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Volume 78 - Number 41 / March 18 - 24, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Villager file photo

At the launch of the “Kicking Over the Traces” self-guided walking tour in October, Damaris Reyes, left, GOLES executive director, and Carlos “Chino” Garcia, director of CHARAS, read the text message on Reyes’s phone, giving a history of the Seward Park playground, after she typed in the playground’s code. The tour was part of GOLES’s effort to raise awareness about the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area.

Gaining ground for Lower East Side’s many communities

By Joel Feingold and Damaris Reyes

After a string of victories, Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES) is forging ahead in new directions.

For 30 years, this membership-based community organization has brought tenants and public housing residents together to fight for a Lower East Side they can call their own. GOLES has seen the neighborhood go through devastating landlord neglect in the ’70s and the assault by luxury development over the last 10 years. Now, as the real estate and credit markets continue their collapse, GOLES is prepared to take the neighborhood back for its residents.

On the legislative front, GOLES is one of many organizations struggling to return thousands of apartments to rent regulation. Wasim Lone, GOLES director of organizing, said, “For decades, the state has prevented the city from setting its own rent-regulation policies. And you see the results — our neighborhood turned into a poster child for gentrification, eviction after eviction after eviction, skyrocketing rents.”

Lone added, “Repealing vacancy decontrol is the mother of all reforms. And we’re close, we’re very close.” 

GOLES has also seen major strides made in zoning in the last year. In November 2008, the city voted to rezone the Lower East Side — putting height caps on buildings and offering incentives for developers to build hundreds of affordable housing units. This new contextual rezoning will help to curb the development of out-of-scale, luxury high-rises.  GOLES staff and members believe that while new zoning is just one of the ways to address the issues of gentrification, housing and “Wild West development,” it will help to slow the incredible pace of gentrification and displacement in a neighborhood that has historically been populated by workers and immigrants. 

GOLES sees the rezoning as part of a multipronged response to community preservation.  GOLES learned a lot from this process, and is offering its help to other communities to ensure that gentrification doesn’t push into adjacent neighborhoods. 

Public housing organizing has been a mainstay of GOLES’s work for more than a decade. Fifteen years after the HOPE-VI policy prompted the demolition or privatization of dozens of housing project buildings across the country, the federal government appears once again to understand the importance of preserving and maintaining our public housing stock. President Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act set aside $5 billion badly needed dollars for capital improvements in the nation’s public housing developments. A full $390 million has been awarded to the New York City Housing Authority. This money can help address NYCHA’s capital issues, such as long-overdue elevator repairs. 

Lisa Burriss, GOLES director of organizing for public housing, cautions, “Let’s be real for a second. NYCHA is facing a huge budget shortfall, community centers are being closed, and elevators aren’t the only things that need work. For example, public housing residents are still faced with a constant and degrading police presence — and, depending on the housing development, it can be really difficult to get any repairs in your apartment.” 

To help educate people about their rights, GOLES is offering The Program, a monthly free and public tutorial on tenants’ rights, meant for public housing residents and tenants in rent-regulated and Section 8 apartments. Covering topics from eviction prevention, how to get repairs in a rent-regulated apartment and the nuances of modifying a NYCHA lease, The Program is a basic education in how to survive the hard knocks of the rolling housing crisis in this city. 

Angel Seda, an organizer and housing counselor, said, “If you’re being harassed by your landlord so he can clear you out and charge twice the rent to his next tenant — go to a Program workshop or call GOLES for services. We serve approximately 3,000 people per year. And if you want to take an active role in taking the Lower East Side back for its people, then join one of our campaigns.” 

GOLES has devoted a great deal of organizational capacity in the last year to developing a formal membership structure, its first since its inception in 1977.

GOLES will launch its formal membership in the spring. Regular membership meetings will inform members of GOLES’s resources, and will coalesce community members around different issues and points of action. 

The Finding Our CommUnity Strength (FOCUS) initiative is an example of the organization’s holistic approach to addressing gentrification and displacement in the Lower East Side. FOCUS aims to involve Lower East Side residents in city planning processes as they occur. In this way, we hope to help residents shape the future of their community. Through FOCUS, GOLES and its community partners are engaging the public in discussions and visioning around the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA Matters) and development of the East River waterfront. FOCUS works to ensure that what is developed speaks to the needs of the community. 

On March 25, March 31 and April 1, SPURA Matters sessions will guide the public in visioning sessions on what to build in the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area. The events will be held in English, Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin and Fukinese. Call GOLES at 212-358-1231 to R.S.V.P.

Finally, GOLES hopes to locate workers’ rights and workforce development in a neighborhood context. Economic justice organizer Zebi Williams said, “In this awful economic climate, GOLES seeks economic justice by finding jobs for unemployed workers, by teaching folks about personal budgeting and their financial rights, and helping workers get respect on the job. Because the people who live on the Lower East Side, who work on the Lower East Side, ultimately are the Lower East Side.”
Reyes is executive director and Feingold is a community organizer, Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES)

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