Meet The Helpsters

| 13 Aug 2014 | 03:00

    The Music Hall of Williamsburg was packed last fall with maturing music fans who had just cheered their way through the performance of They Might Be Giants, a group many in attendance remembered as an up-and-coming indie band in late-’80s Williamsburg. Nada Surf, another band that grew out of Brooklyn more than 10 years ago, was up next and took its place on the stage.

    As so many in Brooklyn seem to be these days, the show was a benefit concert. Dubbed “Raise the Roof,” it aimed to support efforts to create Northside Town Hall Community and Cultural Center. A joint project between Neighbors Allied for Good Growth (NAG) and The People’s Firehouse, the community space in Williamsburg will be the new home for both organizations, which advocate for their neighbors in areas of community planning, tenant rights and other grassroots education efforts.

    “Thank you for realizing that a community center is a really important thing,” said Matthew Caws, lead singer of Nada Surf. “Especially in light of crazy overdevelopment and incoming people.”

    This is where things get complicated.

    In recent years, we’ve seen an upswing in activism and community building by precisely those “incoming people,” the ones who generated the “crazy overdevelopment” that transformed neighborhoods once considered dangerous, unsavory and, most importantly, unsophisticated. Now, their gentrifier’s guilt has spurred them to want to halt any further changes, and they are increasingly working to empower and enrich their neighborhoods. 

    Once derided as hipsters, let’s call them helpsters. Instead of disaffected aesthetes with nihilistic tendencies, we see motivated and committed Samaritans. They fight overdevelopment, though it was their presence (and buying power) that drew the developers and realtors in the first place. They defend the rights of tenants, since landlords want to squeeze their diverse neighbors and artist friends  out and move a new crop of more affluent—and inevitably less interesting—interlopers in. At the moment, efforts to increase community gardens, bike racks and green spaces are being discussed. Others organize meals for the poor and bike tours of toxic sites. One currently gestating project, to develop Brooklyn’s own currency, would make even old-school lefties blush.

    New York Cares, the city’s leading volunteer organization, saw a 30 percent increase in volunteers from 2008 to 2009. That’s approximately 1,100 New Yorkers who decided to spend large amounts of time working without compensation in hopes of making other people’s lives better. A full 60 percent were between the ages 18 and 34.

    Curious about the surge of interest, the organization delivered a survey to each of the newly recruited. One in five said they were motivated by Obama’s call to service at his inauguration, and another 30 percent acknowledged a recent change in their employment. In the absence of lucrative employment, these young men and women have been committing the energy once squandered on office jobs to a less selfish use. But the recession and Obamamania are both on the wane, and whether the new altruism will dissipate along with them remains to be told. 

    Recent world events have only called up more benevolence from Brooklyn’s culture makers. Following a similar event at The Music Hall of Williamsburg, Bell House presents a high-profile benefit concert Jan. 27 for Haiti’s earthquake relief efforts. Such mainstays as Ted Leo, Michael Showalter, Eugene Mirman and AC Newman will be joined by Jimmy Fallon and others to raise money. This event comes on the heels of a benefit show for the Gowanus Canal Conservancy. According to Bell House owner Jack McFadden, the Haiti show has so far earned about four-fifths of its $30,000 goal.

    “New Yorkers know opportunity and they know when it’s time to help,” McFadden wrote in an email. “When times are tough, people chip in.”

    At the Raise the Roof benefit show, nearly everyone I spoke with was involved in a social cause. Darren Will and Elaine Strutz recently attended a benefit for musicians without health care. Tali Cantor from Astoria works for the urban planning non-profit Civitas.

    “You feel like you’re being productive and helping out rather than just doing a job, where you don’t really get anything back,” Cantor explained. Except money, I mentioned. “But when the money isn’t out there...” 

    At the core of this group were, of course, NAG members themselves. Ryan Kuonen, NAG’s tenant organizer, told me about feeding poor Polish immigrants in Greenpoint, where she lives. She learned about those who had fled Soviet Poland for Brooklyn and, lacking the proper papers, were unable to return home after the collapse of the empire. “It totally changed the way I think of them and the neighborhood,” she said. “You totally get the stories behind, like, the guy passed out on the bench.”

