Volume 75, Number 28 | Nov. 30 - Dec. 06, 2005

A special Villager supplement

Villager photo by Clayton Patterson

From left, Miguel Maldonado, Elizabeth Ruf-Maldonado, Michael Rosen and Steven Sanders at press conference last month celebrating the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s calendaring the old P.S. 64 building on E. Ninth St. for a designation hearing. Developer Gregg Singer plans a 19-story, 222-unit student dormitory on the site. Rosen — and the author of this article — are members of the East Village Community Coalition, which has played a leading role in the fight to save the old school building and the push for a contextual downzoning of the East Village.

Keeping the dream alive: The East Village soul war

By Roland Legiardi-Lauria

Walking back home from a screening of Antonioni’s “The Passenger,” an iconic work of ’70s “alienation cinema,” the dear friend I was with suddenly blurted out that she didn’t know why she was still bothering to live in the East Village, “I don’t go to parties or out to restaurants, or to bars or clubs, or even cafes. I don’t go shopping at cute little boutiques and most of the art around here seems so self-indulgent.” She’s a thoughtful, intelligent woman, a working architect, feisty, utterly independent, a screenwriter and a filmmaker — the kind of person that you might guess would refuse to live anywhere but in the East Village — the kind of person the East Village needs to retain in order to lay claim to a future as rich and meaningful as its past.

Her comments were very troubling. I have lived in the same place in this neighborhood since 1978 and it was precisely because of people like my friend that I first found this community compelling and real. If people like her can no longer justify living in a neighborhood that the rest of the world lauds as the center of edginess and creativity, a place with a bubbling ethnic broth, progressive politics and constant catalytic flux, then perhaps those of us who smugly feel we have found the last slice of eccentric Nirvana need to take a closer look. Just what is really going on in our beloved bastion of highbrow lowlife? What’s left of the poetry, politics, passion, proud poverty and unbending tradition of struggle that seeded a community so unique it has been the subject of novels, plays, poems, films and even a frightening clone of itself erected in the Las Vegas desert?

It is in the spirit of such an inquiry that I shall try to piece together a reflective “state of the union” progress report on the East Village.

But first, a bit of required historical background is in order:

The East Village, circa:

15,005 B.C. — The 1,000-foot-thick ice sheet covering much of our neighborhood begins to melt, leaving a marshy wetland in the area of Tompkins Square Park

1605 A.D. — The Lenape, the dominant tribe on Manahatta, use the area for a seasonal hunting and fishing ground.

1705 — Much of the East Village is divided up into farmland. Mostly farmed by the Dutch, some “half-free” slaves and a smattering of English, the lion’s share of the land belongs to the Stuyvesant and Fish families.

1805 — Farms have begun to give way to streets as the city boundary works its way up the island. The traditional compass-drawn east-west streets laid out by the Dutch are overlaid with a grid following the axis of Manhattan. The beginnings of the boat-building and tanning industries appear along the local shores of the East Village.

1905 — The East Village has become the northernmost edge of the crowded teeming tenement community known as the Lower East Side. It is called Kleine Deutschland because so many of the residents are from Germany. Over the next 100 years, successive waves of Eastern European Jews, Irish, Italians, Czechs, Hungarians, Poles, Ukrainians and Puerto Ricans move into the neighborhood.

2005 — The East Village is on the cusp of its biggest transition since the late 1960s, when wholesale property abandonment, redlining, population decline and a surge in drug trafficking — combined with the post-beat-hip and political movements — transformed the neighborhood from an ethnic poor and working-class enclave to the center of counterculture and social struggle. Since then, the change has been sometimes gradual, sometimes cataclysmic. The soul war to preserve the essentially unique communal and creative qualities of the East Village comes down to three battlefronts: Gentrification, Trendification and Chainification. At stake is not just the piece of ground that many fondly call Loisaida but something potentially global in impact, along the lines of a Jane Jacobs dream: A national model for a community that is self sustaining, humane, balanced and alive.

