Sunday, December 30, 2012


Speaks for itself:

That huge construction shed on the corner of 11th and Ave. A is prep for a 7-Eleven. The neighbors aren't sitting for it. Look for more chalkings and city-wide organizing.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

please tell me i'm wrong

The Landmarks Presevation Commission is about to consider a 2nd Avenue Historic District. If they designate it, 2nd Avenue from 2nd Street to St. Mark's will be landmarked and would be preserved in perpetuity or until it falls over.

I don't support it. Maybe someone can convince me I'm wrong.

Here are my four concerns:

1. There are older areas of the neighborhood that are urgently threatened under current zoning. 2nd Avenue is not threatened by demolition: the buildings are mostly overbuilt under the current zoning, so a developer could only build smaller than what exists. So there's no incentive to build. First Avenue is exactly the opposite. The buildings there are smaller than the zoning allows, inviting demolition and redevelopment.

2. There are many architecturally finer buildings in the neighborhood than those on 2nd Avenue. The really fine ones on 2nd Avenue can be individually landmarked.

3. If 2nd Avenue is designated, development will be pushed onto those older, more threatened and finer areas. 

4. New York is in crisis. The tight housing market is pricing artists out of the city or forcing them to choose between their art and living here. But it's not just artists who are being forced into difficult choices by the housing market. Scholars, scientists -- anyone who is devoted to the life of the mind or the creation of cultural products -- is either being pushed either into the rat race or out of the city.

Who remains? Increasingly the wealthy devoted to the life of consumption. The city is gradually becoming a monoculture of nightlife augmented by tourism, a huge nightclub for the rich and their gawkers and their servants. There is nothing in that economy that guarantees a place for the arts or intellectualism beyond the elite artists and elite intellectuals. We've seen it already in the East Village.

The only way to ease the housing crunch is building housing at the requisite scale to bring the wealthy out of older neighborhoods and out of older housing stock. The cost of construction is such that only high-return construction is viable, and that means luxury housing. So New York has got to build enough luxury housing to accommodate the upscale so that the upscale don't invade and occupy the rest of the city.

Luxury development depends on location, and 2nd Avenue will be an ideal location, especially when its subway is finally finished and opened. If the LPC designates 2nd Avenue, then 2nd Avenue will be closed to development. And that seems to me to be a greater loss for the city's spirit than losing the physical structure on 2nd Avenue because there are older and finer buildings in the neighborhood.

Back in 2005, I opposed the upzoning of the East Village because I thought it would further gentrify the neighborhood. When I told this to Brad Lander in a forum, he replied, that's not a worry since the East Village has already been gentrified.

At the time, I simply didn't believe it. I'd lived here for so long, and gentrification had been completed so swiftly that I was still in denial. I firmly believed that there was something of the old cultural character to preserve. But now I see that the neighborhood belongs to NYU students and upwardly mobile singles. Lander was right. Development on 2nd Avenue, like development on Houston, cannot further gentrify neighborhoods that are already completely gentrified.

So why preserve 2nd Avenue? There are older and architecturally finer contexts in the neighborhood, and more threatened. If those contexts are redeveloped under current zoning, those contexts will disappear without easing the housing crunch. You can't build much there -- just enough to destroy the history. But someday the city will need to upzone 2nd Avenue for significant large-scale housing. Why shouldn't it?

Someone please convince me I'm wrong.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

develop don't destroy

In Vanishing New York a couple of the talking heads deplored the expansion and the upscale development of New York that is displacing communities. They don't want to see any more development, they don't believe New York's population will expand, and they don't believe that development would bring jobs. Their view seems economically naive.

The documentary recognizes the reality of the loss of manufacturing, but also criticizes Bloomberg's observation that New York is a luxury economy. The loss of manufacturing has led to the reliance on luxury economy. For better or worse, it's our economic staple, aside from tourism/nightlife, and manufacturing is not likely to return.

There's actually nothing wrong with a luxury economy, as long as it doesn't destroy communities. The rich drive the New York economy. You see it everywhere. Millions make their livelihood serving them. If the rich left the city, we'd be living in one huge slum.

The problem with the rich is that they successively occupy more of our communities, displacing those communities. If developers could find a place for the wealthy, they'd leave us alone in our communities, and still employ us as we need them to.

