Photo by Marlis Momber (Source: The Local)
If you ever find yourself living in New York City (or any of its outliers) you will come across one word perhaps just as often as you’ll hear the words “bagel” and “hipster.” The word is “gentrification.”
The notion of the changing landscape of a city is one that most people think they understand—people come and go and, sometimes, so do buildings. However, this change is not so simple. While it is true that no city stays stagnant, people are not disposable. Sometimes the “city” wants to change faster and more drastically than it can.
Areas in New York City such as Brooklyn, Harlem, and the Lower East Side have all experienced the “chic-ing” up that is associated with gentrification. This is most evident in the East Village when you think a little closely about the modern apartment buildings that are scattered throughout the neighborhood, nestled in between what would have been tenements during the turn of the century. The fact is, with “chic-ing” up comes higher rent prices (another thing you’ll hear as often as talk about pizza), which means that only certain people can live in the certain neighborhoods, and people who live in rent-stabilized apartments are suddenly placed in very economically unstable environments.
This is where Cooper Square Committee comes in. Located at 61 East 4th Street, CSC is a housing and preservation committee that provides social housing services to residents of the Lower East Side for free. As one of FAB’s members, we work closely on many projects, including projects involving sustainability and the preservation of the cultural institutions on our block that they worked to protect over a decade ago.
I sat down with Executive Director Steve Herrick to talk about Cooper Square Committee, the work that they do, and the legacy of community organizing so important to the Lower East Side in which they follow.
When was CSC founded and why?
The Cooper Square Committee started back in 1959 in response to a plan by Robert Moses who was the big urban planner in NYC at the time. Moses came up with a plan to demolish the area from 9th Street down to Delancy Street, east of the Bowery to 2nd Avenue, about 12 city blocks. It would have displaced several thousand residents and destroyed several hundred buildings.
Our organization formed in response to that Moses Plan. Over the next couple years, the members held over 100 planning meetings and created an alternative plan to the city’s that was adopted as the official plan of the neighborhood in 1970. The plan minimized demolition of buildings, required that city developers build on vacant lots and move anybody who was going to be displaced into the new buildings.
By the mid 1970s, the city started taking certain sites with Eminent Domain, including some of the tenement buildings here on 3rd & 4th Streets. We realized that when the city would take ownership of these buildings, they’d do a really lousy job with maintenance, so repairs weren’t being dealt with. One of the buildings on 71 East 4th Street even had a fire. We were also dealing with drugs in the neighborhood, so our organization’s focus was on getting the city to make repairs, keep the buildings up to code, and to contend with some of the decline that the neighborhood was experiencing.
During this time, New York City was suffering from the flight of the middle class. There was abandonment going on further east on Avenues A & B. There was also arson. One of the organizations that formed as a response to these issues in the late 1970s was Good Old Lower East Side (G.O.L.E.S.). They came out of Cooper Square Committee.
In mid 1980s, we got the city under Mayor David Dinkins to agree to a plan that we developed to transfer ownership of city-owned buildings to residents as low-income co-ops. We wanted to emphasize preserving the existing housing stock and felt that there shouldn’t be any real demolition unless it was absolutely necessary. We formed the Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association a year after Mayor Dinkins signed the agreement in 1990.
I joined Cooper Square Committee as director in 1998.
In the year 2000, I reached out to the cultural groups on this block. I knew that they had talked to consultants about doing planning for a vacant plot. The consultants had one chapter that dealt with the cultural buildings and recommended that those buildings be preserved for cultural use. At the time Mayor Giuliani had been selling off a lot of city-owned buildings to asset sales (to the highest bidder), so I was concerned that these buildings could be at risk. So in the summer of 2000 I asked all the cultural groups to come together and started the planning process. It was great. I worked with several cultural leaders including Ryan Gilliam from Downtown Art. In the fall, we met with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) and with the help of former city councilwoman Margarita Lopez, helped create what is now the East 4th Street Cultural District [which was the foundational beginning for our very own Fourth Arts Block].
What are some of CSC’s concerns today and for the future?
