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Review> The Old Neighborhood
Susan Morris reviews the new film Gut Renovation on the changes development has brought to Williamsburg.
Still from Gut Renovation, 2012.
Su Friedrich

Gut Renovation
Directed by Su Friedrich
Outcast films

Su Friedrich has a point. Her film Gut Renovation is a screed against the forces that precipitated her move out of a beloved loft where she had lived for 19 years in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The building was the former Hecla Iron Works on North 11 Street (across from prominent neighbors like the Brooklyn Brewery and the Wythe Hotel), makers of wrought iron for such landmarks as Carnegie Hall, the New York Stock Exchange, the Waldorf Astoria, and Saks Fifth Avenue. She lays the blame squarely on the 2005 rezoning that made this formerly industrial zone residential, with no taxes levied for 25-years if land was cleared before June 2008. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, the “businessman in power,” pushed the policy through as part of his “focus on high-end real estate development.” The pace and density of tear-downs to build new apartments is particularly widespread, and Friedrich counts down the number of sites until she finally gives up at 173 (that was in 2010), placing red blocks on a black-and-white map marking the relentless march.

Cass Gilbert's Austin Nichols & Company warehouse (1915, foreground) and FXFOWLE's Northside Piers (2008, background).
Lindsay Wengler

Friedrich laments that artists pioneered this neighborhood, which she calls Condoburg, made it vibrant, and have now been forced out. “Was I a dinosaur looking at the first snowflake?” she asks. Maybe so. I found myself wondering what was new here. Soho, Tribeca, the Lower East Side, and the Meatpacking district are just a few Manhattan neighborhoods that have undergone similar transformations. There are many more examples from across the country and around the world (the film screened at the Berlin Film Festival where Friedrich participated in an eviction protest in the Kreuzberg neighborhood). But this is Friedrich’s turf, so she takes it very personally. She hates all the new buildings, finding the architecture cold, sterile, uninviting, unimaginative, soulless—and it’s true. Why hasn’t new development given rise to better architecture? (A brighter spot might be the parks: East River State Park, Bushwick Inlet, and McCarren Park Pool.)

Gut Renovation can be seen as a cry against the increasingly two-class society that New York City is fast becoming, occupied by the extremely rich and the desperately poor with the middle squeezed out. Even the “affordable” housing offered to lottery-winning displaced neighbors in some of the new buildings has second-class status as residents cannot use the pool, gym, children’s playroom, or other building amenities afforded market-rate buyers.

Still from Gut Renovation, 2012.
Su Friedrich

But it also shows Friedrich’s age. In her late 50s, she’s appalled by the 40,000+ new residents—young, well-dressed men and women, who are seen jogging, smoking, walking “designer” dogs—some of whom ask why they’re being filmed. When accused of being rich, one woman replies, “You don’t know anything about me,” and she’s right. When I watched the film, I found myself referencing HBO’s “Girls.” Lena Dunham’s character Hannah and her cohorts live in and frequent Greenpoint and Williamsburg and most of them are struggling financially. They appear at the Bellwether bar on Union Ave., or in the Bedford Ave. L train station, or at the “sorry wall” on Kent Ave. where a boyfriend posts his apology, and even at the Edge, a luxury high-rise on the water where a venture capitalist they meet in a local bar lives. “Knowing this Williamsburg street corner from that one is a way for fans who fit squarely in the ‘Girls’ demographic to show off their expertise in the subculture of Brooklyn loft parties and graffiti-art shows that spawned the show,” the New York Times recently reported. These people have made the same neighborhood that Su Friedrich used to love into a vibrant, thriving, desirable enclave—but of a different sort. I’ve been told multiple times that this generation would prefer to be in these Brooklyn areas than in Manhattan. True, the opportunities for large, cheap living spaces in Manhattan is virtually nil, unless you’ve already secured one or can afford to break into the market, but where is that possible anywhere in the city?

And in case you’re wondering where Friedrich landed, she now owns a house in Bed-Stuy.

Susan Morris

Susan Morris writes on film, art, and culture for AN.