Friday, September 23, 2011

The personal is the political

When I first saw this short film, I wondered if I too would end a relationship over differences of opinion about overdevelopment. Probably. Anyway, this filmmaker has made overdevelopment and gentrification as personal as it will ever get.

I'm not sure why he cast a guy in the role of hero and his erstwhile girlfriend as villain, but I'm guessing it was just easier for him to identify with the situation than if the gender roles had been reversed. It is, after all, a personal short, first person, self-narrated. But that poor girl really gets read for trash.

I'll bet the ex would think it's a sentimental expansion on Chase Manhattan Master Card commercials. Well, those ad folks create beautiful stuff, as here, but here it's not whoring for money, just serving beauty and truth. Now it's got me sentimental.

If you watch, wait til you get to the images accompanying Whitman. It's beautiful New York, in black & white. If you like Ric Burns, enjoy. To object to beauty for its familiarity or sentiment is to allow cynicism too far a rein. Anyway, I'm a sucker for black & white.

Phil Vasquez' Song of Relations
10 minutes

Friday, September 16, 2011

135 Bowery: going, going, GONE! -- to the lowest bid

Yesterday the City Council Landmarks subcommittee voted to deny legal landmark status to an 1817 townhouse on the Bowery, deferring to the local councilmember, Margaret Chin, who says the owner, First American International Bank, will provide a little affordable business space if he's allowed to demolish it and redevelop the site into a new seven-story building.

But Chin didn't get a written agreement from the owner or a community benefits agreement, and she didn't research the surrounding sites, particularly the ones on Chrystie Street, where the landmark's air rights could have produced much more affordable space than in situ on the Bowery and without destroying a historical site.

The councilmember didn't do her homework to find and secure the best deal. Instead, she took the first offer of the owner, without obtaining any guarantee that the community will get anything. We're in a recession. In a moment of trouble, the bank might flip the site to someone else. How long will the affordable business space remain affordable? She can't tell us.

Merely having a good relationship with a supportive bank (for the creation of future affordable housing, e.g.) is not enough for process and accountability. Now she'll never know what opportunities were lost. But we know what we'll lose -- yet another piece of the historical Bowery. The Bowery is a hot property right now. The new building will further raise the real estate values of the entire strip. We can see where this is going. She needs to raise the bar on her land use staff. A lot more work could have been done.

Chin has a long and distinguished career as a local affordable housing activist. But as councilmember, so far she's succeeded with this bank's development and with the BID, which happens to be promoted prominently by the same bank. Both accomplishments benefit business and development. Many, perhaps most, business owners in Chinatown don't actually live there or even have their headquarters there, so any indirect benefits for residents remain to be seen -- and indirect harm or secondary displacement also remain to be seen. This affair will tarnish her within her own neighborhood. That's a shame. It was unnecessary: all she needed was the homework.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Fast and furious

St. Mark's Bookstore may close, and 135 Bowery, a historic landmark, may be demolished (more below).

Petition to save St. Mark's Bookstore. The owners negotiate their rent tomorrow, Wednesday.

Petition to save 135 Bowery. To testify or attend the hearing: Thur., Sept. 15 at 11am at 250 Broadway, 16th floor conference room. Agenda:|&Search=
Why is another landmark on the Bowery being threatened with demolition? 135 Bowery is a townhouse from around 1817, one of the oldest in New York. The Landmarks Preservation Commission has already designated it as a historical landmark. But the local councilmember, Margaret Chin, has reversed her support for the landmark on the grounds that the owner, a bank, wants to replace it with a taller structure promising a bit of affordable commercial space. Without the councilmember's support, the City Council will likely not vote the designation into protective law.

The bank that owns 135 Bowery hasn't submitted its affordable intention in writing. The bank hasn't shown any affordable rent rates; the bank hasn't produced any legally binding contract for this promised affordable commercial space or any indication how long the leases would remain affordable, or even any binding document whatsoever showing their intent. All we have is the word of the bank. (What do you think that's worth?)

I would be happy to see, for example, an SRO hotel on the Bowery for recent immigrants to live in cheap but safe quarters. But I would be a great fool if I sacrificed a historic site for an SRO promised to me by a bank without any documentation or plan or legally binding contract or even any detailed information.

So I wonder who is being fleeced by this bank? Is the Councilmember being fleeced? Or is it the public?

I will testify at the Council hearing on behalf of 135 Bowery, because I know that the owner-bank, far from intending to give back to the community, wants to get the most out of his investment regardless of the community, history, the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the City Council, the Councilmember, or anyone but themselves. They've made no commitment, let's be real. The only commitment has been verbal to the Councilmember, and we don't have a binding document of that discussion.

The Bowery Alliance of Neighbors say they want to fill the chamber with support. They also ask for more signatures on their petition.  The 135 Bowery petition again.

St. Mark's Bookstore
The great used bookstores of New York, with their overstuffed chairs, chatty patrons and patiently listening bookdealers, were places to hang and enjoy, not just for browse-and-buy. The ones in this neighborhood were truly worth saving, and they are all truly gone. Should St. Mark's Bookstore be saved?

I have made my peace with the twenty-somethings that are the present and future of this neighborhood. For better or worse, like it or not, they have transformed this place in their own image and it now belongs to them, from their dorms to our tenements to their BMW Lab. But the young are mostly transient, so they are mostly unequipped to restrain the powerful market force they themselves have brought here. Yes, they want nightlife, but they probably would also like to have a good bookstore, and the monster real estate market they've fed now won't allow it. It's about to swallow up the bookstore and leave, well, you know the story.

Cooper Union owns the site of the St. Mark's Bookstore, one of the few interesting bookstores in town. CU is raising its rent beyond the store's capacity to pay. CU, of course, can afford to give back to the community. Peter Cooper himself was all about giving back to the community. Peter must have long ago tired of spinning in his grave over what has become of his life's dream, free higher education for the working class. How many ways can Cooper Union spell "betrayal"? Surely they're not hurting for this little commercial space: they own the land on which the Chrysler building stands and the glass building on Astor Place. Seems to me they ought to buy up shares of the store and expand it as a university-community bookstore. But they'd probably betray that as well.

Frankly, I'm not convinced this neighborhood deserves to have a great bookstore. The NYU students have their own bookstore, filled with all the books they need and more than they can handle. As for the rest of the neighborhood, this place is a youth destination for children of means, not an intellectual or countercultural destination anymore. Its heart is commerce now, not anarchy. Freedom must be purchased, and it exacts many prices.

Maybe saving St. Mark's Bookstore is an exercise in anachronism or sentimental nostalgia. But if you'd like to try to preserve St. Mark's Bookstore for the benefit of the future transient youth of this neighborhood, here's a petition for you.