Volume 78 / Number 15 - September 3 - 9, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower
East Side, Since 1933

Talking Point

Greening Stuy Town, or sowing the seeds of luxury

By Sonya Sobieski

To outsiders, Stuyvesant Town is an ugly 80 acres of housing project abutting the F.D.R Drive, north of hipster East Village and west of tony Gramercy Park. For an eight-year-resident like myself, a 38-year-old playwright with husband, young daughter and two cats in a 700-square-foot, rent-stabilized one-bedroom, it is the only way to afford a life in New York.

Tishman Speyer Properties bought the complex in 2006 and makes no secret of its plans to deregulate through “luxury” upgrades. Sounds of demolition reverberate through our walls as newly vacant units are stripped of their original 1940s fixtures and fitted with marble countertops and microwave ovens. I covet the dishwashers forbidden to regulated tenants, but three hours a week spent over the sink is a small sacrifice. A renovated one-bedroom starts at $3,055; we pay half that.

My skills as a writing teacher and former dramaturge don’t bring in big bucks. Hubby borrowed his way through Yale and supports us and his barely budgeted theater company with a corporate day job. Unlikely ever to earn more than the $175,000 yearly maximum for luxury decontrol, our household is safe while current rent laws hold. I should be immune to housing-in-peril hysteria. But in times of war, even real estate war, conspiracy theories are seductive.

The landscaping project began last year. Scores of flowers would be planted one week, only to be replaced by completely different flowers the next. Shrubbery would be planted and then disappear. “Did you hear?” whispered our neighbors. “They hired a company from California that put in all the wrong plants for a New York climate, and they died.”

For months, scores of Latino workers have been ripping up grass and putting down a seemingly endless variety of ground cover. The workers have been cutting down old trees — chop, chop — and digging holes for new ones. But the young trees look terrible; their leaves have been brown since April. Those that appear healthy won’t be for long, as legions of Stuy Town squirrels (both black and gray) nibble at the tender bark. Previously grassy areas are now covered by short, sickly forests.

On the playground, a fellow mid-30s mom cites an inside job: “My father-in-law heard that the guy who orders the trees gets a commission on every tree.”

The young Asian-American telephone repairman has a theory. “Surveillance,” he says. He believes the big trees are being replaced to clear sightlines for secret video cameras. “I work all over this complex, and I see.”

The landscapers all resemble fresh-faced Ivy League grads. They stroll the property with drafting paper in hand, the placement of every piece of sod, every rosebush etched in blue ink. The female boss, who fascinates me most, appears to be in her 40s, slender, athletic, with short, sandy-blonde hair and a bearing impossibly both straight and relaxed. I’m spooked by her can of spray paint, since any old-timer bush marked with a slash of orange will be gone by the end of the day. On her, those knee-high muck boots are domineering.

She also has a German shepherd, which fits her intimidating image. The dog is her constant companion as she surveys her domain from the driver’s seat of a sporty green utility truck. In reality, this woman probably just loves her job. In my mind, she is a harbinger of some new world order. She is calm and in control, at least of her immediate surroundings; we renters are not.

Everything about the scene begs for a big reveal: the dominatrix of destruction, the beautification that is not beautiful, the waste of fuel and foliage, the absurd excess in an economic downturn. The owners have made no statements about the project, and so we speculate some great deception. But the motivation is obvious: their quest for profit. The cost of “cosmetic” enhancements can be passed on to tenants if done along with major capital improvement projects, such as repaving (check) or the installation of a new sprinkler system (check). The landscaping is one more investment toward raising the rents of regulated tenants like me.

Sixty years ago, 18 city blocks were razed and 11,000 people displaced to make room for the place I call home. In the name of “slum clearance,” public land was converted to private. Protests were made to no avail.

Tishman Speyer’s supposed hostility toward the middle class is only the latest in a long line of Manhattan real estate takeovers. The storyline isn’t Hollywood after all; it’s Chekhov. There aren’t any real villains, only those sentimental for a waning way of life and others in a financial position to take advantage of change. I’m in The Cherry Orchard, complete with sounds of chainsaw.

Hubby and I will hang on here as long as possible, using the cash we’re not spending on inflated housing costs to see and create plays in the neighborhood. But the days of rent stabilization are numbered. Those whom society doesn’t value monetarily — artists, writers, teachers — will leave. The makeup of the laundry room will change: no more doddering old ladies, firefighters, middle-class Lebanese fathers. Instead, more sleek young professionals and pot-smoking college grads, leases co-signed by indulgent parents. “Out with the old, in with the new” is practically New York City’s motto. Stuy Town’s initial application process favored World War II veterans and discriminated against nonwhites. In future years, it will discriminate by income. This time, I will be one of the displaced. Chop, chop.

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