Trying to save our community on a changing L.E.S.

A photo from Clayton Patterson’s “Front Door Book.” From the 1980s through the mid-1990s, Patterson photographed many members of the Lower East Side’s Latino community in front of the door to his Essex St. home.  Photo by Clayton Patterson

A photo from Clayton Patterson’s “Front Door Book.” From the 1980s through the mid-1990s, Patterson photographed many members of the Lower East Side’s Latino community in front of the door to his Essex St. home. Photo by Clayton Patterson

BY CLAYTON PATTERSON  |  I have documented this community for many years and have witnessed the changes. I was one of the well-known, anti-gentrification radicals, considered by the gentrifies to be a part of the so-called rabble, branded one of the troublemakers, arrested several times, banned from the Seventh Precinct Community Council for asking questions about crime. At one trial, a Corporation Counsel (New York City Law Department) attorney stated to the jury that I was a highly skilled provocateur. Many of the so-called good folks in the community were against what we were doing, until later, when it was too late.

Years later, I even had a high-ranking cop pull me aside and tell me that what we were trying to protect and the essence of the messages we were screaming turned out to be true. In came the money and out went our community. In came the anywhere-American-corporate-cookie-cutter businesses like Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald’s, Blockbusters, 7-Eleven, Kmart and so on. Out went the individually owned and run restaurants, music venues, neighborhood movie theaters, drama theaters, shoe repair shops, record stores, bakeries, coffee shops, local fashion designers, fabric stores, book stores and so on.

We lost our hangouts, gathering spots, places to meet and mingle. The creative types lost the venues and fellow artists to criticize their work and to debate, practice and develop their creative crafts in front of a likeminded audience or peer group.

The Lower East Side was one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse neighborhoods in America. Because so much of our history was closely tied to new immigrants, our roots were diverse. When the larger population moved on, there were always a few businesses from that particular group that remained in the community. The neighborhood’s ethnic influences were Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, Japanese, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Cuban, German, Irish, African-American, Caribbean, Bangladeshi, Indian, Jewish, Israeli, Yemenite, Chinese, Palestinian, Italian and Korean, among others.

If politics were your interest, the L.E.S. was a fermenting hotbed of choices, and each choice had splinter factions to practically satisfy any need: Communists, anarchists, Libertarians, Democrats, Republicans, African nationalists, Puerto Rican separatists, white supremacists, Zionists and so on.

My family had been pioneers. In the late 1940s my father and a Native American friend, traveling in a covered wagon, moved a herd of horses from Saskatchewan to Alberta. One of the blessings I received as a child was spending time with elderly Native Americans. These folks were the last survivors of what I would now call the pregentrification generation: The last of the indigenous people who lived the traditional life, whose roots can be traced back hundreds of years.

As a young person coming from an extremely conservative, culturally limited, unsophisticated city and province that were less than 75 years old, all these differences, the endless choices, are what fascinated, fed and educated me, and what I fell in love with.

In terms of the old L.E.S. that I came to love and be a part of, no question, gentrification has forever changed what was. But, basically, I have adapted to this New World Order, and have even found a way to participate and fit in. There are new businesses I can relate to and support. These new business tend to be a little more modern and upscale versions, related to a youth culture I am familiar with.

Those of us who have been around are acutely aware of how many people and businesses have been priced out, bought out, burned out, evicted, forced to move, or been the victim of changes in the laws and regulations that have eroded tenants’ rights.

We tend to live in a right-now society. We concentrate on the issues and problems of today. However, photographs and videos are a way of remembering the past. When neighborhood people, myself included, go though some of the earlier L.E.S. photographs, videos and ephemera, we are always a little overwhelmed by how much has changed and how many people are gone. Because I have spent more than three decades living here, being involved in documenting, in one way or another, a wide cross-section of this community, I have gained some knowledge and insight into the changes.

For example, I have been blessed to have been able to photograph hundreds of individuals from this area’s Hispanic community: business owners, politicians, landlords, postal workers, musicians, artists, poets, civil servants, murderers, criminals, drug dealers, drug addicts, gangsters, stay-at-home kids, street kids, good guys, bad guys and in-between guys and women.

I empathize, sympathize and fully comprehend how much of their community, culture, businesses, opportunities and people they have lost to gentrification. As a rule, the majority of Hispanics stay within their own, and do not cross over, or engage in, what is foreign to their culture.

Soon two more bodegas on Stanton St. will be gone. The Pitt St. Boys’ Club is gone. Bloomberg, to save money, keeps wanting to cut back on school programs, such as art and sports, which offer a way out of the cycle of poverty. I came from the bad end of the working-class: Art saved my life. The mayor thinks cutting library hours helps save money.

There are few after-school programs. CHARAS, which helped a number of people, is gone. The L.E.S. projects still do not have the security cameras that were promised and for which money was allocated.

