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Hipsters. Artisanal foods. Gentrification. These images seem forever linked to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, simplified notions of a place that are as ubiquitous as they are problematic. And while these mainstays of the contemporary narrative of Williamsburg do reflect a reality, they simplify complex dynamics and a diverse landscape while whitewashing a rich and at times troubled history.
UnionDocs — a center for documentary art based on the Southside of Williamsburg since 2003 — may look like the harbinger of displacement that Williamsburg’s creative scene is often linked to, and which organizations like Los Sures — an affordable housing developer and community organizing group founded in 1972 — fight against. But the two organizations have more common ground than the traditional narrative would have you believe, beginning with the name Los Sures, the local Spanish-speaking population’s name for the Southside.
For the past four years, UnionDocs, under the artistic direction of founder Christopher Allen and with the collaboration of a host of filmmakers including Aris Dilone, has engaged in an expansive project to document the neighborhood. Living Los Sures tells a wide range of stories about the community — some experimental, others journalistic — and complicates the picture of Williamsburg. And according to Ramon Peguero, Executive Director of Los Sures and a longtime resident of the neighborhood, the project is an asset to their work, as it drives home why his organization was founded and continues its work.
Here, Allen, Dilone, and Peguero discuss the project, Los Sures’ history, the importance of media representations of the community, and how the work of creative organizations like UnionDocs can complement that of social justice groups like Los Sures. –J.T.
What is the Living Los Sures project?
Living Los Sures is a multi-part documentary project about the Southside of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, known here as Los Sures. We wanted to create a portrait of our neighborhood that reflects its cultural heritage and opens up new relationships and conversations. We don’t want the perspective to be singular. The project contains many different stories; it aims to be as rich as the neighborhood is.
We were inspired in part by the 1984 documentary Los Sures. Diego Echeverria, the filmmaker and now a friend of ours, was trying to show poverty’s effects on people and a place. I think it’s much more of a cinematic, poetic film than it is a social issue documentary: he wanted to capture the stories of five protagonists — an entrepreneur, two single mothers, an activist, and a young man — as clearly as he could. For our purposes, we were interested to note the things that have persisted – the culture, community, and long-term residents that are still here – and to imagine how this film could be a tool for future work.
Each year at UnionDocs, we run a 10-month collaborative studio for local and international media artists, who produce a collection of short documentary works. For the past four years, we have had everyone focus on a particular story about the neighborhood. That process has yielded 30 different short documentaries by 48 different artists. Those short documentaries are one part of the project.
We just premiered a restoration of the original film at the New York Film Festival a couple of weeks ago. In addition to restoring it, we broke the film up into 326 shots for another part of the project called Shot by Shot, which Aris has been working on.
Shot by Shot aims to be a community platform where people can share their own stories, which are then spliced into the original film. So we reached out to members of the community, asked them to watch Los Sures, and then interviewed them. They often tell their personal story as “this was what was happening in my life at the time” — or they will see Roberto in the background and say, “Let me tell you about Roberto.”
We’ve also gathered histories of housing organizations and buildings — people talk about how you could eat off the floors of the building where one of the main characters lived because it was owned by Hyde Krauss, a landlord known for maintaining his properties. It’s a really good jumping off point to engage with the community. You can now go online to select each shot from the original film and watch interviews, read transcripts, and see photos from the stories community members told in relation to those shots.
We have over 400 stories from 40 participants embedded in the film, but we think we’ve only scratched the surface and are still collecting more. The fourth part of the project that we’ve completed thus far is 89 Steps, a short documentary that updates the story of Marta, one of the main characters in Los Sures. It’s geared more for the Internet, and it has a game-like component were you choose to follow Marta around the neighborhood and her apartment. Marta tells you stories along the way. In the original film, Marta’s story is about surviving as a single mother with five children. 89 Steps is about a new chapter in her life as she nears retirement. She can’t keep walking up the 89 stairs to her apartment every day, and we follow her as she decides, ultimately, to sell the apartment.
Ramon, tell me about Los Sures the organization and describe the neighborhood context when the organization was getting started in the 1970s.
My organization, Los Sures, was born in 1972 out of a community organizing effort to address a lack of protection and sense of security in the neighborhood. It started in the churches — Saint Peter and Paul, Epiphany, and Transfiguration — and it aimed to lend a voice to the people of the community, particularly those that were living in substandard housing. Los Sures started to fight back against neglectful landlords. We were one of the first organizations to get a city contract to rehabilitate a building that had been abandoned. We’ve now been around for 42 years, fighting and organizing. We’ve expanded beyond our housing development work to create and manage a senior center, a food pantry, and even a hydroponic farm.
It’s interesting to look at the original film and the interviews in Shot by Shot because you hear very different points of view on the neighborhood’s past. In some scenes of the original film, it appears that everyone was just hanging out, that everybody was poor, economically and mentally speaking. The reality is that the majority of people that grew up in Los Sures were hardworking people. They didn’t really have time to be hanging out on street corners; they were looking for a path to the American Dream.
