Communities Divided in Williamsburg

By    Published May 23, 2011

BROOKLYN – Yvonne Greenfield sat behind a pink table populated with cosmetics, fragrances and a blue glass bowl filled with candies and condoms. The Williamsburg gynecologist, who has an office on Moore Street, was at the Graham Avenue Fiesta to promote her practice and her free workshops on sexual health.

Greenfield, who has lived in the neighborhood for 20 years, was born in the Philippines. She could pass for Hispanic, speaks impeccable English and “okay Spanish,” giving her the ability to move fluidly between the diverse communities of Williamsburg.

“I feel at home here,” she said. “With the old and the new communities, you always see people butting heads, but it’s not so much a problem here because people keep to themselves.”

Greenfield said these divisions may not be apparent from the neighborhood’s bustling commercial strips and ethnic enclaves. For all its vibrant community life, fewer residents of Williamsburg responded to the census than just about any other neighborhood in the city.

Feeling Disconnected

“There are the recent arrivals and the longtime residents. The new arrivals don’t feel like this is home yet but the older residents feel like this isn’t home anymore. So they both feel disconnected from the neighborhood,” said Betty Cooney, director of the Graham Avenue Business Improvement District (BID) who has worked in the area for 12 years.

A month after the census forms were mailed out last year, less than a third of Williamsburg residents had responded, compared to a citywide average of nearly half. A year later, in April, the citywide average has risen to nearly two thirds — but Williamsburg still lagged at 55 percent.

A low response rate is a problem because census data is used to determine the allocation of funding and resources to each community, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The more accurate the information, the better the government can provide the community’s needs, such as schools for neighborhoods with more young families or senior centers for those with more aging residents.

“For example, we’re seeing so many new residential buildings cropping up here in South Williamsburg but we have an overburdened transit system,” said Cooney.

Members of the diverse communities of Williamsburg have their own theories on the overall low participation in the census. New arrivals who are younger, wealthier and generally whiter that most of the population might feel weaker ties to the neighborhood than longtime residents, some locals and community leaders say. The large Hasidic Jewish and Hispanic communities in southern Williamsburg may be wary of outsiders knocking on their doors, the residents and community leaders say.

“It can be many things, and I don’t want to point any fingers at any group necessarily,” said Cooney. “But we do have a large number of young people who had just moved in and maybe they don’t yet feel like this is their home or they’re not sure they will stay here permanently.”

Outreach Issues

Many of these new residents may work elsewhere or have weekday homes, making them difficult for the census workers to reach. Cooney said she knew several people living in the same building as the Graham Avenue BID who never spoke to census workers.

“They kept having to come back to try and get in touch, but we couldn’t help them because we didn’t know how to reach them either,” she said.

The area below Division Avenue, largely populated by the Hasidic Jewish community, had a response rate of just 47 percent. Community leader Isaac Abraham attributed the low rate not to distrust but to disorganization.

“The census is a very bad outreach program,” he said. “The entire program doesn’t take into account different lifestyles.”

Instead of hiring census workers to come into new communities to gather information from each household, Abraham said the census bureau should reach out to institutions like schools and synagogues for help. “These groups already have much of the information the census needs, and they’d be more than happy to gather more for free,” Abraham said.

Census officials do involve local community groups to help  increase participation, but they can only use information collected by the workers they hire, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Some residents may purposely avoid being counted. “There are these hidden populations,” Cooney said. “We have a large Hispanic community and it may be that a few of them are not here legally so they’re afraid to be counted.”

United Efforts

Whatever the reasons for the low response rate, Greenfield, Cooney and Abraham agreed that virtual segregation between the different communities is an underlying cause.

“The whites live in the townhouses up north, the Hispanics live here in apartments and the Asians have their own little corner too,” said Greenfield.

But not everyone is content to stick to his or her home turf. Monica Salazar and Megan Tefft from The Trinity Project are trying to fix the problem by bringing the different communities together.

The project — a barter program that offers free or low-cost workspace for artists in exchange for community service — aims to bring older residents and new arrivals together. They organize artists to volunteer to teach dance, theater and visual arts at local schools in exchange for space to work in.

“These predominantly white artists don’t really connect with the community that’s been here before them,” said Salazar. “So our project really tries to engage them and have them give back to the community. We hope that it will help pull things together a little bit.”