Wednesday, December 08, 2010
Last night Community Board 3's Economic Development Committee, following a long public hearing on both sides, approved a proposed Chinatown Business Improvement District (BID), supported by Councilmember Chin. A Chinatown BID will significantly enhance Chinatown's commercial clout, and it will also enhance Chinatown's powerbrokers, both within Chinatown and in Community District 3 as well as in the broad city political landscape.
Because a BID is paid for in part by a tax on property owners, several property owners questioned last night why they should have to pay for services that the city itself should supply. Their objection is not so much a financial complaint, but an issue of inclusion. These property owners do not see themselves or their interests reflected in the promoters of the BID. The BID did not originate with them, they feel the BID progressed without them, and they anticipate that the BID will commercially develop and direct Chinatown without their voice.
The BID maintains that it will be open to all voices. However, its primary promoter, Chinatown Partnership, is a creature of Asian Americans for Equality, the most politically powerful organization in Chinatown. Both are close to the councilmember -- a founder and former board president of AAFE and Chinatown Partnership. In other words, the vote last night was a consolidation of political strength in Chinatown.
A couple of observers outside the BID area raised concerns about the effects of the BID on small businesses, which will bear a burden of cost, and the focus of the BID, which seems more concerned with tourism and upscaling commerce than labor and local residential community. Will the BID promote gentrification in Chinatown as the LES BID did, overseeing the gentrification of the LES and transformation of it into a nightlife strip and construction and hotel zone for overdevelopment?
The consequences of the Chinatown BID remain to be seen. I don't see how it will solve the deeper troubles within Chinatown -- the evaporation of the garment industry that sustained Chinatown throughout its expansion, and the threat of overdevelopment and the burden of real estate taxes on the old tenements. The BID's easiest goal will be tourism, which will help some local businesses, may drive out others, and could radically transform the local character. It will be a shame if in ten years Chinatown blogs have names like "ChinatownGrieve" and "Vanishing Chinatown" routinely complaining about the invasion of outsiders. Those are my worst-case scenario worries.
Howbeit, the vote last night is a great and unequivocal victory for the councilmember. She will say, of course, it is a victory for Chinatown, and in fact, she will now have an opportunity to make good on that claim. Political strength is a relation between leader and power base, whether commercial or residential. For my part, I don't believe there is one Chinatown. There are many. This was a victory for one aspect of Chinatown. It is Margaret Chin's task to play this card into a victory for all of Chinatown. If that play will begin, it will begin with healing.
Most of the meeting was remarkably respectful and orderly. The meeting was chaired by CB3's model committee chair, Richard Ropiak. Amidst the most controversial meetings, Ropiak always manages a smooth meeting. He assiduously avoids interjecting himself into the discussion (even when you can see he would like to), yet he keeps order firmly when necessary. As a result, everyone gets heard, everyone feels the hearing process is fair.
The BID has a few remaining hurdles to clear before it is made law, but the vote last night all but assures its success.
Monday, November 29, 2010
Although the EV and the 3rd & 4th Avenue triangle have been recently rezoned to cap heights, there are still plenty of available development sites here. 3rd Avenue still allows the same bulk as prior to the rezoning, and it allows more bulk than the NYU dorm that already stands on 3rd Ave at 10th Street. (It's only 5.31 FAR. Under the new zoning, 3rd Ave allows 6.5 FAR for dormitories!) And they can build as high as 12 stories on 3rd Ave -- the current dorms there are only two stories taller than that.
And then there's El Bohio, the old P.S. 64. It's already standing, requiring minimal construction, and it is a huge lot. A dormitory there would end all hopes for a community center. So there's plenty to worry about.
When NYU unveiled its plans to build on its own campus, it seemed to me a great relief. The I.M.Pei site is already high-rise, full of wasted, unused, inhospitable concrete plaza space that feels like and looks like a wind tunnel. But NYU's ambition overreached with a plan of excessive height, including a hotel, that riled the locals.
The underlying problem for NYU is its limited endowment. Unlike universities with huge endowments, NYU depends on tuition. So it thrives more like a corporation than a university. It needs more students -- it needs expansion in a way that some other universities don't. So the problem of NYU expansion is not likely to go away. The question is, where will it go?
Wednesday, November 24, 2010
Setting aside whether the BID is a good or bad idea -- like most planning ideas, it is a mix of both, and judgment depends on perspective and interests -- going to the CB without going to the community seems a premature and unwise choice for three reasons:
1. it by-passes and ignores the ongoing community process in Chinatown
2. it undermines the viability and effectiveness of that community process
3. it risks dividing the community by promoting the BID without full discussion within the community.
Chinatown Partnership has been promoting a Chinatown BID to clean Chinatown streets and promote tourism and economic development. But the small businesses, who will pay for the BID, are not all in favor. Some small businesses don't see why they should have to pay for services that the city ought to supply. They also worry that a BID will create a quasi-governmental bureaucracy that will formulate policy that will not serve small businesses, but may serve big capital or power-brokers in Chinatown. Increased taxes from the BID will be passed onto small landlords who would be compelled to pass these increases to small businesses whose profit margins are already narrow. Yet these small businesses have historically been providing low prices that have benefited the local community. The increased push for tourist dollars over the small business economy that has long dominated Chinatown is not without controversy. And once a BID is created, it is almost impossible to dismantle, even if the BID turns out to be harmful to small businesses.
