Over the past couple months, several meetings and hearings have taken place to discuss the fate of public education in the community of Los Sures, the Southside of Williamsburg. Recently, the New York City Department of Education announced plans to phase-out P.S. 19 Roberto Clemente School, as well as the co-location of the Williamsburg Success Charter School with J.H.S. 50. Shortly thereafter, advertisements for the controversial charter school began to appear prominently in a subway station on the more affluent Northside of Williamsburg, while no such advertisements were to be seen in the significantly less affluent and historically Latino surrounding area of Los Sures. In palpable indignation, community leaders, activists and groups formed the Southside Community Schools Coalition and immediately began to organize hundreds of community residents to inform and speak out against the sweeping changes, the planning of which all were excluded.
The Southside or Los Sures is bordered by the Northside, East and South sections of Williamsburg. That a Latino community burgeoned here is no surprise. Bordering the entirety of the Southside's East River waterfront is what remains of the Domino Sugar Factory. Dating back to the mid-19th century, ships carrying raw sugar established trade routes from Cuba and Puerto Rico to the Brooklyn waterfront. It was these very trade routes that would later bring Puerto Ricans to various sections of Brooklyn creating colonias throughout the borough and the city. After Puerto Ricans would attain citizenship and arrive en masse during the great migration, Los Sures soon would become a center for Latino life in Brooklyn. In the 1980s, immigrants of the Dominican Republic and all over Latin America would add to the flavor of the neighborhood.
During the 70s through the early 90s, Los Sures saw a rise in poverty and crime due much to the decrease in industrial activities in the area as well as negligent urban policies. By 1980, it would have the highest concentration of Latinos in New York State and was considered of the poorest and most violent communities in the country. "In 1979 and 1980, we lost 48 young people in one square mile of Williamsburg," recounts Luis Garden Acosta, long time community activist and founder of the community organization, El Puente.
It was during these the worst of times that community members, with guidance of the Catholic Church, began to unite and found organizations that would change the face of this rough and tumble environment. The Southside United Housing Development Fund Corp. (which is commonly known by the namesake of the neighborhood "Los Sures") is one that has preserved and developed thousands of affordable housing units for members of the community. The aforementioned El Puente was founded in 1982 "to inspire and nurture leadership for peace and justice." Nuestros Niños, continues to be the neighborhood's primary childcare organization. Over the past forty years these organizations worked with other organizations and the community to bring the area back from the brink and redefine itself.
Today, the Latino identity of this neighborhood is still evident in its blocks dotted with Latin Restaurants, cuchifritos, bodegas, botanicas , travel agencies and remittance businesses. In the summer time, open hydrants still blast children with ice cold water, giving them respite from their blistering apartments and you can still hear the boisterous refrain of ¡capicu! as locals of all ages play dominoes on the sidewalk. In case you are unaware of their roots, flapping overhead are rows of Dominican and Puerto Rican flags draped across the streets while the syncopated rhythms of salsa, merengue and bachata mix with the newer beats of hip-hop and reggaeton.
But, like much of Williamsburg and Brooklyn as a whole, over the last decade the look of Los Sures has seen dramatic changes. The demographic dominance that the Puerto Rican community once held is long gone due to mass displacement. Where many a bodega once stood, now trendy restaurants reflect the mainstream transformation of the neighborhood. These shifts have been primarily caused by confluence of changes in zoning, wide scale deregulation of apartment units, improvements in safety and quality of life as well as proximity to Manhattan.
Many in the community view the DOE's planned changes to the neighborhood's schools as yet another institutional mechanism to exacerbate the conditions that have lead to the displacement of their families and friends. The co-location of the a charter school without any input from the neighborhood at large has outraged the community, concerns that their own children will be alienated from access to education in their neighborhood continue. In the case of the Roberto Clements School, there is concern that fundamental social identifiers are being changed to make way for newer residents. For the community, this fight is but another chapter in a long struggle to maintain control of their institutions.
On February 9th, New York City's Panel for Educational Policy (PEP) voted to close the Roberto Clemente School along with either the closure of phase-out of 22 other schools citywide. The school will be replaced by some other iteration, but concerns about the name of the school will likely be allayed as officials are leaning toward continuing to name the school's campus after the famous humanitarian baseball player. This week, the PEP will vote on the co-location of the Williamsburg Success Charter School in the Junior High School 50 building. It is yet to be seen whether the clear message of the community has resonated with the City. One thing remains clear - the community determined to prevent the change of their local institutions without their participation and input.