Imperialism & Gentrification Are Interconnected: The Case of Puerto Ricans in Williamsburg

Ramiro Fúnez

BY RAMIRO SEBASTIÁN FÚNEZ

I’m from New York. I was born in Manhattan and I grew up in Queens. As a young student living in New York, I regularly went to Brooklyn to hang out with my friends.

One night in 2013, two of us were walking in Williamsburg, a historically Puerto Rican neighborhood that has become the mecca of white hipsterdom. We headed to the Borinquen Plaza public housing complex to pick up our mutual friend. After we picked her up, we sparked up a blunt and walked around the block to avoid getting arrested, as so many young people do in New York. As we circled the area, we spotted a construction site where a high-rise condominium was being built. The building was constructed with sleek metal and ornate glass. It towered over its decrepit neighboring structures, sticking out like a sore thumb.

We all looked at each other. One of my friends asked, “Since when has this been here?” The other asked, “Who do y’all think is moving in?” After thinking about their questions, a few things became clear to me.

While they were impressed by the building’s luxurious design, they were also put off by its presence. My two friends — lifelong Williamsburg residents of Puerto Rican descent — understood that the condominium wasn’t for them. They knew that the mass of incoming tenants wouldn’t include their friends and family who had been living in Borinquen Plaza for decades. The new tenants would be mainly white and would hail from far distances and wealthy backgrounds.

They also knew this was an indication their time as residents of Williamsburg was coming to an end. The presence of gentrifiers would raise the cost of living, since they tend to make and spend more money. Private developers in the area had also used their purchasing power in the real estate market to replace public housing with condominiums.

Their reaction to the construction site made me wonder about those who first migrated from Puerto Rico to Williamsburg. It made me think about the reasons why they left La Isla del Encanto (The Island of Enchantment) and how they ended up at Borinquen Plaza. It also made me think about the driving force behind all of this. After that night, I started looking into the historical reasons why Puerto Ricans emigrated from their Caribbean island to the cold, industrial streets of Williamsburg. The more I researched, the more I realized how much influence imperialism had on gentrification.

Imperialism is the current era of the global capitalist economic system. Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin described imperialism as “the highest stage of capitalism.” Under imperialism, capitalists based in the Global North (North America, Europe, Japan, etc.) exploit labor and resources from the Global South (Asia, Africa, Latin America). A handful of wealthy and mainly white people in the Global North make super-profits from the super-exploitation of workers and peasants in the Global South. This parasitic economic relationship allows the Global North to politically and militarily dominate smaller and more impoverished nations in the Global South, like Puerto Rico. Imperialism is marked by non-stop wars of invasion, growing poverty, and unrelenting economic and political crises.

Gentrification is also a system that exists because of the global capitalist order. Under this system, there is an influx of affluent or moderately affluent people into poor urban areas. In the U.S., most gentrifiers tend to be white and most gentrified people tend to be Black and Brown. Overall, gentrification pushes poor people out of their communities through economic, political and legal means. Police are used to kick working class people out of their homes once they are priced out and evicted.

Despite their differences, both disastrous systems are interconnected. Imperialism breeds gentrification, which is also predicated on the exploitation and displacement of colonized peoples. There are countless examples of people from the Global South — including my own Honduran people — who have bared the brunt of imperialism and gentrification. However, the case of Puerto Ricans in Williamsburg is one of the clearest examples.

Colonialism existed on the island as far back as 1508, when Juan Ponce de León was appointed by the Spanish crown to serve as the Governor of Borikén. Its native Taíno people were slaughtered, including Cacique Agüeybaná II, the island’s last Indigenous leader. Following these bloody massacres, enslaved people from Africa were brought in chains to work the fields. The white Spanish empire grew wealthy through the murder and exploitation of Black and Indigenous lives.

Imperialism in Puerto Rico largely manifested during the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th Century, catalyzed by the Spanish-American War. This was the beginning of inter-imperialist struggle between the United States (the ascending power) and Spain (the descending power). The war, ending with the Treaty of Paris signed on December 10, 1898, ultimately led to Spain ceding Puerto Rico (along with Guam and the Philippines) and surrendering Cuba to the United States. Washington embellished its domination over Puerto Rico as an imperial colony with a “Commonwealth” status. To this day, the island remains bound by its neocolonial status under U.S. imperialism.

The remnants of imperialist conflict included mass poverty, illiteracy and hunger. The working class masses were forced into exploitation by capitalists in the U.S., who looted their natural resources and turned them into wage slaves. This was especially true for workers in the tobacco, rum and sugar industries. As is the case with every other society existing within the imperialist system, those in possession of capital and industry in the Global North are able to continually dominate those solely in possession of labor in the Global South. The surplus value produced by Global South wage workers is transformed into profits and capital for the imperialists, who are then able to exploit new labor for even more profits and capital. Thus, the vicious cycle continues.