The answer is not to curtail development, but to encourage development -- in areas where the upscale already congregate and away from older neighborhoods. Otherwise -- if there's no development -- then the wealthy will spread further into our communities and displace us and our local commerce, as they have been in the East Village and in Harlem.

on the other hand: government ownership

At a screening of Vanishing New York at Mary House (Catholic Worker), Eric Ferrara suggested that communities ought to pool their resources and buy up all the land of their neighborhoods. There's a kind of populist appeal to the idea, but I'd worry that turning everyone into property owner -- sending the entire community into the commerce of property -- would end in disaster. Cooperative boards are notoriously vicious and unhealthy, and I don't see why ordinary people would do any better in the cut-throat economy of landlords and developers. Maybe if there were rules to govern them, constraints on how people could sell and rent...

But why reinvent the wheel. The notion of community ownership already exists, and it's called Government. Of course, everyone complains about government management of housing projects, for example, so why would anyone want to expand the government into communities?

Government poorly manages housing projects because government doesn't have the budget surplus -- after spending on its priorities that mostly go to keep the wealthy around -- to spend on mere people in low-income housing. But what if the city owned the Upper East Side and the Upper West Side as well?

Here's an extreme Georgist plan: tax the hell out of upscale properties, get the landlords to disinvest and abandon their properties to the government. With sufficient funding, the city is quite effective. The parks and libraries are well managed, and upscale properties could too, especially garnering all those exorbitant rents. And instead of taking the profits off to Westchester where the landlords live now, the money could be reinvested in the city itself in, for example, housing project management.

If the city did a good job serving the rich, they'd make a bundle for its treasury. Rent-taking -- landlords, in this case -- is the black hole of every economy. It's unproductive, non-innovative, mere wealth that skims off commerce and residential incomes. Development is productive, but the city can develop too. And if the city were successful at an upscale landlord, there'd be every incentive for the city to develop and bring more rich folks into their rental economy. And the wealthy could in turn drive the rest of the economy with their needs that labor services.

Friday, May 11, 2012

how to win

If you stand up only for your side, you struggle uphill, and if you're an activist, you stand for the lesser power and will likely lose. To win, activists need to solve for their opponent. In the end, the market wins, so activists might win more battles if they'd broaden their analysis and strategy to include the entire economy.

Activists never seem to do this. The West Village spends its energy and organization protesting NYU expansion, but doesn't spend it on brokering a deal with Community District 1 to take the expansion where it would be welcome and where NYU would, given the right tax breaks, be willing to locate.

Every NIMBY struggle has this failure: it shoves the problem somewhere else, rather than solve the problem.

Tenant activists focus on the struggle for rent regulations, but don't consider the larger economic forces that resist the expansion of regulations. The only way to ease the housing market is glutting it with housing. And since only luxury housing is lucrative enough to justify construction, housing advocates should be advocating for luxury housing in neighborhoods that welcome it -- the Financial District, the ex-Flower and Garment Districts, Chelsea -- anywhere far from residential low-income community neighborhoods.  The tenant advocates should work with the developers and landlords to upzone those luxury neighborhoods, and ask for means to expedite construction in the city those neighborhoods.

Instead of complaining about real estate tax breaks for developers, tenant activists should advocate for them -- in upscale neighborhoods where renters are paying upscale rents so they can relocate at no significant cost. There should be Beeckman Towers in all those neighborhoods, drawing the wealthy away from the tenements that they gentrify in lower-income neighborhoods. Leave the older buildings to the locals. Luxury, after all, is an excess. Decent people can live well in older buildings without a doorman and elevator. I do, and I'd never want to live in an elevator building with a doorman. What for? It's disgusting. If the upscale want that, let them. 

Warehousing of luxury units should be prohibitively taxed -- equal to the rate of its rent. And yes, most upscale people would live in Manhattan and most down-scale folks would live in the outer boroughs and that's unfair. Just like now. If the city would invest in a subway system for Queens and Brooklyn that will conveniently connect them, living in the outer boroughs might actually be more fun than Manhattan.

Low-income communities -- Chinatown and Harlem in Manhattan, for example -- should be protectively zoned to retain their streetscapes and commercial vitality. And their rents should remain regulated at low levels, including commercial rents for small shops (no chains, limited banks, no expanding nightlife strips).

