Gentrification Threatens Future of Hispanic Churches in Williamsburg

The congregation leaves Mass at Transfiguration Parish in Williamsburg. While the church has not seen the number of worshipers decrease, other churches catering to a Latinos in the hip area have. (Photo by Víctor Matos via El Diario)

The faith held by thousands of Latinos in Williamsburg hasn’t been enough to save their churches. While this Brooklyn neighborhood has been rapidly gentrifying with modern buildings and affluent residents, more than 80 houses of worship serving various religions are struggling to keep their congregations alive.

Many Latinos in the area have moved to other states such as Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Florida, driven away by rising rents, a lack of affordable housing, unemployment, and real estate development that hasn’t even left parks untouched. Although some religious leaders say gentrification started five decades ago, they are feeling the damage to an even greater extent now, and not just at Mass or during the Sunday sermon.

“Half of our congregation is no longer with us because they couldn’t survive in New York,” said Julio Mercado, a Baptist bishop at the Primera Iglesia Getsemani on Graham Avenue. Mercado, who leads the 90th Precinct Clergy Coalition, said his church only has about 35 members now.

He warned that circumstances are similar at other houses of worship in the neighborhood, but said, “In other areas of Brooklyn that haven’t been affected by displacement to the extent that Williamsburg has, there are churches with more than 2,000 members.”

Getsemani has existed in northern Williamsburg since 1974. The church provides community services to immigrants and has a successful support program for drug addicts. “We survive on donations from other churches, and luckily we own the building,” said Mercado.

Other congregations haven’t been as lucky. “Many hold services only at night or on weekends; others share space to lower expenses.”

Although it wasn’t possible to contact the church leader’s to confirm it, Mercado said that houses of worship like La Roca de Horeb survive like that, as islands surrounded by stores, bars, and restaurants on commercial strips such as Bedford Avenue. Two congregations, one of them Latino, share the space at St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church on South 5th Street, which was built in 1884 and was recently declared a landmark as part of the city’s Sacred Sites Program.

Fighting Against Change

Another institution with deep roots in Williamsburg has been trying to find new ways to stay in the neighborhood. The First Spanish Presbyterian Church, located on South 3rd Street, opened in 1925; before that it had been the South 3rd Street Presbyterian Church, which started in 1860.

“As time passed, the church became a community of middle class congregants in a very poor neighborhood, and that created a big gap,” said Reverend José González Colón. He explained that worshipers’ success pushed them to leave the area in search of better opportunities. “What remained was a congregation of senior citizens and young people that aren’t very religiously active in a poor and marginalized community.”

Twenty years ago the church had more than 700 members; today only 80 remain. Moreover, the lack of funding is an ordeal. “The cost of operating this church is more than $135,000 a year,” said Colón. He has been struggling over the past five years to pay off the church’s debts.

For that reason, the church now offers religious services in English to attract younger generations, and does social work among youth to help them finish school and keep them off the streets. The church is also collaborating with local organizations like El Puente, and in the future hopes to open an online branch of the Inter American University of Puerto Rico.

“This community is not prepared to face the new wave of affluence,” explained Colón, who is of Puerto Rican descent and was born in East New York. He said that now more than ever, local churches have a responsibility to serve the communities of Williamsburg.

And in the Future?

Rev. Tony Hernández runs Transfiguration Parish, the largest Catholic church in the South Brooklyn neighborhood. He hasn’t seen his congregation decrease in size, but he doesn’t rule out that it couldn’t happen. “It’s increasingly difficult to hold the parish and the community together.” He emphasized that grandchildren won’t necessarily continue to attend church like their grandparents do.

“On the bright side, we still have many members who come from other neighborhoods, and there are many worshipers who live in public housing projects and have affordable housing; they don’t face the pressure of rising rents.” Furthermore, church leaders have strived over the years to create a sense of family faith in the neighborhood; people outside the congregation know about their community services.

Hernández said that while the majority of congregants are elderly, the number of young couples with children has risen. “The Mexican population is growing a lot in this neighborhood, which used to be mainly Puerto Rican and Dominican, and Mexican families have a lot of children.”

Transfiguration Parish, located on Marcy Avenue, only offers one Sunday service in English; the rest of the masses are in Spanish. “I don’t see the need to change things now,” said Hernández. “The majority of worshipers are Latinos who are recent immigrants and understand Spanish.”

Hernández is of Puerto Rican descent and grew up in Carroll Gardens, where, like his congregation, he also experienced the effects of displacement.

One Comment

  1. As rents increase, landlords seek to obtain the most return for their investments in housing. The flood of luxury housing construction on the waterfront and elsewhere in Williamsburg and surrounding areas has caused a domino effect of more gentrification. Reverend Hernandez is right about Transfiguration Church, a Roman Catholic Church whose strength and power in the community is based on the work of Father Monsignor Brian Karvelis who over the course of 50 years created a tight knit community of worshipers many of whom live in one form of subsidized housing or another. The authors of this article see the glass half empty. Williamsburg’s Latino community has built a strong group of community based organizations that are successful in sustaining their community, Churches United for Fair Housing, Southside United Housing Development Fund Corp. known as Los Sures, and of course there is El Puente, an organization that has a valiant history of developing the community’s youth for success in education and the arts. Nuestros Ninos Child Development (Child Care & Day Care) Center has nurtured and educated many leaders in the community, City Councilwoman Diana Reyna is one of them.

    While the Latino population is reducing in number the fight for affordable housing is intensifying. City government and the private sector must take on increasing responsibility to make it possible for people who have lived their lives embedded in an embracing community to stay here. Market principles should not rule over the needs of people. Communities of people should have the right to determine where they live.

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