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VI. changes: "first you have to get together".

In the autumn of 2009 the signs seem unmistakable that 11237 is changing before its residents' eyes. There is a kitschy thrift store just north of Flushing Avenue Flushing Avenue is an approximately five mile thoroughfare running through northern Brooklyn and western Queens beginning at the termination of Nassau Street, on the northern fringe of Fort Greene, and ending where it merges with Grand Avenue, in Maspeth. . A Thai restaurant--a gentrification gentrification, the rehabilitation and settlement of decaying urban areas by middle- and high-income people. Beginning in the 1970s and 80s, higher-income professionals, drawn by low-cost housing and easier access to downtown business areas, renovated deteriorating  canary in the coal mine if ever there were one--has opened. Some of the grocery stores are selling organic yogurt and gourmet potato chips. But the scene's significance depends on whose eyes you're looking through.

Where people stand depends largely on what side of the real estate market they sit. Property owners tend to applaud the influx of new faces. "They're putting up new buildings," said a woman who called herself Miss Wynter and was handing out Jehovah's Witness Jehovah's Witness

Member of an international religious movement founded in Pittsburgh, Pa., by Charles T. Russell in 1872. The movement was originally known as the International Bible Students Association, but its name was changed by Russell's successor, Joseph Franklin
 material one July day. "People used to just throw garbage. People are moving in who care. It is true that rents are going up, but it doesn't bother us, because we own." There's no question that more affluent residents can bring some benefits to a neighborhood. People who've studied the decrease of crime in Bushwick, like Ric Curtis and Travis Wendel of John Jay College, point to gentrification as an important force in attracting--through the influence of the real estate industry--police attention to places like 11237.

Others doubt that the change is as significant as some think. Landlord Edward Kormin says much of the 11237 area is too rough for most people with means to want to live there. He rented to an artist a couple of years back. 'They wrote on his door 'Kill the Hippie,' " he says of his other tenants. "So they chased him out."

Patrick Huang, the Realtor, has watched the influx of white professionals and says that some Realtors call the area Wyckoff Heights rather than Bushwick. But he has not seen and doesn't foresee the rise in housing prices and rents that would suggest the demographics are really changing. "We don't really have anything that drives the real estate market," he says. "Big landlords don't need to invest here. It just doesn't appeal as much as other areas."

The contours of the area's real estate landscape could dampen gentrification's impact. The lack of big parcels in 11237 sets it apart from the rest of Bushwick, according to according to
1. As stated or indicated by; on the authority of: according to historians.

2. In keeping with: according to instructions.

 Adam Schwartz. "It doesn't have the kind of density that buildings have in 11206 or 11211," he says, referring to Williamsburg and Greenpoint. "So when a landlord buys a building, the impact is noticeably smaller." That slows neighborhood change. And in past years, the abundance of vacant lots in Bushwick cushioned the area from displacement: The empty properties meant that a developer could build housing for the affluent without taking over the homes of the poor.

Even the signs of change have to be placed in context. New things stand out because they are still few in number. One Saturday this summer, three couples came to see Father Kelly about getting married in his church. The surprise? "They were white people," he says. There are other indicators Kelly has seen: an upscale wine store on Wyckoff, a condo advertising its proximity to Peter Luger Steakhouse. Still, he's not sure this is Bushwick's biggest worry. "They've overrated the gentrification thing," he says. 'There are more yuppies moving in than I perceive. But it is not a demographic change that will be more than a blip on any screen."

The recession and immigration immigration, entrance of a person (an alien) into a new country for the purpose of establishing permanent residence. Motives for immigration, like those for migration generally, are often economic, although religious or political factors may be very important.  status are bigger concerns, says Kelly, than whether arugula arugula
 or rocket

Yellowish-flowered European herbaceous plant (Eruca vesicaria sativa), of the mustard family, cultivated for its foliage, which is used especially in salads.
 is going to appear at the greengrocer's. The economy is also on the mind of Lopez, who worries about gentrification but sees a silver lining silver lining
A hopeful or comforting prospect in the midst of difficulty.