Unless the tenant movement can game the market, the market will gradually eliminate regulations. The alternative -- organizing renters throughout the five boroughs into a voting block -- is not being done either. Tenant advocates use tenants as foot soldiers, pawns: they bring tenants out to a demonstration once or twice a year in a meaningless and discouraging gesture.

Tenant advocates should create a city-wide tenants union where all renters can vote, communicate and run their own union. Currently, groups like Tenants and Neighbors are top-down, with paid organizers who, though knowledgeable and dedicated, are not a mass of angry voters empowered to speak for themselves in their own voice with their own organization for which they themselves feel ownership.

But if advocates could solve for the economy overall, there'd be no need to organize tenants.

The only danger I see in huge luxury construction in upscale areas is the chance that it will attract even more upscale renters from other cities, keeping the rent market tight. In that case, it would at worst not change the current market. But even so, the expansion of upscale residents in upscale areas away from smaller communities would benefit those smaller communities, since services for the wealthy create a lot of employment, which means many more waiter-artists and produce drivers and ushers and doorman and janitors and electricians and plumbers... In a city bereft of manufacturing, that's the only future, for better or worse.

But here I'd trust in the Pareto distribution that holds of cities. New York will never be more than twice the size of the next largest city -- that seems to be a generalization of human aggregation. If it doesn't hold, then we'll just have to bring back street crime and drive the rich back out, and settle for Detroit-on-the-Hudson.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Tenant Advocates Mourn Janet Freeman, Brilliant and Passionate Activist

The tenant movement lost one of its most effective, brilliant, dedicated, and dynamic fighters April 29, when Janet Freeman, called variously “the Jane Jacobs of our time,” “the Mahatma Gandhi of the Lower East Side,” and “the angel of Elizabeth Street,” died at the age of 60.

She was a community organizer and tenant advocate, a founder of the Croman Tenants Association, the Coalition to Protect Public Housing and Section 8, and of Co-op Watch, to prevent evictions through phony conversions. She started campaigns to organize Extell tenants and Shaoul tenants, and efforts against phony demolitions and landlord harassment. As lead organizer for the Neighborhood Coalition to Fight Proliferation of Bars, she defended the local Little Italy/Chinatown neighborhood’s character, fighting against invasive cabarets and upscale nightlife.

“I can’t see anyone filling her shoes,” says Steve Herrick, head of the Cooper Square Committee, an East Village housing advocacy organization.

Freeman was widely admired among tenant advocates for an unusual mix of impressive qualities: her intellect and insight, her personal dedication to ordinary people, her passion for their rights, and the depth, breadth, thoroughness, and accuracy of her research. She employed these in an unbroken series of actions and campaigns for the last 22 years. Protective of her independence and integrity, and averse to bureaucracy, she almost always worked as a volunteer, even refusing paid positions for the same things she did freely.

In 1989, Freeman learned about the death of Lincoln Swados, a disabled tenant who died after his landlord, as part of a co-op conversion, built a construction shed around his apartment, effectively blocking his access to the street. She became a founding member of the Coalition for Justice for Lincoln Swados. Her work there led to the creation in 1990 of Lower East Side Co-op Watch, where she organized tenants in buildings undergoing conversion and created a database to analyze and track co-op conversions—both to challenge them individually and to raise the issue to the public, the media, and elected officials. Her campaign included demonstrations, speak-outs, and workshops, collaborating with the state attorney general’s office and Met Council.

Through the mid-1990s she counseled tenants on their legal rights as a Met Council tenant advisor. Strongly believing that tenants in private and public housing should work together in one unified movement, Freeman joined the East Village activist organization the Coalition for a District Alternative (CoDA) and Margarita Lopez’s campaigns for district leader and later the City Council, working door-to-door registering voters in the neighborhood’s housing projects. In 1996, in response to a federal bill to privatize the projects, she joined with public-housing activists to create the Lower East Side Coalition to Save Public Housing & Section 8, reaching out to tenants door-to-door; creating postcard and call-in campaigns; holding meetings, rallies, and forums several times each week; and coordinating the local effort with national organizing.