Tuesday night at the CB3 meeting, Margaret Chin repeated several times that the BID should be an issue of self-rule. I agree. CB3 should follow the will of the Chinatown community on this, including the local small business community and the Chinatown Working Group.
The Chinatown Working Group represents a moment of great potential for Chinatown. Members are drawn from businesses, residents, labor, social services, arts organizations, parks organizations, parents of school children -- you name it, CWG includes it. CWG is also completely open to any organization in the community. Even Chinatown Partnership is a member.
At this critical moment of great hope and expectation, Chinatown Partnership's choice to take an end run around CWG would be ill-considered. The right and fair place for the discussion and planning of a Chinatown BID should be in the CWG, where all of Chinatown interested parties can speak equally and freely to hash out the issues.
In addition, CB3 or CWG or some independent source should try to discover which kinds of businesses (large, small, restaurant, produce, boutiques, pharmacies, hair salons, wholesale supply, lumber, sidestreet, avenue, neighborhood location, etc.) support the BID and which oppose. The same should be evaluated for residents (owners, renters, neighborhood location, income, immigrant, native, working within Chinatown, working outside, salaried, temporary). A study of the consequences for all those sectors should be drawn up as well. Without full information, the BID is a shot in the dark, and many could get hurt.
Saturday, November 13, 2010
three Bowery events upcoming:
Tenement Talks, November 16, 6:30pm
Bowery: Past, Present & Future with David Mulkins
at the Tenement Museum Visitors Center 108 Orchard,
An illustrated talk on the legendary street by the chair of the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors co-sponsored by Bowery Boogie
Lionel Rogosin's 1957 On the Bowery
return engagement at the Film Forum Nov. 19-25
"Rogosin is probably the greatest documentary filmmaker of all time"
(Susan Wasserman, Dir. of the Gotham Center, will speak at the Friday, Nov. 19, 7:40 screening and I'll be speaking at the 7:40 screening on Saturday Nov. 20)
Bowery History: a celebration
at Dixon Place, Nov. 30, 6pm cocktails, 7pm showtime
161 Chrystie Street
An evening of cocktails, music, performance, film and speakers
for the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors
On the Bowery: an historical exhibit
at Whole Foods, Bowery & Houston, 2nd floor
by LESHP for the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors
Here's the letter to the LPC from Ralph Lewis:
November 5, 2010
Hon. Robert B. Tierney, Chair
Landmarks Preservation Commission
1 Centre Street, 9th Floor
New York, NY 10007
Re: Landmark Status for 206 Bowery
Dear Chairman Tierney and Commission Members:
As a community leader who cares deeply about New York City and the community histories that make it such an incredible city, I am very concerned about the preservation of the legendary Bowery. At this critical time of change along this avenue, I want to thank the LPC for putting the Federal-style rowhouse at 206 Bowery through your rigorous landmark process. I understand that its case was recently closed, so I urge you to designate this house a NYC landmark as soon as possible.
Built in the early 1800s, 206 Bowery is one of the oldest buildings in the City not currently landmarked. A rare, actual house in Manhattan, its architecture appears today almost exactly as it was built 200 years ago; and its Federal style design is both unique and finite. This house has participated in many waves of NYC’s cultural and commercial growth, and its very existence tells an essential New York story of survival and resilience. It is extremely important to me and my community that structures of this age and character are preserved, so that future generations can understand The Bowery’s heritage through the landmark designation of buildings like this one.
I’m sure that the Commission is aware of the unplanned development currently taking hold on The Bowery with a speed not seen in other neighborhoods. The community is grateful to the LPC for equally protecting its historic character. 206 Bowery is a wonderful example of the intimacy that once was downtown Manhattan, and it stands in stark contrast to new, bigger buildings where both large and small, new and old, make each other look better by comparison. This architectural diversity will insure that The Bowery remains one of NYC’s most unique avenues.
Lastly, I want to thank you for recently designating 97 Bowery as an NYC landmark. Its addition to the growing list of landmarked Bowery buildings continues to create an historic district, making The Bowery an economic and educational destination for residents and tourists alike. 206 Bowery can only contribute to this success.
206 Bowery needs and deserves the immediate attention of preservation laws to ensure its survival, so that its special house-ness will continue to reflect the irreplaceable Bowery. With so much at stake, it is vital that the Commission act with urgency to landmark 206 Bowery.
Friday, November 12, 2010
Saturday, November 06, 2010
PowerHouse Arena, 37 Main St Brooklyn DUMBO
At 3pm, I'll be moderating a panel with Richard Price, inspirer and writer of HBO's award-winning "The Wire" and novels Lush Life and Clockers, and Henry Chang, author of the Detective Yu Chinatown Trilogy, including this year's Red Jade. We'll be discussing the impact of gentrification in the streets of the community from their writer's perspective.
