Saturday, October 30, 2010

LES bloggers complain, missing the action

None of the local bloggers have bothered to draw attention to the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors' effort to preserve the Bowery with its historical exhibit On the Bowery. Instead, they focus on the easy, appealing, fun irony of the exhibit's venue. Irony and complaining or action, which is the value? The former are the easy choice. Isn't irony the yuppie generation's favorite mode and complaining their favorite voice? I grew up in the crude 60's, when activism had no irony.

Having complained about and ridiculed in writing the Chrystie-Avalon complex in which Whole Foods is housed, I am sensitive to the irony of curating an exhibit promoting Bowery preservation in the very place where Bowery gentrification began. The venue was not my choice. I consented to design it because it was a benefit for the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors, the only group that was active in preserving the Bowery, as distinct from the many who complain about gentrification and do nothing. (Recently other community organizations have joined BAN actively, notably Two Bridges.)

I've been working with BAN since its inception, surveying the Bowery, researching, schmoozing political office-holders, writing documentation, and now, creating an exhibit. A show at Whole Foods, with it high volume of local patrons, makes it an ideal venue for exposure. And it's in a public space that is frequented by Bowery locals -- not just shoppers (though the complainers won't know that because they are too caught in their own political correctness to recognize the urban nature of public space that real, ordinary, truly local people use). The irony of the venue seems so much less significant to me than the fact that so many people will see this exhibit and will learn not just the forgotten history of the Bowery, but also the preservation struggle, which is the thrust of the exhibit.

So while I am conscious of irony in the choice of venue, I am amused and disappointed in the unanimous blog response to the exhibit, focusing on that irony while completely ignoring that the exhibit is an important step in raising awareness of the Bowery to protect it. I appreciate that local news media concern themselves with maintaining their profile before their audience, and the hook of an irony has a much higher profile than the dull fare of asking the audience to get active -- it's so much easier to complain about gentrification than actually do something about it.

If any one of the EV bloggers had bothered to investigate the Bowery exhibit at Whole Foods, that blogger would have found that the direction and point of the exhibit is preservation. Sure, there's a grand historical narrative, and lots of intriguing characters and surprising stories, but the preservation point is doubly reinforced, clearly explained in text and graphic image.

This SaveTheLowerEastSide blog has always been focused on action and policy information, to give people the information needed to act. There have been digressions on history and occasional complaints, mostly about obstructive local politics, and occasional complaints about losses to the neighborhood. But it's mostly been about getting active -- going to a CB3 meeting, signing on to an open letter or legislative testimony -- or information explaining the technicalities of zoning or the liquor license laws. (It has been quiet on this blog lately, not because I have been inactive, but because I've been working closely on the Chinatown process, and I don't feel it appropriate to kiss-and-tell, on the one hand, and on the other, I don't want to jeopardize such an important community process.)

To me, the bloggery 'irony' response to the Bowery exhibit seems cheap -- superficial and irrelevant, self-serving and masturbatory. If the designer of the exhibit has to be the only blogger out there to tell people that BAN IS STRUGGLING TO PRESERVE THE BOWERY with, among other events, an exhibit at Whole Foods for the preservation of the Bowery as part of BAN's work to preserve the oldest and most richly historic street in New York -- then I'll be that only blogger.

The lament has a distinguished literary precedent. I admire it and appreciate it as a record. But I'm an activist. Maybe that makes me blunt, even crude. My repertory of tactics is limited to vocal criticism. It always gets me in trouble. So here it is: our LES bloggers are full of complaints that aren't helpful.
We're trying to save the Bowery,
while you are playing with yourselves,
my dear friends.


Anonymous said...

You're absolutely right - LES/EV bloggers are mostly about posture, not activism. They talk a big game, but the ultimate irony is that they are all a part of an earlier wave of the very gentrification they find so distasteful. Their war is with the later comers who are ruining their feeling super cool for moving here when somewhat fewer white kids from suburbia were doing so. They provide a valuable service cataloguing happenings in the neighborhood, but when it comes to their editorializing, they are full of shit, mostly. Jeremiah is the worst, but BB and EVGrieve aren't far behind. They all have a strict ideology, and march to the drum of "however it was when I got here is how it should be." That's all they really care about. It's not surprising that they focus on the irony of your event's setting. It's their bread and butter to be cooler than thou and in the know - decrying various nightlife establishments while frequenting others, the only difference between the two being what kind of clothes the suburban-raised white people in the bars are wearing. So while they are largely hypocrites, you, on the other hand, are a sadder and more tragic case. The fact that you are actually "doing something" brings to mind Don Quixote, tilting at windmills. It's pretty cool that you set up an exhibit about the area's history, but nobody seriously believes that this area can be "preserved" in any meaningful way. Do you really believe that? With all the money that's flowing in, and the rich people who now want to live here, do you seriously think that in 20 years this area won't be like SoHo? What can you possibly do to stop it? Maybe keep the Bowery Mission open? The housing projects aren't going anywhere, that's for sure, and maybe you can landmark some buildings here and there, but that's about it. Their irony can certainly be toxic, but your earnestness is just as problematic, in its own way.

EV Grieve said...

Thanks for your tireless efforts, Rob. I do plan on seeing the exhibit soon. Unfortunately, due to a work commitment, I couldn't make the opening event.

I did post the flyer with a link for more information. And I never made any snide comments about it. I think it's very cool.

As for talking a big game? I don't know. I'm looking at some of my recent posts... covering the fire at Otto's, increased police presence in Tompkins Square Park, the murder on Seventh Street, the manhole fire on First Avenue — all fairly straightforward news accounts.