Below is a brief summary of the most significant challenges, as I see them, confronting the East Village:

Zoning — Without question the most important issue confronting our community today. We have a rare historic opportunity, and if the political forces in the East Village find a way to take advantage of it, the rampant development, construction of high-rise, luxury towers and the eroding of the traditional built environment of our neighborhood could be brought to a screeching halt. Most significantly this can happen soon! The City Planning Commission, under the leadership of Amanda Burden, has indicated, both in word and deed, that they understand that the rezoning of Loisaida is long overdue. The recent victory in the Far West Village spearheaded by Andrew Berman and the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation has created a model and a precedent. But as ever, the situation is complex in the East Village: The community board has drafted a set of principles calling for an overall height restriction of roughly five to six stories. This would retain the existing built character of the area and prevent the abuse of the community facility height bonus granted to builders who can prove they are constructing something that will serve the community. This is all good and necessary given the “Attack of the Giant Towers” that is currently underway. But the sticking point in internal C.B. 3 committee negotiations is the key issue of inclusionary zoning to provide affordable housing in new projects. Some members of the board don’t want to sacrifice this principle for the sake of fast-tracking the normally cumbersome rezoning process. The Planning Commission, for its part, has indicated a willingness to move forward quickly. At the most recent meeting of the C.B. 3 Zoning Committee it was agreed to seek a prompt meeting with the Planning Commission to discuss the options. The ball right now is in the hands of C.B. 3. If they can’t navigate through this issue efficiently, the East Village could soon resemble a field of sprouting phalluses.

Closely connected to zoning are a number of specific battles: 81 E. Third St. and 4 E. Third St. are sites that have been developed under the aegis of the community facility bonus. The buildings have already been built but the local residents, led by Richard Kusack and Kevin Shea, have challenged the developers, claiming that the structures are not in compliance with the city’s building code. These are important test cases — if the challenges are successful, the owners could be required to slice off the upper floors of their buildings. Kusack has filed a Board of Standards and Appeals request for 81 E. Third St. The hearing date is set for Dec. 6. Don’t miss it!

Preservation/landmarking — Just as important to the character and soul of the neighborhood as zoning is the battle to landmark and preserve our history as expressed by architecture. With only six buildings landmarked east of Second Ave., the community is sorely underdesignated. Two important buildings that must be saved, not only because of their architectural, cultural and historical merit but because of what they mean to the current and future life of Loisaida, are the old P.S. 64, former home of CHARAS/El Bohio, and St. Brigid’s Church.

The neighborhood won a significant victory when, on Oct. 18, the Landmarks Preservation Committee agreed to calendar a designation hearing for the old P.S. 64. The 100-year-old school building easily meets all the criteria for designation. However, the commission needs to be reminded just how much this building means to our community. And in light of recent reversals of landmark designations at the City Council level, our work is not nearly over. Local residents will need to make a strong showing both at the Landmarks Commission and in the City Council chambers when the hearings occur. Stay tuned — and please attend the hearings!

Saving the old P.S. 64 also represents an immense opportunity for the East Village.

At present we have no full-service cultural/community center. St Mark’s Church, under the inspired leadership of Reverend Julio Torres, has tried to pick up the slack but is limited by space and long-term obligations. A vision for the old P.S. 64 with its 135,000 square feet could, if well planned and executed, allow the structure to re-emerge as one of the most important cultural centers in the city. Unfortunately, Gregg Singer, the owner for the past six years, has failed to develop a plan that meets the needs of the community, or the requirements of the city. Without divine intervention, it appears that Mr. Singer will be forced to one day pass on this property to a more benign steward.

