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Neighborhood Threat: 1984’s "Los Sures" Looks at a Williamsburg That Didn’t See Gentrification Coming

A newly restored 1980s documentary on the famed Brooklyn neighborhood shows a very different picture than the present.
MUBI is exclusively showing Diego Echeverria's Los Sures (1984) in a new restoration September 3 - October 2, 2016.
Williamsburg Savings Bank
Thomas Wolfe’s short story “Only The Dead Know Brooklyn” first appeared in the June 15 1935 issue of The New Yorker. The story attempts to render spoken dialect into prose: its opening sentence is “Dere’s no guy livin’ dat knows Brooklyn t’roo an’ t’roo, because it’d take a guy a lifetime just to find his way aroun’ duh goddam town.” Wolfe’s mode and the story’s appearance in The New Yorker (the 1930s New Yorker was a very different magazine than it is today) speak to a particular 20th-century perception of the New York City borough of Brooklyn, both within New York itself and as far as the rest of the United States, and the world, was concerned. Brooklyn’s myth was as New York’s cynosure of rough-hewn authenticity. The myth had its roots in some awful reality, some of it reflected in Last Exit To Brooklyn, the 1964 novel by Hubert Selby Jr., whose work was never, as far as I can glean, featured in The New Yorker.  The myth was romanticized on the television series The Honeymooners, about the boisterous domestic situation of a Bensonhurst bus driver.
The mythologizing, the dramatic depiction, was largely limited to archetypes related to the white working class. Black Brooklyn did not get much recognition in popular culture until Spike Lee and various hip-hop artists practically forced the issue. And Williamsburg? Despite having been the setting of the still-beloved book A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, Williamsburg in the post-World-War-II industrial decline was barely even a subject. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s it was almost literally an enclave, and a culturally schizoid one, with Hasidim putting down roots on the North side and Puerto Rican and other Hispanic immigrants in the South, or as they called it, “Los Sures.” The unspoken rule was that if you weren’t a member of either group, you just stayed away, unless you were going to the legendary steak place Peter Luger’s, an enduring landmark from the late 19th-century wave of German immigration into the area. (An enclave within an enclave, so to speak.)
Produced for a public television project in 1984 (and now brought back into film culture’s consciousness via a crowdfunded restoration), Diego Echeverria’s Los Sures is a remarkable portrait of the South side of Williamsburg. It’s structured in a style that’s no longer in vogue among documentary makers. It alternates verité-style depictions of its individual subjects with talking-head interviews with them, then bleeds them together, as the individuals’ observations play out in voice-over as the subject is seen living his or her life. Echeverria’s cinema-eye (the picture was shot by Mark Benjamin and Alicia Weber) is engaged and mobile in a venerable 16 mm tradition. It’s not Wiseman but it gets the job done. Indeed, within its concise parameters this movie is as much a demonstration of form as content as anything else: its format fits the urgency of its depiction of a struggling community.
Marta, Maria, Cristina
The period of Los Sures sees the once-strong and fearsome gang culture of the neighborhood (gang names included The Vampires and the Chingalings) diluted in the aftermath of rampant violence and drug-abuse casualties. The movie’s first subject is Tito, seen memorializing his slain brother with some sidewalk graffiti. Tito, a garrulous sort, lives a low-level itinerant criminal existence, dealing a little, working at an auto chop shop, keeping house with a taciturn girlfriend. He tells the camera that he “can’t trust nobody” and  “can’t call nobody my friend anymore,” but he seems absolutely without a notion of how he might change his life for the better. Marta, whose story comes next, is a remarkably youthful looking mother of five daughters, a couple in their early teens. She’s on welfare, makes canny use of food stamps, store discount coupons, the whole thing. For someone whose life choices and lack of options have left them in a potentially very perilous hand-to-mouth situation, Marta’s remarkably perky and optimistic for the large part, and her older daughters seem genuinely interested in being helpful.
Ana Maria finds solace in dicey-looking religious rituals, and observes, “Stay with your family, you’re safe. Stay with the system, you’re fucked up.” Evelyn, on the other hand, is a trained social worker trying to make a difference via the National Congress of Neighborhood Women, whose Manhattan Avenue headquarters was founded in 1974 and closed not too long ago. She’s trying to stem a certain tide, and maintain her polite bearing while doing it; she makes a point of saying “excuse me” to junkies as she steps over them on her way to her apartment. As for the home renovation contractor Cuso, who boasts that he’s been in the neighborhood since the early ‘40s, when his parents moved from Puerto Rico, he comes off as the unofficial mayor of Los Sures, walking the streets and saying hello to everyone, smiling all the while.
The film’s subjects and images carry a particular charge when seen and considered thirty years after the fact. It’s not just because so much has changed, but the way so much has changed. Williamsburg’s evolution, quasi-gentrification, and current metamorphosis into another luxury destination for well-heeled urban adventurers have all but resolved into a punchline. Watching Los Sures, the question that nags the back of one’s mind is less “what makes a neighborhood ‘authentic’?” than “what makes a neighborhood a neighborhood?”.  And there is a deeper distinction between the two questions than semantics might immediately indicate. Some clues about the continuity of neighborhood can be gleaned in a recent doc, a short called Of Memory and Los Sures, which prefaced some theatrical showings of Echevierra’s work, and features the spoken reminiscences of a couple of artists whose pioneering efforts inadvertently laid the groundwork for the very specific gentrification Williamsburg is still undergoing.
Los Sures depicts life as struggle, while the market forces currently shaping Williamsburg sell the place as a kind of theme park: Come relax in the birthplace and graveyard of 21st-century hipsterdom. And in the meanwhile, a once marginalized community experiences…further marginalization, it would seem. In a way, Los Sures would make an exemplary double feature with Roberto Minervini’s  The Other Side, whose poor Louisiana subjects are a whole lot less engaging than those of Echeverria’s film—drug-addicted, racist dead-enders indulging in all manner of pitiable and appalling behavior. Minervini’s movie  also contains a implicit warning as to how far into the margins the big-money concerns can push a community of people before that community buys into very anti-social ways of pushing back. In a recent interview, Echevierra mentioned that he’s glad to see that contemporary Williamsburg still has a visible Hispanic presence. That’s heartening in a sense. What it means with respect to the families that have had to leave the former enclave is unclear. 

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