In 1997, when then-state Senate majority leader Joseph Bruno announced his intention to eliminate rent regulations, Freeman teamed up with Valerio Orselli, head of Cooper Square Mutual Housing, to mobilize and educate tenants. Despite opposition from then-City Councilmember Antonio Pagan, their forum attracted so many people that the speakers had to be brought out into the street to address those who could not fit into the hall.

In 2000, after over a decade of volunteer work, Freeman accepted a part-time position with the City-Wide Task Force for Housing Court, providing legal information for pro se tenants, tenants appearing in court without the benefit of an attorney. She was also the tenant representative for a pro se tenant coalition involved in an HP action, where she set a precedent by successfully arguing in court—both in written briefs and oral arguments—that the legal stipulations that define Housing Court settlements should require that the owner correct outstanding Department of Buildings and Environmental Control Board violations.

As real-estate values rose on the Lower East Side and in Little Italy and Chinatown, Freeman organized tenants threatened by aggressive landlord-developers. She founded the Coalition of Tenants in Croman-Owned Buildings, organized tenants in Extell-owned buildings, and worked with tenants in Shaoul buildings. She also fought the commercial transformation of the neighborhood, leading the fight against the proliferation of bars and nightlife in and around Little Italy and Chinatown.

Preferring to help others to stand and speak for themselves, Freeman did not promote herself. Nevertheless, her legacy is long. “If it weren’t for Janet, I wouldn’t be here,” says Damaris Reyes, now executive director of Good Old Lower East Side, whom Freeman brought into the movement. “She never acted like a teacher. She treated me as a friend.”

Steve Herrick observed her enthusiasm for people and ability to connect with them. “When we went door-to-door to organize tenants, Janet talked to them, advised them and was always interested in their stories,” he remembers. “Sometimes I’d have to drag her out of the building, otherwise we wouldn’t get anything done. I wouldn’t ask her for small or routine tasks, because she threw herself so thoroughly into every effort.” He also notes her keen intelligence. “Janet had this ability to perceive the big picture, connecting harassment to speculation and lenders. When Extell bought seventeen parcels in the Lower East Side, Janet was the one who drew the connection with the Carlyle Group [a private-equity fund that was one of the nation’s largest defense contractors, with ties to the Bush and bin Laden families].”

Freeman’s dedication to people resonated with all those who worked with her. Gina Cuevas, Manhattan borough coordinator of the City-Wide Task Force, remembers her “working after hours, helping clients, researching. She was unbelievable. I’ve never seen anyone work so hard and so dedicated. And she knew so much.”
Her character and her activism shared a consistent personal moral underpinning, according to Harriet Putterman, a founder of CoDA. “She was an egalitarian person, as interested in the process as the outcome,” always concerned “that tenants who weren't ‘leaders’ be valued and fully included in the activity or campaign.” “She could not tolerate or stand by while the innocent were being trampled or their rights being abused,” says Toni Craddock, a longtime friend and neighbor.

Her human motives were matched with an unusually high standard of research. “With Janet there was no room for error,” recalls Wasim Lone, director of housing services at GOLES. “No stone was left unturned, no detail ignored. She researched—DHCR, HPD, DOB, the rent rolls. She was a true professional, only motivated to do the right thing and get it done well.”

“She could catch anything dishonest, disingenuous, or inaccurate,” adds Robin Goldberg, who worked with her on the local nightlife problem, “Her work was fact-based.” “You would be hard pressed to go up against her,” notes Craddock. Pat Adams, who worked with Freeman on many housing campaigns, emphasizes her gifts, “She gave people tools, she gave them confidence, and she always gave other people credit.” “She gave direction to the neighborhood,” adds Georgette Fleischer, founder of Friends of Petrosino Square, who remembers her work on invasive bars.

The constant pressure from the real-estate industry on neighborhood residents exacted a toll on Freeman’s perseverance. “She helped many, many tenants in Little Italy and Chinatown,” Rosie Wong, senior housing advocate at University Settlement, recounts. “She was enthusiastic and committed, but also she was frustrated by all the changes she saw around her and what was happening in the city.”

