Presenting I Was Here First: See What Gentrifying Williamsburg Was Like in the Early 90s

I was here first poster - UnionDocs - Living Los Sures

From April 15-21, the Metrograph will host a restoration of Diego Echeverria’s 1984 documentary Los Sures, a vital portrait of the predominantly Puerto Rican lower-income neighborhood of Southside Williamsburg. The film has been restored by the Williamsburg nonprofit center for documentary art UnionDocs, and it inspired their wide-ranging, community-based documentary project Living Los Sures. Among the strands of Living Los Sures are a number of short documentaries about the neighborhood. In cooperation with UnionDocs, we at Brooklyn Magazine are thrilled to present one of the films from that project, I Was Here First, which you can view, and read more about, below.

I Was Here First looks at the DIY art movement that cropped up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in the 1990s and 2000s, and the exodus of many of these spaces to other parts of Brooklyn due to the dramatic rise in the cost of living in the neighborhood. Within the framework of UnionDocs’s Living Los Sures Project, the film narrows in on one of the last major DIY art and music hubs to leave the neighborhood: A block on Kent Avenue between South 1st and South 2nd streets. The story follows the fates of two of the spaces on that block: Are pressures from a white hot real estate market are too great for emerging artists to sustain creative activity in New York City?

Statement from codirector Katherin Machalek:

In the 1990s, the seemingly abandoned industrial areas of South Williamsburg, Brooklyn created a unique haven for New York City’s famous avant-garde art scene. Twenty years later, Williamsburg’s artsiness has made it one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the country. Having been pushed to farther-out neighborhoods, artists are uncomfortably confronting their role in creating the very process that displaces them. I Was Here First follows three prominent ex-Williamsburg venues, taking a critical look at the future of experimental art in a city whose soaring rental market is driving some of its best artists out in search of more welcoming places.

The film strikes a stark contrast to the neighborhood’s South Side of Diego Echeverría’s 1984 film, Los Sures, which inspired it. I Was Here First paints an almost post-gentrification picture of the once heavily Puerto Rican neighborhood, now populated by a second- and third-wave of mostly white artists and increasingly very wealthy condo owners. The very title points to the irony of the subjects’ condition. Rather than delving in nostalgia, the two films seen together illustrate a cycle of change in the neighborhood that seems driven by an unstoppable gentrifying force.

I Was Here First is a unique part of the mosaic of the Living Los Sures documentary project that tells the story of how quickly one neighborhood can change completely, reinventing itself—for better or worse—time and time again.

los sures

About Los Sures:
Diego Echeverria’s film skillfully represents the challenges residents of the Southside faced: poverty, drugs, gang violence, crime, abandoned real estate, racial tension, single-parent homes, and inadequate local resources. The complex portrait also celebrates the vitality of this largely Puerto Rican and Dominican community, showing the strength of their culture, their creativity, and their determination to overcome a desperate situation. Beautifully restored for the 30th anniversary premiere at the New York Film Festival, this documentary is an invaluable piece of New York City history.
Screening at Metrograph, April 15-21st. Go here for tickets.

About Living Los Sures:
Produced over five years by sixty artists at UnionDocs Center for Documentary Art, Living Los Sures is an expansive project about the Southside of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Known by its long-term Latino residents as Los Sures, the neighborhood was one of the poorest in New York City in the late 70s and early 80s. In fact, it had been called the worst ghetto in America. Today, it is the site of a battle between local identity and luxury lifestyle. With the restoration of Los Sures, a brilliant work of vérité filmmaking, as a starting point, the project has developed into a collection of forty short films, the interactive documentary 89 Steps, and the cinematic people’s history Shot By Shot, demonstrating new possibilities for collaboration between an arts institution and its surrounding community to collect memories and share local culture.


I Was Here First credits:
Katherin Machalek
Adam Golub
Chelsi Bullard
Additional Camera
Gayatri Kaul
Michela Monte
Robert Elmes
Angela Buccinni
Matthew Conboy
Nicki Ishmael
Additional production support


  1. Watching this movie short made me feel bittersweet. I lived in Bywater,in New Orleans for a long time. I left 3 years after Hurricane Katrina.(stress)I’m a visual artist and former gallery owner. The parallels of Bywater and Williamsburg really hit. Somehow, there needs to be a balance between the old .community,the artists,the other newcomers and keeping it real. Sadly Bywater is going through a massive transformation. The real estate market exploded, it’s too hip for words,
    ,rents are high and crime is high do the an even more “have and have not” situation. It’s happening everywhere and it’s very concerning. What gives an area a true sense of place is a diverse culture..and one you can afford to live in.
    Though our community had issues-it was a mixed neighborhood,rich, poor , and in between,crazies name it.
    But somehow we coexisted fairly well just for the simple reason -it makes a neighborhood …a neighborhood!! Know what I mean. When we all become homogenized…it kills creativity and community. The almighty dollar is king ….but hopefully it will correct itself. Right before seeing this film I’d just watched “Smoke”(1995)about a little Moms and Pops shop in Brooklyn
    Makes you feel wistful….Change can be good but a society where everything is the same is just without Life.
    I wish I had an answer ….I do but greed is king right now.


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