On the Bowery, the groundbreaking 1957 realist film directed by Lionel Rogosin (founder of the Bleecker Street Cinema) IS BACK at the Film Forum, November 11 through Thanksgiving (and beyond?). It played for a week in September and was so packed they held it over and now brought it back. The newly mastered, beautiful B&W movie is accompanied with a documentary about its historic significance and the remarkable story of its making. (I'll be speaking about the documentary and the Bowery at the November 20 7:40 screening, in case you hadn't had enough of me.)
Our exhibit on the history of the Bowery is still at the Whole Foods (yes, at Whole Foods, you don't have to tell me the irony of it) in the public space (hey, it's public space -- I say use it!) on the second floor. It's about raising awareness of the truly astonishing history of the Bowery and encouraging people to get involved in protecting the Bowery. Here's an intro youtube packed with history
The exhibit flyer and the exhibit card (see how many faces and places you can recognize)
Thursday, November 04, 2010
If you've gone to the city's Oasis map [below, with my comments] 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 soon-to-be South Village District not yet shown in the map], 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 façade 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.
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.
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).
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?
Sunday, October 31, 2010
Still, I don't see in our neighborhood the kind of policy broadsides that thrive in other neighborhoods: QueensCrap, DevelopDon'tDestroy, AtlanticYardsReport. We have only Suzannah B. Troy -- often a lone Cassandra turned from every door.
When the local blogs began to appear, I expected, unrealistically, they would represent a face of resistance or at least alterity, an East Village Otherblog, as if they would all be written by Penley and Flash. It's not the bloggers' fault -- not everyone has the resistance pathology, identifies with it or has a taste for it. Maybe this blog is supposed to be the resistance blog. I wish I had a taste for blogging.
Saturday, October 30, 2010
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.
Thursday, October 28, 2010
(Grateful thanks to Mike Geyer, Honey Millman and Andrea Coyle, without whose generosity and resources it would never have happened).
Go take a look. Flyer and card below.
Whole Foods, whatever you think of it, provides a public space on the second floor at a time when there are fewer and fewer public spaces in NYC. A lot of Bowery locals -- people who live on the Bowery, work there, people from the Mission -- hang out at the public space at Whole Foods every day. So I kind of like having this exhibit in this public space where local people can happen on it and enjoy it and learn about the history of the Bowery.
Reminds me of the spread of MacDonalds and Burger King. We all complained about fast-food chains coming to New York (this was in the 1970's). But if you actually spent time in the Burger Kings (not MacDonalds which was family oriented, even in its decor), you'd see circles of working-class recent immigrants hanging out there together, with a cup of coffee three hours old. Nobody bothered them. And soon enough, Burger Kings became a local working-class site.
The Whole Foods gallery space has this feeling of being a little like a park bench. It doesn't belong to anyone, no one bothers you. And, unlike a park bench, even the police aren't around.
ON THE BOWERY
a Lower East Side History Project exhibit
for the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors
ON THE BOWERY: An Historical Exhibit
At Whole Foods Market
95 East Houston St at Bowery (2nd Floor, east wing)
Open daily, 8:00 AM to 11:00 PM
October 29, 2010 through Winter 2011
Location information: http://wholefoodsmarket.com/stores/bowery/
Subway: F to "2nd Avenue/Lower East Side", 6 to Bleecker
Opening Event & Reception:
Thursday, October 28, 7:00 PM - 8:30 PM.
Light food and drink plus presentations
Come and mingle with LESHP and community friends.
Sunday, October 17, 2010
People are considering a permanent memorial for Michael -- naming a garden after him, for example. This doesn't even remotely approach the significance of Michael Shenker. Someone coined the verb "to shenker" -- maybe for 'illicitly jimmying electricity', or 'opposing all authority flagrantly and fearlessly'. That's getting closer. Fly announced the first Saturday of October as Illumination Saturday for his electricity, literal and figurative. That's a start. There has to be more, much, much more.
Michael was not famous, not a self-promoter, not a national name nor a headliner. He was bigger than fame. Michael's life has something deep to give, and it would be a shame if that were lost to the history of a few brief moments in a corner of the city. His life had something important to say not just to us here in the LES, but for everyone in this city today and (I believe this) for humanity. The funeral banner motto sets it just right,"Would you rather be safe and live in the darkness, or take a chance and live in the light?"
As Seth Tobocman said several times last night, Michael was free and fearless. That's what should be memorialized, not just among ourselves, but everywhere, as a demonstration of the possibilities of life. Everyone should know what the LES was all about, what the LES can grow and create, what kind of courage we aspire to, what kind of independence and commitment and passion. Everyone should know who he was, how he lived and where.
At the memorial last night Seth Tobocman added that he didn't get to walk with Martin Luther King, but he did get to walk with Michael Shenker. I have the same feeling about Michael, but not because of what Michael did or accomplished, or his aspirations or his beliefs, but because he knew how to live, freely and intrepidly, and because he so comprehensively understood his intentions and motives, and expressed those intentions so brilliantly.