The neighborhood definitely was a bit of a Wild West. The original film captures that, maybe too much. I grew up in the community after moving to the US in 1973. I remember coming home from church and walking over firearms to get to our apartment. On July 4th, machine guns were sometimes sprayed into the air instead of firecrackers going off. The neighborhood had a lot of drug dealers and gang members. There were apartment buildings that were half burnt, still filled with people living without heat or hot water. Even about 20 years ago, I remember coming out of the church right across from UnionDocs at 19 Maujer Street and having to push my pastor down because there was a drive-by shooting.
Some people say those were great times and talk about how much it has changed in a negative way. It reminds me of when my brothers and I sit around and talk about the whippings we got when we were kids. We think about them in a joyous way, but it was nothing but pain when it was happening. When we’re looking nostalgically at videos of people breakdancing or hanging out in the streets, we often seem to forget that.
In movies depicting places with high levels of disparity and poverty, you often see what’s going on in the street, but you don’t always know what’s going on in those apartments. People may have been out on the street socializing that day, but normally they were working crazy hours, and the mothers were often working especially hard to keep their families together.
We are trying to give context to the people in the background as well as to the main characters. As both a filmmaker and as a community organizer, I found Los Sures to be a place full of storytellers and animated characters, people who are eager to share their stories. That’s one thing we’re attempting to address with Shot by Shot.
When the original film was released, it was the only representation of this community at that time. It had the impossible task of trying to document a place that is so diverse in only 56 minutes. It did focus more on poverty and people who were struggling, but for me, having now met many of the main characters, I see the stories of hardworking people. Cuso is an entrepreneur, and he’s trying to get work for his neighbors. Marta is a single mother just trying to keep her children on the right path. Evelyn is an activist and is out there in the streets trying to make things better for people.
The project was always intended to be a very broad portrait, an opportunity for many different stories to be told together. I think that’s what place is to some degree. Our interviews have confirmed that people have very different conceptions of histories. People’s memories are often factually incorrect. We were told for years that one of the main characters from the original film had passed away. Not true!
We are interested in those contradictions and truths and how they work together to create this story of a place that we all live in. Because the collaborative studio brings together artists who are engaged in their own personal and professional development, they are attracted to a wide range of stories. That has led to an expanded focus geographically and also topic-wise.
Both of your organizations are based in the neighborhood. How can your work, which interacts with the community in very different ways, be complementary? How do you see the Living Los Sures project being leveraged for the community’s benefit?
A lot of people ask me how Los Sures’ work has changed. The forces are different, but the challenge is the same. Before, people were being displaced because the landlords were abandoning the buildings and they had to find a place that was warm and safe for the children. Now, landlords are cutting off the heat because they want to force you out and raise the rent.
It’s a blessing to have UnionDocs and a project like Living Los Sures. When you’re in the trenches fighting, you don’t always have time to write down the history or to take the pictures. So, unfortunately, a lot of the history goes untold. UnionDocs had the dedication to dive in and research what happened, and to give a voice to people who would normally not be heard. That is what we try to do through our work. Living Los Sures is able to capture over 30 years of history. It drives home the message of why our organization was founded and, after 42 years, why we continue to fight. It really tells the story and keeps the struggle alive, so that is a wonderful combination.
That’s great to hear. We’ve just tried to just put some things out there and see if they could be useful. And we’ve always asked community partners, how could this be useful to you? Whom can this benefit?
Largely, I think what we’ve accomplished thus far is to bring people’s attention to this area as a distinct place with a distinct history. The New York Times had an article on the Southside just a few months ago, and it’s as if they didn’t get off the main drag. After a while when you see this one picture of the neighborhood presented over and over, it becomes kind of offensive.
I don’t think the project is very heavy handed in terms of talking about development and gentrification, but if anyone spends a little time with it they will come away with a much richer understanding of those issues. They will see it as an issue that has a lot to do with race and class and less to do with progress than maybe they initially thought. We don’t have the answers, so we’re also just trying to better understand what’s going on and to get people involved in something.
UnionDocs is a brick and mortar institution with plans to be here until 2021 at least. Hopefully this is more like an arm of UnionDocs rather than a project with a beginning and an end, more a continuous way of bringing the talents of the individuals we attract to the space back out into the neighborhood.
What’s next for your organizations?
We are expanding our organizing efforts as more money comes into the community and there is more pressure to move lower income families. We’re looking to expand our hydroponic farm to feed more people — we currently serve 16,000 in our food pantry. My children were born in Los Sures, educated in Los Sures, and I’m hoping that they could live here and give back to Los Sures one day, so our housing struggle continues. But not everything that changes is bad, so we want to figure out how to inject some of the new with the old to make us better and stronger, like working with UnionDocs and other organizations that are relatively new here.
We want to keep layering more on. We are going to do at least one more year of short documentaries on Los Sures within the collaborative program. After that we may look into creating educational curricula or ways of taking this project elsewhere to talk about issues of place, locality, and gentrification. They say that if you’re sculpting an elephant, you’ve just got to keep hacking away at it. We’re in the phase where it’s starting to look like an elephant, and now we have to get to work on the polishing and sanding.
So far, it has been an amazing opportunity to understand the community better and connect to longer standing organizations in the neighborhood like Los Sures. It’s humbling. There’s always a certain amount of questions with a project like this. Are people going to be OK with us trying to tell some of these stories? The community has always been a very positive, open environment for that.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.