Volume 77 / Number 40 - March 5 - 11, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Progress Report
A Special Villager Supplement

Getting Local

Villager file photo

Hanging out on the benches outside Mud coffee shop on E. Ninth St.

Advocating for old P.S. 64, bike kids, small stores

By Michael Rosen

Eight of the 11 tarps tied over the destruction of the landmarked terra-cotta dormers on the E. 10th St. face of the original P.S. 64, former El Bohio, are shredded. The 105-year-old, uneven brick and rough mortar below them — never intended to encounter and withstand weather — are now exposed to each rain and snow. Nothing destroys a building quite invisibly better than a compromised roof. The dormers, areas around them and floors below are most certainly rotting.

Shortly after designating the old P.S. 64, former El Bohio, as an individual New York City landmark, Robert Tierney, chairperson of the Landmark Preservation Commission, sent a letter to the building’s current owner, stating, in part, that it is an owner’s responsibility to properly maintain a designated structure.

Blue and white tarps were first secured over the terra-cotta destruction, and while they were likely never sufficiently waterproof, eight of them are now destroyed. These flapping tarps join the many windows that the building’s owner, Ninth and 10th Sts. Associates LLC, has allowed to remain broken since purchasing the building for $3.15 million at auction under former Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Auctioning off cultural centers and community gardens was another aspect of Mr. Giuliani’s gentleness.

The owner borrowed approximately $12 million from General Electric Credit Corporation some years ago, providing a sizeable cushion to pay a team of lawyers to proceed with three litigations against the city and Mayor Bloomberg. These litigations relate to the building’s landmarking and the owner’s effort to destroy the former El Bohio to build a 19- or 27-story “dormitory” unaffiliated with any college or university. I believe these lawsuits by the owner are assaults on our community, on the integrity of our daily lives.

The more recent 19-story “dormitory” plan, to demolish the E. 10th St. side of former El Bohio and keep the gutted facade along E. Ninth St., was designed by Beyer Blinder Belle and proposed prior to the building’s landmark designation. The first plan unveiled — “University House,” a 27-story “dormitory” — involved the complete demolition of the former El Bohio and proposed building a tall, but relatively narrow building stretching between Ninth and 10th Sts. The owner of a building on Avenue B between Ninth and 10th Sts. recently told me that the owner expressed an interest in purchasing that Avenue B building as an entrance into the “dormitory” — a configuration making sense if the owner hopes to prevail in litigation and return to the 27-story “dormitory” plan, destroying the whole of old P.S. 64.

The owner has likely spent a great deal on legal fees. Another expense was to pay a demolition company to jackhammer the dormers and secure the tarps. But the tarps have note been kept in repair and the broken windows have not been replaced — what would surely necessitate, relative to legal fees, relatively small payments. The owner has decided not to continue paying the small fee each month to employ the man who cleaned the 10th St. sidewalk in front of the building; as a result, the sidewalks on both Ninth and 10th Sts. are increasingly uncleanly. A Department of Sanitation crew sweeping the Ninth St. sidewalk in front of the old P.S. 64 said they were called to clean but couldn’t issue a summons because an unused school building cannot be given a summons more than once a month.

“But that can’t be, for a privately owned building?” I asked and they assured me it was.

But what does landmark designation mean if a building is left to rot? In cooperation between the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the Department of Buildings, perhaps through its Law Department or otherwise appropriate, the city must address the slow destruction of the former El Bohio. Isn’t landmark designation otherwise a travesty? 


Going mobile

On Sat., Oct. 14, 2007, in Tompkins Square Park at the First Annual Kids’ Art Bike Ride, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer said: “We have to create a level playing field, and the way to do that is to keep cars out of Manhattan, create parks…get people on bikes. And let’s create an environment where our children will live longer, be healthy, do better in school. …”

Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez said: “We should provide safe streets for our children; they deserve to go and bike, and this morning, that is what we are going to do.” 

And at least 150 children and adults rode bikes from Tompkins Square to Second Ave., to Avenue D and back into the park, ones they’d decorated during workshops through the autumn or that day in our first annual Kids’ Art Bike Ride for the Lower East Side. Former Councilmember Margarita Lopez, now a board of directors member of the New York City Housing Authority, was the grand marshal. Councilmember Rosie Mendez was a great support, as were the congresswoman, borough president, State Senator Martin Connor and Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh. Cindy Ruskin, Alison Franks, Mary Spink and others worked months with NYCHA, the city’s Department of Transportation, the Lower East Side Peoples’ Mutual Housing Association and other co-sponsors.