    Hanging by the bar, laughing with friends, frowning at my questions, was NAG co-founder Joe Weisbord. He moved to Williamsburg in 1988, when he was 30 years old, to join his artist wife. I asked him if he found it difficult to understand the idea of neighborhood transformers fighting neighborhood transformation.

    Weisbord felt that mine was a reductive outlook. He said that NAG comprises as many longtime New Yorkers as it does newcomers. Its acronym once meant Neighbors Against Garbage, since it was founded to combat waste disposal on the north Williamsburg waterfront in the 1990s. The group had a different composition then, and the current challenge for everyone, Weisbord explained, was to make sure those who had made the area livable could still afford to live there.

    “We try to be a bridge between people that have been here a long time,” he said, “and people who are new to the neighborhood but share the same values.”

    The paradox of the upwardly mobile renter fighting gentrification—like an animal that has somehow evolved to become its own predator—isn’t lost on these helpsters. But many insist that further nuance is called for. This isn’t the same clash that their activist forbears faced, and it’s time for finer battle lines to be drawn.

    The most convincing defense of gentrification is the one most often repeated. It goes something like this: I just wanted to escape the heavy dread of suburban living. I couldn’t afford Manhattan, so I moved to Brooklyn. I didn’t ask to be part of some economic inevitability that I was hardly aware of at the time. I didn’t mean for this to happen.

    This current wave of community engagement may in fact be a widespread effort to commandeer that process. Instead of allowing developers to manipulate them, as has consistently occurred from the time of Soho to the most recent blatant capitulation in Dumbo, the helpsters are fighting back with grassroots efforts to secure their foothold and to salvage the neighborhood identity that attracted them in the first place. Since the recession halted some of that inexorable “progress,” these new urbanites have a chance to create the community they envision: one that’s lively and interesting, but also moral, ethical, socially and racially diverse. They are now in the process of choosing their allies. The renovated buildings, clothing boutiques, cheesemongers and wine shops don’t have to disappear. They also don’t want to continue to displace the families that have lived there for generations.

    Earlier that day I’d met with NAG member Emily Gallagher, whose turn toward activism occurred after she read about the 2007 death of 26-year-old Craig Murphy. An active volunteer, Murphy had organized the women’s security program Safe Walk. When Gallagher, 25, discovered his Facebook page and saw that they had friends in common, that he wasn’t some “classic dork en route to the White House,” she felt a connection and wanted to continue the work that he had begun.

    Gallagher, who wears side-sweeping bangs and has an affinity for underground film, now spends about 20 hours a week working for NAG, focusing especially on green space initiatives. At a guerilla gardening event she organized this past fall, about 40 volunteers threw “seed bombs” into any unprotected dirt. These kinds of “sexy” events, she explained, see more and more success, but attendance at picket lines is still scant. Perhaps this is a reminder that widespread interest in caring does not presuppose widespread actual caring. A romp around the block chucking seeds is a lot more fun, and requires less commitment, than educating oneself on political actualities.

    “We have a really hard time at NAG to find people who genuinely want to volunteer if there’s not beer involved,” Gallagher said. “Seriously everything has to be like a singles event.”

    I bring up the dual nature, corruptor and protector, of the gentrifying activist. Gallagher counters with a reference to Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, who wrote that up to a point, gentrification increases the health and diversity of a neighborhood. But only up to a point.  

    In her book, Jacobs makes the analogy of biological feedback. A healthy cell will cease to create a substance when it detects enough of that product outside of its membrane. A faulty cell will go on making, clogging its environment with monocultural goo. 

    “My fear,” said Gallagher, “is that if I really improve Greenpoint to the level that I envision, I won’t be able to live here anymore.”


    Beka Economopoulos and Jason Jones, cofounders of the art-and-activism collective Not an Alternative, have been major architects in the reorientation of the hipster class. Their space on Havemeyer Street, The Change You Want to See Gallery, is home base for many community projects in the neighborhood, so I decided to join them on a recent one.

