When aging hipsters pine after “the way things used to be” in Williamsburg, they’re usually talking about the free-spirited ’90s music and art scene or even the early 2000s when Williamsburg already was an indie darling, but didn’t yet have hotels, tourist mobs chasing the rainbow-bagel dream.
But what if you could wipe the streets clean and go back before even the days of Luxx and the Stinger, to see Williamsburg as it was in the 1980s? The music scene would have been the one on the street, with immigrant kids playing salsa and pop from boomboxes, hips moving in formation, or squaring off in a break dance competition. The neighborhood was also one of New York’s poorest during the high-crime 1980s, suffering drug problems and neglect. Now you can learn about it all from the people who were living it firsthand. Los Sures, a film documenting life in Williamsburg’s South Side in 1984 in exquisite detail, is making its first-ever theatrical run at Metrograph for a week, starting on Friday, April 15. Its release couldn’t be timelier, what with everything from a New Yorker cover to the latest episode of WNYC’s There Goes the Neighborhood podcast commenting on Williamburg gentrification with a story about a woman who has lived on Bedford Avenue for 25 years, dealing with the fallout of having new richer neighbors.
And, a far cry from the aspirational white-bread idleness of the Bedford Stop, Los Sures should be required viewing for anyone moving to Williamsburg. Like a time capsule, the 16-mm film sat for many years forgotten, gathering significance and weight as decades of change swept the neighborhood, until it was rediscovered in 2007 and restored by Union Docs.
The 60-minute doc, directed by Diego Echeverria, presents five short vignettes of Puerto Rican Williamsburg residents: There’s Tito, who steals cars to provide for his family; Marta, a young single mother trying to raise her five kids on welfare; Ana Maria, an older woman whose religion keeps her in touch with her roots; Cuso, an entrepreneur trying to help his neighbors; and Evelyn, a community activist outraged by how drugs are affecting the neighborhood.
Part of the beauty of the film is that it’s so personal–it draws you not just into the characters’ lives, but also into their vibrant–and sometimes difficult–environments with expert cinematography. The subjects allow the filmmakers to follow them around almost everywhere, from cuddling with family in bed, to stretching food stamps at the grocery store, to dismantling stolen car pieces. And there’s no shortage of interesting vérité vignettes surrounding them, from kids splashing around fire hydrants on a hot summer day to religious exorcism conversions. The neighborhood may have been poor and difficult for those who lived in it, but the film makes clear it was rich with community and dignity.
Part of the film’s “wow” factor also comes from the distance created by time and vast change. It gives you a sense of vertigo to recognize familiar streets or landmarks in the grainy shots, mentally mapping what’s different now and what’s the same: There’s the subway view rolling across the Williamsburg Savings Bank. There’s Tito spray painting a tombstone and cross for his dead brother in front of a bodega on Havemeyer and South 2nd. Instead of flannel and strange facial hair, the men populating the streets wear short shorts and tube socks. If only there could be a documentary of this caliber to preserve the memory of every changing neighborhood and city.
The most shocking thing is how distant or even inconceivable the changes (i.e. money) that would sweep the area in a matter of decades must have looked to Williamsburg’s residents in 1984. At one point Marta talks about whether or not she’ll try to move away. “I don’t feel the need to leave […]I’m gonna do my problems here,” she says defiantly. But about her daughters, she sounds more defeated, as though they may be trapped in her cycle. “When you live in an area all your life, and this is all you know, how do you get out of it?” she says. She warns them they’ll either have to think of a way to get out, or plan to make the neighborhood a better place.
But, looking back 30 years later, it’s strange to realize they’d have little control over the direction of the area anyway (thanks in part to policy changes like Bloomberg’s rezoning and investments pouring in from outside) and instead much of the community shown in Los Sures has witnessed waves of displacement.
After you watch the doc, you’ll want to check out Living Los Sures, an online documentary project by Union Docs to complement the re-release of the film. It includes new short documentaries about the community of South Side today and a “shot by shot” section that allows people to splice in their own memories to different scenes in the film–It’s like walking through Williamsburg with footnotes. There’s even a follow up with Marta at 65, living in the same apartment in Williamsburg but deciding that it finally is time to move on.
“Los Sures,” playing April 15-21 at Metrograph, 7 Ludlow Street, Lower East Side.