Wednesday, July 13, 2022

A footnote to the History below of LESA and CWG

 A footnote on my role in CWG.

Why I attend CWG

I attended CWG meetings for two reasons: 1) because I felt responsible for its creation. Had I not asked Chinese Staff and Workers Association to attend the Community Board 3 meetings on the EV/LES rezoning, that rezoning would probably have been approved without notice or controversy. CSWA's protest led directly to the creation of the CWG. 2) Many gentrifiers, including real estate owners, their consultants, non profits and other opportunists are familiar with zoning technicalities. Community residents and workers were unfamiliar with zoning, its jargon, its metrics, its text, intricacies and technicalities. I felt that someone on their side with expertise in zoning, but without any institutional or personal investment in Chinatown, should monitor the proceedings so that the community would not be taken for a ride by gentrifiers who do have a vested interest in a Chinatown or LES rezoning. 

Why I never joined CWG

I never became a voting member of CWG, even when I was secretary, although I could easily have applied on behalf of my block association which includes a corner of the CWG catchment area. Since I don't myself live on that corner of the catchment area, and I'm white, as a matter of principle I did not want to be a carpetbagger and give myself a vote. 

Why I did not blog about CWG until now

As soon as I started attending and participating as a "friend of CWG" (this is a category for individuals who participate without voting), I stopped blogging on anything related to CWG. This was also a principled decision. It seems to me to be unethical to use a platform that might leverage decisions within the group. Journalism should be separated from participation. The journalist or blogger will have an unfair advantage within the group. I wish all bloggers and journalists would do the same. Either role -- participant or journalist -- is valuable. Doing both is unethical. 

Why I support CSWA, NMASS, AALDEF and The Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side

I have always supported CSWA, NMASS and the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side even though some of their tactics are not mine. Different groups occupy different positions of opportunity, so it's important to recognize that tactics will be diverse and even mutually exclusive. Labor organizations need a loud and aggressive voice because they stand at the bottom of the social scale of prestige. They do not get the knee-jerk respect of a suit or the EO of an institution. This world is morally upside down. Those who are disempowered are given no respect and their legitimate complaints are ignored, while the empowered who need no attention are given respect no matter how corrupt they are, their suit pockets stuffed with government funds. The empowered and influential don't need my support. That's why I support the Coalition members even though their tactics are not mine. Their grievances are genuine. Their demands deserve attention. To each their own tactics -- as long as the goal is the same!

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

The history of the Lower East Side Alliance, the EV/LES rezoning and the Chinatown Working Group, in 34 posts. Post 1: the origins

 A history of the Lower East Side Alliance, the EV/LES rezoning, the CWG and BAN

The history of the Chinatown Working Group and its origins from the Lower East Side Alliance has never been told from the inside. Most scholarly treatments have relied on print news media and Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side member testimonies, but not from the origins in LESA. This document is intended to address that lacuna as well as to provide at least one view of CWG's history outside the ranks of the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side.

I’ve chosen to alter all the names of the participants except for the names of the holders of public government or quasi government office and high-profile non profit directors, whose anonymity I cannot protect in recounting the history since their role and their position was public, and in any case I take it as a given that as public officials they chose to be in the public eye. In taking on their role they understood and accepted scrutiny of the public and its critical eye and word. The other participants in the action of this history will recognize themselves and their colleagues in the story and may freely comment on the blog to correct, amend or otherwise comment without sacrificing their anonymity.  

I will attempt to recount the story exclusively through my own eyes – what I saw myself, heard, and did. Where I have drawn conclusions beyond what I witnessed myself, I will try to indicate the conjectural nature of those conclusions no matter how obvious or definitive they may be. I cannot guarantee a perfection of memory, but I can at least distinguish between memories of what I witnessed and memories of my own interpretations of what I saw. This will be then a highly personal account. It begins with the formation of the Lower East Side Alliance (LESA).

Quick chronology of LESA:

1. wishing to resist the commercial gentrification of the the East Village and the Lower East Side by nightlife, local residents appeal to the local community board District Manager who rebuffs and rejects their appeal

2. local residents organize a town hall by themselves against the opposition from the CB

3. the town hall, arranged in six short weeks, draws a capacity audience of over 300

4. CD2 activists take up the resistance with an elected officials forum

5. CB3 turns around to join the resistance

6. following two murders related to local bars, the State Liquor Authority (SLA) agrees to a “summit” with CD2 and CD3 members resulting in a liquor license moratorium and the appointment of a city resident on the SLA Board

7. the moratorium ends with the 2008 financial collapse, the state seeking to boost commerce with nightlife that tends to thrive during high unemployment. 

Prior to 2000, the Lower East Side was unrecognizable from what it is today. By “Lower East Side” I mean the old use of it which denoted an originally working-class immigrant ghetto stretching from 14th Street to the Brooklyn Bridge east of the Bowery, and which, in the 20th century, became a neighborhood generally characterized by its poverty, old and often abandoned tenements, and neglect. In the latter half of the 20th century, the area was home to a variety of ethnic or marginzalized peoples including Puerto Riquenos, Chinese immigrants first, second and third generation, artists and self-styled artists, substance abusers and black market substance vendors, indigent Vietnam veterans, ex-convicts, street sex workers and former street sex workers and transvestites (this before “trans” entered the lexicon). With typically biased social and racist hierarchical perceptions, white substance abusers often called themselves and were called “artists” while their black counterparts were referred to as “junkies”. 

I moved there in 1978. Life in the slum was not easy. Tenements were abandoned or burnt by their landlords, others left without heat or hot water, rent strike banners could be seen across many buildings. The space in general was unmonetized. Ownership played little role, leaving the space to those who actually occupied it. This meant almost no commerce, but also a degree of freedom and fluidity unavailable anywhere else in the dense urban environment. People moved into spaces including storefronts without asking permission. Residents shifted from apartment to apartment, building to building without lease or legal recognition. The debris of demolished buildings were left for the taking. 

After 2000, gentrification and development picked up rapidly and noticeably. I had a lot of time on my hands (about which more later), and began to think about how to save some of the unique character and freedom of this uncommodified oasis in the city. In retrospect, gentrification had already spread, saving the neighborhood from it was too late, and the force of commercialization was too great to resist in any case. But hindsight is 20/20; standing in the weeds it’s not so clear. 

As it happened, there was a highly contested city council primary election in 2004 with a great many candidates, some of them local citizens willing to listen to local voices. An issue of concern to many was the proliferation of nightlife driving up commercial rents and driving out the old, local commercial operations – bike shops, copy shops and similar local services. It occurred to me that organizing a resistance to commercial gentrification would be an easy task. Local residents were not just unhappy about the bars replacing local services, they were troubled by the bars' noise and disruption of the street. When people feel an immediate problem in the quality of their life or in their pocket, that’s when they are most likely to respond actively. It seemed the ideal focus for a protest campaign that might bring residents together to fight against the tide of upscale transformation from a distinctive and unique place of freedom and counterculture to yet another familiar cookie-cutter mainstream world of monetization, ownership, control and conformity.

I started by drafting a letter addressed to the candidates which I planned to send to the local newspaper, The East Villager. First, I’d gather signatures for the letter from the local block associations. I don’t remember how I managed to gather the 55 signatures that eventually signed, but 55 seemed plenty and probably I had exhausted my resources of signers, so I sent it with those 55. The letter asked the candidates to respond to our gentrification concerns. The Villager published it.

The signatories became the basis of an email network which I sent notices to regularly and frequently. about local concerns, political events and such. I called the network LES Residents for Responsible Development. The purpose of the name was to give some air of legitimacy to what was really just a local protest movement. Several candidates did respond to the Villager letter, especially and most enthusiastically "Cathy" (I've altered the name). In time, she would become a central member of what turned into the LESA, the Lower East Side Alliance. 

Meanwhile, I went to a local tenants advocacy non profit, Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES) to see what help I might have from them. At the time there was a newly hired activist, Shelly (I've altered the name). She took an interest in my concerns. She suggested we bring the issue of restraining bars to the community board. Shelly arranged a meeting with Susan, the CB3 District Manager. The District manager is an unelected salaried position charged with facilitating the CB operations. It would turn out that Susan had taken far more of a role than facilitation or management, as was obvious from our meeting.

