Voices of the Lower East Side Talk of Its Struggle to Survive

Posted on: July 25th, 2014 at 10:00 am by

The Lower East Side has been considered one of the eleven most endangered historic places since 2008. Truth.
According to the National Trust of Historic Preservation:

Few places in America can boast such a rich tapestry of history, culture and architecture as New York’s Lower East Side.  However, this legendary neighborhood—the first home for waves of immigrants since the 18th century—is now undergoing rapid development.  New hotels and condominium towers are being erected across the area, looming large over the original tenement street scape.  As this building trend shows no sign of abating, it threatens to erode the fabric of the community and wipe away the collective memory of generations of immigrant families.

Herewith, I will take a look at some of the key players (once locals themselves) whose wealth ironically destroyed what they were perhaps trying to fix. Their influence is arguably the catalyst for the swift dismantling of the Lower East Side. Despite the rampant change, people from all walks of life are fighting to preserve what remains. I have included their pleas as well.

Sheldon Silver. His affluence and influence directly affected the Lower East Side in a way that can never be undone. The Assembly Speaker, alongside a small army including Mayor Ed Koch and the recently-arrested William Rapfogel, intentionally kept the SPURA lots empty for decades. (Silver’s headline-grabbing pursuits play the leading role in a tell all website called Friends of Ours)

It was speculation until the New York Times blew it wide open:

…Mr. Rapfogel, 59, was arrested and charged in a scheme that had allegedly looted more than $7 million in kickbacks from Met Council’s insurance broker over the years. He is due back in court in April.

The arrest cast new light on a relationship about which little was known beyond the obvious: Mr. Silver has funneled millions of public dollars to the organization that Mr. Rapfogel led, and he employs Mr. Rapfogel’s wife, Judy, as his chief of staff.

A primary focus of their alliance had been a struggle to preserve the Jewish identity of the neighborhood they delivered for Mr. Koch all those years ago.

Their battleground was some 20 barren acres along the southern side of Delancey Street, where, in 1967, the city leveled blocks of rundown apartment buildings. More than 1,800 low-income families, largely Puerto Rican, were sent packing and promised a chance to return to new apartments someday.

SPURA was a failure. The neighborhood is still suffering from that decades-old mistake.

But it’s not just Silver. Others are responsible, and you know their names just by walking the streets. Misrahi. Ben Shaoul. Baruch Singer. Samy Mahfar. They are more locally known, despised and relentlessly responsible for rent hikes and the all but mandated closure of our beloved stores and restaurants.

Anyway. I idled about LES asking neighbors their opinions about the changes. In return, some people wondered how I could possibly miss the “old days” of drugs, crime, and grit.

Truth is, I don’t.

I miss the in-betweens when diversity and culture reigned. We are very much in a rebirth stage at the moment, with the the latter generations flailing about trying to deal with rent increases, culture shock (i.e. no more culture), the loss of friends, homes, and neighborhood establishments.

I guess I miss it enough to be able to afford my rent.

I was also told, “New Yorkers who miss the ‘old days’ have never been the victim of a violent crime or otherwise aren’t really all that aware about the realities of life in a place like this. It’s like the folks who want America to be like it was in the 1950s or who long for the Victorian Era, all while forgetting that all of these periods generally suck for the common person.”

How do you know if I’ve ever been a victim of crime; unless this crime of local corruption is what I am a victim of?

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We spoke with some folks with deep ties to the neighborhood, and here’s what they had to say:

Joyce Mendelsohn, author of the The Lower East Side Remembered regarding the recent closure of Bereket:

Everything about Bereket was authentic. You could drop in 24/7 for a cheap Turkish meal and know what you were eating. The fresh veggies, meat and dips were all laid out for a close look. The guys behind the counter moved fast, but were patient about helping you decide what would be cooked to order. You were happy to spend just a few dollars to gobble up real food that was tasty, not trendy. My usual was the thick, golden lentil soup that I showered with a squeeze of lime and ate with a warm pita. But, Bereket wasn’t just about the food. Looking around, I knew I was in a very special place where I felt connections across cultural barriers. At one lunchtime, Bereket was filled with neighborhood newbies and old-timers, traffic cops on a break, a lively Hispanic family and a Chinese couple. They led very different lives but here they shared common ground where ethnicity and class didn’t matter. For me, a deep sadness descends with the closing of Bereket and the realization of how efficiently big money is destroying neighborhood diversity.

Roberta Belulovich, Merchant’s House Museum Visiting Services Coordinator:

The Lower East Side has changed like no other NYC neighborhood I know. When I was a kid, my parents used to have us close the car windows and lock the doors as we drove up the Bowery. And it was The Bowery then, just like Da Bronx. So why put on such airs? We all know the answer and I’d never deny the benefits of LES progress. Pillage is another thing entirely.