[From the proverb "Every cloud has a silver lining".
 in the downturn. 'The best thing that has happened to us is the market has slowed down. We're very happy," he says, smiling slowly, pointing especially to that 13-story building on Grove Street that is having trouble selling its condos. "We'd love to see it stall," Lopez says.

On the afternoon he was interviewed for this magazine, Lopez stopped the conversation and ordered two aides to take his visitor on a tour of his works in the neighborhood. On Gates Avenue, he's built a youth center that serves 400 kids every day in after-school programs and houses a 260-student secondary school that's running well ahead of the citywide improvements in graduation rate. A few blocks over, there's his 240-bed nursing home, which replaced an older facility that moved out a few years back. Just outside of 11237 is the Rheingold site, a seven-acre former brewery and brown-field that Lopez, with the city and state, cleaned up and rebuilt with a mixture of housing--mid-rise rentals, affordable co-ops, two-family homes.

Lopez's staff and allies talk about him with an air of awe. "We have been blessed with a great politician," is how Maritza Davila, a community organizer at RBSCC, explains Bushwick's improvement since the 1970s. She means Lopez. Over the main entrance to one of the Rheingold buildings, in loot-high letters set in stone, is the phrase, "Thank You Assemblyman Lopez."

Others see Lopez in less angelic light. He has been faulted for his use of campaign funds for personal expenditures, for allegedly residing outside his district and for his unfriendliness to fresh talent in judicial races in the borough. According to some critics, Ridgewood Bushwick is his personal patronage mill, with employees close to him--including those to whom he's been linked romantically--earning generous salaries largely funded by taxpayer dollars. He uses public funds See Fund, 3.

See also: Public
 to pay for the publication of Bushwick's only community newspaper, the Bushwick Observer, which is devoted mainly to promoting Lopez. Its front page once posted a banner headline banner headline nSchlagzeile f  over a photo of the assemblyman: "A Living Legend Living Legend may refer to:
  • Living Legend, a tourist attraction on Jersey
  • Library of Congress Living Legend, an award
  • The Living Legend, an episode of Battlestar Galactica.

"We have a tin-pot dictator" is how Kelly sees it. "Vito Lopez Vito J. Lopez (b. 1940) represents District 53 in the New York State Assembly, which is comprised primarily of Bushwick and other neighborhoods within the New York City borough of Brooklyn. Lopez holds a BS in Business administration from Long Island University and an M.A.  controls the apparatus of the entire Democratic machine around social-service programs.''

The reality is that the images of Lopez as a savior or a scoundrel SCOUNDREL. An opprobrious title given to a person of bad character. General damages will not lie for calling a man a scoundrel, but special damages may be recovered when there has been an actual loss. 2 Bouv: Inst. n. 2250; 1 Chit. Pr. 44.  are not mutually exclusive Adj. 1. mutually exclusive - unable to be both true at the same time

incompatible - not compatible; "incompatible personalities"; "incompatible colors"
. Schwartz puts it simply: 'The neighborhood could not have done what it did without Vito. It would have been impossible for Bushwick to come back." The amount of government resources that have gone into reviving the neighborhood wouldn't have arrived if Lopez didn't have the political capital to get them. Of course, those dollars went through his organization and furthered his grip on power.

It's that link between Lopez's political prerogatives and his neighborhood improvement that led to a rift between Lopez and Councilwoman Diana Reyna Diana Reyna (1974- ) is currently the New York City Council Member who represents the 34th Council District, which includes Williamsburg and Bushwick as well as Ridgewood in Queens, USA. Council Member Reyna was born and raised in New York City. , Lopez's former chief of staff. After Reyna opposed fast-tracking city approval for a proposed RBSCC building at 295 Jefferson Street on the grounds that other worthy development projects should be considered first, Lopez endorsed Davila to challenge her for her Council seat.

"It's a very pragmatic organization, Ridgewood Bushwick. It's not about policy. They don't jump into fights on principle. It's 'What can you do for me if I do something for you?,'" says Nicole Marwell, the Baruch College professor who studied the Lopez organization for several years.