I admired Michael not as those who participated in his struggles, by the way. I didn't share with him one of his basic positions and I didn't participate in two of his most important occupations, the squatter's movement and the 'community' gardens. I wasn't a squatter, so I didn't get involved with the movement, and I didn't (and don't) join the garden movement, partly because gardens are not truly public, and partly because the gardens were by the time of the movement, already a sign of gentrification. I've seen many gardens lead to disputes and divisions in a small community -- disputes over space, because the space is quasi-private, not truly public. I believe open space should be wholly public, and while I don't subscribe to any ideology, to me the public parks are one of the few instances of unalloyed success of the socialist ideal: the government keeps it open to all and no one can dispute its space.
Don't get me wrong -- I admire the garden movement as a community movement, and I appreciate its work to keep green space. But by the time the garden movement had begun, most of the gardens in the neighborhood had been transformed from their original Loisaida craziness into a kind of self-gentrification of its own: conventional landscaping made to look pretty in conventional ways; carefully circumscribed plots of tomatoes and vegetable patches, assigned to this or that member. None of this was the character of the gardens when I moved here when locals were beginning to claim the empty lots left by fire and demolition.
Those early 80's gardens were each unique, crazy, original as only the LES could be. Pretty they weren't. The gardens reflected the apartments of the weird tenants: packed with the stuff of some odd mind's obsession, freely spread around. The walls of one apartment flowed with fine copper wires hanging in broad reams like a bright orange waterfall; another piled with furniture to its ceiling, unused and unusable, crowding every inch of space save a narrow passageway to the bed. The people here, their apartments and their 'gardens' had character. It was not about reproducing the comfortable or attractive spaces of the middle class, or the amenities of the suburbs. It was uniquely New York and uniquely LES.
So I didn't share a lot of the struggles that Michael passionately led, or his aspirations. In the 90's I stayed away from community activity entirely, disillusioned after participating in demonstration after demonstration through the late 80's only to watch the fight against gentrification develop into nothing more than a pointless and self-defeating rage against policemen-on-the-job -- police, the lowest arm of government lacking any policy-making, and policemen, working men with little or no understanding of the issues, faced with an ugly task, to stand against the citizen. I gave up any hope for this community's ability to organize beyond its own personal anger. I spent the 90's instead fighting for public higher education against Giuliani's intent to downsize CUNY and limit access to it. I believe in public institutions that benefit all the public. Bob Arihood rebukes me that college is pointless. If he's right, then my efforts were foolish. So who am I to cavil over others' struggles?
At the memorial last night there was a moment of difference between the audience and a speaker. I thought at first it was a blemish, but then rethought. A memorial that is nothing but blandishments and encomiums is not the truth. Michael got involved and that's staking a position. We should remember honestly the real man -- that was the extraordinary man. No one wants to remember the undertaker's make-up.
Besides, you didn't have to share Michael's beliefs to appreciate that this man had grasped the meaning of life, that by guarding his freedom, he'd let loose his passion -- in all directions. Everyone who was in contact with him felt it, judging by the accounts at the memorial last night. He made a difference; he helped a lot of people; he led a lot of struggles; he accomplished something. And he did it out of his freedom and his passion and his brilliance. That's the greatest person I've known in my time. Everyone should know about Michael Shenker. Everyone should have known him. I envy to no end all the squatters and garden folks who got to work with Michael regularly. Once he became a squatter, I didn't get to see him much anymore -- and every single time I walked through the park I hoped to encounter him. I loved to listen to his talk when I did. He should have lived longer. Long live Michael.
Thursday, October 07, 2010
Musical program in honor of Michael
7 p.m.; music starts around 8 p.m.
At 5C Cafe, Fifth Street at Avenue C
Burt Ekoff, Michael's piano teacher, and friends will be performing.
Sunday, October 10
Time's Up Garden Party
3:30 p.m. at El Jardin Del Paraiso
Located on Fourth-Fifth Streets between Avenues C and D
Michael was a co-founder of the More Gardens Coalition and a force behind saving NYC gardens. Reverend Billy and the choir will be at this event.
Saturday, October 16
March Around the Neighborhood
Meet in the middle of Tompkins Square Park at 5 p.m.
Friends will march around the neighborhood and arrive at his funeral.
Funeral for Michael at Mary House (Catholic Worker)
7 p.m. at 55 E. Third St.
Sunday, October 24
Celebration of Michael with Eric Drooker and Eden and John's East River Strong Band.
6-10 p.m. Location TBA
I first met Michael in the early 80’s at Hunter College in the music department. He stood out not only because he seemed to be the sharpest and most knowledgeable musician among the students, but because he seemed at once to own the department and the department couldn’t quite contain him. His natural brilliance didn’t belong in the confines of the classroom or within the distinctions of faculty and student. His character fluently spanned such lines of propriety. It was an unusual environment to see him in — college is intellectually friendly but also orderly and proper, so he was welcomed, but wouldn’t stay long: he was too independent.