Why? Because there’s no place like home, helping ensure “Here” isn’t treated mostly as a way to “There.” For a moment, forget what you know about our streets. Most of us are too young to remember that automobiles weren’t given free overnight places to park on public land until the 1930s. Look at the old pictures of the Lower East Side.

Pushcarts shared street space with children. Of course, public and private transportation are critical, but as other international cities have realized (think Paris, London), community lives are impoverished lest alternative forms of transportation to the truck and car are given prominence in at least some places some of the time.

Converting central commercial streets to pedestrian malls increases shopping, tourism and the quality of daily lives. Bike lanes separated from automobile and truck traffic (as the city has started along lower Ninth Ave.), in combination with other pedestrian and public transportation initiatives, are immediately wise. We accommodate to our circumstances; people will walk, bike and otherwise roll if a convenient, safe and sustainable environment is provided.

Instead, our transportation environment is dangerous. Thousands of bicyclists are injured each year. An average of one person dies each month riding a bike in New York City. Trucks and cars regularly park in bike lanes, bikers are cut off, automobile and truck doors open.

The second annual Kids’ Art Bike Ride for the Lower East Side will roll this coming Sat., Oct. 4 from Tompkins Square. Congresswoman Velazquez will be our grand marshal. Our streets must be safe space used by the public, walked and ridden and played on — not given only or even primarily to motor vehicles. Our children can roll us the way.


Pride in guide

This past November, the East Village Community Coalition published our second annual Get Local guide to neighborhood stores. The guides are beautiful, compiled by Dominique Camacho and designed by Workshop. Most but not everything was perfect; we didn’t print as many copies as we should have and there are more sectors of the local economy best included. Future editions will grow. But we hope, in part through the Get Local guide, that people become increasingly aware that their choices determine the community around us.

Much of the Lower East Side’s splendor lies in our relatively low-rise streetscape. We’ve worked with Community Board 3 and the LESCAZ Coalition as City Planning proceeds with rezoning our neighborhood, and we hope for City Planning’s wisdom.

Much of our splendor lies in ethnic, cultural and economic diversity, crushed increasingly to homogeneity as free-market rents have risen to levels only attainable by the affluent and as legislated affordable housing is lost.


Breaking the chains

Displacement is also taking place, forcefully and nearly invisibly, as real estate brokerage signs are placed in butcher shop windows, as the hardware store, shoemaker, laundromat, bodega, local Jewish deli, Italian restaurant, diner, bar, even the funeral homes are gone to cute clothing boutiques drawing shoppers from across the city, from across the rivers. Tourists come to the au courant kitchen serving a fusion of one sort or the other, which is in turn displaced by a Chase or Northfork bank office, Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, McDonald’s, Max Brenner Chocolate by the Bald Man. These chains and franchises are mostly on First, Second and Third Aves., often on street corners. Less-recognized chains and franchises are renting space on our side streets. Australian Homemade, purveyor of premium ice creams and chocolates, is a franchise in a neighborhood where “homemade” has often had an honest meeting.

Good luck asking the Bald Man to hold your front door and apartment keys for your cousin and her dog Toto coming in from Kansas — there isn’t a Bald Man behind the curtain.

But you can ask the Mud folk on Ninth St. They exist, and hold things. The Mud Man might be a magician.


Merchants Mobilize

The Pratt Center, E.V.C.C. and Pam Pier from Dinosaur Hill recently organized a meeting of Ninth St. merchants. The meeting was part of a retail survey Pratt is conducting focused on zoning ideas that might enable small store owners to remain in business without facing unequal competition from the relative handful of stores come to dominate strip malls from one coast to the other. Each of the Ninth St. merchants who attended the meeting that night lives in the community. They sent their children to our schools, eat in our restaurants, shop, play and walk here. Profit isn’t being wired to Bentonville or Seattle, fueling Fortune 500 bank accounts, but is spent sustaining our community. And what should communities be, if not sustainable?