    Daniel Latorre, a husky, peppy software programmer with a soul patch and mirrored glasses, went out to assess potential sites for bike racks with the assistance of Lacey Tauber, a petite Pratt Institute grad student. Both are heavily involved with New York’s Transportation Alternatives.

    Today’s project was to verify the legality of rack sites proposed to the city through, a website that Latorre helped develop.

    After a couple hours of assessing pavement quality, distance from crosswalks and convenience to commerce, the project’s beneficiaries seem pretty well-defined. We had marked a winery on Lorimer Street, the Bushwick Pita Palace and other locales where sleek road bikes were locked to street signs or fences.

    As we pulled up to a section of the east Williamsburg thoroughfare Graham Avenue, however, Latorre and Tauber quibbled over the spot. Businesses lined the sidewalks, their awnings marked with flat primary colors and their windows papered with ads. Tauber said it seemed like an opportune locale.

    “Is it, like, popular stuff, though?” said Latorre.

    “Well, I kinda feel like we should be, you know, equal opportunity,” Tauber said.

    “Right,” said Latorre, “’cause there’s, like, stuff, and it’s open.” 

    According to Latorre, a Department of Transportation official had agreed to process 300 rack requests in Williamsburg, but only on the condition that the next project of its kind take place in a neighborhood more like Brownsville, a Brooklyn neighborhood mired in poverty that has seen little demographic change in recent years.

    After marking a few subway stops, we returned to the gallery on Havemeyer and met with other teams that had been out doing the same work. We poured cups of wine and compare figures. Economopoulos tucked a slender leg beneath her as she sat down. Her long black hair and sharp, steady profile seemed flawless for a veteran of both activism and the dissemination of its message. Following the 1999 World Trade protests in Seattle, she was in a jail cell, giving press interviews from her cell phone. At the Havemeyer space, he stared calmly as she spoke, addressing me in a sort of universal way, as though she were speaking to all mankind.

    To understand what’s happening now in Brooklyn, she explained, it’s necessary to understand how she and Jones responded to a local crisis about four years ago. The gallery was still reeling from the 2004 Republican National Convention, during which it had aggregated artists and activists from all over the country and conducted them in demonstrations throughout the city. Economopoulos wanted to perpetuate the momentum that that event had powered. Meanwhile, a rezoning proposal was underway that would drastically transform north Brooklyn, replacing factories with high-rises and ratcheting up the cost of living.

    She was out walking her dog at the time and passed a public school where the city had just given a rezoning presentation. Members of community groups like Los Sures, El Puente and St. Nicks Alliance had all walked out in protest. She says she observed “the Latinos, the seniors, but nobody who looked like me.” She would later attend rezoning meetings and find that the neighborhood’s young white inhabitants, so ubiquitous on streets and trains, were conspicuously missing. 

    Though the minority groups were good at navigating the system, and their resolve was strong, they were less adept at publicity. The wealth of the neighborhood’s cultural capital was sealed up in bubbles of cool—going to concerts, new restaurants and scenester bars—and left politically untapped.

    “The creative community and hipsters, or whoever, were totally going to be affected by this,” she said. “But so many people were paralyzed by guilt. This, you know, ‘I’m the gentri-fucker, and I’m going to have to move to Bushwick or whatever.’ That’s bullshit.”

    In order to divert them from that narrative, Economopoulos, Jones and a few other leading activists set about a task no less humble than transforming what it meant to be cool. They started by spreading the word about what was going to happen and what it meant for Williamsburg. Then they took a typical object of cult ironic devotion, the 1979 gang thriller The Warriors, and made it a frame for political activism. The Williamsburg Warriors wore red headbands like those from the film and Photoshopped the movie posters into subversive propaganda.

    Creative Industries Coalition, co-founded by Economopoulos, staged elaborate street demonstrations— those so-called “sexy” events—involving roller blades, a tutu and a woman on horseback. TV on the Radio played at a Warriors event, for which one tagline read: “Help prevent our neighborhood from turning into a generic suburban hell.” These new volunteers worked in integration with the longstanding activists. A city official told Economopoulos that it was the most buzz about a zoning change that anyone could remember. Still, after a long deliberation, the proposition passed. Economopoulos says they had begun to resist too late in the game, anyway, but their real success was in harnessing a powerful group of people for civic engagement.