Following the ratification of the Treaty of Paris, the United States imposed the U.S. Dollar as the sole legal currency. Following the imposition of the U.S. Dollar, Puerto Rico’s economy became entirely dependent on and regulated by the United States. In 1920, for example, Washington imposed the Merchant Marine Act (also known as the Jones Act). This federal statute mandated that all goods transported by water between U.S. ports be carried on ships constructed in the United States, owned by U.S. citizens and crewed by U.S. citizens and U.S. permanent residents. For Puerto Rico, a U.S. colony with “Commonwealth” status, this essentially isolates the island from all international trade and forces it to deal directly with Washington. Not only has this been disastrous for Puerto Rico’s economy, it has also been humiliating for the Puerto Rican people who are forced to run all of their financial decisions by the United States.

During the Great Depression, economic woes in the United States were paralleled in Puerto Rico. With poverty and inequality on the rise on the island, many working class people set their sights on moving to the only place they knew they would be able to attain better standards of living. This led to the mass migration of workers to the United States, and especially to New York City, during the remaining decades of the 20th Century. From 1946 to 1950, there were 31,000 Puerto Rican migrants each year to New York, according to U.S. Census data. New York (and other major cities such as Chicago) became a safe haven for Puerto Rican workers, given the rise of the urban-industrial economy following World War II. Historian Johnny Bontemps chronicled this exodus to Williamsburg:

“The first Latinos, most of whom were political exiles, arrived in Williamsburg in the 1890s. A major influx of Puerto Ricans followed in the 1940s with what came to be known as the Great Migration. That Puerto Ricans settled around the East River makes sense. For nearly a century, ships had been carrying raw sugar from the Caribbean to the Brooklyn waterfront, where today sits what remains of the Domino Sugar Factory.”

Johnny Bontemps, “Southside Story: Los Sures in Brooklyn

Moving into the 21st Century, gentrification became a rising issue in Williamsburg, especially after the 2008 financial crisis. The price of housing rose significantly in early 2006, began to drop in late 2006 and early 2007, and reached disastrous lows the following year. By December 2008, the Case-Shiller home price index registered its largest price drop in its history, creating a crisis in the housing market. This was a major contributor to the 2008 recession, which brought major changes to Williamsburg and urban working class communities as a whole. I witnessed these changes with my own eyes, as I frequently visited Williamsburg at the time.

Factories that once employed Black and Puerto Rican workers began shutting down and moving abroad. Working class families were priced out of their homes and forced to move out. Many of those who remained were obligated to acquire money through illicit means, as their cost of living increased and their incomes decreased. Instead of providing good paying jobs and housing for the Puerto Rican community, former banker and mayor Michael Bloomberg responded by boosting the police presence in the area. Queue the white hipsters. Yoga studios and vegan bakeries began popping up. Art studios constructed in abandoned factories became impossible to avoid. White hipsterdom hailed this as a cultural renaissance, even though it was based on the backs of exploited Black and Brown people, especially Puerto Ricans. It’s reminiscent of the way in which Zionists hail “Israel” (occupied Palestine) as a haven for advanced culture and economic development, even though it’s based entirely on stolen land.

According to a report released by New York University’s Furman Center, Williamsburg saw a 78.7 percent jump in average rents between 1990 and 2014. Citywide, the average increase in rent during the same time period was 22.1 percent. Median rents in Williamsburg went from $857 in 2000 to $1,591 in 2014. These economic changes severely impacted the demographics of Williamsburg and New York City overall. From 1970 until about 1990, New York’s Puerto Rican population reached its peak, especially in Williamsburg. During this time period, Puerto Ricans represented close to 80 percent of New York’s Latino population and 12 percent of the city’s total population, according to New York Census data. By the 1990s and especially after the 2008 financial crisis, that figure began to drastically decrease. Today, many Puerto Ricans have been forced to move out of Williamsburg and New York City to states like Pennsylvania and Florida. A large number of Nuyoricans (Puerto Ricans from New York) have resettled in Orlando.

What all of this teaches us is that you can’t begin to understand gentrification without understanding imperialism. Imperialism breeds gentrification, because both systems are predicated on the exploitation and displacement of colonized peoples under the global capitalist economic system. The case of Puerto Ricans in Williamsburg is one of the clearest examples. Puerto Ricans were forced to flee their island and move to the United States during the 20th Century because of imperialism. Now, they are forced to flee their urban communities and move to far-away states because of gentrification. Ultimately, if we want to end gentrification, we must overthrow imperialism.

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