Post 2: The encounter with the Community Board District Manager

As always, with the exception of public figures, I use altered names to protect the individuals in this history.

At our meeting, Shelly explained in brief our concern: What could the CB do to curtail the spread of nightlife? Bars tend to have a high cash flow which means they can pay higher rents than many other commercial operations. Landlords will prefer to rent to bars given a choice. Also bars are not limited to local patrons, especially where bars are dense. A nightlife district actually increases the viability of each bar, so that a bar district spirals upward and outward, eating up the local services that cannot pay the rents that bars can.

Susan’s only response to our presentation was to treat our entire concern as an attack on the then Community Board Chair David. As it happened, I did not know the CB chair, had perhaps only once heard his name and knew nothing at all about him. So our concerns had no relationship to him at all. As I soon learned, he was a bar owner, and not just a bar owner, but the owner of multiple bars in the neighborhood, and not just multiple bars but, on the stretch of Avenue A, between 1st and 3rd, nearly every bar was his.

Susan responded first by accusing us of attacking David and then immediately, and patronizingly, told Shelly that she thought that working on commercial gentrification was beyond the mission of her non profit. Since Susan was not Shelly's boss, this was meddling beyond her role as District Manager, especially since Shelly did have a highly competent boss, and it wasn't Susan. In other words, Susan rather than trying to assist us as local members of the community, she took it upon herself to obstruct our effort. Susan got up from the table announcing that she’d go look for the mission statement and end the meeting with that. She told us we were wasting our time; the CB had tried and failed to curtail liquor licenses at the State Liquor Authority. Bar spread in the district was inevitable. Give up. These were her words to us.

I was astonished, as you might expect, and even more astonished when I learnt that the CB chair she served was a multiple bar owner. I recognized that the CB would not be helpful. Instead it would clearly be an obstacle. I looked for other resources. This encounter was my first intimation that the community board, and political institutions generally, do not grasp at all the power of organizing. They seem to assume that if they, with their access to what they view as legislatively recognized influence, can’t accomplish a task, then no one can. The result seems to me to be an internal culture of subservience in politics or deal-making or acceptance and fatalism.

Post 3: The formation of the Lower East Side Alliance and the town hall on bar proliferation

As always, with the exception of public figures, I use altered names to protect the individuals in this history.

Another resource emerged quickly at a CB liquor licensing meeting where I saw a kind of LES counterpart to me. Reina (I've altered the name) was outspoken, brilliant and insistent at this meeting. We talked there, immediately recognized our common concerns and decided we’d work together. She confirmed to me that the CB had been obstructive to her as well, and she expressed this even more strongly than I had. This is when LESA really began – the joining of an East Village resident and a Lower East Side resident concerned about commercial gentrification. We began a fast and furious email exchange over the next few days.

Using all our collective neighborhood contacts, mine mostly in the EV, Reina in the LES, we arranged an in-person meeting at Two Boots, a pizza place on Avenue A. Some 15 or so locals attended. It was not without conflict, and the conflict presaged the eventual collapse of the group several months later. One attendee, whom I will call Maggie, insisted that another attendee, Linda (I've altered the name), leave the meeting on the grounds that she had been a chair of the CB liquor licensing committee and therefore somehow tainted. Since the meeting was completely open to the public, this caused some tension, and needless to say was insulting to the former CB committee chair who was attending not as a former anything but as a local resident sharing our interests. Although Maggie alone had this objection to her presence, her objection was so aggressive and persistent that the former CB committee chair did leave the meeting, it seemed to me visibly upset and, it seemed to me, justifiably so. She came to help, she had expertise, and she was no longer on the SLA committee or even a member of the CB anymore. I suppose it is a matter of speculation whether Maggie's objection had any merit, but it turned out to be characteristic of Maggie and played a role in the group's future, which is the only reason I mention it.

Finding a space to meet is a great challenge in NYC. Fortunately, Maggie was able to arrange for us to meet in the future in the basement of the Orensanz Foundation, a community-friendly arts and events venue on Norfolk Street just south of Houston Street. With an attendance of between twelve and twenty or so, the group gave itself a name, Lower East Side Alliance, a mission and an immediate goal of holding a town hall meeting on bar proliferation in the neighborhood to be held within six weeks of our initial meeting, each member taking on a task towards this goal. The LESRRD email network expanded into the hundreds.

We chose a panel of speakers including the current out-going councilmember Margarita, a fiercely progressive housing activist but who had come under sharp local criticism for promoting housing over "community" gardens, and supporting or allowing the Astor Place “Sculpture for Living” a swank development at the border of the district. As word spread, the CB3 chair David, the multiple bar owner, asked and insisted that he be on the speaker panel, saying that he was a responsible bar owner, never opened a new bar but only owned or managed existing bars, so didn't add more liquor licenses than already existed. The group was uninterested in his blandishments and unpersuaded by them. Tension between LESA and the Community Board increased.

Al, the manager and brother of the owner of the Orensanz Foundation, donated his venue for our town hall event. Attendance was standing-room only, a seating capacity of three hundred. Several bar owners attended as well and many of them spoke in the Q&A. The event was a success both for its wide attendance and the mere fact that it signaled a unified movement of resistance against commercial gentrification. The CB3 chair and its District Manager did not attend.

Post 4: A movement begins and succeeds

As always, with the exception of public figures, I use altered names to protect the individuals in this history.

In the audience was a Bleeker Street resident and local activist Zephyr (I've altered her name) who contacted LESA through me expressing an interest in furthering the goal of curtailing the spread of nightlife. She had contacts with Community District 2 and Chelsea. While the members of LESA were wary of expanding beyond its CD3 borders, I willingly agreed to attend a meeting between Shelby, a prominent CD2 local political activist, Zephyr and a local Chelsea activist I'll call Wendy. This group decided to hold a candidates forum at the highly visible, prominent and swank Public Theater, a venue of city-wide notoriety. Zephyr seemed to have experience and contacts and access to the funds necessary to pull off such an event which included catering as well as renting the space. LESA, true to its grassroots do-it-yourself resistance mode remained skeptical of the event and, other than myself, did not participate in organizing.

This event occurred shortly after the city council election. The new council member agreed to be a panelist along with a deputy mayor and some other local electeds. The new council member at the last minute sent a staff member, saying that she’d been injured and couldn’t appear. (In my experience, newly elected office holders are often cautious of events that might commit them to programs they have not fully calculated. I assume this was the real reason for her no-show, not the injury, though for all I know it may have been the injury and not such political caution.) LESA members attended in the audience, as did the Community Board 3 chair David and the District Manager Susan. I took distinct pleasure in seeing them there in the audience. Although LESA viewed the event as high-level political shenanigans – a perspective many anti-establishment activists hold when established operators take up their cause – I saw this prestige event, recognizing our broad resistance movement, as an affront to the low-level wannabe powerbrokers in CB3. At last they had to attend and listen, dutifully, with no role but audience.

In a turn-around for the CB3 administration, CB3 arranged for their own town hall or meeting on bar proliferation, only a few months after they’d boycotted our event and the District Manager’s failed attempt to scotch our efforts from the start. The tide had turned. Resistance to commercial gentrification held the upper hand, the small-time bosses had to get in line.

There followed two events that changed the political landscape regarding bars and liquor licenses. Two women were murdered, one committed by a bar bouncer, another by a bar patron, both in our area. Quickly these murders silenced the objections to the effort to curtail liquor licenses. Zephyr arranged a “summit” between the State Liquor Authority, local law enforcement, local electeds and local activist representatives. the end result was the appointment of a city resident to the SLA – amazingly, there had been no city representative on the SLA board – and a moratorium on liquor licenses in our area. The city resident lived in Brooklyn, in Martin Connor’s assembly district, Connor being the Assembly Majority Leader at them time.

The moratorium remained until the 2008 financial collapse, when the state desperately needed to boost commerce in the recession that followed. Bars thrive countercyclically with the economy. Unemployment draws the idle to bars and liquor. The governor appointed a new SLA commissioner who set out to expedite licenses.

Post 5: A lesson on legislation and how ignorance rules

As always, with the exception of public figures, I use altered names to protect the individuals in this history.

