Other than the venue -- a Pabst-slinging bar with a taco truck parked in the backyard called Union Pool -- the first general assembly for Occupy Williamsburg looked a lot like any other Occupy meeting. To find the activists, you had to walk through the main bar, past the DJ booth, elbow past the locals in skinny jeans nodding to the beat, through a campfire ringed by more locals probably smoking Parliaments, and then into a cavernous music hall that looked all Christmas-y trimmed with pine garlands and a few strings of lights. Indie rock-themed movies have been filmed in this room, the archetypical Brooklyn bar, and Williamsburg's Occupiers reveled in the cliché. "People think of this as the iconic hipster nexus, but one of the cool things of Occupy Wall Street is repurposing places for political purposes like this," said Corey, who started the general assembly 45 minutes late and asked that we didn't use his last name. Welcoming the hipsters, the ex-hipsters and everybody else, he declared, "I think hipsterdom is dead. I think Occupy marks the end of it."
It's easy to make fun of the idea of Occupy Williamsburg. Yes, they decided to meet in a bar that also happens to be, as Corey said, in a hipster nexus. (The reason the group ended up at Union Pool, by the way, is because Michael, one of the people who helped organize the meeting, also happens to work at the bar.) Yes, Vice magazine made an announcement about the event, though they deny having helped organize it. And yes, people generally love making fun of hipsters. However, the 50 or so folks that showed up at the event -- the vast majority were in their 20s and 30s but a few seniors showed up -- moved quickly from making jokes about how Occupy Williamsburg was so predictably, well, Williamsburg and started making plans not only to find some physical space to occupy but also improve local schools, fight rising rent and open a dialogue between the neighborhood's diverse, sometimes disparate communities. (It's not all hipsters, you know.)
The biggest problem, everybody seemed to agree, was gentrification, a historically touchy subject for Williamsburgers. Over the past couple of decades, real estate developers have been latching on to this hipster fad and buying up what used to be very cheap properties circa 2000 in the hopes of selling million-dollar condos to the newly minted 1 percenters flocking to Brooklyn. When the economy tanked in 2008 the construction stopped, leaving dozens of zombie buildings lurking in the neighborhood. The past year though they've started filling up with banker types in the past year or so of economic recovery, but Williamsburg is still a working class neighborhood. Those present who had actually lived there for a while took every opportunity to remind the crowd of this fact. Williamsburg was not always the land of trendy bars and leather-chaired restaurants; it used to be a real dump. One attendee remembered a time when you could buy a four-story brick townhouse for $1 if you agreed to invest $15,000 in fixing it up. Another remembered buying dog food at the pet store that used to be the space that Union Pool now occupies. There was also a weird warning from one guy who grew up in the neighborhood about how Al Capone used to spend time in Williamsburg, and the neighborhood's mobster past still bared its teeth from time to time. "When you're talking about occupying spaces, you should be careful whose toes you step on," he warned.
It all sounds a little absurd, but you can imagine the same conversation happening in pretty much any American city. More than one person spoke up about being a paycheck or two away from being homeless. One guy looked like he might actually already be homeless. And indeed, the boutique-lined corridor that is Bedford Avenue, the neighborhood's main drag, is no Park Avenue, but the Williamsburg that tourists see is very different from the sometimes struggling and crime-riddled streets just a few blocks away. We didn't see any of the "spoiled rich kids whining about their over-privileged lives" that The New York Observer feared would show up at Occupy Williamsburg's first meeting but rather an action-oriented group, many of them veterans of Occupy Wall Street, who were ready to dig in and work locally during the winter. They actually think that the stereotypes of the neighborhood will actually help their movement by giving them some allure. "Not to get too academic, but people in Williamsburg have social capital," a graduate student said at the general assembly. Another chimed in, "If the caricatures of Williamsburg started occupying spaces, that would be amazing."
All of those zombie buildings make for great potential squatter zones, and they're already planning an action as soon as early January. The Occupiers asked the press -- namely this reporter and another note taker -- to step away when they started discussing the details, and nobody we talked to was willing to reveal a last name. Occupy Williamsburg also hopes to keep charter schools from charging into the neighborhood, diverting attention further from its already struggling public schools. And more than anything, they intend to be taken seriously. "The problems are not going to be solved today," said one person in the general assembly, sounding like a true Occupier. "This is a long-term social project." It is also a Williamsburg-centric social project, and at least one person brought up the bike lane issue.
We'd anticipate the latest Occupy spin-off will continue to deal with the venue problem. The group doesn't plan to meet in Union Pool again, but it's apparent that Occupy Williamsburg will spend a decent amount of time wrestling hipsterdom out of the picture. It sounds like a pretty productive partnership and like the one guy said, it would be great to see the caricatures come out and participate. As one girl with a pixie cut and a serious gaze brought up early in the meeting, "Life here has a certain emptiness to it." She added, "You want to find something meaningful so you go to the bars and you go to the restaurants. We should aim to end the cycle of emptiness."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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