“Change is inevitable. You have to learn how to accept change,” says the young-looking and affable City Council candidate Antonio Reynoso, a tinge of hoarseness in his voice from the campaign trail. “But I think the change happening in Williamsburg is putting the identity of this community in jeopardy in the long term.”
Few would question that much of Williamsburg, especially along the waterfront, has experienced a drastic transformation in a short amount of time. After the Bloomberg administration rezoned the area in 2005, high-rise condo towers have shot up, with the media and real estate industry touting a hip, amenity-filled neighborhood.
Less obvious to new residents is the toll and the long-term consequences of what this means for the larger communities, especially the Puerto Rican, Dominican, Mexican and other Latino communities who have made the southside of Williamsburg—as well as Bushwick— a home for generations. “Since 2001, we are looking at 10,000 Latino residents who were displaced from this community,” says Reynoso. “It’s been tough for this community to maintain itself, to preserve its identity. If you are not living in an affordable housing apartment here, you are probably not Latino.”
Reynoso himself has felt the direct consequences as his large extended family on the southside includes over 80 folks related to him in various ways. “But now most can’t live here,” he said. “We just can’t afford it. This is where we want to be. We grew up together, but we just can’t do it. Personally, I live with my sister and we are sharing the cost of the rent and that’s not necessarily how you want to live in this community.”
Like most Democratic candidates for city government at this point in the late Bloomberg epoch, Reynoso—former chief of staff to Councilwoman Diana Reyna—has put development and affordable housing at the forefront of his campaign. In Williamsburg these issues are perhaps among the most pronounced in the city as developers have run roughshod over anemic regulations while providing only the barest minimum of affordable housing required from the city. Whole areas have been razed and rebuilt with little long-term planning regarding infrastructure.
Reynoso is not subtle about pointing out how some of these developments look from the perspective of long-term residents. “Near the waterfront, for example, affordable housing is being built on the outskirts of the development. It is obvious where the poor people live and it is obvious where the rich people live. It’s segregation,” says Reynoso. “All the white families are walking into the other buildings that have the access to the amenities. They have pool tables, lounges, swimming pools, and none of them are for the low-income communities.”
Reynoso maintains that “elected officials just haven’t done as much as they could or should do. When it comes to land use, no one is more powerful than the city council.” Yet most New Yorkers don’t really pay attention to politics more local than the mayoralty (if they even pay attention to that race). And can one really blame them? Many local races, due to lack of oversight and low turnout, have become patronage mills or are concentrated on specific voter blocs relied on by incumbents.
In the 34th District, Reynoso’s main competitor, of course, is the disgraced former assemblyman Vito Lopez. The former Brooklyn party boss is the definition of a machine politician who used his own development of affordable housing to leverage different blocs of voters. In the wake of the sexual harassment scandals that forced out of his assembly seat, “No one is going to want to deal with Lopez,” Reynoso said, and it would be a disservice to this community if he were elected.” In contrast, he continued, “We need as many resources as possible in this community, and we need to make sure that we have a council member who will fight for that and who can build coalitions. He can’t do it, and that’s the bottom line here.”
Reynoso is a young up-and-comer who is the antidote to someone like Lopez. Even so, the landscape of the neighborhood has been irrevocably altered over the last decade. And there are more large developments in the works—including the behemoth Domino Sugar site. Although it’s located in the neighboring district (currently controlled by Councilman Steve Levin, a Lopez protégé), Reynoso wants the Domino project to include more on-site affordable housing. Even with all the upheaval in Williamsburg, there is still a hope that new and old residents can work toward creating a viable long-term, diverse community.
“The developers are drawing lines,” Reynoso said. “They promote the waterfront as luxury. Come and enjoy the luxury! But you walk a few steps and you are walking into an affordable housing development where someone is making $18,000 a year in fixed income. Luxury? That’s what you are promoting Williamsburg to be? It’s a community. It’s not just the luxury. It’s also the poor. It’s also the history. There’s also a culture. It’s Williamsburg,” says Reynoso, “It shouldn’t be one culture or one people. It’s one community.”