One of the means by which the new commissioner increased the flow of bars was a piece of legislation he drafted and gave to the State Senate and State Assembly. In it, the Community board was given a list of issues which it could consider in its deliberations on license approval or disapproval. This list was no different from the issues that the community boards had been considering for years, but by stating them in the legislation, it gave the CB’s the appearance of authority, though, of course, as anyone knows who knows the first thing about community boards, community boards have no legislative or legal authority. They are advisory only. At best they can negotiate a contract with a bar owner and hope that the courts will uphold such a contract. 

The list included in the legislation was promoted to the CB3 District Manager, who viewed these useless and empty words as a victory for the community boards, a recognition that the boards could consider these issues. Not mentioned was the simple deletion of one word in the Alcoholic Beverage Control Law. That word was “community”. With this one word deletion, the SLA commissioner effectively eliminated the power of the local community to prevent a bar through the courts. I’ll explain. 

Previously, the ABC law required that every bar show “community benefit”. This meant that if a community already had a bar, it was possible for that community (the actual community, not the Community Board) to sue the SLA or the bar on the grounds that since there was already a bar in the community, this additional bar did not provide any “community benefit”. By deleting this word “community” from “community benefit” the commissioner allowed that the benefit of the bar could be anything beyond the local environment. For example, if the bar hired a bartender, that job was a social or economic benefit, even if it didn’t benefit the local community at all. If the bar served out-of-towners, that too was a benefit.

The deletion of “community” was an impactful alteration of the ABC Law itself, not a meaningless alteration of CB concerns. In other words, this deletion was statutory, unlike the list of issues for the CB which gave no one any standing. The deletion deprived the public of standing in court. The CB list was mere window dressing. The deletion of "community" was the true substance and underlying purpose of the legislation. 

When the new State Senator Daniel was elected, this legislation became his first crusade, presumably thinking that the list, supported by the District Manager was some kind of curtailment of licenses and would be popular among the local residents who were still concerned about the spread of liquor licenses. He did not know that the legislation had been drafted by the SLA commissioner and did not know about or recognize the importance of the deletion. He was new in office and was given bad advice from someone who should have known better.

Hearing about this new legislative proposal, I looked into it and read the text. The deletion of “community” raised my curiosity and after a few moments it became clear what was up. I called the office of the State Assembly sponsor of the bill and asked for more details. It was a functionary in his office who told me that the sponsor did not write the bill, but that it came to him from the SLA commissioner. At that moment the picture came into focus for me. I contacted Daniel who by then knew me from questions I’d asked in various campaign forums and such. His response was quite simple and straightforward: the CB3 District Manager supported this legislation; I should address my concerns to her, and she might explain what was good about the bill. 

I contacted Susan immediately. Her response was exactly as the commissioner had planned. She supported the bill because of the inclusion of the list of concerns. I mentioned the deletion of “community”. She ignored and dismissed me once again. 

I learnt from this course of events that community boards, at least in my district, neither read nor understand legislation nor understand how legislation is drafted and for what purpose. Even the elected officials rely on hearsay rather than close reading and careful analysis. Accurate information is available, but inaccurate and manipulated disinformation prevails. 

It was an ironic twist that the District Manager, after being turned around to learn that activism could do what she believed was impossible – to curtail liquor licenses, for example – then in climbing on the wagon of anti-licensing made public resistance in fact impossible by supporting this new law. This is not the only case in which functionaries fail by failing to read the law. The general ignorance of the zoning text is another such example. That story will be recounted in the next section. 

Meanwhile, I cannot recommend more strongly reading the law itself and reading it with a critical eye. This does not imply a conspiratorial view of the law, but an understanding that there are many interests reflected in legislation, and the appearance of a benefit to the ordinary people may hide other interests more obscure to the ready view. 

Post 6: The end of LESA

As always, with the exception of public figures, I use altered names to protect the individuals in this history.

The dissolution of the LESA

Following the LESA town hall, the group divided between the members north of Houston and those south of it. I must take some responsibility for the rift. I am too thin skinned to bear antagonism,  and there was one member of the group south of Houston (Maggie, mentioned previously) unrelentingly, irrationally and unnecessarily antagonistic towards me. I have no idea why. I don’t expect all my suggestions to be taken up, but even my occasional good ideas were opposed by this one member. I was told that this was her modus operandi, and she had a reputation throughout the activist community in the LES for divisiveness. She also had a reputation for extraordinary research, persistence, experience and knowledge.

I couldn’t work under such constant personal attack. It was counterproductive since good ideas were being shot down for what seemed to be entirely personal reasons. I lost many nights of sleep after her attacks. Thin-skinned, I want everyone to like me. That’s not a viable personality for activism, where antagonism is an inevitability whether from within the group or without. 

The north of Houston members held a few more meetings, but the writing was on the wall. We have remained friends over the years, though I haven’t seen them since the onset of Covid. 

Post 7: Lessons for activists from the history of LESA

As always, with the exception of public figures, I use altered names to protect the individuals in this history.

If there is a problem that immediately impacts a local demographic, it’s possible, even easy, to bring people together and hold successful events that bring wide attention.

If you can bring out large numbers of people, as LESA did at its town hall, outside activists will take note and join. (This also  happened when the CUNY Coalition/SLAM brought 20,000 students to City Hall for a demonstration. The very next morning Al Sharpton and Dennis Rivera called us at the Grad Center to ask us to organize a second march with them.)

Both grassroots events and upscale political events can promote the movement as long as the events are in the control of the activists and not politicians, non profits or quasi governmental operatives like the CB. 

Sad to say, progress often moves forward only in the wake of misfortunes and casualties.

Post 8: The rezoning of the East Village and Lower East Side: the background

As always, with the exception of public figures, I use altered names to protect the individuals in this history.

The background of the EV/LES rezoning was far more complex than the formation of the LESA, which was little more than a gathering of local residents worried about the transformation of their neighborhood. The roots of the rezoning lie deep in the history of Alphabet City/Loisaida and its gradual gentrification. It begins with the Puerto Rican immigration and CHARAS/El Bohio.

Following the creation of the NYC subway system, the Lower East Side, long associated with poverty and overcrowding, emptied of its residents leaving it an abandoned low-rent district and a home to recent migrants including Poles, Ukrainians and Puerto Ricans. During the city’s financial bankruptcy of the 1970’s, the city withdrew services from the area, closing schools. One of these closed schools, P.S. 64 on 9th Street east of Avenue B, was reclaimed by local Puerto Rican activists who turned it into a community center offering many community services, events, and studio spaces for artists. Among the founders was Armando Perez, who became one of the Democratic District leaders along with Margarita Lopez. District Leader is an elected office at the most local level of government. The two District Leaders worked to prevent community displacement, promoting and protecting the low-income residents of Community District 3.

Margarita was eventually elected to City Council as a housing advocate and progressive firebrand – energetic, articulate, outspoken and defiant. The city administration under Giuliani, promoted development everywhere. The city evicted CHARAS/El Bohio, selling the building to a developer, Gregg Singer, signaling that he would build a tall residential complex on the lot.

The sale of P.S. 64 occurred at a unique moment in the history of the district. There had been no development in the EV/LES for decades, and save for the NYCHA projects along the river and a private development on Houston Street, no development for nearly a century. Around 1999, two towers were built, one over the Theater for the New City, which had sold its development rights in order to fund its programs, and a building on 3rd Street constructed with a community facility zoning bonus. The community facility zoning bonus allowed a developer to build nearly twice the bulk size as the zoning otherwise allowed under the condition that the building be used for some kind of community service like a hospital, school or school dormitory. The 3rd Street building was built under the pretense that it would be a dormitory, but it was designed just as if it were a residence. The developer had no contract with any school to use it as a dormitory. This sent up a red flag to the community that the developer was intending to take advantage of the bonus with the covert intention of turning the building into a lucrative luxury complex. It was a simple scam: after completing the building, the developer goes to the City’s Board of Standards and Appeals, crying that having spent his many millions but unable to find a school tenant, begs to please, please let him open it as a residential complex. And the BSA wipes his tears and assents. It's an old dance. 

After many months of controversy and a law suit, the developer capitulated and found a school tenant. In light of this event, locals were suspicious of Singer’s intent. The restoration of CHARAS/El Bohio became the cause célèbre of the District. Margarita, who had a close political relationship with Armando, took up this cause along with pretty much every personality of note in the neighborhood. It was more than the loss of a community center. It became the symbol around which the entire community could unify and rally.

