America's Melting Pot
As New York City Moves to Protect the Lower East Side, Chinatown Is Left Out in the Cold.
By Meghan Hogan | Online Only | Jan. 16, 2009
When Rob Hollander moved into New York City's Lower East Side in the 1970s, it was a different world. One filled with a combination of both working-class and bohemian culture and characters from all backgrounds. Rents were so cheap he once took the rest of the year off after working for four months as a bicycle messenger. "Even the prostitutes were retired," he says.
But times have changed—first with the waves of gentrification in the mid-1980s, and again with the construction boom of the Clinton era. Some changes, such as the disappearance of widespread crime and drug use, have been for the better, but some, such as the loss of institutions like the First Roumanian Synagogue and Streit's Matzo factory, have been for the worse.
"The last eight years have been a story of constant development," says Hollander, director of Lower East Side Residents for Responsible Development, an information network created to alert concerned citizens about impending threats to the streetscapes.
And there are a lot of them, so many that the neighborhood made it to the National Trust for Historic Preservation's 2008 list of 11 Most Endangered Places. As the listing points out, 11 buildings were issued demolition permits in 2007 compared to just one in 2006. And many buildings that aren't being torn down are instead being renovated to increase their size, often at the cost of losing their historic architectural elements. In their places, structures like the 17-story Blue Condo building and the 21-story Hotel on Rivington are springing up, virtually towering over the area's low-rises.
To stem the tide, the city council approved the rezoning of a 111-block stretch of the Lower East Side in November 2008, the first rezoning in the area since 1961. Residents, unhappy about the influx of new high-rises dwarfing their tenement buildings, are pleased that the act will cap new buildings north of Houston Street at 80 to 120 feet. Although many groups praised the act as an encouraging step in the right direction, some neighborhoods south of Houston Street—like Chinatown—were left outside the boundary, leaving them free to be bulldozed.
"We've already seen an impact from the rezoning," says Josephine Lee of the Coalition to Protect Chinatown. "We're starting to see a loss of small businesses. This is one of the last working-class communities in New York City, and it's already starting to be displaced. … Nothing less than stopping this discriminatory rezoning plan is acceptable because it's putting pressure on the communities that are most vulnerable."
In response to the construction boom, which has slowed in the current recession, the Lower East Side Preservation Coalition, a group of several community organizations, formed to fight the situation. "All you have to do to realize that something needs to be done is walk down the streets and see the extraordinarily out-of-scale development," says Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, a coalition member. The group argues that it's not just historic architecture that's at stake with each fallen building; it's the entire cultural fabric of the community.
If America's melting pot could exist in one neighborhood, the Lower East Side might be it. While it began primarily as a German-American neighborhood named Kleindeutschland in the 1850s and 60s, with each progressive wave of immigration from Old Europe, more and more ethnicities moved into the area, earning it its continuing multiethnic reputation. It's been home to the Italians, Jews, Irish, African Americans, and today includes the country's largest Chinatown.
Ninteenth-century immigrants chose this southeastern corner of the city not because it was desirable, but because it was cheap. "It was already built up and being abandoned by the more affluent," says Andrew Dolkart, director of the historic preservation program at Columbia University. "It was also within walking distance of where immigrants worked—transportation wasn't something they could easily afford."
The Lower East Side still has a large swath of the same buildings the immigrants moved into: tenements. Journalist Jacob Riis famously documented these cramped apartment units where families lived in squalor, often in only one or two rooms without running water or gas. The best surviving example is the Italianate-style Lower East Side Tenement Museum at 97 Orchard Street, a National Trust Historic Site which showcases the lives of six working-class families as they lived in the building at different times between 1863 and 1936. According to Hollander, the whole area, not just the tenements, is filled with unusual architecture, since builders in the neighborhood didn't generally concern themselves with creating a uniform appearance and instead used whatever materials were available, resulting in a mix of architectural details and styles, often in the same structures. "Some of the buildings are totally wild. It's like the builders were smoking something," he says.
Despite its uniqueness, many developers think change has been good for the area, especially given its crime-riddled past. "It's safe now," says Sion Misrahi, a Lower East Side realtor, second generation merchant, and former president of the Lower East Side Business Improvement District. While he thinks there are definitely buildings in the area that should be saved, he says preservationists have taken it too far. "Nothing stays the same," he says. "We just can't save every building where Washington slept – a lot of Washingtons slept here."
But preservationists say they just want to make sure the Lower East Side doesn't turn into something it isn't. "This isn't about freezing an area in time," says Bankoff. "It's about regulating development so that it's appropriate with the architecture and character of the neighborhood."
The coalition's agenda includes several initiatives, among them increasing affordable housing, helping long-term residents keep their homes, and getting a Lower East Side Historic District created. While the terms of a historic district are up in the air at this point, Bankoff says his organization has seen an increase in the number of Lower East Side historic buildings being landmarked. "The Trust [11 Most Endangered] listing has added fuel to the fire," he adds.
In the rubble of Lower East Side demolition, there have been a few other preservation victories as well. The 96-year-old Forward Building, once home to The Forward, one of the city's oldest Jewish newspapers, was converted into condominiums in the 1990s. An anonymous $20 million donation in April rescued St. Brigid's Church, built in 1848 by survivors of Ireland's potato famine. And last month, the Museum at Eldridge Street, a coalition member, is celebrating the $17.5-million restoration of its c. 1887 Moorish-style synagogue with a "Lower East Side Family Reunion" to commemorate both the area's immigrant past and the synagogue's survival as the last Jewish marker still open to the general public. (In 2008, the National Trust gave a National Preservation Award to the synagogue restorers.)
Amy Milford, the museum's deputy director, says she is worried about the fate of several buildings in the area, among them the former Loews Theater on Canal Street and the former Ridley's Department Store on Grand. "On another note," she adds, "It will be interesting in the years ahead to see what new sites being created today will be recognized as landmarks, and emblematic of a new migration to the area."
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