BY CLAYTON PATTERSON | The Lower East Side used to be a place that sheltered, developed and nurtured great political leaders. These were politicians whose ideas changed the world and made a difference to the huddled masses, the new immigrants and the poor, even giving a hand up to the dissidents — those questioning society or looking for utopia, seeking creative freedom while looking for the right to live and let live.
The leaders fought for and made a difference for the better in the lives of children, workers, women and the downtrodden, giving them the right to share in the abundance and freedom of We The People. They were at the forefront of helping to establish trade unions for men and women, a children’s bureau, tenants rights and public and co-operative housing.
Where did they go? What happened to those champions of the people? In the last couple of decades our so-called progressive politicians have just about given away all the rights that so many gave up so much to gain. I’ve said it before: What was before will never be again. Gone are the possibilities of coming to the L.E.S., finding cheap rent and the opportunity to live an inexpensive lifestyle, which gave individuals the chance to better their lives, become self-sufficient or sharpen their talents, which could allow one to enter a profession or make a contribution to our artistic heritage.
New York University is a massive institution, whose size has allowed it to be even more ruthless in rolling over renters’ rights and displacing thousands of neighborhood tenants.
Meanwhile, our mayor, the billion-dollar baby, has once again broken, or shall I say, spent the money to make a change in the housing laws so a person’s castle can be a micro-unit as small as 250 square feet. Out go the “amenities” people fought so hard for: window light, cross ventilation, bathrooms separating tub from kitchen, and toilets in the apartment rather than in the hall — a livable space where a person could feel at home and bring a visitor.
Moreover, gone are the mom-and-pop businesses, exchanged for either cookie-cutter, anywhere America corporate repeats — like 7-Eleven, Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbucks, McDonald’s and Staples — or for bars and expensive restaurants that come and go because they cannot afford the rent. The fabric and substance of what made our community has been destabilized and gutted. We have become an “entertainment zone” for bar-crawling tourists, frat boys who live elsewhere, and transient residents.
Yes, people can go on about the bad old days and how rough the streets used to be. I was just talking to a guy who “made it” and moved out a decade ago. He had come back for a visit and was so impressed by all the fancy new eateries. He had to tell me how much better it is around here since when he was growing up. He seemed to conveniently forget that he would never have gotten a leg up in today’s world if not for the opportunities in the bad old L.E.S. He and his family struggled but survived. But with today’s rents in the L.E.S., they couldn’t even have scraped by in the neighborhood.
Gone are the days of political outrage, mass political gatherings, inspired firebrand speeches. Today if a youth gets murdered, the most we can hope for is an hour of speeches and maybe a six-block memorial walk. Am I exaggerating? Look at the column I recently wrote in The Villager about some local Hispanic merchants. They have made the successful business transition needed to survive in this New World Order, and want to be given the same opportunity to get a liquor license that so many others have. The license was denied.
An outraged commenter on my column threw in the word “racist,” even though I never meant to brand the situation that way. In fact, I do not believe the district manager is a racist. But as things go true to form, city councilmembers made it a point to speak out about the use of this word at a community board meeting. In other words, they will concentrate, not on the substance of the problem, but on how it was verbalized. Our problems are much deeper than a few misspoken angry words.
This is not to say there is no political activism in our city. Occupy Wall Street proved that people were not ready to accept this new corporate order. In fact, it will be interesting to see how the police respond to the next O.W.S. demonstrations, considering that a number of the communities devastated by Hurricane Sandy are where the police live and the people associated with O.W.S. were often first on the scene to help. They proved more dedicated and efficient than the well-financed nonprofits like the Red Cross. A good number of the Sandy volunteers are the youth who used to live on the L.E.S. and now longer can afford to live here.
It is time for a change. It’s time to get some of that good Occupy energy back in the L.E.S. It is time to try and save some of what the people and the great leaders of our past fought so hard for. We need new political leaders. Real leaders. Inspired leaders. New ideas. We need leaders who will fight for the People, not just use their political office for personal power. Enough with fancy-pants billionaires, or their wannabe clones, running our city!