The other endangered building is St. Brigid’s Church. After 148 years of spiritual service to the Roman Catholic community of the East Village, it appears that the divinely inspired Catholic Archdiocese of New York has determined the building has no future other than to generate a good price on the auction block. As St. Brigid’s anchors the northern end of an entire block of Church-owned property fronting on Tompkins Square Park, it is easy to see why the archdiocese might want to demolish and sell this venerable bit of our history. Plagued with a dwindling flock and huge bills generated by the plethora of scandals confronting the church, the property represents a potential windfall. The parishioners of St. Brigid’s beg to differ, however. They have taken the archdiocese to court to prevent demolition and to demand redress of a promise to restore the building. As of Aug. 30, when Justice Barbara Kapnick heard the arguments, the future of the building has been put on hold. The next phase of the struggle will begin when Justice Kapnick renders her decision. Until then there is a standing court injunction preventing the archdiocese from swinging the wrecking ball.

In both of these cases, the community has spoken and expressed its will. These are hopeful signs that the East Village still has the heart to stand up and fight for what it believes in. We seem to be engaged in a house-to-house struggle to preserve the essential character of our neighborhood. The challenge ahead is to effectively link the individual issues.
Another more broad-based way to preserve the built character and history of our community is to create small landmark districts. They can be just a block long or several square blocks in scope. The process is time consuming but the end result is protective netting for whole clusters of buildings. The area around Tompkins Square Park, Seventh St. between C and D, and Second St. between First and Second Aves. all have the potential to become such districts. The advantage of this method over downzoning is that it protects low-rise areas from devastation. Yet, the disadvantage is that there are probably only a few spots in the neighborhood that could qualify.

Housing — Basically this has been the back story in every other struggle in our community. Urban pioneers, gentrifiers, yuppies, immigrants, workers, the homeless, subsidized tenants, students, squatters, anarchists and artists all need a place to sleep. The East Village up to about 10 years ago provided a pretty good balance supporting the needs of all those mentioned above. But in the last decade the balance has shifted steadily toward those who are more well to do. And now it threatens to accelerate to warp speed. No one wants to live in a neighborhood just made up of rich people — not even rich people. And no one believes that living under a cardboard box is quaint and romantic. Effective models for mixed-income housing abound. We must protect the poor and the homeless. On my block alone, dozens of homeless camp out under the scaffolds at night. But the work needs to be done by our politicians and our community board. It is a long-term challenge; there are no quick or easy fixes and thoughtful plans need to be evolved.

Homage should be paid to the squatters whose movement stretches back more than 20 years. Of the two dozen or so buildings that were squatted, 11 remain. After a sometimes very brutal and confrontational struggle, a settlement was finally reached and the residents of those 11 buildings are in the final stages of negotiating legal and permanent ownership of their homes. A piece of East Village history was written in this struggle. At a time when city policy seemed to favor abandonment and demolition of sound structures, these intrepid urban guerillas put successive municipal administrations on notice that common folks were ready and able to take matters into their own hands.

Bar and restaurant proliferation, chain-store creep and the sidewalk economy — A Dunkin’ Donuts just opened on Sixth St. and First Ave. where a laundromat used to be; it opened right next to the long-suffering but apparently immortal McDonald’s. There is another Dunkin’ Donuts six blocks further up on First, and another across from St. Mark’s Church. Starbucks has bracketed Astor Pl. and sits diagonally across from Veselka. Bank branches, after being conspicuously absent for decades, are filling prime retail space along Avenue A. Is Wal-Mart far behind?

Two weeks ago, the good citizens of Loisaida convened a town hall meeting in the Angel Orensanz Center — a former synagogue now a performance center — to decry the rampant howling nightmare that has become nightlife in the East Village. Police commanders were put on the hot seat, the S.L.A. vilified and politicians put on notice that if something wasn’t done — and done soon — the pitchforks and torches would be passed out and there would be hell to pay. What has happened to the old East Village, where people didn’t wake up until 9 p.m. and breakfast was served at the Kiev 24 hours a day? Have we all just gotten older and crankier and less tolerant or is there a problem here? There is indeed a big problem, brought about perhaps by the natural evolution of a neighborhood from poor, abandoned and dangerous — to an ultrachic destination spot. A destination for tourists, bar-hoppers, boutique shoppers, people who saw the play and will soon see the film “Rent,” those who need to feel “cool,” those who are hypnotically drawn to our homeland. The economic stakes have been ratcheted up. With new luxury towers like the Gwathmey “Squiggle” rising on Astor Pl. and the Avalon Chrystie on Houston, the betting is that there is plenty of money to support this new playground.

