When photographer Stéphanie de Rougé moved to New York in 2006 she settled on the south side of Williamsburg. “From the first day, I knew I was at home here,” she wrote on her website. “Williamsburg had it all: the Brooklyn grittiness, the sexy wild parties, the shady pharmacy, the old pigeon cooper and the sweet little café around the corner. Other than the fact that yellow cabs refused to cross the bridge, life was good.” Yes, yes it was. But then Starbucks moved in, and Whole Foods and Apple made their nefarious plans.
De Rougé told us that she had “always wanted to do a project about this neighborhood and the changing and the gentrification,” but inspiration eluded her. She teaches at the International Center of Photography in Manhattan, and last year they asked her to create a ten-week class. She settled on “The Five Minute Portrait,” geared toward professional photographers who shoot busy celebrities. At one point, she challenged her students to shoot a portrait of a stranger on the street and post it to Instagram with the tag #5mnportrait. It was only fair for her to play along, so de Rougé started photographing people in Williamsburg.
That’s how #MyChangingNeighborhood was born. De Rougé shoots all these spare, striking portraits with her iPhone and posts them to Instagram. “I got really excited ’cause I realized how diverse Williamsburg is,” she said. Despite gentrification, de Rougé believes there’s as much diversity as there always was, just in a different form. “I think [Williamsburg] has become a passage,” she said. “People come to live for six months, or three weeks to build a Starbucks.” For her, what has truly changed about the neighborhood is the sense of camaraderie she found back in 2006. Because Williamsburg now is “moving too fast,” it’s hard to form relationships with neighbors and build community.
De Rougé, who lived and taught in Paris before moving to New York, acknowledges that she’s part of these changes. “This gentrification thing is the history of New York,” she said. Because of this, her #MyChangingNeighborhood project has taken on greater significance for her. “It’s also a project about my relationship to New York and the understanding of that city.” This year she moved her family to Greenpoint and rediscovered community. “It has become like Williamsburg was before. In two weeks I met all my neighbors and we do things together,” she said. “We know each other by name, we might not know each other’s history, but there’s a relationship there.”
As for her project, she knows it will continue to evolve, but there are some question marks. She would like to exhibit these portraits but isn’t sure when or how she would do it. When she started, she’d heard about the Starbucks coming to Williamsburg and decided that its opening would mark the end of her series. However, the chain was in business just two weeks after she started, so she adjusted her deadline. She will stop shooting in Williamsburg when the Whole Foods opens there (because, you know, that’s when the fiery apocalypse will swallow the neighborhood whole, making it impossible to photograph), but will continue the project in Greenpoint.
To see more of #MyChangingNeighborhood, follow Stéphanie de Rougé on Instagram.