Double-edged sword of being a hip ‘hood: Greenpoint ‘old timers’ are now moving out

75-Year-Old Forced Out, Commits Suicide

September 18, 2017 By Angelica Hill Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Zofia Goreczny moved to Greenpoint from Poland 30 years ago. Eagle photo by Angelica Hill
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Greenpoint is up-and-coming and a prime location for the young, successful and trendy. Real estate advertisements boast of its “culture, commerce and community” with “direct access to Midtown Manhattan, Wall Street, Williamsburg, Long Island City.”  They describe it as “New York’s most creative neighborhood for the arts, dining, entertainment and shopping … with its sweeping skyline views of New York City and its rich, original history,” but many are blind to the crippling implications of these changes on local businesses and longtime residents.

Greenpoint, sometimes called Little Poland, has the second-largest Polish immigrant community in the U.S., behind Chicago’s Little Warsaw. Poles settled in Greenpoint at the end of the 19th century, fleeing the Soviet Union and hoping for the economic prosperity promised by the American Dream.

Zofia Goreczny moved to Greenpoint from Poland 30 years ago. She immediately felt at home, she said. Almost everyone spoke Polish. Most of the shops were Polish. The area was rough around the edges but had good schools and a sense of community. Goreczny now manages the Kiszka Nassau Meat Market, an iconic institution that has served the community for nearly four decades.

Regulars used to come into Goreczny’s store daily to stock up on fresh bydgoska and krakowska sausages, kaszank and podlaska, as well as the dizzying array of hams and other meats on offer.  The shop is a focal point for the Polish community, a place to socialize as well as to shop. They see old friends, catch up with the local gossip and pause to reminisce about their homeland, where they knew each other as children.

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Many of the workers and customers at Kiszka expressed the sentiment that if Kiszka were ever to close, it would surely mark the end of the Polish community in Greenpoint. Goreczny is confident the shop will survive for the next five years but the customer base, including canny tourists and adventurous Koreans, now travel from further afield.  There is a pervasive sadness about Kiszka’s seemingly inevitable slide from community center to tourist attraction or novelty store.

The neighborhood character is dissipating. Greenpoint, perilously close geographically to the giddy hipster heights of Williamsburg, is powerless to resist the economic pull of its proximity to a new kind of immigrant: young and affluent city workers seeking a new area that promises grit, edge and character — but without crime and with easy access to flat white coffees and organic juice.  The Greenpoint, set to be the tallest building in Brooklyn, towers over the neighborhood and markets itself to a determinedly high-class clientele.

Gary Gigante, a retiree who has lived on the same Greenpoint block for more than three decades, jokes that he had never heard of a $5 cup of coffee. “You’ll walk into one of these coffee shops opening up by accident and say, ‘Ay, I want a cup of coffee,’ and they’ll turn around and say, ‘Oh yeah, that will be $5.’ And you’re in shock, especially when the most you’ve ever spent on a coffee is 2 bucks.” Gary went on to say that as people moved from the area, his circle of close friends has been reduced to a number he can count on one hand. “Now all of a sudden everything’s ‘prime’ real estate, everything’s ‘prime,’” he continued. “Soon the garbage will be ‘prime garbage.’ It’s sad.”

Longtime residents say they simply cannot compete in this new housing market. Shivane Maraj, the manager at a cozy little cafe on Manhattan Avenue, reflected upon the disappearance of her Polish regulars. The story of Bill, who would come in every Saturday for a chicken on rye or a turkey burger, brought the reality home to Maraj.  

Bill lived in Greenpoint all his life. He would usually come in alone and one Saturday Maraj noticed he wasn’t himself and asked what was wrong.  “He said his landlord sold his building and he had to find a place. He’s 75, he just doesn’t know how he could afford to move. This is home. He was born and raised here. This is all he knows.”

Months passed and there was still no sign of him. “I saw one of the ladies that [knew] him and I said, ‘Where’s Bill? I haven’t seen him. Is he okay?’” Maraj explained. “She told me he committed suicide that week of Christmas.”  Bill had been found unconscious, partially submerged in the East River, on the Brooklyn shoreline.  “He literally just couldn’t, and I’m not saying it’s because he couldn’t afford [it], but that was part of it. He was alone here. He had no one else.”

Yet Maraj said she recognized that progress cannot be halted: “When you have a one-bedroom apartment that is listed for $3,000 and it disappears within two hours of being listed, I mean how can you stop that? There’s nothing you can really do because in the end, all they ever care about is money and this generation wants to be living in a ‘cool town.’”

According to a 2014 New York University study, average rents in the Greenpoint and Williamsburg areas tripled between 1990 and 2014, with the median rent increasing from $857 to $1,591.

Maraj’s colleague at the cafe, Roberta Flores, said she was forced to leave her apartment in Greenpoint after 17 years. She echoed the familiar narrative of Greenpoint’s evolution from a “really bad” neighborhood, with drug dealers and empty lots, to what it is today. The initial rises in rent were manageable, she said, but soon started getting expensive.

“I ended up paying from $600 monthly, to $1,000 and then $2,000. I don’t think it was worth the apartment for that payment.” Roberta and her two young daughters eventually moved into a nearby shelter, only to find out that the many of the other residents were just out of prison. After two unsettling incidents with her daughters, she moved out of both that building and from Greenpoint. She said she still misses the neighborhood and its Polish community.

“New York City has pretty much become unaffordable and we have to take responsibility,” Maraj said. “We can’t just blame the landlords, and we can’t just blame the city. The city does hold some responsibility, but we as individuals, we’re paying for it.”


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