Among the opponents of any out-of-scale development plans for the former community center were the penthouse tenants of Christodora House, a building twice the height of the tallest buildings in the neighborhood. These tenants formed a community group, the East Village Community Coalition (EVCC), and working with other long-term activists devised a program to prevent Singer from constructing a tower. The two arms of the program were 1) to landmark the building through the Landmarks Preservation Commission, and 2) to rezone the entire East Village to eliminate the community facility bonus that the 3rd Street developer had used, and limit the heights of all buildings.

There had been previous efforts to rezone the EV, but all had failed. I do not know the details of those efforts, whether they failed because of internal dissensions or resistance from the city’s Department of City Planning. I have been told that the city itself tried to rezone the EV with what’s called “Quality Housing”, a program that allows a small increase in buildable volume. This too had failed.

Post 9: The new CB chair, the EVCC, and the Task Force

As always, with the exception of public figures, I use altered names to protect the individuals in this history.

The new CB chair, David (the multiple bar owner) took a different, practical approach to rezoning. He gathered together major operatives in the neighborhood including affordable housing developers and managers (GOLES, LES People’s Mutual housing, Cooper Square Mutual Housing, EVCC and others) and with the assistance of Andrew, the Executive Director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation (GVSHP today known as Village Preservation) looked towards a collaboration with DCP itself, rather than presenting a fully articulated plan to DCP. The idea was to formulate basic principles or desiderata and then see what DCP might offer. This happened at a propitious moment, as Bloomberg had initiated what became one of the most extensive series of rezonings throughout the city.

Towards the beginning of the discussions, EVCC presented a plan of its own for rezoning the East Village. They had hired a consultant who produced several possible rezoning proposals that would limit excessive development and prevent the redevelopment of P.S.64. Their plan came under criticism by a highly regarded life-long resident Maria, who lived on St. Mark’s Place, the commercial nightlife hub of the neighborhood. She’d been resisting the expansion of nightlife on her street. The EVCC plan rezoned St. Mark’s Place for commerce, which would have made it virtually impossible for Maria to challenge any new restaurants regardless how noisy or attractive to crowds. One of the EVCC plans seemed to me appealing, limiting heights to around 60’. None of the plans were discussed much by the CB 197 Task Force and it was my impression that the members didn’t read it very carefully since no one seemed to have anything at all to say about the plans and the distinctions among them. In any case, David asked the members to formulate and agree upon their desiderata for the neighborhood.

While the group debated over several months, construction began alarmingly fast in CD3. But not in the EV. To everyone’s surprise, all the developments appeared south of Houston, an area closely associated with the old ghetto and that had been largely ignored by the political operatives in the CD3 and by the real estate industry as well. Yet suddenly tall buildings were rising block after block. In the EV, by contrast, there were no new developments at all after the 1999 raising of the Theater for the New City building and the 3rd street scam. What was going on? Why nothing in the EV, where all the attention had been, and so much activity in the old, ignored LES? 

Post 10: Reality overtakes anticipation: the zoning as it really was

As always, with the exception of public figures, I use altered names to protect the individuals in this history.

It should not have been surprising at all, and that it was a surprise indicates just how narrow local interests are and how uninformed. The EV was (and still is) a residential zone. The FAR – the volume of space allowed by law – was quite restricted. Most of the buildings in the EV are larger than the zoning allows, having been built prior to the zoning law. Replacing such an old building would require construction under the new zoning which would replace a larger building with a smaller one with less space to rent, and a loss of profit. In other words, the zoning of the EV was protective of the neighborhood. The only way to develop a building larger than the existing building would be to take advantage of the community facility bonus. But that would require finding a community facility tenant.

The LES was not a residential zone but a commercial zone, with an FAR equal to the community facility bonus in the residential EV. Since the area was depressed, it was a simple matter for a developer to buy up several lots and construct a hotel of imposing dimensions. And so they did. While the pols and residents of the EV worried needlessly about their zoning, the LES was being transformed under their noses.

One of the members who did not regularly attend the meetings but who had extensive knowledge of zoning and development, Liam (I've altered his name), did eventually appear at a meeting to explain why it was so difficult to develop in the EV. This was not what the Task Force, and especially David the CB chair, wanted to hear. They had come together to save the neighborhood from development and particularly to save P.S.64 from being turned into a skyscraper that would have no place for CHARAS. And David, still pressing for a rezoning of the EV, seemed to want nothing more than to lead them to victory. The members ignored Liam and soon afterward he no longer appeared on their membership roster.

Developments in the LES, however, could not be ignored. The Task Force added the LES to their plans, and so it became an EV/LES rezoning effort. If rezoning the EV was largely pointless, the rezoning of the LES may have been already too late. If you look at the new developments there, it appears that there’s only one per block and each development is roughly 23 stories. Developers can buy development rights, often called air rights – space that is given to a lot by the zoning but unused by the owner of that lot because the existing building is smaller than what the zoning allows. They can only buy these from adjacent lots and cannot add development rights from across the street. The one-tall-development-per-block, each the same height, implies that all these developments bought all the air rights available on the block. If that’s so, then there are no more air rights on any of these blocks, and any downzoning will protect nothing since everything that could be developed had already been developed.

I have not looked through all the financial records of all these developments, so I cannot say that this implication is in fact reality. Someone should undertake that tedious research through the records of the city’s Office of Finance. Too many researchers look only at newspaper accounts. This is an egregious mistake, since reporters often rely only on interviews of agents involved in an action, and such agents may be themselves grossly ignorant of the law, of the financial details, of pretty much everything except what they themselves and their associates have done and what they have been told by other ignorant agents. They are victims of their own confirmation bias, so even accurate evidence contrary to their beliefs are incapable of disabusing them of their inaccuracies. This may seem a harsh assessment, but having been active and involved for some time, it still disturbs me how broad and deep ignorance extends and how falsehoods spread so widely, masquerading as certainty.

Overall, if the Task Force had simply asked to have the community facility bonus eliminated, the Task Force would have succeeded in its goal of relieving the pressure of development in the EV. Instead, the rezoning actually upzoned almost the entirety of the EV in effect giving it the "Quality Housing" upzoning that DCP had tried but failed to implement years before. 

Post 11: The origin of this blog, Save the Lower East Side

As always, with the exception of public figures, I use altered names to protect the individuals in this history.

Early in the process, when the Task Force had formulated its principles, I asked David, the chair, whether it would be okay with him for me to explain to my email network, LESRRD, what the CB was planning. Up to then, there was little awareness that the EV and LES were being rezoned. The name of the Task Force was not “Rezoning Task Force” or “Land Use Task Force” or some other comprehensible English equivalent, but “197-a Task Force” an entirely opaque and obscure name of no meaning or informational content to any ordinary resident.

I expected David to agree, and I was asking simply as a kind of courtesy to let him know ahead of time that the word would be spreading abroad. I did not expect his response, which was to ask that I not inform the public of what the CB was up to. This struck me as both unethical, suspicious and inappropriate. For better or worse, I chose to ignore his request even though by asking him I was implying that he could decline.

Rather than simply announce the CB’s plans, I started a blog with the purpose of explaining in the simplest yet accurate terms exactly how zoning in general works so that the public would be able to understand fully what was being planned. This was the beginning of the Save the Lower East Side blog, its first posts “Zoning for Dummies”. Those posts are still accessible on the blog. I also published an article explaining the EV/LES rezoning and its implications, so far as I know the only accurate, detailed and comprehensive piece in the public domain. As I learnt in time, even the members of the Task Force did not have a complete grasp of zoning, and because they did not formulate a detailed plan, but instead presented only their desiderata to DCP, they never had to deal with the details of the zoning itself. They understood the height caps, but did not seem to understand that DCP’s plan included an increase of FAR – the allowable buildable space given to developers. In other words, the Task Force members seemed to believe that the DCP plan was a downzoning and promoted the plan to the public as such, not knowing that it was in fact an upzoning.