A native New Yorker who grew up in Stuyvesant Town, Freeman’s roots in the neighborhood were deep.  She moved to her first apartment, on Elizabeth Street between Kenmare and Spring, at the age of 17, and she remained on the block for 43 years. For most of that time, she lived in a ground-floor residential storefront distinguished by its uncompromisingly authentic exterior that gave no quarter to gentrification or the commercial upscaling of the neighborhood. Her concern for the street began with an effort to line it with trees, decades before real-estate and nightlife speculators arrived.

Like her apartment, Freeman was staunchly authentic. People rarely encountered her without her bicycle, her cigarettes, and her coffee, along with her insight, passion, humor, and enthusiasm for people. “She was the real deal,” says Goldberg. “She really got life.”
[This article was originally published in Met Council's monthly housing journal Tenant/Inquilino, July/August 2011, edited by Steve Wishnia. My thanks for Steve's always expert edits and to Val Orselli who clarified the broad chronology. And damnit, I miss Janet.]
The text of this page is available for modification and reuse under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike 3.0 Unported License and the GNU Free Documentation License 

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Mary Spink

During the rezoning of the East Village, many supporters of the plan expressed their disagreement with me, often caustically. Mary only once confronted me on it.

She didn't defend her view, she didn't attack mine. She didn't mention the rezoning at all. Taking a step back, turning to me, she tossed her head up, staring right at me as if accusing, "I know what you're doing" she said. I braced for the worst. "You're standing for what you believe," and, as if she were ordering me around, "you're going to fight, you're going to fight for your principles. That's what you're doing."

We all already knew the issues. We all already knew our differences. We all already knew where we stood, and we all already knew why. What else was there to say?

Those were the best and smartest words anyone ever said to me during the rezoning of the East Village.
After the rezoning was implemented, I went to the Community Board in support of a social service building that Mary was planning on my block. I was the only local person who spoke. A few weeks later, she told me that that support was useful at the Borough President's review. She was immensely happy about it, and I was gratified to have played some part, however small. So she invited me to her annual award ceremony. And that's how I got to see a bit of what she had created. It was kind of wonderful -- especially the educational awards, encouraging young adults to succeed in college -- what Mary accomplished.

At the memorial, held at the Great Hall of Cooper Union, with a good few hundred in attendance, it was clear that she inspired many with the same sentiments as mine: I respected her, I admired her, I liked her a lot, and I will miss her.

Friday, January 06, 2012

NYU opposition without a plan

The opposition to NYU's current plan to build on its own campus works well for Community District 2, but not so well for the East Village and the Lower East Side. Most of Community District 2 is landmarked by varioius historic district designations and can't be developed, so if NYU's plan is defeated, NYU can't then turn to other sites around the campus to build. But they could build in Community District 3, the Lower East Side, the East Village and the Bowery, even in Chinatown. Although the recent EV/LES rezoning limits development in much of the area, the Bowery is open, and there are generous bulk allowances on Houston Street, Avenue D and Chrystie Street.

The opposition to the NYU plan points out that the financial district, Community District 1, would welcome NYU development. But no one has identified any specific sites, and no money or incentives have been offered.

To prevent NYU development in Community District 3, there must be more than just vague gestures towards the financial district. Community District 3 leadership has got to go up the ladder of authority and broker a deal with Albany -- the state legislature gives large sums for private universities, so the legislature has some leverage already, and the state can offer all kinds of incentives as well. That goes for the city too, in the form of real estate tax breaks.

Defeating NYU's plan won't curtail NYU's growth. NYU, unlike Columbia, doesn't have a huge endowment. It relies on tuition. In order to maintain the quality of its faculty and its research facilities, they draw an increasing student tuition base. So opposing any particular NYU plan is futile. It's setting a cat for every mousehole or pressing on every bubble only to watch it pop up nearby. The only solution to NYU is finding a solution for NYU.

Having said all that, I find the railing against NYU surprising. Hasn't NYU already transformed the commercial character and the residential demographic of the EV? Is there anything left to lose to NYU? NYU has already wrought its worst on real estate values and rents. What is the complaint against them? They are, on the whole, much more agreeable than the yuppies. They party less and they have more intellectual curiosity. What are East Villagers protecting? Look around. Even the hipsters are gone. 

There remains in the LES some affordable housing. That's the only piece of the community worth fighting for. Beyond that, there's only landmarking, and landmarking is just memorializing the past, not the present of the community. It's the museum of the LES.