Riders on the L: Williamsburg's Felice Kirby
Felice Kirby, the owner of Williamsburg's oldest bar, sees the L train shutdown as "Williamsburg's next great fight."
Photos by Jason Bergman
In early 2019, the L train in New York City will shut down for 15 months to repair damage caused during Hurricane Sandy. Leading up to the closure, VICE will be providing relevant updates and proposals, as well as profiles of community members and businesses along the affected route in a series we're calling Tunnel Vision. Read more about the project here .
In 1979, the Williamsburg that Felice Kirby, a longtime community organizer, had just moved to was in regress. The streets were drug-heavy, and a diaspora of once-powerful manufacturing plants left certain parts along the waterfront totally abandoned. The North Brooklyn neighborhood felt unwanted by the rest of the city, and forgotten.
"I wrote my first grant in 1980, and I had to crunch all the census data," Kirby told me on a recent afternoon. "Right by the L had the highest incident of elderly people in the city of New York, and the lowest rate of birth."
"We've completely flipped," she continued.
In 2017, to use Kirby's own words, Williamsburg has hit "warp speed." The neighborhood is the noun, verb, and adjective for rapid growth and community change—a place that "is like the Williamsburg of…" is literally something that you can now search for in an app. In December 2013 alone, 106 businesses—or nearly four bars per day—applied for liquor licenses with the local community board, rushing to serve the hordes of incoming locals and tourists piling into the neighborhood each weekend. "Since Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg rezoned the area in 2005, we've seen a doubling of the Bedford Avenue, Lorimer Avenue population that lives here," Kirby explained, before emphasizing: "Doubling!"
Kirby's first gig in Williamsburg was an organizer for the People's Firehouse, a fire station that was occupied for 18 months when the city, facing bankruptcy, tried to shut it down in 1975. After being saved, the organization grew into an anti-arson advocacy group of the same name. Since then, it seems like Kirby has fought for everything this side of the East River.
She helped found Brooklyn Allied Bars and Restaurants (BABAR), a group of 300 small businesses that fundraise for hyper-local initiatives; is a member of the board of directors at Neighbors Allied for Good Growth (NAGG), which advocates for community involvement; and now she serves on the L Train Coalition, an array of advocates who seek to engage the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) leading up to the closure in April 2019. And somehow, throughout most of it, she managed to run Teddy's, the oldest bar in Williamsburg.
That's where I met Kirby on a recent evening. It was her birthday, so we grabbed a table in the back, its stained glass windows letting street light pour into the bar's dark wood interior. At 62 years young, Kirby is as energetic as ever, sporting a short, punk-ish bob, and dishing out tales of neighborhood triumph like a true New Yorker.
"We won the Williamsburg Bridge," Kirby declared to me, referring to folded plans to demolish the aging structure in the late 1980s. "We fought to save the Metropolitan Pool, with swim-ins of up to 600 people in that pool. [Kirby later clarified that 600 people protested outside the pool while some swam inside.] McCarren Park was scheduled to be renovated, but we got it back, and reopened and renovated as a big pool. We got that. The power plant, TransGas, we stopped that. We got the waste transfer stations taken off the waterfront. And then we got New York State to buy that waterfront.
"Like, I'm not kidding, we did it," she added, seemingly taking stock of everything she had just mentioned. "I mean, this is like, amazing shit."
Until 2015, she owned this place with her husband, Glen, living and raising their two children in an apartment upstairs. When she bought the building from its original owners in the late 1980s, the last tenants had let the bar descend into the darkness that largely loomed over Williamsburg then: "Drugs in the bar, guy got killed in a fight over the pool table," she told me. "I always drank here. Once those people took over, I wouldn't walk in the door, and I lived across the street."
Her Teddy's had a different vibe—one that melded together both the natives and the steady stream of bohemians who were slowly occupying the cheap apartments, now some of the most expensive in the city. "From day one, we had live music, so we had my kind and the generation before me, that welcomed all races and religions," she said. "We welcomed everyone here, which caused a lot of fights the first few years. No bad words here, no homophobia, no racism. You can leave if you don't like it. We had four security guards at the front doors when we had these dance parties."
Over time, Teddy's flourished into an institution, readily adapting to the rising tides of tourism and what that change could bring—it famously was the first bar to serve the nearby Brooklyn Brewery's lager on tap. When Kirby sold it, she made sure the buyer was someone who cared about the community, like she has. But even after the sale, she still appears right at home here.
Kirby remembers the moment when she first read about the idea to possibly close the L a few years ago. "I called up the North Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, everyone," she said. "Nobody knew!" Because the MTA had largely left the community in the dark about their initial planning, she said, meetings between community leaders and representatives grew tenuous. Then, photos of the Canarsie Tunnel surfaced.
"Obviously the first horse out the gate was, 'Hell no, you can't close it. We don't want that,'" she said. "But that was before the MTA shared one scintilla of information with anyone from the community about what they were facing, what their resources were, and what their options were. And in considering everything, the majority of us felt like, we don't really have a choice."
Now, Kirby sees the L train shutdown as the community's next great fight—another major opportunity for Williamsburg, like it has in the past, to have its voice heard. Regional infrastructure needs—such as increased ferry service, station upgrades, and bus options—can finally be addressed. And, like everyone else aside from real estate brokers, she's hoping the shutdown offers temporary relief from skyrocketing rents for tenants and small businesses alike.
However, Kirby argued, while the MTA comes up with its official shutdown plan, there is still work to be done, like authoring an official economic impact study, offering investment incentives for visitors when the train is down, and maybe even the hiring of an official community organizer—someone, she said, "who can say this is a good idea, this is a bad idea." Kirby says she's not interested in the job, but she'll be here, no matter what.
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An earlier version of this article misstated Kirby's position at NAGG. She is a member of the board of directors, not a co-chair.