would not be the way it is without the people making this community,” said Susser. “The battles going on, you win some, you lose some. People make the world that they live in, and they fight. And when you fight, you don’t get steamrolled.”