Later I saw him in the neighborhood where he would overwhelm me with that outpouring of political eloquence — an irresistible river let loose. I know very few who could speak so well as Michael. That’s what I really loved about him — he could speak expansively with knowledge and resonance. I always hoped to encounter him in the street or in the park just to hear him talk again.The neighborhood back then drew many extraordinary independent spirits who thrived in this place that was so completely abandoned by money and mainstream interests. Michael was one among the brightest lights here.
For those who didn't know him, here's Chris Flash's comment from the NY Times article to give just one aspect of his significance (he was also a key motivator and tactician in the garden movement as well as the squatters movement):
[...] Michael was an intelligent caring person who put himself on the line repeatedly — he was a real doer. Thanks to Michael’s efforts, more than a dozen abandoned buildings were opened, made habitable and ultimately “legalized” under an agreement with the city that put an end to countless HPD raids and court battles.
[...] The squatters did not steal housing from anyone. Rather, it was phony poverty pimp organizations holding buildings vacant until public financing was forthcoming and the city itself, which allowed buildings to remain vacant and crumbling rather than continue the successful homesteading (sweat-equity) program that ended just before the squatters took direct action in the 1980s.
Instead of following the so-called “housing” groups’ model of creating taxpayer-subsidized units with years-long waiting lists for “moderate-income” tenants, the squatters created immediate housing for “zero-income” tenants, all at NO cost to the city. The squatters did their own labor at their sole cost. Each member paid housing dues to cover the costs of materials and all members participated in “work days.”
The squatters did not pave the way for the subsequent gentrification on the Lower East Side that was coming anyway — for close to a decade, the squatters stood in the way of yuppie ghetto developments, ultimately winning their fight for their right to remain in their homes.
Michael was in the middle of all of this, from the earliest days of squatting in the early 80s through the present. His contribution and his wonderful presence in our lives can never be fully expressed, but those of us who knew him knew and appreciated that he was special.
Saturday, July 17, 2010
1) the church cannot guarantee that they can preserve the building in perpetuity (the congregation and administration might change in ten or twenty years -- it could fold entirely),
2) the preservationists cannot guarantee help with the burden of effort and financial expense implied in landmarking.
There is no question that landmarking is a burden to the owner: repairs to the façade require approval from the Landmarks Preservation Commission in addition to any normal Department of Buildings permits. Those approvals require applications and, in some cases, hearings. The Landmarks Commission receives several thousand applications each year, each must be treated individually. The Commission is underfunded. Applications can take time, and complex applications may not be clearly understood by a strapped and overworked commission. Where there is ongoing damage, say, water damage, delay for approval may occasion irreparable damage meanwhile. A simple air conditioning system could be prohibitively expensive, if LPC won't allow the units face the street where they are most convenient.
Both the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the Landmarks Conservancy offer grants to relieve the burden. Preservationists urge that landmarking should be viewed as an opportunity for the church.
But LPC grants would not be applicable to the church. LPC grants are intended for restoration of seriously degenerated façades. But the church façade, as it happens, stands in almost pristine state.
The Conservancy's Sacred Sites grants offer more:
"Priority will be given to essential repairs to the primary worship building. Highest consideration is given to projects such as roofing and drainage system repairs, masonry repointing and restoration, structural repairs, and stained glass window repair and restoration. The Sacred Sites Fund also provides grants for professional services, including conditions surveys, plans and specifications, project management, engineering reports, stained glass surveys, and laboratory testing of materials and finishes. Sacred Sites grants may be considered for barrier-free access construction, if it is done in conjunction with a larger preservation project. Grants cannot be used for pipe organ restoration, interior work, mechanical upgrades, or routine maintenance.
"Grants will not be considered for work that has been started or completed at the time of the application.
"The maximum grant amount for the Sacred Sites Fund is $10,000. In the most recent, January 2010 grant round, Sacred Sites grants averaged about $3,000, and we project similar grant averages through 2011. No grant shall exceed half the project cost."The church would still need assistance with the effort of applications. Sometimes a simple application to succeed can require community and political support. That takes organizing, writing, meeting, as well as grant-writing and researching. The existing administration may not have time to devote to those efforts and the work of ministering to the congregation, and may require the additional financial burden of hiring someone just to handle the landmark burdens.
And financial grants do not mitigate the sheer length of the application process to remediate an ongoing problem.
Landmarks are routinely designated in opposition to the owner. My sense is that if the community preservationists pursue this designation, it will succeed. Few buildings in this neighborhood are as eminently landmarkable as the church building: designed by a significant architect (he built the original Natural History Museum, the stone south side of which can still be seen), an attractive building, an almost unchanged façade, an unusual example of Richardsonian design in a church, and a significant social history in the neighborhood.
If the preservationists could commit financially to the church and commit to helping with applications, the conflict might be partially resolved. Maybe that should be the goal of the mediation to which both sides have agreed. But how can preservationists be bound to any agreement to commit? All in all, it looks like the church is going to have to endure an additional burden and hope that it can thrive despite.