Our focus over the past decade has been working more with tenant associations, making tenant coalitions from multiple buildings with the same landlord who are experiencing the same things: destructive renovations, buy-out offers, harassment, problems like that. That’s been a big part of our work.
We’ve also developed some housing on 2nd Street and 2nd Avenue, apartments for people with psychiatric disabilities. We’re currently developing housing for homeless gay and lesbian youth on 13th Street in partnership with the Ali Forney Center. We expect to start renovation at the end of this year on that project.
In collaboration with FAB, we’ve gotten involved with the Lower East Side greening initiative, and we have been working with Mutual Housing Association buildings and low-income co-ops to help them to apply to get funding for weatherization of their buildings. We want to be part of an effort to reduce carbon emissions and have a greener, healthier city. Getting low income co-ops to commit the resources to put in more energy-efficient boilers, windows, insulated pipes and all that, helps the buildings become more efficient, reducing their operating costs which is important given that these house low-income tenants.
In terms of the future, I think there’s going to continue being development pressures and displacement pressures. Fortunately, the rezoning of Lower East Side that happened in 2008 set height limits for over 114 blocks east of the Bowery. Unfortunately, the east side of the Bowery is not protected right now, and as a result we continue to see these really out of scale buildings going up. But I don’t think we’re going to be seeing really out of scale developing happening in much of the LES.
However, one of the great things that happened as of last year is the Landmarks Preservation Commission created the historic district, largely through the efforts lead by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, that covers over 300 buildings between 3rd st and St. Marks Place. I think they’re hoping to do another historic district somewhere in the LES. So tools like that I think really help to preserve the unique historic character of the community, but preserving the affordability is still a really big struggle. The biggest tool we have to battle that is the rent-stabilization law, which has to always come up for renewal about every 4 to 6 years. It’s coming up again in 2016 and I’m sure the landlord lobby is going to try to weaken it again. They’ve already weakened it a lot so that when an apartment becomes vacant, owners often just do some renovations as a formula where they can raise the rent 1/40th of the cost per month [. . .] We’ve seen that just happen all over the place.
To some extent that may be the future of where pockets of the neighborhood are going, and I don’t know how you fight something like that because that’s just the kind of economy that we have. But we’re trying to build a broader movement of tenants and coalition groups around the city to try to get stronger protections and get the buildings departments to be more proactive when they’re dealing with some of the abuses that happen.
What is special about the LES that is worth preserving?
I think the Lower East Side a unique place because it is racially and ethnically diverse. I think it’s a community. A lot of other communities that are somewhat diverse, don’t feel like they really come together very much.
In the Lower East Side, I’ve seen many examples of people coming together and showing their support for people’s building struggles or struggles around different sites. I just think this is the kind of community where people rally together to support other people’s struggles. So many different movements have come out of this neighborhood, the Labor Movement, feminist activists and so many writers and artists. You can go down the line. So many oppositional struggles have an important origin here or important figures who have stepped forward from this community who have had an integral part in those struggles.
As a New York University student, the word “gentrification” is something that I am very aware of. NYU’s role as one of New York City’s largest property owners is visually evident as the University has very rapidly expanded to encompass large parts of both the West and East Villages. It is of no surprise that when community organizers, preservationists, and Lower East Side residents speak of my University, it is usually with disdain and accompanied with angry looks. As an NYU student who doesn’t support my University’s seemingly insatiable appetite for expansion, I think its extremely important to understand the work that Cooper Square Committee does to protect the people who have lived here and the buildings that have been here far longer than NYU. As a member of the Lower East Side community, I am also affected by the gentrification of my neighborhood and am at risk of not being able to afford to be a part of a community that I believe to be one of the most colorful, diverse, and passionate that I have ever seen.
Cooper Square Committee follows in the community organizing footsteps of such organizations as the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union of the early 1900s. It stands as a testament of the power of a united community, and as a symbol of the future of the Lower East Side. As long as there are people who care enough to organize, the Lower East Side is here to stay.
- Written by Erica Cheung