In the midst Adv. 1. in the midst - the middle or central part or point; "in the midst of the forest"; "could he walk out in the midst of his piece?"
 of speaking with City Limits, Lopez took a phone call. "Yeah, I just talked to Andrew Cuomo," he said into the receiver. "He wants to have lunch." Lopez gets citywide candidates, would-be state leaders and even presidential hopefuls to come to his doorstep. The area's congresswoman, Nydia Velazquez, is a rival to Lopez but loses most of the showdowns, observers say.

But there are two forces even Lopez--whose locus of power since his first election in 1984 has been 11237--can't outmuscle out·mus·cle  
tr.v. out·mus·cled, out·mus·cling, out·mus·cles Informal
To dominate or defeat by means of superior strength or power.

One is time. Lopez is 68 and has endured serious health problems. In a neighborhood so dependent on one political figure, what happens when he fades from the scene?

Another is the real estate market. The Bloomberg years, and some Bloomberg policies on zoning and luxury development, have brought an influx of affluent young professionals into Lopez's fiefdom fief·dom  
1. The estate or domain of a feudal lord.

2. Something over which one dominant person or group exercises control:

If Vito Lopez has done good for Bushwick, what happens to the neighborhood when his political apparatus starts to run out of voters? Can the power of the boss survive the era of the billionaire?

Lopez says he does not intend to retire. And when he is no longer in power, he is confident that the people who benefit from his social-service empire will force his successors to keep up delivery. "Every year we have a Thanksgiving party and a Christmas party for the seniors. Everyone gets a meal and a gift," Lopez says. 'The seniors wouldn't tolerate it not happening. We've helped empower groups of people with certain expectations that they'll hold on to for a while."

If they can hang on to the neighborhood, that is. Gentrification threatens a lot of the status quo [Latin, The existing state of things at any given date.] Status quo ante bellum means the state of things before the war. The status quo to be preserved by a preliminary injunction is the last actual, peaceable, uncontested status which preceded the pending controversy.  in Bushwick, not least Lopez's two pillars of power--his service network and his political base. On one hand, the threat of overinvestment challenges an organization like Ridgewood Bushwick that built itself to respond to disinvestment Disinvestment

1. The action of an organization or government selling or liquidating an asset or subsidiary. Also known as "divestiture".

2. A reduction in capital expenditure, or the decision of a company not to replenish depleted capital goods.

 in a forgotten neighborhood. (Lopez, for instance, still talks about the importance of homeownership, a goal increasingly out of reach of his working-class constituents.) And on the other hand, once the newcomers start coming in, the voting pool changes. The more affluent arrivals probably won't need, affordable housing, much less a Thanksgiving meal or Christmas gift, in exchange for their support.

The Lopez empire has no choice but to fight the change. "I think what they will want to do is protect and preserve affordable housing for the people they consider to be their constituents. Ridgewood Bushwick, they need their people to stay in the neighborhood. There isn't an interest for them to adopt a new constituency," Marwell says. While Lopez has made common cause with political enemies before--like the Hasklim who are now his partners in the bid to redevelop Broadway Triangle in southern Bushwick--in the name of survival, it's not clear that he and the newcomers want the same things. There may not be a deal to strike.

The City Council primary race this fall between Davila and Reyna was very much a test of Lopez strength. The tally was close, with a mere 223 votes separating the two, but Reyna prevailed. It's unclear if the result hints at any erosion of power. Davila is continuing her challenge on the Working Families Party line in the general election. (Separately, an aide to Lopez, Steve Levin, won a Council race in Brooklyn Heights.)

Lopez says gentrification can't be stopped. He's hoping merely to contain it. This summer he began pushing for a new $500 million state affordable-housing fund to help neighborhoods like Bushwick build a bulwark against market-rate intrusion. But Marwell isn't sure that groups like Ridgewood Bushwick will be able to shape their own destiny. "A lot of the organizations, their hands are tied. They stepped into a void when no one else wanted to live in these neighborhoods," she says. "As the population shifts, they're sort of at the mercy of what's going on What's Going On is a record by American soul singer Marvin Gaye. Released on May 21, 1971 (see 1971 in music), What's Going On reflected the beginning of a new trend in soul music.  in the larger environment."

