Thirty years ago, South Williamsburg was one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York City. As is still true in parts of the neighborhood today, it was a predominantly Puerto Rican community, and people danced in the streets to Caribbean beats while musicians played drums, palitos, maracas, and güiros. The younger crews held public breakdancing competitions, and everyone felt like they knew one another. At the same time that this culture was flowering, the neighborhood was also experiencing high unemployment rates, dilapidated housing, and inadequate public resources. Drug use was rampant, and many wanted to leave the area for fear of violence.
Diego Echeverria documented this era in his 1984 film Los Sures, which screened last week at the New York Film Festival after being restored by Union Docs. Echeverria was born in Chile and grew up in Puerto Rico. He came to the US in 1971 to study film at Columbia University. After completing a graduate degree, he started a career in TV. When he wasn't working his day job, he hung out on the streets of South Williamsburg shooting what would ultimately become Los Sures, which means "south side" in Spanish. Over the course of ten months, he filmed the lives of five Puerto Ricans living in the Brooklyn barrio. The film illustrates how single mothers, workers, immigrants, and young kids battled poverty and survived in the hood.
Today, South Williamsburg looks very different from how it did in Los Sures. While parts of the neighborhood are still largely inhabited by Puerto Rican residents, the area has also become a mecca for moneyed young people all across the globe, forcing rents to skyrocket. Today it's not uncommon to see young banker dudes with Hitler Youth haircuts enjoying boozy brunches at overpriced restaurants on the south side—a sight that would have been unheard of back in the 80s. But a few vestiges of the era of Los Sures remain, like the bodega on Division Avenue and Berry Street that still serves hot mofongo and empanadas while old men play cards or dominoes outside.
In light of the recent screening of Los Sures, I gave Diego Echeverria a call to talk about his documentary, rapid gentrification, and the ways in which the historic culture of South Williamsburg can be carried on.
VICE: There are so many people in your film who talk about wanting to leave Williamsburg. I can't imagine people saying that today. Why did they want to leave?
Diego Echeverria: There was a high level of unemployment. Economic survival was difficult. The services were lacking. Schools were going through a tremendous crisis. Young people were dropping out at a high rate. There was also no housing renewal or support.
When was the last time you visited Williamsburg?
I was there three or four months ago. It has definitely transformed. It's a more prosperous area. Even physically, it has changed. But at the same time, there are still signs of what used to be. Just last year, for example, you saw the Latino community participating in the streets with some wonderful festivals.
Did you witness any violence during the filming of your doc?
No. That was not what the film is about. In fact, I would have avoided it. My film is about how people cope in very difficult situations and make the best they can out of their lives.
When did the neighborhood really start to change?
The late 80s. I remember that by then there were several artists moving in. This is not something that happened from one moment to another. There were many people in the film, like Cuso the construction worker, who saw the change as well.
One of the things that struck me was how graffiti functioned in the film versus how "street art," as it's called now, functions today. What was the point of graffiti back in the 80s?
I remember in the early 80s when graffiti was all over the city. It had to do with asserting a sense of identity. There were lots of names and commemorative elements that had to do with culture and ethnicity. It was something very unique to New York in subway stations, bus stations, and out in the streets. It was a way of actually saying, "Here I am." Today graffiti has a different sense—at least the stuff I've seen in Dumbo and areas of Williamsburg.
What other cultural markers have you seen take on completely different meanings?
The break dancing that was going on in the streets. When you look at the dancing that takes place in Los Sures, you find this urban culture evolving. That was the beginning of a whole movement that later on, throughout the 90s, took over the country. Young people came together and participated in these cultural manifestations that really gave them a strong sense of identity, while the older generation was still dancing salsa.
The film does a great job of depicting fashion trends of the 80s—plastic aviator glasses, feather-cut bobs, side ponytails, etc. Some of the most weird and trendy folks still seem to reside in Williamsburg. Despite its evolution, the neighborhood still seems to have retained that stylish characteristic.
It's different. There was actually a cultural cohesiveness in Los Sures that is no longer there. It is part of our cultural cohesiveness where you see break dancing, murals, and cultural manifestations taking place. They are tied to traditions that are part of your own kind of cultural roots, and they are different. What you are seeing today is a manifestation of a different kind of varied community. Also, because it is now a community of artists, it doesn't have that raw kind of expression. Back in the day, it was a force that was really at its first stage.
There seemed to be a greater sense of community in South Williamsburg back then.
I sensed that when I started hanging out on the streets. People were truly connected. They knew each other. They would say hello—connecting, making jokes, remembering things. And people would hang out in the streets, especially in the summer.
What is the feeling you get when you go back to Williamsburg?
It's definitely different. What happened in Williamsburg is what you see in most other cities in the country. The immigrant groups who settled there in the 40s are not there. They move away. They die. It's also because the socioeconomic situation has changed. When I went to film there, it was in the midst of Reaganomics, when support for immigrant groups started to diminish.
Do you have a particular opinion on the people who have taken over the neighborhood?
With any change, there are positive and negative aspects. You can't say that it's surprising. Very often, neighborhoods have to transform. That's the story of most urban centers in the US. Nothing remains static. It was only natural that as New York City became more expensive, people would look for neighborhoods that had proximity to the city and inexpensive housing.
And the negative aspects?
New York became very expensive, very fast. There is a population that feels left out of the transformation that is taking place. But at the same time, it's a regular process. You can't change economic forces. Very often politicians are not sensitive to the feeling of loss that takes place as a vulnerable population has to deal with a whole set of challenges. Moving out of the place you grew up in is very difficult. Having to re-root yourself and your family and break away from what you've known for years is very painful.
Do you think the divide between newcomers and long-time residents is a problem?
You're witnessing the community going through a process that has been very drastic for people who have strong roots in that community. It's only natural that they have some level of resentment. Their rents have gone up tremendously. It has become a different neighborhood.
Do you think there's any solution?
It's not a question of finding a solution. Neighborhoods change. Many of the people have already moved out. The community organizations are playing a role in giving support to the people who have stayed. Those organizations are wonderful. It is a question of creating the links and acknowledging the history as the neighborhood transforms. The one solution is making housing more available, creating the kinds of jobs that people can depend on, making schools better, and making sure those families who live there get the level of support they need.
For more on the evolution of South Williamsburg, check out Living Los Sures, Union Docs' new short films project, which was inspired by Diego's Los Sures. The project aims to reunite the community by continuing to document the local histories of Williamsburg.