Is Williamsburg Trying to Deny Its Puerto Rican History?


New York City street signs are a funny thing. Many of them are totally straight-forward—5th Avenue, Water Street (it’s right by the water, you guys), etc. But there are also all those special street signs, ones that commemorate police officers and politicians, musicians and actors. Most people never call these streets by anything other than their original names—one way to know for sure someone is from out of town is if they don’t spontaneously vomit when they hear someone call Manhattan’s 6th Avenue “Avenue of the Americas” (barf!)—but it’s the thought that counts behind these signs. There’s certainly worse uses of city money than the commemoration of people like the late, great Jerry Orbach.

Beyond remembrances of specific people though, street signs have also been a way to commemorate the culture of a neighborhood. As an 18-year-old moving into my first apartment on Avenue C, I asked my dad why there was also a sign that said “Loisaida Avenue.” He told me to say it out loud. I did. He said, “Do you get it now?” I said, “No.” I was a somewhat slow 18-year-old. So, he just told me, that this was a phonetic way of saying Lower East Side, based upon the way the neighborhood’s name was pronounced by the Latino residents who made up the majority of its population at that time.

But so what does all this have to do with Williamsburg? Well! Graham Avenue in Williamsburg is also known as the Avenue of Puerto Rico, which is an acknowledgment of the neighborhood’s Puerto Rican community and the influence that it’s had over the decades. But, as you’ve probably also heard, there’s been a pretty large influx of new arrivals in Williamsburg, and these new arrivals have changed the demographics of the neighborhood significantly. And now, Gothamist is reporting that there has been a concerted, although mostly anonymous, effort to remove “Avenue of Puerto Rico” from the street signs in the neighborhood, in an effort to make Williamsburg seem, I don’t know, less Puerto Rican? While there is no imminent change on the horizon, Gothamist spoke with Betty M. Cooney, the executive director of the Graham Avenue Business Improvement District, who said that she hoped the idea of changing the signs “would disappear back into the mysterious void from which it came, but unfortunately, it seems to keep popping up.” Apparently some developers like Michael Schlegel think that, “It’s becoming a very hot area, and the people from Williamsburg are moving further out, and they don’t want it to be known as a Puerto Rican or Spanish area anymore. I think it would help the image of the area.”

So, wait. Williamsburg is becoming a hot area? Becoming? What? For a real-estate developer, Michael Schlegel seems to be a little bit behind the curve with regard to hot real-estate tips. I think it’s hilarious to think that anyone wanting to move to Williamsburg would be turned off by the idea that there is a Puerto Rican community here. And that’s leaving aside the fact that many long-time residents, including quite a few from the Puerto Rican community, have been forced out of Williamsburg in the last decade due to stratospheric rents and development. Plus, much like with the maligned “Avenue of the Americas,” nobody calls Graham Avenue “Avenue of Puerto Rico.” Just like nobody calls 53rd Street by 8th Avenue “Jerry Orbach Way”—although, we all should because Detective Lennie Briscoe is the best television detective of all time. Some people say Loisaida instead of Avenue C, but that’s only because it’s really fun to say. Loisaida.

According to this Gothamist article, it seems unlikely that Graham Avenue will end up without the additional title of Avenue of Puerto Rico, so there aren’t too many worries there. But it’s also a sort of classic, bittersweet New York story. Because in many New York neighborhoods that have undergone and continue to undergo massive changes, all that winds up being left of ethnic communities are commemorative street signs. So you have Via Vespucci Way (Grand Street) not far from Graham Avenue, even though there isn’t as big of an Italian community in Williamsburg anymore. But New York is not really a place for nostalgia, is it? Or, maybe it is. But only in its street signs.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen

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  1. First of all, a pretty significant error here: Via Vespucci Way is also Graham Ave, but only north of Grand Street (not Grand Street itself).

    Secondly, to this: “I think it’s hilarious to think that anyone wanting to move to Williamsburg would be turned off by the idea that there is a Puerto Rican community here.” Are you really that naive, or is this an over the top effort to be politically correct?

  2. Remember back in 1650 when the Dutch originally gentrified all the Puerto Ricans out of Williamsburg, and before that that hipster Canarsie tribe with their beads and locally-made clothing?