I do get caught up in some stupid shit – like the EV Lambo... a little levity is important, though ... I've never seen myself as an activist, rather a blogger/reporter... God forbid that a blogger be opinionated or snarky or stupid... Think that I'm full of shit about something? Then let me hear about it the comments... I'm all for a variety of opinions. Do I want the East Village to be exactly the way it was when I first got here? Some parts yes, some parts no. Regardless, I love living here now. I respect the past and look forward to the future.

rob said...

I appreciate both these comments.

First, Grieve -- I saw your notice with the flyer. I should have excepted your blog on my post. As I say, I admire all the bloggers, their coverage, their diversity. My interest is in getting the word out for BAN.

So anon, does BAN have a chance?

If you've gone to the city's Oasis map and looked at the historic preservation in community district 2, you've seen that about three fourths of CD2 are protected by landmarking, including the west side of the Bowery, some of which was protected only recently.

So it's possible to protect. It takes organizing and political maneuvering. But it's possible.

The Bowery is particularly sensitive: it runs deep into Chinatown, so what the city does with the Bowery has reflexes there. In contrast to CD2, there's virtually no protection in the LES/EV (CD3). Why has CD3 had so little preservation? It's not the buildings themselves: tenements were constructed during one of the most fertile moments of fa├žade design in New York. You can see it everywhere here.

Can the community be preserved? That's much tougher. But if Chinatown is stabilized as an immigrant destination, and grows, parts of the Bowery may also be protected from rampant gentrification.

Anonymous said...

Original anon here: I think you're right with regard to landmarking. That is the one element of preservation that may actually succeed, not least because it's driven by wealthy people, and benefits wealthy people. It's exactly the aspect of preservation that does the least for poor/middle class people, and arguably even hurts them. Older, scenic buildings that give a neighborhood charm are valued first and foremost by residential property owners who have invested in the neighborhood. As their number goes up, landmarking goes up too. People holding down two full time jobs don't have time to attend community board meetings. I don't have the numbers, but I'd wager that the West Village has some of the highest incidence of landmarked buildings. Doesn't prevent Marc Jacobs from renting storefronts, or landlords from rolling inventory into market rate, as soon as they are able to do so. Ironically, as ugly and noncontextual as new developments can be, they actually increase the supply of housing and therefore make rents lower than what they would be otherwise. A place like Avalon Chrystie, which is 80/20 I believe, actually contributes a chunk of apartments that are "affordable" (for lack of a better term.) In other words, preserving the buildings is exactly what the gentrifiers want, and it's unclear to me that doing so has any positive effect on economic diversity in the long term.

I'm all for it, by the way, because I think they look pretty, and new buildings are mostly crap, but I don't see how it will ultimately "save" Chinatown.

rob said...

It's true that landmarking increases property value of the existing building if it's a house, like a townhouse. I'm not sure the effect on a tenement. Studies I've seen compare landmarked houses with non-landmarked houses, not tenements. More to the point, I've not seen a comparison between a landmarked house and a non landmarked house that was demolished and redeveloped into a 23-story hotel. My off-the-top guess is that the latter appreciated far more than the former.
That's the rational for landmarking a tenement: the tenants, being regulated, won't be evicted regardless of the appreciation of the tenement's landmarking designation (if tenements appreciate as houses do) as long as the owner doesn't demolish, and landmarking prevents demolition.

The most affordable housing is current affordable housing. So preserving tenants where they are has that advantage over 80/20 which brings additional gentrification/displacement pressures as well. It's hard to imagine that the tenements of Chinatown would appreciate much in their narrow streets.

In any case, the issues you address, anon, are exactly the right issues to address. We had this debate in the EV rezoning: should we welcome development for the sake of 20% "affordable" housing, or hold out for no development at all (or minimal development).

Anonymous said...

I think you are absolutely right that the 23 story hotel will create greater returns for the owner of that particular property, but it will likely depress values in the surrounding properties, which would benefit from a uniformity in pre-war architecture. Landmarking is almost always a burden for the owner, but a benefit to the surrounding owners who will benefit from the fact that the restricted owner will not be allowed to cash in by maximizing his asset.

The thing about affordable housing in tenements is that is only moves in one direction. People do relocate, even when they have amazing, way below market rents. People die. An apartment that was once controlled/stabilized and then brought to market rate will never go back. So it's just a matter of time, given external pressures in the neighborhood, that the tenement apartments will shift over to newcomers who pay market. It happened above Grand, and it will happen below too.

What I don't really understand is why people would want to live in a neighborhood where none of the amenities cater to them. If I were immigrant Chinese and were being priced out of peripheral Chinatown by LES gentrification, wouldn't I just rather move to Sunset Park or Flushing? I mean, what value do I get from being surrounded by hipster boutiques and oyster bars? Clearly this is far from the case in core Chinatown, and I believe core Chinatown will continue to survive in some form. But when the writing's on the wall, what's point of fighting market forces?

rob said...

I'd like to reproduce this discussion as a blog post, if you don't mind, anon.

Anonymous said...

Of course I don't mind. That's why I'm anon :)

Bowery Boy said...

I'm not all that good at irony, but I think it's a good thing. I don't mind if people on the other side of an issue from me follow blindly, but I don't want the people on my side to follow blindly. Irony opens eyes.

I voted for Obama, but that doesn't stop me (or J. Stewart) from poking fun at him. If he can't stand up to our irony, then how do we expect him to stand up to the other side? Recently, I've helped out with a number of BAN issues, but I'm conflicted about the Whole Foods location. Then again, I'm conflicted everytime I go into that store. Irony helps me to come to terms with that conflict.

I think that local blogs serve an important purpose. They can be a testing and proving ground for my stance on local issues, and they rev' me up to confront the enemy. They have there shortcomings and then some, but if I can hold a candle to them, maybe I can convince someone else of my point, too.

I hope that you will not take them too seriously, but understand their conflict, and good luck with your exhibit in the belly of the beast. lol.