Puerto Ricans’ Vibrant History in North Brooklyn
Like many other Greenpointers, I heard the news of the closing of the American Deli (97 Franklin St.) with great sadness. The bodega has been a neighborhood fixture for the twenty-five years I have lived here and its closure is just another sign of the disappearance of the once vibrant Puerto Rican community in North Brooklyn.
When my wife and I first arrived in the area in the early nineties the bodega was one of the few active businesses on Franklin Street. Many of the other storefronts on the street were boarded up and hadn’t done business for years, but the bodega was always one of the few places on Franklin Street to grab a bite to eat or pick up some beer.
The bodega actually has a long local history, as does the local Puerto Rican community. In the 1920s America introduced restrictive immigration laws, shutting out immigrants from southern and Eastern Europe. Suddenly, the cheap supply of labor in industrial New York City began to dry up. One of the businesses that were hard hit was the American Rope Manufacturing Company, just around the corner from the American Deli on West Street. Desperate for workers, the firm sent a ship to Puerto Rico, where the people were already American citizens, and returned with 130 Puerto Rican women to make rope in the area. Other New York industries also recruited workers in Puerto Rico.
Quickly, many Puerto Ricans arrived, lured by the prospect of well-paid factory work, and by 1927 Greenpoint had an established Puerto Rican community. Hungry for the familiar foods of home, Puerto Ricans established the first bodega around the corner from the American Manufacturing Company and soon other bodegas became a ubiquitous local feature.
By the 1950s, North Brooklyn had become home to thousands of Puerto Rican migrants. Thousands of whites left Brooklyn for the suburbs and Puerto Ricans quickly replaced them. The North end of Greenpoint became heavily Puerto Rican and the south side of Williamsburg also grew into a huge Puerto Rican colony.
By the 1960s, Puerto Ricans comprised about a third of the local population. Many Puerto Ricans bought houses left by locals fleeing the area for the suburbs and a generation of Puerto Rican Greenpointers came of age locally. When I first arrived in the area Puerto Rican culture was everywhere. Spanish was often spoken in the streets and salsa music, dominoes and Puerto Rican food were regular features of sunny summer days.
Although some Puerto Ricans were homeowners, most were renters and the local Puerto Rican community long ago confronted many of the housing problems the larger community today faces. Puerto Ricans became one of the first organized groups to fight gentrification. In 1972, Puerto Ricans and other Hispanics in the south side of Williamsburg helped organize Los Sures, a community organization that fought to help working-class people secure their housing rights. Diego Echeverría’s “Los Sures” documents the South Williamsburg neighborhood as it was.
Los Sures started responding to problems that confront tenants today, including withdrawal of city services, lease violations and illegal evictions. The organization also fought property owners trying to vacate their buildings to gentrify and whiten the neighborhood. Los Sures fought gentrification by promoting community-based control of housing, both through management and ownership. The WNYC video from 2015 showing the battle between Williamsburg resident Tranquilina Alvillar and her landlord is representative of the fight many longterm residents have faced to remain in their community as renters.
In 1975, Los Sures became Brooklyn’s first community-based organization to enter into agreements to manage City-owned properties. It also became one of the first tenant advocacy groups to undertake large-scale rehabilitation.
Los Sures was perhaps the first North Brooklyn organization to provide a number of vital community services including tenant organizing, senior citizen services and even a food pantry.
Although Los Sures has achieved considerable success, the task it faces is still daunting. Despite the organization’s herculean efforts, gentrification continues and long-time Puerto Rican residents reluctantly continue to leave el barrio, robbing our area of a colorful, vibrant and dynamic group.