For more than a year, a new Democratic club in Brooklyn--the New Kings Democrats--has been challenging Lopez's county establishment, pushing for more transparency in the county organization's decision-making, rulemaking and spending. According to co-founder Rachel Lauter, the New Kings grew out of the Obama campaign. "We all sort of got excited about the power that an individual person could have in politics," Lauter says. "It's an effort to try to change the model of a traditional political club in Brooklyn."

Lauter, a second-year Harvard Law Student, has had her permanent home in Brooklyn for three years, and in 11237 for one. There are other newcomers like her in the New Kings but, she says, they are joined by young Latinos who grew up in South Williamsburg. The group's goal is clearly to reduce Lopez's power; they've already won some 50 seats on the party's huge county committee. But Lauter doesn't think a weaker Democratic machine will mean a weaker Bushwick in the battle for government resources. "I don't personally think of reforms in the political process as being mutually exclusive with generating good capital for Bushwick," she says. "I think ultimately, we would all be fighting for the same things."

Meanwhile, the neighborhood grows more Mexican and Ecuadorean. It's not clear that those groups will make common cause with the Puerto Ricans and Dominicans that are Lopez's base. And the undocumented immigrants and other noncitizens among the new Latinos in 11237 represent another challenge: They don't vote at all. "It does present a political problem," says Lopez. "Because as the voting base goes down, you have less access to resources."

For several legislative sessions, Lopez has introduced a bill to allow legal immigrants to vote, but it has not gone anywhere. The immigrants' children will be citizens and able to vote, and some of them will start to come of age in as soon as five years. The question is whether they will still be able to afford to live in the area by then.

Later on that Sunday in August, the skateboarders in Maria Hernandez Park are joined by a jazz trio with a sound system. They're there courtesy of a group called Reclaim NYC NYC
New York City

NYC New York City
. In front of the raised plaza they are using as a stage is a sign that reads, "They say gentrify gen·tri·fy  
tr.v. gen·tri·fied, gen·tri·fy·ing, gen·tri·fies
To subject to gentrification: gentrify a row of Victorian houses.
. We say occupy." The sign could be read ironically: The Reclaim NYC contingent have the look of first-wave hipsters: skinny jeans, thick-rimmed glasses, white kids with dreadlocks dread·locks  
1. A natural hairstyle in which the hair is twisted into long matted or ropelike locks.

2. A similar hairstyle consisting of long thin braids radiating from the scalp.
. They look like invaders.

But they speak in respectful tones. One member of the group is flinging a Frisbee with some little kids. Another runs an art project for a group of children, who are getting their hands coated in canary yellow paint. Two others slice vegetables for a meal they hope to share with parkgoers. "First you have to get together and recognize each other," Fatuma Emmad, one of the organizers, says. 'This is just a Sunday barbecue in the park."

Emmad says the group wants to be part of the existing community's fight to survive. Self-described anarchists, they have a plan to take over a vacant building and make it into a community resource, and they want locals to take the lead. "We're interested in claiming space and redefining spaces in ways that we want. We believe [our neighborhood] is capable and creative enough to do that," she says. The group is not interested in remaking Bushwick, she says. "We believe in a different type of redevelopment."

They don't mean for their presence to create the wrong kind of change--if they can help it. They believe that a neighborhood like Bushwick can change for the better without losing the people who call it home.

Over the past eight years, ZIP code 11237 has taken new steps on a long journey from the nadir of 1977. The successes are apparent. So is the fact that they all have strings attached.

"Overall, the quality of life here seems to have improved because there isn't as much crime. That goes back to Giuliani's time. The L train is better, everybody here will agree. And that's one of the attractions for the yuppies," says Father Kelly. "Ironically, we don't want the neighborhood to get too much better. We have to be careful about that."

Marwell agrees. "Yes, things are getting better in Bushwick," she says. "But maybe that's because we've pushed people off the map. And that's true for the city as a whole."
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Publication:City Limits Investigates
Date:Sep 22, 2009
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