The height caps were themselves not innocent. The average height of EV buildings were around 60’, but DCP determined that the local “context” was 80 to 85 feet. When DCP announced a town hall on the zoning proposals, I made a quick survey of the neighborhood measuring the number of stories of each building on 11th Street, on First Avenue and on Houston Street. I would have surveyed the entire neighborhood but time did not allow. To my surprise, the average mean height on 1st Avenue was under 5 stories. There were a great many three and four story buildings and only a few six story buildings. Along with the width of the avenue, this is one reason why among all avenues in the city you can see so much sky on First. By contrast, the side streets are considerably taller, mostly built in the 1880’s and 90’s with Old Law tenements six or six and a half stories tall, the stoop and sunken first floor accounting for the half story. The number of buildings in the EV east of 3rd Avenue taller than six stories could be counted on one hand and only one taller than seven stories. This survey "Contextual Height in the Lower East Side North of Houston Street" is also archived on this blog.

I submitted the survey to DCP at the town hall, but never heard back from them.

Post 12: DCP's first town hall and its consequences, AAFE's support for upzoning in Chinatown

As always, with the exception of public figures, I use altered names to protect the individuals in this history.

At the town hall, a variety of concerns were voiced. Present was Phil DePaolo, whom I name here in full because Phil was instrumental, and I want to say heroic, in the eventual outcome of the criticism of the CB-DCP plans. While I was focused on understanding the zoning text and its local consequences of the CB-DCP proposed zoning designations, Phil explained to me the bigger picture, the consequences of a contextual zoning for adjacent neighborhoods. He opened my eyes to the full meaning of a rezoning. That understanding led to the creation of the Chinatown Working Group and more important, what became its motivating principle of comprehensive urban planning. Phil was dealing at the time with the consequences of Bloomberg’s rezoning of Williamsburg. Working with Kathe Newman of the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, he was able to show that restrictive rezonings drive developers to adjacent unrestricted neighborhoods.

Applied to the EV/LES rezoning, as Phil explained, developers would be driven from the EV/LES to the adjacent unrezoned areas including the Bowery and Chinatown. While the EV was already largely gentrified, as Brad Landers had pointed out in an earlier town hall, the Bowery and Chinatown had much more to lose from development. In the case of the Bowery it meant wholesale transformation and the displacement of a historical district and one of the few places where the indigent were welcome, and in the case of Chinatown, wholesale displacement of one of the last remaining ethnic enclaves and immigrant first destinations in Manhattan.

At the town hall, a variety of worries were voiced. Why were Avenue D and Houston Street being upzoned? Was the intent to upscale and gentrifiy the neighborhood? How would these upzonings impact the residents of the New York City Housing Authority residents (the NYCHA public subsidized project housing along the East River)? Some of us also objected to the exclusion of Chinatown and the Bowery but these objections fell on deaf ears. The town hall led to an alternative plan or series of amendments to the DCP plan devised by Harvey Epstein and Paul Bartlett, Harvey a former CB chair (and eventually our assemblymember) and Paul an active member of the CB and formerly an employee of DCP with expertise in zoning. They produced an 11 point amendment to the rezoning which recommended a lowered FAR for Houston Street in exchange a higher FAR for Chrystie Street. Unfortunately, these recommendations were set out as separate points so DCP accepted the upzoning of Chrystie Street point and rejected the point recommending the lowering of the Houston Street upzoning. I called the liaison from DCP, Arthur, who stated simply that DCP likes upzoning and doesn't like downzoning, so DCP accepted the upzoning the CB offered and rejected that Houston Street proposal. That is, they didn't treat it as an exchange at all, since they weren't given to them as a single item.

As a result, the greatest upzoning in the plan and its highest FAR allowance ended up in the one piece of the rezoning in Chinatown, on Chrystie Street. David, at a Task Force meeting, explained that he consulted "Chinatown" to find out whether such an upzoning would be acceptable to the Chinatown community. He called the Chinatown Revitalization Initiative, an organization closely allied to Asian Americans for Equality (AAFE), the largest affordable housing manager in Chinatown and perhaps its most influential non profit, with close ties to the EV political club that produces its councilmembers. RCI told him "the Chinese like density" (David's words), so they were fine with the upzoning.

The upzoning came with inclusionary housing -- a developers bonus that creates affordable housing which must be managed by an affordable housing non profit like AAFE. And not surprisingly, at the final DCP hearing on the rezoning, AAFE brought out its members to support the rezoning as one of its loudest supporters.

Post 13: Political alliances in Community District 3

As always, with the exception of public figures, I use altered names to protect the individuals in this history.

Policy-making in Community District 3 cannot be understood without knowing the close political alliances within it. At the heart of CD3 is the Coalition for a District Alternative (CoDA), an activist group started in the 1990's that is effectively the local Democratic Party club. All three of the last City Council members have come from CoDA, ever since Margarita's upset victory. The core interest of the group has always been housing. It has had a close relationship with the two large affordable housing managers, Good Old Lower East Side and Cooper Square Mutual Housing. LES People's Mutual Housing was not active in CoDA itself so far as I know -- I could be mistaken since I did not attend every CoDA meeting by any means -- but as an affordable housing developer, it had common interests with the other non profits. Asian Americans for Equality, the affordable housing manager in Chinatown, also had a close political association with CoDA. In short, the affordable housing non profits are at the heart of the politics of the East Village.

Margarita won her election by going door to door in the NYCHA properties, registering voters. CoDA has always looked to NYCHA residents as their primary constituency and concern. CD3 has one of the highest concentrations of poverty in the city, certainly in Manhattan. Unlike the upscale residents of the EV, who have the resources to move at will, NYCHA residents have no such resources. This makes them the core, enduring community of the EV. They are also the least served, especially since the Federal Government has disinvested in public housing maintenance. CoDA, despite its diversity of membership including many whites, has always kept its moral and political dedication to the NYCHA residents.

Maragarita herself was a homesteader from 1978 (the same year I moved in just down the street from her), a Puerto Rican who, with a group of other Puerto Rican women remodeled an abandoned building on 11th Street between Avenues B and C, turning it into a viable home amidst urban blight.

Post 14: Anti-gentrificationist vs affordable housing non profits and the city's strategy that divides them

As always, with the exception of public figures, I use altered names to protect the individuals in this history.

Housing activism divides between anti-displacement, the attempt to keep residents in their affordable homes, and affordable housing creation that provides new homes for those who cannot afford housing the market offers. Displacement is difficult to quantify. Did Sally leave her affordable apartment because the landlord effectively evicted her by raising her rent beyond her means or did she leave because she found a cheaper place or because she chose to move to her parents' home to care for them? It's not obvious why residents leave. There are statistical generalizations, but the account does not provide the individual specifics with any kind of certainty. Affordable housing creation, by contrast, is eminently quantifiable, down to the number of units of housing, even the square footage of total creation, and even the names and income levels of those who obtain the housing.

This structural difference between the quantifiable and unquantifiable entails that elected officials and non profit organizations focus on affordable housing creation, non profits because they must account for every penny of their funding, elected official because only the quantifiable can be listed on their accomplishments and their public spending. The number of new affordable units is a prominent boast and advertisement of every New York City administration. There is no such number of residents who were protected from displacement.

On the other hand, displacement is an immediate concern for residents. They don't need to look at numbers to know when their landlord is harassing them by withholding services or filing "capricious" (legalese for "phony") eviction proceedings. New affordable housing doesn't help much, since there are always long wait lists for new housing, with no guarantee that someone evicted from one apartment will have access to a new one. And, as has often been observed, the new affordable housing usually isn't affordable to the long-term residents of that community.

Affordable housing creation could be called an 'invasion of the body snatchers' model of community preservation. It replaces the original residents of a community with new residents similar to the original with respect to income, but they are not the same people. And not even exactly the same in income. So affordable housing creation is not a means of community preservation. It's just another form of displacement, one more palatable because it provides an important service to the city overall.

Worse still, affordable housing in NYC is not created by the government directly. Instead, the city relies on the real estate industry to build the units through zoning manipulations. Bloomberg, for example, designated specific zones where a developer could build above the space alotted to that zone if the developer would include affordable units. In other words, no new affordable units could be built unless it was accompanied by market-rate units as well. The ratio of market-rate to affordable units was usually 4:1. Such a model is a recipe for gentrification, which itself has the consequence of raising the rental value of every unit in the neighborhood and so adds to the pressure on landlords to evict low renters since high renters are now eager to replace them.

