Volume 79, Number 23 | November 11 - 17, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


Progress Report

A special Villager supplement

Activism

Defend what’s yours, and save what’s left of L.E.S. 

By Susan Howard 

What is a neighborhood? A place where you feel a sense of belonging as you walk down the streets? Where you know your neighbors and local shopkeepers? Where your children go to school? Where you play, garden or just shoot the breeze? Where you can sit on the stoop, in the park or in a neighborhood hangout and listen to music, gossip and lore?

That’s the way I remember the Lower East Side, before all our vacant land was sold for the development of luxury housing in an 80/20 scheme. Before it was marketed to the white upwardly mobile as a cool place to live.  Before the speculators arrived to scoop up the existing buildings to turn them into luxury rentals and condos, and before many of our squats and gardens were bulldozed for more of the same. Before the largest tract of land, once promised for artists, low-income housing and community facilities, was sold in another 80/20 scheme for the development of a luxury community, Avalon Christie, before the high-rises, hotels, high-end eateries and boutiques.

Long gone are community spaces like 2B, Dos Blockos, the All-Craft Center, the Chico Mendez Mural Garden, the Standard Diggs Garden, Esperanza and Carmen’s Garden, the  Lismar and Aztec Lounge, CBGBs, Cuando, 2nd Ave. Deli and CHARAS/El Bohio. The list goes on and on.

I remember when there were roosters in the gardens and songbirds were brought out in their cages to sing in the trees. This was once a neighborhood you could live in. Of artists and poets, bandits and addicts, of working families and dominoes and congas and art in the street. Before the onslaught of bars and the eviction of mom-and-pop stores, of bodegas and botanicas, wholesale toys, juvenile furniture and fabric stores, before the eviction of our community centers and the closing and curfew of our parks, before the city tore out the park benches and bocce ball courts and replaced them with “greenways” and food courts.

Displacement comes in many forms. Loss of local resources and services. Loss of local employment opportunities. Loss of neighbors and family. Loss of connection, a sense of isolation and, finally, loss of home.

This is what is happening to the L.E.S. Of the 49 long-term neighbors in my building and two neighboring buildings on Norfolk St., 22 have been forced to move in the last five years. I said goodbye to another neighor yesterday. Our shopping districts have been replaced with bars and nightclubs where few long-term residents feel welcome, can afford to go or find work.

Our politicians cater to their new constituents while giving lip service to the working and low-income residents. The rezoning of our neighborhood is another nail in the coffin for tenants and the small businesses that cater to the low-income and working community, while it ensures an increase in  property values. Our neighborhood is fast becoming the West Village, a wealthy, almost exclusively white neighborhood, a nice place to take a walk, but not one most can afford to live in.

Current prices for a one-bedroom apartment in the L.E.S. range from $650,000 to $1 million and up, and rentals range from $1,900 for a studio, up to $6,000 for a two-bedroom. You can find cheaper apartments on the Upper East Side.

The toolbox that landlords use to evict tenants includes buyouts, owner occupancy, protracted and frivolous litigation, demolitions, harassment, intimidation, threats and lies. Our senior and disabled neighbors are the most vulnerable. Ninety percent of tenants cannot afford legal representation, and community advocates can do little to help.

And there is New York University, the fourth-largest landowner in the city, with an ever-ravenous appetite.

N.Y.U.’s presence looms over the L.E.S., as they continue to buy up land to build more dormitories and facilities. Students are sought after by landlords because they can  pay the exorbitant rents. They shop in the boutiques, hang out in the restaurants, get pissed in the bars and nightclubs, and cab it home. Late into the evenings, you can hear the ambulances, police cruisers and fire engines responding to the truly chaotic scene.

Hundreds of college kids and youth wasted in the streets. We have more liquor licenses than any other community, but the bar owners like to say they have “cleaned up” the neighborhood.

I miss my neighborhood and I want what’s left of it to remain intact. The settlement agreement that saved many of our gardens will expire in 2010, and the rent laws are due to sunset again in 2011. If we want to save what’s left of the L.E.S., we must defend our gardens at our community boards and at the City Council when they come up for review.  We must fight for new rent regulations and new legislation to create truly affordable housing. We must support our remaining community centers, like ABC No Rio, reopen those that have been closed and work to create new ones. We need to stop the over-proliferation of liquor licenses.

This year marked the 10th anniversary of the sale of CHARAS/El Bohio Community and Cultural Center and the 10th anniversary of the murder of its co-founder, community activist and District Leader Armando Perez.

The building that housed CHARAS remains empty: a testament to the value and importance of the institution and to the determination of those who remain.

“Wake up Loisaida, defend what’s yours. Wake up Boricua, defend what’s yours.”

— Armando Perez

Howard is a Lower East Side community activist

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