Life in a bubble 4: Williamsburg

Just before Christmas last year, I moved from the Upper West Side (Manhattan) to the neighbourhood Williamsburg (Brooklyn). While I knew that Williamsburg is the quintessential gentrifying neighbourhood, I was astonished to find out that most of Williamsburg – and most of Brooklyn that was within a 45-minute commute to work – was pretty much off limits in terms of rent. And I’m not exactly poor.

Hence, I considered myself lucky to ‘end up’ in the most far-away part of Williamsburg (sometimes called East Williamsburg) that borders the neighbourhoods Bushwick and Bedford-Stuyvesant (also: Bed-Stuy). And I’m glad I did. Long-standing and new gentrification, public housing, social mixing and racial segregation all within walking distance – what better place to live for an urban sociologist? (Plus, while the density of coolness was much lower here compared to the north and west parts of Williamsburg, I did live just blocks away from one of ‘coolest secret things to do in NYC’).

Day – night

Compared to living in the UWS, I encountered on a daily basis many more people who are of a different racial/ethnic background than me, many of whom I estimate to have a lower income than me. Or let’s put it this way: I didn’t see many people that looked like the people I typically see in the academic environment (although CUNY students and staff are a diverse bunch).

In my reflection on living in the Upper West Side, I mentioned the distinction between the day and night population: the people who are in the neighbourhood during the day because they work there, and the people who live there and, thus, sleep there. I argued that the day population presents residents with a far more diverse population than one would expect based on the (registered) night population. During the day, one encounters not only the UWS residents but also the people who flow in to work there.

I realized later, after I had settled in Williamsburg, that this kind of diversity is not ideal in terms of social mixing. That is, it presents the UWS residents with a kind of diversity that reflects the division of labour along class and racial lines – as if people of colour are always in positions to serve the more affluent classes. It confirms rather than challenges the status quo of social hierarchy.

In gentrifying areas, on the other hand, people of different walks of life encounter each other while going about their everyday business – we see ‘the other’ shopping groceries, caring for their children, hanging out with friends. Speaking from an optimistic perspective on gentrification, it is this kind of diversity that should foster mutual understanding.

To give a concrete example: I was confronted more the fact that some people cannot get by without government support. In the large supermarket close to my house, food items that are offered through the WIC program for low-income women with young children were displayed and marked more prominently. In the grocery stores on the UWS that I frequented, the only hint to food assistance is a sign at the cash register that said that EBT cards are accepted.

Inside – outside

However, even though Williamsburg, especially the southern and eastern parts, is much more mixed (for income and race) than the Upper West Side and the affluent neighbourhood in The Hague where I had lived, I experienced living in a bubble more than anywhere else. While in affluent areas one lives segregated from other social groups, in gentrifying areas one lives integrated yet isolated – indeed: in a bubble.

My apartment building, for example, was occupied mostly by white people, even though the moment I set foot outside my building I mostly saw people of colour and mostly heard people speaking Spanish. I experienced the bubble in particular when I went to a bar or restaurant in my neighbourhood: customers looked mostly like me, not like the people I encountered on the streets.

Put differently, the people I would encounter inside – whether my home or consumer spaces – are a class and racially selective segment of the people I would encounter outside – the people who are a better reflection of the residential population. During my time in Williamsburg, I came to better understand urban researchers’ observation that gentrifiers tend to ‘live in a bubble’.

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