The city's model of affordable housing, in short, is one of displacement and upscale transformation with no guarantee of community preservation. Michael Jackson's "They don't care about us" applies exactly. But because it is quantifiable, it is enthusiastically endorsed and promoted by elected officials and non profits with their funding streams, their literature, their connections, their organizing resources, their employees.

The local residents under pressure already, and seeing the future of displacement from the city's displacement modus operandi, have no funding stream, no employees, no connections or organizing resources except themselves. They are left on their own to argue against this so-called progressive movement of affordable housing creation that is not created for them, and which adds pressure to their displacement. Go to any DCP hearing and you will see the difference. The audience will be filled with the bright T-shirts of the non profit members who are there, not to speak -- it's likely they don't really know what's going on at all and wouldn't know what to say. They are there to pad the auditorium, to give the impression of great numbers of support for the city's so-called affordable housing program. Without uniform T-shirts you will see the ordinary residents, individually appearing with the statements they themselves wrote for and about themselves and their community.

It is a bitter irony that the members of the non profits look askance at the local residents, call them NIMBY conservative obstacles to progress, when the only progress in sight is the displacement and gentrification that the non profits are implementing for the sake of development and their own bottom line, while the elected officials stick the quantified units as a pretty feather in their hat band, the latest enhancement of their resume as they climb toward whatever grandiose office to which they aspire.

Post 15: Astroturf: LESCAZ

As always, with the exception of public figures, I use altered names to protect the individuals in this history.

 The CB chair shielded himself from criticism with the claim that DCP would drop the rezoning if there were any dissent from the neighborhood. This seemed to me at the time to be nothing but a way to bully everyone into line on the one hand, and evidence of just how important success was to him personally. 
Contrary to his warnings, all evidence pointed to DCP's commitment to a rezoning. They were headed towards an environmental impact statement, which costs at least $1mil, a cost not lightly dismissed. In the process of a rezoning DCP expects alternative proposals, and such proposals are included in the EIS. In the end, DCP accepted alterations that the CB proposed, including one huge change adopted from Harvey and Paul's 11-point alternative. 

In light of community criticisms, members of the Task Force created a coalition pretending to be a grassroots community organization but was actually nothing but the members of the Task Force pretending to be a grassroots community organization. The membership of the coalition was...exactly the members of the Task Force, in other words, 100% astroturf. The brazen duplicity shocked me, but I was to learn that duplicity is a common currency of community affairs.

Members of the Task Force took the position that development was inevitable so the only options were 100% market-rate development or market-rate develpoment plus inclusionary housing derived from the incentive bonus model. They did not perceive the alternative proposed by local resident anti-gentrificationists, which was no development at all -- downzoning the entire neighborhood to drive developers out entirely. They did not perceive this alternative, I guess, because they are committed, as I mentioned in a previous post, to the affordable housing model since they derive funding by managing that affordable housing. So for the non profits, development is a necessary evil in order to get the affordable housing. None of this development serves the community, since, as I mentioned, the bonus generates more market-rate units which upscale the neighborhood adding pressure to displacement, and the affordable housing is a body-snatcher modus operandi with no guarantee that current residents will be able to avail themselves of the affordable housing, the affordability which, in any case, is not affordable to them. 

If the non profits care about the current residents, they are limited in what they can do for them. The funds that are devoted to anti-displacement depend on the resident's action. The non profit doesn't go door-to-door asking whether a tenant is under harassment. The resident has to know about the non profit as a resource, has to know that there are legal protections and there are free services for them. By contrast, affordable housing is regulated by the city and state, so the developer is required to find an affordable housing manager. The developer must go to the non profit; the non profit doesn't have to seek out the developer. 

The housing system in New York is rigged towards development, not the resident, and the elected officials and the non profits are enmeshed in that system. The resident is the pawn and passive victim with neither the power, money, connections, influence, size or other resource. They are mere individuals of no consequence or value to anyone but themselves, utterly dispensable when there are wealthier prospective tenants waiting in the wings. 

Poat 16: A digression: the alternative to our current dysfunctional model of affordable housing

As always, with the exception of public figures, I use altered names to protect the individuals in this history. 

There are models of affordable housing that do work -- and are working -- in places like Vienna and Singapore. In Vienna, some 60% of residents live in public housing; In Singapore 80%, down from 86%. These numbers imply that much of the middle class, maybe in Singapore the entire middle class, in these cities live in public housing. Where NYC's public housing is a revenue drain, on the one hand, and restricted to a demographic that has little voting or economic power, in Vienna and Singapore the housing is sustainable and available to a broad public that has economic and political strength. That strength ensures that the local government attends to its needs, including maintaining the housing. And if low and middle income residents live in the same housing, then all reap the benefits of that strength together. 

By contrast, NYCHA is exclusively a low income landlord. It requires a funding stream outside its tenants, but because those tenants have no political clout, there is no reliable funding stream from the government. Our model is systematically dysfunctional. It is designed to fail. Adding public housing for low income families will not fix that system. Adding housing for all incomes is such a fix. Until then, public housing will not have a reliable funding stream or political support or government dedication to housing as a right. It can't be a right for some and not for others. It just doesn't work politically. 

Post 17: Enter Chinese Staff and Workers Association

As always, with the exception of public figures, I use altered names to protect the individuals in this history.

After DCP had presented its plan and the CB continued to debate over how to improve it, and as the anti-gentrificationists despaired of any chance that the FAR would remain low, that the Bowery would be excluded and a rezoning would be implemented that would drive developers into Chinatown, a new development in Chinatown radically changed the steady movement of the proceedings. While everyone in CB3 was focused on the developments in the LES, there being no development in the EV, trenches were being dug for a new hotel on the Bowery in Chinatown. The change began with an email. 

Jenny (I've altered her name), an organizer in Chinese Staff and Workers Association, a non union independent labor organization, was looking for information about the trenching of the hotel. Why a hotel in Chinatown? Why development now when there'd been none for decades? In asking around, someone suggested that she contact me, saying that if anyone would know, it would be me, and gave her my email address. I don't know who it was who gave her my address, nor why she or he knew me, and when I received Jenny's email, I knew neither her nor CSWA. She explained her organization and asked about the hotel. My response was, you and your organization have got to attend the CB3 meetings on the rezoning of the EV/LES. Chinatown is being excluded from the rezoning, and that will mean a lot more development in Chinatown in the future. 

At the very next meeting Jenny and several CSWA members did in fact attend. There is always a learning curve to catching up with CB technicalities and jargon, so Jenny asked me to come to CSWA to give a workshop on zoning and this zoning in particular. As the group understood that the rezoning might transform Chinatown as one of its unintended consequences, CSWA organized quickly with several other organizations into a Coalition to Protect the Lower East Side and Chinatown. The members included CSWA, NMASS (National Mobilization against Sweatshops, a more diverse organization developed by CSWA) and also the Two Bridges Community Council, a non profit housing developer/manager near Chinatown. 

The Coalition became highly active immediately and drew attention from the CB chair and other members of the CB, who complained that it was unfair of the Coalition and the Chinatown community to wait until the process was nearly over to engage obstructively. The CB chair reminded the public that a couple of years before he'd asked the District Manager to obtain a grant to fund an informational event in Chinatown to bring awareness of the CB. He even praised the DM for her fast work on the grant. 

Under the Freedom of Information Law, I obtained all the documents related to this event, but could find no mention at all of the rezoning, of zoning, or of development. Since I did find that it was mostly about parking and traffic, issues that have always been important to Chinatown businesses, it's fair to say that absence of evidence of any mention of zoning is evidence of absence -- that the rezoning was not featured or even mentioned at the event. 

Of course the reason for the late response was the CB focus on the East Village, with its special target P.S.64 on 9th Street. Some members of the CB viewed the Chinatown community as insular and lacking in interest in CB affairs, but obviously this is a view from the non Chinatown perspective. From the Chinatown perspective, the CB's work on the rezoning was the typical insularity of the inward-looking white community lacking any interest in Chinatown. 

Post 18: An angry hearing

As always, with the exception of public figures, I use altered names to protect the individuals in this history.

