Amid Manhattan Gentrification, a Village Endures

Click on photos to see larger versions in a slide show. All photos by Alex Harsley

As I walk down the block where I live, East 4th Street between Second Avenue and the Bowery in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, here is some of what I see:

Baptiste, the Haitian porter, sweeps the sidewalk. I call out to him in my ersatz French, “Ça va, monsieur Baptiste?” and he replies that it does go well.

Shirley, a long-time African-American activist, takes the air with her little dog Gizmo. Alex Harsley, founder of Minority Photographers, works on his racing bike in front of his tiny gallery. Willie, the Puerto Rican salsa fanatic, sits on his folding chair with his boom-box at his feet. Liton from Bangladesh, loving the summer heat, is almost dancing as he claps me on the back. Derek the Mets fan, originally from Britain, glides past on his scooter.

In her rapid-fire mix of Spanish and Italian, Josefina, the Dominican matron who runs an Italian restaurant with her sister, invites me to a party in her apartment that evening, making me swear I’ll come by.

Amid the high-rent apartments and expensive restaurants that have made the Lower East Side a hipster destination, how did this block remain such a village? Partly by chance, and partly though half a century of visionary community organizing.

The Lower East Side was always a sponge, absorbing wave after wave of immigrants, from Eastern Europe, Russia, Italy, the Caribbean, South America and the American South. As immigrant families saved enough to send their kids to CUNY and move out to Queens or the suburbs, some remnants of each wave remained. And always new waves came – South Asians, Africans, Chinese, Israelis, Arabs. And artists from everywhere.

In 1958, the neighborhood was almost razed when Robert Moses announced plans to turn Delancey Street into an off-ramp for the Long Island Expressway — which is why that street has an incongruous eight lanes of traffic, which squeeze down to two after the Bowery. Moses’ big idea was to split the river of cars, sending one stream south to the Financial District and another north to Midtown. As insane as we can now see this idea was, Moses pushed it through, and got swaths of housing condemned for “urban renewal” to make way for his temple to the automobile.

But he had not reckoned with the community. One of the condemned neighborhoods was bordered by 5th and Stanton Streets, the Bowery and Second Avenue. All the buildings in those blocks would come down. But in spite of – or perhaps because of – the community’s great diversity, it came together to fight Moses’ plan, under the leadership of two fierce organizers, Frances Goldin and Esther Rand (themselves both from immigrant families), as well as Thelma Burdick, a transplant from the Midwest who ran a community center also slated for destruction.

At first, Burdick – prim in her veiled church-lady hats – did not want to become the face of the organization that called itself the Cooper Square Committee, but once she had accepted the office, she became one of its most tenacious fighters.

One story has it that when she would go to the offices of elected officials and be told that so-and-so was not in, she would announce that she would wait. There she would sit, with her white-gloved hands folded in her lap. Of course, so-and-so was in, and now he was trapped. Eventually he would have to hear her out.

But it wasn’t just the leadership that enabled the Cooper Square Committee to defeat Moses. It was the whole community, who turned out at demonstrations, handed out leaflets, clogged the steps of City Hall.

Victory brought its own problems. The committee had developed a plan, with help from Jane Jacobs, Staughton Lynd, Walter Thabit and other city planners, to knock down the old walk-ups and build new, nine-story low-rent elevator buildings, with a guarantee that all old tenants could have apartments in the new buildings, comparable in size and rent. Gardens and trees would provide the air and space lacking in the old tenements, built for factory workers in the 1890s and 1900s.

The plan was approved and a contract signed with a large construction firm, when a small group of ultra-radicals on the steering committee decided it was wrong to work with a capitalist. Their obstructions caused the contractor to throw up his hands and withdraw, and the plan bit the dust.

The buildings entered legal limbo. They were owned and maintained by the city. All tenants had the right to remain, and rents were frozen. This may sound like good news – monthly rates as low as $35 as Manhattan rents began to skyrocket – but the buildings were not in good shape, and city maintenance was dreadful and slow.

When I moved to 4th Street in 1978, I could see through a hole in my floor into the apartment below. The tub was in the kitchen, a board laid over it my counter and table. The toilet was tiny, but at least it was inside my place; my neighbor’s was down the hall.

I was an illegal subletter, so I kept my head down and did not engage with the community for my first six years. That changed for me after a sojourn in Nicaragua during the Sandinista revolution. I fell in love with that country, the people, and their struggle to emerge from tyranny. I asked my friends there what I could do to help the revolution when I went back home. Their answer, almost always, was, “Where do you live?” When I told them, they’d reply, “Start there.”

When I returned, I realized that my neighbors and their allies had already started. So I joined the fight. It took another 20 years, and we had to make compromises. We had endless meetings among ourselves and with the city, and Thelma Burdick died, as did many of the original tenants. But we had a vision – a 24-building low-income coop, all the tenements gut-rehabbed, administered and maintained by a Mutual Housing Association, on land owned by a Community Land Trust so that the buildings are guaranteed to remain low-income. We finally signed a memorandum of understanding with the administration of Mayor David Dinkins.

It took another 15 years, but the buildings were cleaned and rehabbed. We got trees planted, and a sculptor fabricated beautiful tree guards. We chose commercial tenants based on what they might contribute to the community, rather than how much they could pay.

The result is both a village and a world. The village: everyone helps everyone according to their skills and needs, and everyone also knows everyone else’s business. The world: we are open to all, and all the world comes.

That’s the village that I feel around me at midnight when I knock on Josefina’s door as I’d promised I would. The door opens, and so do Josefina’s ample arms for a big abrazo. The sounds of bachata music and shouted conversations, and the smells of Josefina’s cooking, feel like more embraces, and I am pulled in and introduced to cousins and sisters and uncles and aunts, and the family’s newest baby.

The place seems larger than it is, because there are mirrors on each wall – mirrors that I helped hang. They also make the place seem even more crowded than it is, and I can’t imagine how anyone can dance — yet several sets of hips are swaying as feet move in rapid rhythms.

Some try to teach me, their gringuito, the steps. It’s hopeless. Amid good-natured roars of laughter, a glass of wine is pressed into my hand, and the party rolls on. Over the music, Josefina shouts, “Porque somos familia!”

One Comment

  1. Well written and thank you for keeping the flame alive. We must let this village continue to flourish.

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