    Acting on theories promoted in Richard Florida’s bestselling books promoting the “creative class,” governments and business interests treat creative communities as ripe investments, Petri dishes from which higher forms of wealth can be grown. Only rarely do these groups seize agency for themselves, turn around and renounce their purported benefactors.

    Not an Alternative continues to unite a dynamic subculture that’s typically considered apathetic with a mode of political engagement that’s often deemed boring. Last summer, in an empty lot in Harlem, its volunteers helped build an illegal tent city to demonstrate the reclamation of community space. To provide cover, they faked the shooting of an indie music video, “starring” a Lithuanian model who makes sandwiches at Williamsburg General Store.

    “What would it look like to have a cultural movement that doesn’t suck, that isn’t ‘activism’?” asked Economopoulos. “What if Williamsburg looked that way? If we weren’t just the harbingers of next season’s fashion trends?” ------

    If Not an Alternative’s work made it socially sanctioned to care about one’s neighbors, then a more recent Brooklyn endeavor shows how that change has spread into Brooklynites’ appetite for art with a message. As a co-founder of Funding Emerging Art with Sustainable Tactics, or FEAST, Jeff Hnilicka’s original intention was to dislocate the funding of art from elite, cloistered institutions and give it over to the crowd that would ultimately consume this art. But he meant to help the art world, not necessarily the neighborhood.

    Here’s how a FEAST event works: About 15 artists come prepared with pitches and displays to explain their proposals. The rest of the attendees come to eat a wholesome meal and to vote. They pay $10 or $20 admission (depending on their means), and the artist with the most votes wins the sum of those fees in a grant that has been, on average, $1,500.

    The votes that people submit reflect their attitudes about the way that local artists ought to employ their imaginations. So far, a typical studio project has never been funded. Instead, the proposals that do win look like the most recent grantee, Green My Bodega, which aims to connect corner delis with local farmers, or the Brooklyn Torch, a project designed to help local merchants by establishing a Brooklyn currency. The next FEAST will be held Feb. 6 at Greenpoint’s Church of the Messiah. 

    Hnilicka (the “h” is silent) said he’s told some talented artist friends that they should apply for FEAST grants, and if their work isn’t community-based, they’ve told him he doesn’t fund what they do. But of course it’s not this 28-year-old who’s calling the shots. It’s his public that carries an agenda for social welfare.

    Hnilicka sports a scruffy beard, loosely coiffed hair and a coy smile. He radiates the casual confidence of someone who has made his own luck. He left his full-time job in August, and he lives off of contract work in the art industry. He sleeps on the couch at an apartment rented by other FEAST organizers. I met him at Cafe Grumpy at 9 a.m. on a Wednesday, not the typical slacker meet-up time, and he dallied leisurely in the coffee shop after he feels he’s gotten his points across.

    “I was interested in redefining the way that I thought about work,” he explained. “I had a lot of friends that got laid off, and I was interested in seeing if could I piece together freelance and, even if it meant taking a financial hit, have time to investigate stuff, to investigate these questions: What is community economy? What is personal economy? What is the system of need that I’ve created for myself? Can that shift so that I can help out a community economy rather than my own personal economy?”

    Maybe the economic crisis has disrupted the hypnotic draw of wealth, and gentrifiers are looking around them instead of ahead to promotions or fat bonuses. Maybe they’re overcoming the alienation of their guilt, and they’re trying conscientiously to belong.

    Hnilicka’s project, in spite of its anti-corporate flavor, is actually a clever capitalist ploy. For the price of a decent meal, he’s selling shares of the community in which his patrons would like to claim beneficent roles. Exclusion, that ages-old commodity, has taken a hit. What threatens to displace it is a mode of urban living that goes against the grain of history. But whose defenders are growing in numbers—as they grow up.