There is a lesson in it all: preservationists would not have pursued this particular building were it not that the church proposed and considered an eight-story condo expansion above the building. The lesson cuts both ways: if you own a historic and architecturally significant structure, either treat it with respect and not draw attention of preservationists, or illegally demolish it before anyone ever knows.
For all the finger pointing towards the church, at least they didn't try the latter. Many others have.
Thursday, June 10, 2010
Sunday, May 30, 2010
Clearly, the 3rd&4th Avenue rezoning will not serve its purpose. The voluntary middle-income provision lacks incentive: it won't be built. The 120-foot height cap will continue to encourage development, and the huge 57% increase in residential density will target every small old building for demolition -- eviction -- and redevelopment.
In the craze for contextual zoning, no one seems to understand that under the old zoning, huge overdeveloped towers were typically built by purchasing air rights from smaller buildings. Those smaller buildings, once having lost their development rights, have no room to develop. That protects them and their tenants.
In the rezoning, the old commercial allowable floorspace (6 FAR) is unchanged. The 6.5 community facility (dormitories) is unchanged. The only change is the huge increase from 3.44 residential FAR to 5.4, a whopping 57% increase. Instead of a few towers protecting its smaller neighbors, this rezoning will eventually replace every old building with 57% larger ones rising up to 12 stories. This is an improvement? Who is benefiting besides developers and their minions?
Sunday, May 23, 2010
P.S. 122 has renovated with a pristine surface of white poured stone. It's clean and new, but undistinguished. Dull in its glaring brightness, fawning and monkeying the commercial success of the clean edge, it proudly flaunts banality. Sadly, it covered one of the most poignant, beautiful and resonant façades in all Manhattan, including its crumbling brownstone Romanesque-Dutch influenced entryway.
Ruins can't be made: they become, despite themselves. That's their essence and their point. They tell us that we cannot control our world, that time and nature rule, that human genius is an ambition not an accomplishment, that foiled hubris can be noble and admirable and beautiful because it is an attempt at the infinite in a finite world. Ruins have pathos. And ruined hubris too: otherwise it would be oppressive triumphalism, like glass and steel.
Whenever I walked past P.S.122's, I always thought immediately of the painting in the early Flemish room at the Metropolitan Museum, variously attributed over the years (I think it's now Petrus Christus, but I can remember when it was a Hubert van Eyck, or school of van Eyck, and who knows next) strangely depicted from an aerial and oblique view showing a pristine church surrounded by the green, natural world. Between the constructed and the earthy sward lies a single step, degrading. The painter has taken great effort to render the details of this step, its smooth, worn-away surface as well its cracks and clefts and its exfoliated layers. Stone chips lie scattered on the earth before it.
It seems the painter wants to show a contrast between the fallen world of human fashioning and the perfect world of god's kingdom embodied in this perfect church building. But the church is much less interesting and appealing than this one stone step. The church is pretty enough, so is the surrounding foliage and the angel and Mary there, but the step is mesmerizing. The more you look, the more you think: about human frailty, human failure, about history and inevitability, time and loss. And while you think and muse, you also feel, more and more, and soon and near, that this step is familiar, welcoming and warm. It holds no pretensions, it demands no expectations. It's where we live; it's where we die. It's most us.
P.S.122 could have protected the public from its flaking sandstone with a modest awning or eave, but instead, it swallowed it up forever. Demolishing an old townhouse to build a hotel will at least benefit someone -- the owner, with personal profit. But covering this ruin of over a hundred years, benefits no one. It's a completely gratuitous act.
It's not a humanitarian disaster, but if we provide for basic needs of humanity without providing a human environment, what have we accomplished? A while back I took a group of inner city 19-year-olds from a prison halfway house to tour the neighborhood, showing them how history, economy and social structure explain the form of the buildings. They ate it up and assimilated the knowledge instantly, but when I pointed out an old tenement covered with terra cotta, they went bananas. "Look at the detail!" "That's MAD detail!" I couldn't get them away from it. Later, at the end of the tour, talking with one of the kids, I asked him what he wanted to do with his life. The answer: "I think I want to be an architect."
Don't tell me only the rich care about architectural beauty, the plebs don't. That's just bigotry and the true snobbism of paternalism.
Wednesday, May 12, 2010
The old town houses were much smaller than the zone allowed, which means that the owner can build a much larger structure now. It is common for a developer to demolish an old structure to avoid a landmarking designation.
This happened on the Bowery only a couple of months ago. The developer, intending to build a large hotel or condo complex, bought three adjacent parcels, on one of which stood a historic structure. Of the three buildings on those parcels, only the historic structure (an early Germania Bank building) has been demolished:
In the world of real estate development, history and aesthetic value must be destroyed, otherwise it stands in the way of "progress" (defined as personal gain). But crap is okay. Crap is great. Crap doesn't threaten money. There's no protection for crap or against it. One piece of crap can easily be transformed into another piece of crap for profit. As long as the city is full of crap, developers can play freely. So it's important for them to build as much crap as possible, and leave as much crap as possible, their own or their predecessors, producing a great, expansive, comprehensive and complete heritage of megalopolictic crap. This is the architectural second law of developodynamics: all value tends towards crap.