Even the Pathmark is gone, the place where families could save a little money and spend a little more on a few extras. What are the positive alternatives to keep a kid from being sucked into the negative street culture? Bloomberg wants to get rid of guns on the streets, but what alternatives is he offering? More jail time? More stop-and-frisk? More profiling?

There are very few L.E.S. Hispanic heroes for the youth to look up to. Raphael Ward, the 16-year-old youth who was murdered on Columbia St., was an example of a young person who had a dream, and was doing his best to do the right thing. Why not name the corner of Rivington and Columbia Sts. after him? Do something to memorialize his time on this earth. We need heroes. He needs to be remembered.

I know people were caught off guard by the amount of community support, mostly Latino, there was for Enrique Cruz, Orlando Rodriguez and Javier Rodriguez to get a full liquor license for a Latin bistro on Rivington St. I realize the Community Board 3 members were shocked at how much controversy and negative feeling this denial generated.

I am amazed at the lack of appreciation and understanding there was from the community board on how important these guys are to our part of the neighborhood. These guys are local heroes, stand-up guys, who against all odds have succeeded and even prospered in this new gentrified L.E.S.

Some of the comments, like “Who cares if they grew up here?”and “These people want to be the voice of our community?” are just offensive.

Maybe because I have photographed such a wide cross-section of the Hispanic community, all I have to say is, look at these guys. No gangster, get-over guys here. Like these guys should be stopped and frisked. Please.

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13 Responses to Trying to save our community on a changing L.E.S.

  1. Beautiful column

    Love this story and explantion of the L.E.S. Hope those guys get there licensed.

  2. Used to be a rat infested drug haven.

  3. Wonderfully put!

  4. awesome article, my problem with cb3 is that they can't distinguish between carpet bagging gentrifyiers and deeply rooted community members, every other bar got their license, they should get theirs.

    • clayton patterson

      Excellent point. As I have come to learn it is not the license that is the problem it is the owner and the manager of the venue who sets the tone. The politicians, cops, and money people were in on this being called an Entertainment Zone was wasn't the community? We went from junkies to drunks. People who live here understand the community. All these carpet baggers do not, and most of them have no interest in the community except for how much they can milk it. thanks for posting. Comments on this site really helps. A community is being formed- if only on the internet- and that is a good place to start.

  5. Stuart Braunstein

    This article says it all. Clayton is one of the last of a great NYC breeds. He comes from a time where artists and thinkers cared about the truth and had the integrity to stand against the status quo. I miss the time when a NYC artists were respected for there content instead of how much money they earn for creating corporate propaganda. The LES was created by guys like him and destroyed by college grads with daddy's money. I guess It's still the best city in the world, but that doesn't say a lot about cities

  6. Robert Coddington

    Brilliant article, Clayton!

  7. Great article and so true! Saw the same thing happen to Little Italy years ago!

  8. Another fantastic article by Clayton Patterson who truly knows the meaning of community and who walks the walk taking an active part. It is poignant to read this article and to think again of people we will never forget, those who came before us and those who left us too soon. Thank you Clayton for these Villager articles, your amazing LES history books, including your latest release, “Jews: A People’s History of the Lower East Side,” your astute analyses of how history has unfolded here, and your entire body of work with Elsa chronicling the people and events of the LES. It is through this kind of work that the truth is passed on. Clayton, however, is not mired in the past, but reports on the present reminding us that work in the community to promote fairness and justice is never done.

  9. I remember living on the 7th floor of a building between A & B on 1st Street. I was a community college student attending Hostos CC in the South Bronx at the time. I had nothing except some furniture that I had purchased from my best friends parents and which we carried up those 7 flights to my walk up. My sister lived two blocks away near Thompson park and I remember eating minced eggs at Ratners early in the morning while we talked about politics, philosophy, religion, art and all kinds of things like that. That was 40 years ago. My sister died of AIDS, my brother in law died of an overdose and I went on to get a PhD. I saw what was happening and I've lived overseas for about 15 years. Now, I live in Japan. Here, there are mom and pop stores and the streets are safe. I recall going back two years ago and seeing what had become of the LES. It is as you say. There is a lot that I don't recognize anymore. But, after traveling much of the world I've come to realize that we cannot hold onto the past forever. The only absolute law of nature is change and that while we need to remember the past we must embrace the present and look forward towards the future. I celebrate the past but my nostalgia is merely a memory of a romanticized past that was really never as great as I recall. It was just reality as the present is now.

  10. Thanks Mr. Patterson

    Instead of having these politicians walking around and looking good for the cameras. With these stop the violence protest, they should go back to there offices and make some phone calls to get a boysclub back in this neighborhood. Stop the bull and do your jobs, you was put in that position to improve this neighborhood!

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