Reverend Billy calls the impending global doom we are facing, if these trends continue to spiral outward, The Shopocalypse. What can we do to slow this grinding ice sheet we are facing? How can a few yokels armed with pitchforks fend off the monster? It’s going to take a concerted effort, discipline and a bit of luck. Luck will come our way if the real estate bubble bursts soon. Discipline needs to be shown by boycotting the chain stores and offending bars, lobbying, picketing if necessary, only buying locally. We can’t build a moat around the East Village, but we can band together and show people that we mean business — their business — and that their businesses will suffer unless changes are made. I’m not sure if it’s time yet to start planting vegetables in our backyards and local gardens but stranger things have happened so I’m tossing out a handful of seeds and praying for rain.

Gardens — A garden district — Parks — The greening of the East Village — There are 42 public gardens in the East Village, down from a high of about 70 in the mid-1980s. The battles fought to save the gardens from the encroaching developers culminated in the agreement signed by the city and State Attorney General Elliot Spitzer. The gardens were given a fixed amount of time to comply with a set of city regulations, i.e. insuring regular community hours, open membership, etc. In return, the gardens would be brought under the control of the City Parks Department and protected. Roughly 35 of the gardens are now under Parks, three others are controlled by The Trust For Public Land, another three have been brought under the umbrella of Bette Midler’s New York Restoration Project and the last garden is its own private trust. This all sounds well and good but the agreement signed by the state and city runs out in 2007. As long as the Parks Department is run by a progarden administration — and this one is — and as long as the city sees no better use for the lands, the gardens will continue to be safe. But further protections can be afforded. The gardens can become “mapped parkland” and they can be “designated” parks by Albany. These conditions would make it much harder, almost impossible, in fact, for the gardens to be turned over for other uses.

The gardens need to band together and insure that they become fully protected. Mapping is a costly process and there is some sense out there that the city would prefer it if the gardens retain their current status, thereby preserving the maximum options for municipal-use determination. A small but steadfast organization, the East Village Parks Conservancy, has made it a part of their mission to assist the gardens in organizing a mapping and designation campaign. The only problem is that the gardeners are a wonderfully individualistic and independent group.

The gardens of the East Village together make up one of the most unique and precious urban landscapes in the country. Per square acre, the East Village has more public gardens than any other neighborhood in the United States. The E.V.P.C. is also developing a plan to have the East Village designated as the nation’s first urban garden district. It is an ambitious plan, but preserving and respecting these green lungs, these oases of quiet and contemplation, is without question a key part of preserving the essential and unique quality of our community. Go E.V.P.C.!

The parks in our neighborhood are looking quite good these days. The Parks Department, perennially underfunded, has creatively found ways to allot resources, build partnerships with the community and nurture these most important local patches of earth. Tompkins Square now has a full-time gardener assigned to it. Each year, the parks are scoured for traces of Dutch elm disease and Asian long-horned beetle infestation. There has been quite a flap lately about trees being cut down in East River Park. But Parks reacted quickly and the new plan with inlet coves and additional plantings should ultimately be a welcome renovation that the whole neighborhood can enjoy.

We have much to be thankful for regarding our green spaces. But much to watch out for: It is critical that the neighborhood develop a policy to “green” itself. Alternative energy sources and sustainability are no longer optional: they have become necessities. A big part of keeping our community independent and vital will be determined by how we respond to this set of challenges.