Monday, May 10, 2010
Justin Ferate, the renowned urban, social and architectural historian, supplies this photograph to give a better sense of the period (these are landmarked in Brooklyn Heights):
Zella Jones, founder of the NoHo Alliance, provides this recent photograph of 24 Henry, the older of the two buildings demolished:
For structures largely ignored for two centuries, they were in remarkably good shape, and because they eventually were surrounded by a slum -- part of New York's oldest slum -- they were neglected and so largely unaltered. But the neighborhood -- Henry, Madison and Monroe Streets around Catherine and Market Streets -- has seen newly built developments.
Sunday, May 09, 2010
The screen caps attached, cut from google street maps, don't do justice to them. They were a striking little piece of the early 19th century, unusual because of the pairing of a town house-with-dormers adjacent to a row house with a fully built fourth floor covered by a unique wood awning in lieu of a cornice. I always took visitors to see them on the Chinatown/Five Points tour. After the Mooney House, they were the oldest buildings around, and almost unaltered.
The demolition of a town house in Greenwich Village would spark a protest, an outrage and an angry movement, but far to the east in Chinatown, no preservationists seem to notice or care. And yet, these two small buildings were probably older than anything in the Village, and in a neighborhood with a much longer and complex history.
Wednesday, April 14, 2010
BUT if you look just a little more closely, you see that the the presentation is fantasy designed more for propaganda than genuine plan. The site south of Bellevue is already occupied and owned by Hunter College. Although Hunter announced a bid for the land two years ago, it hasn't followed up for a variety of reasons which will not likely change for quite a while, if ever. NYU, if prodded, admits that these 1mil. sq.ft. are mere speculation on a wish of a shadow of a building complex they can't control at all. (They're actually planning a Nursing School building across the street, but it's quite small in the scheme of things: 140,000sf).
The Governors Island plan requires a huge commitment that they are not yet prepared for, and also requires other entities to make that isolated island palatable to any but the most reclusive academics hermits. Until there's something there there, there's no there there besides the nothing that isn't there, and NYU, the university of the "New York Experience" is all about being here, not there. The Mayor would like to see it happen, but governments have been wanting to see something happen there for over a decade, and the only thing that has so far happened is a recreation area that's become so popular that the public wants to keep it for themselves unchanged. NYU claims with one tongue that their buildings will be set away from the recreation area untouched, but with the other tongue admits that there will have to be attractions elsewhere on the island before anyone is willing to reside, teach and learn all on that little military campground. When everyone finally gets all excited about Governors Island, of course that's when NYU shows up and drags in its entourage as well.
The MetroTech center is the only parcel that NYU could build tomorrow with no strings. But they don't need or want all that space way off in Brooklyn (all they own there is the little PolyTechnic school) so they'd have to rent out a piece of it, and in this economy, that won't happen.
Altogether that's several million square feet of feel-good fantasy that will probably end up as real concrete and students in our neighborhood, sooner or later.
Scarier still is their silence on the East Village. Looking at the fantasies-afar, you know it's going to pop up here, but they don't give a clue as to where.
The vocal anger of East Villagers prompted the creation of this NYU Expansion Task Force and all these open house presentations. It's good to know that NYU is still so afraid of the East Village that they don't want to tell us where they are looking for East Village real estate. Unfortunately, little else is good.
Monday, March 22, 2010
2031 Expansion Plan
Wednesday, April 14th, 5:30 to 8pm
Kimmel Center, 10th floor,
60 Washington Square South (at LaGuardia Place)
At the last presentation, they informed us that their campus will expand 6million gross square feet within the next two decades. And they showed us their lovely new neighborhood:
Sunday, March 14, 2010
If passed by the State Assembly, the State Liquor Authority would necessarily consider the public convenience and advantage of the license, and would necessarily determine that the license is in the public interest before awarding a license.
So far so good. But the "public interest" is no longer tied to "the community." So the public interest would include, for example, state revenue from liquor, or commerce generally beyond the community's local benefit.
The current law considers the "public interest of the community." Deleting those three words allows a revenue-starved government to bypass community concerns. And once a bar strip is installed, it doesn't disappear when the recession ends and the government no longer needs its revenue. The strip remains, displacing local commercial diversity, local services and community character.
Scroll down to see the exact language of the bill. Its first line is a step advancing towards commercial diversity and community protection. The last line, unfortunately, voids it.
The law has always had a list of "public convenience and advantage" clauses, but they were optional considerations. This bill changes the "public convenience and advantage" clauses from
"may consider any or all"
"SHALL consider ALL"
problems of noise, traffic, density of bars, among others.
The bill still does not define the public interest, and weakens it by deleting "of the community." So the public interest loophole remains in this bill, and now it's even wider.
