Volume 79, Number 21 | Oct. 28 - Nov. 03, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Villager photos by Jefferson Siegel

Members of the Lower East Side Coalition for Accountable Zoning, or LESCAZ, received awards for their work in support of the recently passed East Village/Lower East Side rezoning.

‘Dammit, we won!’ Housing activists feeling golden at 50

By Lincoln Anderson

With defiant declarations of neighborhood empowerment, poetry, dance and some choice words, the Cooper Square Committee celebrated 50 years of community organizing and housing preservation at its golden anniversary gala last Thursday night. 

The fete’s setting was Jing Fong restaurant in Chinatown, where a crowd of about 200 feasted on a five-course meal of delicious Chinese food.

Founded in 1959, the committee claims bragging rights as the first community-based organization to defeat a slum-clearance plan by Robert Moses. The iron-fisted housing czar wanted to raze tenements between E. 14th and Delancey Sts. to create another Stuyvesant Town-like complex, displacing the residents, who were overwhelmingly poor and without anyplace to go. 

Lower East Siders banded together and crafted a community-based plan calling for staged development and no displacement of residents. The alternative scheme was adopted by the New York City Board of Estimate in 1970. Ultimately, hundreds of buildings were saved, and thousands of residents able to stay in the neighborhood.

 Frances Goldin, 85, one of the committee’s co-founders and one of last Thursday night’s main honorees, put it bluntly in her uncensored remarks at the dinner.

East Villager Georgina Christ wore a sign urging the community and city to start moving ahead on developing the remaining sites in the long-stalled Seward Park Urban Renewal Area, located just south of the Williamsburg Bridge.

“It took us 50 f---ing years, but we made this community, this little community of Cooper Square, unlike any community in the world!” Goldin stated proudly. “Chelsea and Harlem and Brooklyn and Queens and the Bronx — we fought the city in many places, but they [those communities] failed. But when they did it in Cooper Square — it took 50 years — but, dammit, we won the struggle!

“We’re the only neighborhood in the city that built its own urban renewal plan and saw it come to life.”

Goldin praised the diversity of the urban renewal area, whose residents are Hispanic, black, Chinese, Italian, Jewish, Polish and Ukrainian.

The different ethnic groups don’t reside in separate enclaves, but rather, “They live in each building, together,” she said.

“It helped to have a couple of reds living in the neighborhood,” Goldin reflected of the committee’s success. “That didn’t hurt at all. We knew how to organize. ... 

“And many of us got arrested — not once, but four or five times, to save our neighborhood,” she recalled.

 The housing struggle continues today, the legendary activist, said, noting, “There are neighborhoods all over the city that are being attacked — by N.Y.U. and by characters that are trying to gentrify the land. ... Fight back, organize,” she urged the audience members.

A proud, purple-wearing radical, Goldin is mother of two lesbian daughters. She ran for the state Senate in 1951, at age 27, as the only woman on the socialist American Labor Party ticket that included W.E.B. DuBois. She heads her own politically progressive literary agency, representing death-row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal, among others.

Goldin suffered a heart attack earlier this year. But she looked in fine form last Thursday night, boogieing on the dance floor along with others after the dinner.

 She also paid homage to former Councilmemember Miriam Friedlander, a fellow leftist and staunch ally of the Cooper Square Committee, who died earlier this month at age 95.

“We’re not going to ask for a moment of silence — that’s not the way Miriam was,” Goldin said.

Of Friedlander’s 18-year tenure in the Council, Goldin said, “She didn’t let anyone red-bait her out of her positions. She fought like a tiger.”

The gala’s other honorees included the 10 Stanton St. Tenants Association; Metropolitan Council on Housing; Charles King, president of Housing Works; and the Lower East Side Coalition for Accountable Zoning, or LESCAZ.

Over all, the Cooper Square Urban Renewal Area today has more than 1,450 new and renovated units, of which 61 percent are low- and moderate-rent units and 30 percent market rate. 

 The Cooper Square Committee created a mutual housing association — based on a Northern European model — which manages 23 buildings with rents that lower- and lower-middle-income families can afford.

In 1988, the committee sponsored the country’s first co-op for formerly homeless families, the 22-unit Cube Building on Second Ave.

Thanks to the committee’s efforts, of the 712 rental units in the big new AvalonBay buildings on E. Houston St., 178 are for low-income tenants; plus, one of the buildings includes a 42,000-square-foot community center with a gym and swimming pool, jointly run by the YMCA and University Settlement.

More recently, the committee helped found the Fourth Arts Block to establish a small cultural district in a group of nonresidential buildings on E. Fourth St.

To cap height limits on new buildings, the committee supported the recently approved East Village/Lower East Side rezoning encompassing a 111-block area; the rezoning also includes voluntary inclusionary zoning, or I.Z., under which developers can get a height bonus only if they add a certain number of affordable units.

Val Orselli, director of the Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association, a member of LESCAZ, said the  rezoning was sorely needed. The East Village and Lower East Side are located “between Wall St. and Midtown,” he noted, so they have “always been seen as a spot for luxury housing.” 

As the neighborhood “turned around and became affordable, with the zoning that existed, it was a Wild West atmosphere,” he said. “Hotels were mushrooming.”

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