EAST WILLY B: Stakes is High

The pilot season of East Willy B talks old New York, while tacking the gentrification issue.

Words by: Angel Diaz
Images: Ashley Posey

What is gentrification? The answer changes from person to person. Some folks love it. They say it revitalizes a neighborhood, while others say gentrification displaces the poor and destroys that good ol’ neighborhood feel. The official definition, as per Merriam-Webster, is “the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents.” Basically, out with the poor, in with the rich.

Housing projects come down; condos go up, many of which remain vacant. Corner bodegas are replaced with corporate chains. Cuchifritos are turned into overly priced coffee shops. When’s the last time you’ve seen a family-owned pharmacy, or better yet, a hardware store? People don’t seem to care; we’ll get up in arms for a hot second, and then it goes away, forgotten in our microwave culture of now.

Fuck it, crime is down, right? The culture of New York is slowly fading away. Gone are the porn shops and hookers on 42nd Street (probably a good thing) but damn, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen a pimp-slap live and in stereo. Corporate America has taken over our beloved city; there’s hardly anymore grit or grime, just pretentious douche bags running amok, or so it seems. Graffiti is no longer a staple on walls and subway cars; the buff has won. Better yet, Giuliani won. NYC hasn’t been the same since September 11, 2001; Times Square resembles Disneyland nowadays. The five boroughs have always been known as a melting pot. So New York is supposed to have Korean/Latino mom & pop shops—that’s the “American Dream” isn’t it? People from various backgrounds and cultures flocked to NYC in droves, working hard to save enough money to open a business, but those days are long gone. The Jewish had the garment district in a cobra clutch for decades. This was an industry that employed thousands of immigrants, and it has just vanished into thin air. Next time you buy clothes, read the tags.

A new web show, East Willy B, tackles these issues in a satirical fashion, shedding light on the slow, but obvious, gentrification of Brooklyn. The show consisting of mostly Latino actors along with, most notably, Poet Flaco Navaja, La Bruja and Danny Hoch of White Boys fame is set in a local bar in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn (what realtors these days are calling East Williamsburg), but the show is not only about social issues if you let Yamin Segal, the show’s co-creator, director and writer tell it.

“We wanted to do a Latino New York story and felt that Bushwick doesn’t get enough shine, especially with the transformation it’s going through with Williamsburg closing in on it. But we want to make the episodes funny and not hit viewers in the head with just social messages. We want them to enjoy it as well.”

And his views on local politicians improving the “quality of life” once the undesirables can’t afford to pay the rent, he explains, “It’s about standard of life and ensuring that people who’ve lived in a certain neighborhood can still afford to do so and there also has to be a social consciousness to it as well. If you’re going to build new structures, renovate parks, create programs and all that type of jazz, they should serve everyone, not just the new residents. Can we stop gentrification? I don’t think so, but it can definitely be done smarter.”

When we caught up with cast member Annie Henk and co-creator/cast member Julia Ahumada Grob they mentioned the feeling of “old New York” dying. Annie says, “My father was a super and a taxi driver, so I got the real New York experience growing up. I remember when the Meatpacking district was an actual meatpacking district and knowing the neighborhood butcher, those little, subtle things are lost. I miss all of that flavor and what made NYC—NYC. I don’t miss the crime, though.”

Julia states, “Activist Jesus Gonzalez, whose featured in The Real Bushwick [clip] on our site said something that stuck with me, he said, ‘Come visit us, don’t replace us.’ He really identified gentrification into the context of displacement, this idea that if people from a certain neighborhood are forced to move out because they can no longer afford to live there makes it an issue of justice. But then people will point to the declining crime rate or the nice little coffee shop that opened up, which are benefits, but at what price? Peoples’ homes? Their livelihoods? I, as a native New Yorker, can’t afford to live in the neighborhood I grew up in.”

So there it is folks, gentrification is a double-edged sword; damned if you do, damned if you don’t. One thing’s for sure, the rent is too damn high in NYC! And gentrification is happening everywhere—from Chicago to Decatur, Georgia to New Orleans. Are you ready?

Don’t forget to check out the pilot season of East Willy B and support your local bodega.

Images by Ashley Posey.

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