A rezoning process must go through the city's Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP), which includes a series of public hearings. The first and often the biggest, is the final Community Board hearing. It was at this meeting where Jenny's organizing paid off. There were dozens and dozens of Coalition members in attendance expressing themselves clearly and unambiguously about the exclusion of Chinatown. Their protests then and in the streets made the news and marked the rezoning as a controversy over race. Also excluded from the rezoning were the public housing projects, the NYCHA properties which are almost entirely inhabited by non whites, while the EV and the Task Force mostly white. 

CB3 had a history of raucous meetings, and this one was no exception. It was followed by street protests and a petition of some 11,000 signatories. The 2016-7 exhibition on zoning "Mastering the Metropolis" at the Museum of the City of New York, displayed, in its final room on zoning today, a photograph of the Coalition protesting. The Coalition's protests led directly to the creation of the Chinatown Working Group.  

Post 19: The origin of the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors

As always, with the exception of public figures, I use altered names to protect the individuals in this history.

The other community excluded from the rezoning was the Bowery. Maria, the long-time resident and activist whom we've mentioned before, brought together residents of the Bowery neighborhood, some living on the Bowery itself and others living on the side streets leading to the Bowery. These included Melanie, Jill, Sybil and Daniel (I've altered the names). Concerned about the future of the street, Daniel asked Maria what he could do to protect the historical context of the Bowery from a historical preservationist perspective. As a theater teacher, he had a special fascination in the Bowery, which was New York's theater district throughout the 19th century before it became a skid row. Maria suggested that he catalogue the historic buildings on the Bowery, recommending that he contact me for assistance. Daniel did contact me, and so we arranged to walk down the Bowery, recording it much as I'd done with the "Contextual Heights of the East Village." This was how the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors began. 

Their focus was more on historical preservationism than housing, so I never joined, but I did a more comprehensive catalogue later on with their member Mason (I've altered the name), an important preservationist living on the Bowery in Chinatown. And a few years later, I curated and designed from scratch to finish a Bowery exhibit for BAN at the Wholefoods on the Bowery, the creation of which exhibit gave me great pleasure. I am grateful to BAN for giving me that opportunity. They are all wonderful people, dedicated to the history of the neighborhood, people with a sense of civic duty. 

Both CWG and BAN were both created in response to the 2008 EV/LES rezoning, and both groups are still highly active today. 

Post 20: The Chinatown Working Group's first formation

As always, with the exception of public figures, I use altered names to protect the individuals in this history.

I was not present at the first mention and coining of the name "Chinatown Working Group". For the history of that first discussion I rely on the person who proposed it in a meeting of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, a public-benefit corporation like an authority, created to syphon funding into projects to revitalize lower Manhattan following the 9/11 attacks. Once floated, the idea of creating a CWG was supported by the then mayor Bloomberg, the then Borough President Scott Stringer and the DCP Deputy Director for Manhattan Edith Hsu-Chen (now the Executive Director of DCP, appointed by our current mayor, Eric Adams). 

Since CB2 already had in place a Chinatown Committee, the CWG was convened by its chair, Jay (I've altered the name). The original attendees included representatives from local Chinatown organizations and Chinatown-related organizations (Asian American Arts Center; Asian American/Asian Research Institute-CUNY; Asian Americans For Equality; CAAAV/Chinatown Tenants Union; CCBA; Chinatown Partnership; Chinese Chamber of Commerce; Chinatown Manpower Project; Confucius Plaza; CREATE in Chinatown;  Two Bridges Community Council) as well as the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors, the three CB's that Chinatown is divided into (CB's 1, 2, and 3), the offices of the local Chinatown electeds (the council member and the state senator), the mayor's office, the assembly speaker's, the council speaker's, the city comptroller's, and the borough president's, and Sing Tao Daily, a Chinatown newspaper. 

The first item of business for this group was defining the boundaries of Chinatown. Neither the mayor nor the borough president, nor LMDC had given the group any boundaries, and the CB2 committee covered only the area of Chinatown within CD2.  Eve Baron of the Municipal Arts Society was introduced to make the first presentation to the group, in which she explained that the city's boundaries for Chinatown are not community-driven and are too limiting to be used as definitive of Chinatown. 

For the next few monthly meetings discussion centered around this question of boundaries. In particular, Victor Papa of the Two Bridges Community Council, argued persistently for a broad and radical expansion of the group to include all the adjacent areas that might be affected by a rezoning of Chinatown, including the NYCHA properties along the waterfront and the Two Bridges area where his non profit holds property. This principle, that a community rezoning must include its unintended consequences for adjacent communities, was the essential principle of the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side, though by then the Two Bridges Community Council had left the Coalition, probably because of the Coalition's frequent tactic of playing the race card aggressively. The Coalition itself was boycotting the very CWG that it had made possible. 

I assumed that the rationale of the Coalition's boycott was their understanding that such a community rezoning process would be a kind of real estate developer's shark-fest. And real estate was represented at the table, most prominently Edison Properties which hired an urban planner consultant, former high-level DCP employee and writer of zoning text, who eventually presented a zoning proposal to the group. 

However, current Coalition members claim that the Coalition boycotted CWG meetings because they refused to participate in a rezoning that would exclude the non ethnic Chinese neighborhoods adjacent to Chinatown. But this rationale makes little sense to me, since the CWG's first action was to expand the boundaries to include all those areas, especially the NYCHA properties all the way north to 14th Street in the East Village, yet the Coalition continued to boycott and protest the CWG long after this expanded definition of the boundaries. It may be that because the Coalition did not attend the meetings it did not know that the boundaries were expanded to include everything the Coalition desired. I have no other coherent explanation for their boycotting, as I was at the time out of favor with the Coalition for a reason I will describe now. 

Just prior to the City Council vote on the EV/LES rezoning, I went with Jenny to the then councilmember Alan Gerson to bring him our criticism of the rezoning. In the meeting, it seemed to me that the CSWA goal was not to get some benefit from the elected but to find a means of rejecting the elected as fuel for protest. The modus operandi was to present demands as an ultimatum with no avenue of negotiation. For me, the goal of going to an elected is to get something whether it be some assistance, inside information, or even a favorable comment that could be used later as a commitment. 

CSWA came away from the meeting accusing Gerson of racism. I stayed to get a commitment from Gerson to submit to the Council the cataloguing of the Bowery that I'd done for BAN. Gerson did fulfill that commitment, not that it did any good for the Bowery or its residents. My expectations of electeds are lower than most people's, I suspect. In any case, Jenny viewed this seeking of a commitment as a betrayal and undermining of the Coalition goals, and I was branded as racist. It wasn't for many years before this rift was healed. 

It seems to me that different organizations and individuals have distinct tactics that work most effectively for them. It would be best if all agents sharing their goals would understand these differences and use them as added resources. Protest, and even the race card, can be most effective for some groups, not for others. Propagandizing the public can be effective, as educating the public can too. Why can't we all respect each other's tactical opportunities if our goals are the same? 

For the 2008 EV/LES rezoning, neither protest nor educating made a difference. What most improved that rezoning from its DCP original plan was Harvey's and Paul's work to get inclusionary housing on the avenues. The benefit was unintended -- it's not the IZ that mattered, since the bonus appears to be too small for developers to take. It was that their base zoning had to be small enough so that the bonus would fit into the contextual envelope. That base zoning was almost as small as the previous zoning, and that was a win for the anti-gentrificationists. Without the criticisms from the community voiced at meetings and hearings, I doubt that Harvey & Paul's 11 point alternative would have been possible, since the CB chair was intent on driving the DCP plan through with no changes, repeatedly asserting the if there's any criticism, DCP would leave the table and turn away from any rezoning effort.  

Post 21: CWG initial success and troubles

As always, with the exception of public figures, I use altered names to protect the individuals in this history.

Jay (I've altered the name), the CWG co-chair and meeting moderator, was neither Chinese nor a member of the Chinatown community, but was a thoughtful, thoroughly well-intentioned, extremely kind and caring person, who led the group in two important successes. He obtained a $150,000 grant for the group and organized the membership into committees. The grant eventually paid for the zoning consultant and produced the CWG study and plan recommendations which form the CWG zoning plan. So the grant was indispensable. The committees allowed interested members to engage actively in coming up with a comprehensive plan -- in the city's legalese, a 197-a plan. He directed each committee to draw up its goals or principles, then an action plan for implementation featuring the governmental agencies that the CWG or the committee members would apply to. The process, as he envisioned it, moved forward methodically, following his deadlines, and successfully. The final step, pending the full CWG's approval of each committee's action plan, would be transforming these planning committees into action teams to implement the plans each had developed. 