Take the Merchant’s House Museum at 29 East 4th St., NYC’s only intact 19th century family dwelling. It has what experts have rated as being among the finest ornamental plasterwork in the country. It has landmark status at the city, state and national level, yet it’s endangered by LES development. Right now, the Museum is literally fighting for its survival, as an 8-story hotel, capable of serving a mere 35 people at full capacity, has been approved for construction on the museum’s west wall.

As the Museum’s Visiting Services Coordinator, I’m fortunate to hear many different perspectives from our visitors. Our foreign guests in particular are shocked at the short-sightedness of endangering a world-renowned, one-of-a-kind structure such as the MHM. “This could never happen in …” fill in the blank with England, Italy, France, Germany, Holland, Australia, New Zealand, or any other country you can think of. Historic Districts Council executive director Simeon Bankoff said it best, “The fact is that New York City has plenty of boring eight-story hotels, but we only have one Merchant’s House.” So why is this being allowed to happen? Has the LES forgotten its past? It would seem so, much to the detriment of its citizens and visitors.

Mehai Bakaty, Proprietor of Fineline Tattoo, the longest running tattoo shop in NYC:

What do I think of the current state of change or (gentrification) of the Lower East Side at this point? Wow, there’s a big question. I was born and raised on the Bowery through the 1970s, 80s and so on, and I can tell you this is not the city I grew up in. The Lower East Side has always been a more or less working class, if not poor, section of town. It’s difficult to watch luxury hotels and residential high-rises going up everywhere with a speed and tenacity never seen before, not to mention all the international franchise chains coming in and pressuring out “mom and pop” bodegas and general small businesses. They just can’t compete with the rising prices of rent. The irony is that the neighborhood was mostly abandoned due to lack of interest some 40 years ago. Why the current interest in the L.E.S? I think a big part of it has to do with the art and music scene that grew out of here through the 60s, 70s and 80s. A lot of great stuff was made by some amazingly talented young people, who made skid row a place to pursue an artistic life simply because it was a cheap affordable place to live. Very romantic memories indeed. At the end of the day, while I don’t miss the crack heads, junkies and winos, I feel that gentrification is shutting out those artistic and independent-minded people who made the Lower East Side such a vital neighborhood in the first place.

God bless the L.E.S

Jennifer Lacomis Garcia, Freelance Historic Preservation Writer, Photographer; formerly of Worlds Monuments Fund:

The Lower East Side represents one of the most storied and historically significant neighborhoods in New York City. The Lower East Side is more than more than the sum of its parts: a medley of immigrants, old and young who worked to their last day forging a path to freedom and autonomy, all the while believing this city was salvation and safety. Many years ago, I followed a similar path and took leave of my native Philadelphia, pushing off from a small Polish immigrant neighborhood with comparable beginnings, and found a vibrant look into the past that mesmerized me.

I was driven to explore the historic core of my sister city and found a place that resonated with me deeply.

The less change the Lower East Side experiences, the better; especially for those of us who have chosen to be the keepers of the collectibles. The historic architecture that defined the cobblestone streets of the LES was the manifest voice: proud and solid, detailed and worn, like its residents. The stories of the past are collateral for our future. Without them, who are we? Therefore, how can we allow their destruction?…The sense of place is something our future generations should know and know well. You don’t walk by an empty lot or a sparkling condo and say to your child, “Did you know that people struggled here long ago?  How do you teach a lesson or gain respect from the phantom vapors of someone’s life? History is the seed from which we all grow. Let the LES continue to be the prolific garden from which we can all thrive and tend to before there is no plot left.

Mark Panzarino, Street Artist:

Although I grew up in Brooklyn, I first truly discovered the Lower East Side in the mid-’90s.  I’d just returned from a 3-year gig dancing with the ballet out-of-state and was looking for a part-time job.  Hayne Suthon, owner of Lucky Cheng’s restaurant hired me as a receptionist under flamboyant manager Marki Bamboo.  From its wild image and decor to its exploration of gender views to its own special brand of avant-garde theatrics, Lucky Cheng’s epitomized everything wonderful, interesting, and fun about the LES and the East Village.  After a long night of entertaining a healthy mix of bridge-and-tunnelers, trans*-fans, artists and locals, the staff would head down to Bereket for a hearty meal or up to the Limelight club to party away the evening’s stresses.

Today, Lucky Cheng’s has shuttered their LES doors, their midtown doors and now, Bereket has closed.

The whitewashing of the city’s most colorful culture is a grave disappointment; truly the end of an important era.  What we lose can not be replaced.  LES counter-culture has been forfeited in favor of corporate-owned tourist trap hotels and major fashion label outposts, identical to every other in every other city.  It is sorrowful to think what the neighborhood will look like in another 40 years.  Probably very bland.

And then there’s me.

I am the Lower East Side, every street, every building and I need your help. Join preservation movements. Let YOUR voices be heard. There must be an in-between to progress forward without destroying the rich, deep-rooted past.

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