You can see the creeping mallification to our community, but there are solutions. The Villager ran a front-page article in its Jan. 2, 2008, issue about our Get Local shopping guide and a zoning idea that would better allow locally owned stores to remain in existence. Blog comments, a subsequent New York Post article and letters to the editor in The Villager followed. Some welcomed the idea of a revision of the zoning code to encourage the diversity and creativity of locally owned stores. Others thought any such zoning would be an impingement of free-market rights — something they considered totally improper.


Everything is zoning

A zoning code, by definition, creates rules that markets operate within. Our zoning defines areas as primarily or exclusively residential, commercial or manufacturing. The building next door to you probably can’t be knocked down and turned into a metal-fabricating or painting plant — unless you live in a manufacturing zone. If you live above the ground floor, the apartment down the hall from you is unlikely to become a McDonald’s or law office. The size and dimensions of buildings are controlled neighborhood by neighborhood.

Most consider these regulations wise — and conceptually they are. Property rights are limited for the common good. These rights do not flow from divine intent nor are they as natural as sunshine, but are part of our socially constructed existence. Wisdom lies in the prudent structure of these rights.

We have the opportunity, before it’s too late, to recognize the eviscerating affect of franchises, chain and big-box stores on organic, holistic, diversified, coherent communities and to allow those communities so inclined to choose zoning alternatives limiting these forms of retail.

Some smaller communities have successfully banned chain stores. Nantucket is an example.

More municipalities have sought to maintain their local economies through formula business restrictions — in retail, restaurants and hotels — which don’t forbid any establishment from opening, but do preclude any one from following a design formula used elsewhere by that enterprise. Imagine McDonald’s without the arches and de-clowned, Starbucks without the nipple-less mermaid and exact-same, faux-hip interiors.

San Francisco is the only large city employing formula retail zoning ordinances. Parts of New York should.


Do the local-motion

Our neighbor Roland Legiardi-Laura has often reminded many of us that the double-decker tourist buses drawn to our community come to take their photographs in front of the former CBGB, eat at Katz’s Deli and shop in the funky boutiques that fill our streets.

Do yourself a favor: Put your back to First Ave. at Ninth St. facing New Jersey and walk into every store that strikes your fancy. Look through the collection of glasses in Fabulous Fanny’s. Tell the people at Archangel you need to find a 19th-century brass button. Look at the drawings in Mascot. Walk into Mud a few times and Jake will put a cup of coffee made your way on the bar by the time you get through the line. The person beside you in Dinosaur Hill is probably one of the people handmaking its wooden toys. Try the Christmas borsht at Veselka — let your taste buds wrap around it.

Take a moment and talk with the person helping you in each of these stores. Ask if they had a good day, perhaps what they think of the holiday lights? “How long has your store been here? Why this street? Do you live in the neighborhood?” Listen to their answers — stories matter. Walk across Second Ave. to the Starbucks and ask someone working there what he or she thinks about the plan to rezone the neighborhood or the commercial overlay on St. Mark’s Pl. Listen to their answers. Ask similar questions across the street at the Bald Man. There’s little hope for depth of place in a company-owned store, one of thousands, with an owner far away. Click your heels — there’s no place like home.


Shock to the system

We couldn’t possibly legislate a restrictive commercial zoning in New York, or make our streets friendly to sustainable, alternative forms of transportation — not in America. Community-minded efforts work in London or Paris, in Copenhagen, because they’re European, over there, so…quaint. Freedom from strictures, the freedom to achieve makes us the extraordinary nation we are, the bulwark and envy of the free-market, industrialized world. Of course, the U.S. dollar is in freefall. Our trade deficit is at record, unstable levels. We have among the highest infant mortality, teenage pregnancy, illiteracy, incarceration, murder, death-by-gun and capital punishment rates of the industrial (post-industrial?) nations. We are one of the only such nations without readily available healthcare. Perhaps we’re missing some aspect of community structure?

If we pass beyond our self-referential idealism — beyond Davy Crockett at the Alamo; Washington rowing across the Delaware; John Wayne storming Pork Chop Hill; Ronald Reagan saying to Knute Rockne, “Tell them to go in there with all they’ve got and win just one for the Gipper” — the ordinances that enable people who care about community to make community make sense, the right sense.

In her speech to the Landmarks Preservation Commission before voting to designate old P.S. 64, Roberta Brandes Gratz, an L.P.C. commissioner, said, “No professional, outside expert can define better than the local resident what is significant in a local community.”

And she’s right, of course. You can go home. 


Rosen is a member of the East Village Community Coalition steering committee

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