Cultural life — Most of the cultural institutions of the East Village seem to be stable at the moment. St. Mark’s Church, The Anthology Film Archives, The Nuyorican Poets Café, The Bowery Poetry Club, P.S. 122, Theater For The New City, Tribes, are all more or less intact and functioning. As of this writing, the fate of C.B.G.B. is still unknown. The post-9/11 world shook many of these organizations and severely tightened their already-limited resources. But they still stand and represent what is certainly one of the most culturally open and vibrant places in the world. However, there is still considerable work to be done to insure that the creative core of the East Village is nurtured.

There is no formal link between the arts and the youth of this community.

A number of the groups mentioned serve young people but not in a particularly assertive or organized way. If we don’t make a concerted effort to bring the arts into the lives of our children, the fate of this neighborhood as a creative cauldron is sealed. The problem is that we don’t have enough space to do this effectively and the will is not there just yet. This, of course, is where a place like the old P.S. 64 could add immensely — with after-school programs and an alternative high school dedicated to the arts through internship and mentorship. There are nearly 2,500 kids in this neighborhood of high school age and we don’t have one high school that serves them. Bard High School, which is south of Houston St., is a special Early College Acceptance program and takes kids from all over the city. So, most of our children have to leave the community to attend school. I digress, but the point is that for the arts to remain vital our youth must be engaged, period.

And for celebrating the counterculture we have created and for protecting the artists who make it, we have FEVA, The Federation of East Village Artists. It was the febrile dream of Phil Hartman to build an institution that could honor the spirit and achievement of this community. After more than three years of hard work, three HOWL! festivals, innumerable events, meetings, memos and e-mails, the dreamers are waking up to reality. A tremendous amount of money has been spent; the important goal of achieving artists’ health insurance and artists’ housing is no closer to realization; and the centerpiece of the effort to date, the HOWL! Festival, has come under a cloud of criticism — claims of selling out to corporate interests, misallocation of funds and autocratic control of the process have been leveled. The board of FEVA, at first slow to react, has now begun to focus on the work ahead. I am hopeful that what we are witnessing will be a productive period of assessment and rededication rather than recrimination and dissolution…. But only the Shadow knows for sure…. We could sure use an efficient and potent FEVA. A visionary organization in this neighborhood that could see beyond its own nose would be a boon. If FEVA fails, it would be a shame, but I imagine another organization will take up the cause.

In the end, for me the question my friend posed — “Why am I still living here?” — is still the most poignant. Perhaps the best answer I can give comes from the people I know who live around me. They are my friends and they are in my life everyday. I have:

A friend who struggles to build labyrinths and create a sustainable urban lifestyle
Another friend who writes about the looming planetary change of consciousness
Another who struggles to organize the undocumented and immigrant workers
Another whose Ph.D. thesis is on theater in Cuba
Another couple who have taken poor neighborhood kids into their comfortable home and raised them as their own
Another, a boxer and performance artist, who fought and won the effort to keep street fairs away from Avenue A
Another who runs a toy store with the most magical of toys
Another who gives his wealth away selflessly
Another who practices trumpet everyday
Another whose home is a menagerie for lost animals
Another who composes the wildest avant-garde music
Another who has been on rent strike for 16 years
Another who makes wonderful handmade films
Another who creates the most brilliant theater pieces
Another couple who struggle to teach yoga as a path to life and wisdom
Another who takes photos of the horrors of war
I have poor friends and rich friends who live in this community and every day struggle to make it a better place. This is why I live here, I suppose, because selfishness has not yet triumphed in the East Village and the spirit of struggle is alive.

Legiardi-Laura is a filmmaker and poet. He teaches empowerment through writing to high school students around the city. He is on the board of directors of the Nuyorican Poets Café, the East Village Parks Conservancy and the East Village Community Coalition. He has lived at Eighth St. and Avenue B since 1978.

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