Among the committees were Housing and Affordability, Zoning, Immigrant Services, Economic Revitalization, Public Space and Recreation, Education, Transit and Parking, Culture and Historical Preservation. Of these, only the Zoning Committee and the Economic Revitalization were unable to meet the deadline. To produce a plan, the Zoning Committee needed much more data and technical assistance for navigating the zoning text, and the Economic Revitalization Committee was unable to find consensus on the plans it developed despite Zephyr's dedicated efforts and experience.  

Jay, working with his co-chair Tim (I've altered the name), set about the task of obtaining a zoning consultant. This would require a bidding process and an oversight board. It was here that the leadership model failed. 

What made the committees such a success was participation of the members. This was not true of the leadership of the CWG. Its top-down model was most evident in the monthly CWG meetings themselves. Each meeting began with a chair's greeting and report, usually 40 minutes long (I watched the clock each meeting, a habit of mine as I have an interest in efficiency, or maybe I'm just impatient), followed by a presentation arranged by the chair or the coordinating committee which consisted of the co-chairs and perhaps a few others. The presentation also usually lasted about 40 minutes. There was, of course, time left for questions and comments from the floor, but each question or comment or criticism would be answered by the chair. This intervention from the chair was understandable since the chair had taken on so much of the work of the CWG, so the chair felt the need to defend his work. But constant intervention from the chair is a dysfunctional model of meeting. It turns the meeting into the chair's show to the exclusion of everyone else, and the chair then becomes the target of all dissatisfaction with the lack of participation which is translated into criticism of the chair's program.

Let me add that I know this because I have failed in just this way. When, years prior, I chaired a meeting of an organization which I'd been taking all the responsibilities for, I too answered every comment, criticism and question. A friend afterward advised me that I'd turned the meeting into my show and made myself the target of all dissatisfaction. I recognized the failure, having seen successful meetings of the CUNY board of Trustees in which the chair would say absolutely nothing and let members represent his ideas for him. It is generally true that if someone criticizes a program, some else in the meeting will defend the program against the criticism, if the program has any merit at all. It is in people's nature to disagree and best each other. The chair or the proposer of a program needn't say a word to promote the program. It will be promoted by the members if it is a good program. But if the promoter of the program monopolizes the defense of it, the group, sensing their disempowerment, will reject the program regardless of its merits. 

Keeping silence and letting others be brilliant is the key to running a successful meeting. Jay had succeeded at this in creating and promoting committee participation, but he did not extend this horizontal model to the central group and its monthly meetings. And when he made a crucial decision without the CWG, the top-down model of the central administration of the CWG showed its weakness and fell apart. 

Jay asked the EDC to have a majority vote on the bidding oversight board. This was perceived as an affront to the Chinatown community since it took legal authority out of Chinatown hands, a circumstance all too familiar to the Chinatown community where decisions that impact Chinatown are repeatedly made by city government in total disregard for the Chinatown community and without consulting that community.

Post 22: The second formation of the Chinatown Working Group

As always, with the exception of public figures, I use altered names to protect the individuals in this history.

When the smoke cleared from Jay's decision and the angry response it met, CWG was left without a chair and without many of its active members, particularly the tenants of Confucius Plaza, Chatham Green and Chatham Towers. However, many members remained, still believing in the importance of the CWG mission, if not its administrative model. These members immediately set about to restructure the administration. The key players in the restructuring were Emmy (I've altered the name) of CAAAV, Victor, who donated his open office space on Henry Street for our meetings, and myself. We then held open meetings regularly. 

We democratized and horizontalized the structure by expanding the members of the coordinating committee and deny it any executive power. All decisions would be made by the CWG alone. Even the agenda formulated by the coordinating committee would be a mere proposed agenda to be submitted to the entire group at the beginning of each meeting. Rather than have the co-chairs run the meetings, the facilitation of the meetings would rotate among the membership. After discovering that the original membership had no requirements, but that the membership requirements only held of new members, we relaxed the membership requirements allowing that organizations be approved by vote of the CWG itself, so that more local tenants associations would have an easier time joining. 

After about a year of working on these changes, CWG resumed its meetings with a new structure and new chairs. The first item turned out to be fateful. Since the membership over the years had grown, and several founding members were no longer attending, it was no longer possible to require a quorum of 50%+1 of the membership. So after a long debate, we settled on a proposal from Mia (I've changed the name), that a resolution would pass at a meeting where 50% or fewer of the members were attending, if a majority of a majority of the membership approved. So if the membership was 60, but only 16 attended, a resolution could pass if all those 16 approved. This worked well enough when attendance continued in the twenties, but as attendance dwindled, it became dysfunctional. A single abstention could cripple a resolution, and all too often members had to abstain simply because they had not had time to get an approval vote from their organizational members.

Post 23: The CWG first public town hall and the Coalition

As always, with the exception of public figures, I use altered names to protect the individuals in this history.

Prior to the restructuring, the CWG arranged a town hall meeting in P.S.124. The event was poorly planned and again reflected the top-down presentation-to-sessile-audience model of CWG administration. It was something of a mess and ill received. CWG never again repeated that model, instead using charrettes and tables where attendees could choose what to look at and self-direct their attention. 

Outside the presentation, the Coalition mounted an angry protest accusing the event and its organizers as racist. The CWG had long before drawn its boundaries to include the the NYCHA properties along the waterfront and the Two Bridges area, so it's not clear to me what the Coalition was protesting at this point. The CWG presentation was not really about proposals, since as I recall the committees hadn't yet produced any. Its intent, as I understood it, was to bring awareness to the local public that there was a CWG and to explain its purpose. 

A few months after the event and its protest and prior to the restructuring, CSWA and the National Mobilization Against Sweatshops (NMASS), members of the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side, finally did join CWG. I don't know why the Coalition members chose to abandon their boycott -- as I say, the expansion of its boundaries had not only been established long before the protest, it was one of CWG's first decisions -- but their decision to join was an encouraging sign. There were far too few representatives of the ordinary people of Chinatown and NYCHA in the CWG and far too many gentrifying interests. Chinatown Partnership was there apparently to prevent CWG from impeding their effort to impose a Business Improvement District for Chinatown, although a BID was never a topic of discussion for CWG. Edison Properties was there presumably to upzone its developable lots. AAFE attended to promote affordable housing, which, as was mentioned in a previous post, entails collusion with market-rate developers. 

Prior to the Coalition's joining, the voice of anti-gentrification was left to CAAAV alone, unless landmarking counts as anti-gentrification, in which case BAN would be included among anti-gentrificationists. But landmarking, while it pretty much precludes development, has little effect on gentrification. If landlords can't sell to a developer, then their only source of revenue is rent, so the pressure of gentrification rests on the landlord and rent hikes and harassing and evicting current tenants to bring in tenants willing to pay higher rents. This is equally true of downzoning. It curtails development, but cannot prevent gentrification so long as the locality is seen as desirable to tenants able to pay high rents. "Zoning is a coarse grained tool" says every urban planner or politician with knowledge of zoning. It's a euphemism for "zoning can't prevent displacement." 

Nonetheless, the Coalition asked Tom Angotti of Hunter College's Urban Planning Department, to come up with a zoning plan for Chinatown and areas to the east all the way to the waterfront. He presented a broad downzoning plan not unlike one of the EVCC plans for the EV. I'd call it an ideological plan rather than a practical plan, since, as I recall, it violated DCP's principles which includes defining the context of a neighborhood by its typical heights. Angotti's plan took the context as lower than the average building height, so there would be no chance that DCP would accept it. The Chinese property owners would also not have been happy with such a plan. I liked Angotti's plan as an initial demand because it was a straightforward anti-development plan, making no concessions to market-rate construction. 

The Coalition-Angotti plan was presented at a couple of CWG meetings, but CWG did not vote on it, preferring to hire its own consultant and come up with its own plan. 

Edison Properties also developed its own plan, but did not formally present it to CWG. It was distributed and shown but was never a topic of discussion. The plan itself did not appear to me to be serious, since it was specifically designed to promote EP interests. And it was not taken seriously by CWG members except that its existence was a warning that EP might present it elsewhere in the future.