Almost anything might be in the public interest. For example, if the bar includes a toilet, the success of the bar might be in the public interest, since the public might use the toilet, say, to vomit in, the public having drunk too much liquor at the bar.
More typically, bars argue that the jobs they create are in the public interest. Even more pertinently for the State, the SLA might find that the license renewal fee itself might be in the public interest since that money goes to the government, and the government by definition is, of course, the public interest.
It is impracticable to list every instance of public interest relative to each context. In a depressed neighborhood, jobs might be in the public interest. But in a blue-collar family neighborhood near local workplaces, nightlife might not be the optimal replacement for those local workplaces.
In a recession, government desperately needs revenue and, since nightlife survives a recession better than almost any business, the government may consider liquor licenses very much desirable as a revenue flow, despite no local community interest is served.
So this bill is a mixed bag and there's work to be done. Here's the bill itself. I've highlighted the important changed clauses in red [brackets in brown are the old law being deleted, UPPER CASE red are new words]:
6-a. The authority [may] SHALL consider [any or] all of the following
in determining whether public convenience and advantage and the public
interest will be promoted by the granting of [licenses and permits for
the sale of alcoholic beverages at a particular unlicensed location] A
LICENSE PURSUANT TO THIS SECTION:
(a) [The] THE number, classes and character of licenses in proximity
to the location and in the particular municipality or subdivision there-
(b) [Evidence] EVIDENCE that all necessary licenses and permits have
been obtained from the state and all other governing bodies[.];
(c) [Effect] EFFECT of the grant of the license on vehicular traffic
and parking in proximity to the location[.];
(d) [The] THE existing noise level at the location and any increase in
noise level that would be generated by the proposed premises[.];
(e) [The] THE history of liquor violations and reported criminal
activity at the proposed premises[.]; AND
(f) [Any] ANY other factors specified by law or regulation that are
relevant to determine the public convenience and advantage [and public
interest of the community] AND NECESSARY TO FIND THAT THE GRANTING OF
SUCH LICENSE SHALL BE IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST.
Tuesday, February 23, 2010
The bad news: MTA plans to discontinue the M8 bus on weekends. A hearing will be held on cuts in Manhattan at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology), Haft Auditorium, 7th Avenue, Thursday, March 4, at 6pm. Further details:
Monday, February 15, 2010
The Housing Question: Real Estate Crisis and Community Control of Land
a 4-session class starting Thursday, February 18, 2010 from 5:30 to 7:30 pm
taught by Tom Angotti
at the Brecht Forum
451 West Street
New York City
The latest burst in the financial bubble left our neighborhoods with
abandoned construction sites, bankrupt slumlords, struggling tenants,
foreclosed homeowners, and more homeless people. The Housing Question by
Friedrich Engels, though written in the late 19th century, helps us
understand how these problems are endemic to capitalism and, more
importantly, how many seemingly progressive housing reforms end up
reproducing instead of solving the problems. Four workshops look at The
Housing Question and its relevance to community organizing today, ending
with a review of strategies for gaining community control of land.
1. Engels and The Housing Question
2. Finance capital and real estate in the neoliberal city
3. Anti-capitalist community struggles for land
4. New strategies for community control of land
Tom Angotti teaches at Hunter College in the Department of Urban Affairs
and Planning. He is the author of New York for Sale: Community Planning
Confronts Global Real Estate, Metropolis 2000: Planning, Poverty and
Politics, and Housing in Italy. He is a Fellow at the American Academy in
Rome, co-editor of Progressive Planning Magazine, and participating editor
for Latin American Perspectives and Local Environment.
Tuition--sliding scale: $45/$65
Pre-register online at
Wednesday, February 03, 2010
EVGrieve has the lineup set for DAY OF RAY, Saturday, Feb. 6, from noon to 6pm at Sidewalk Cafe, 6th&A.
Meanwhile, check out a bit of the authentic Ray's in photos at NietherMoreNorLess.
Saturday, January 30, 2010
The question for the Working Group is: how can Chinatown both preserve itself and thrive. The latter usually implies gentrification, adverse, typically, to the former. So there's a challenge to face.
There are many threats to Chinatown: hotel development, exorbitant commercial and residential rents, loss of industry; congestion of traffic, parking, parks; need for improved education, arts and cultural spaces, among others. These have all been treated by the Working Group in their Preliminary Action Plans. Their documents are available at www.chinatownworkinggroup.org.
Monday, February 1, 7pm
PS 130, 143 Baxter Street
translation will be available in English, in Chinese and in Spanish
Please distribute and post these, too.
Wednesday, January 13, 2010
Thursday, January 14, 6:30, the Community Board will be voting on a community benefit plan at 30 Delancey Street (BRC senior Center inside Roosevelt Park at Forsyth Street). The Community Benefit Plan includes local hiring and low prices for drop-in play for the community.
Thursday, January 14, 6:30
CB3 Parks Committee
30 Delancey Street
BRC senior Center
inside Roosevelt Park at Forsyth Street