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Gentrifying the Lower East Side

by Lenny Quart

American Studies Today On-line

Does gentrification of a run-down inner-city area neccessarily result in the dispossession of the existing population, or can it work to their advantage? Lenny Quart's analysis of the Lower East Side of New York City holds lessons for city planners everywhere. Lenny Quart is Professor of Cinema at City University New York, former head of the Graduate School of CUNY in Statten Island, and   is a frequent contributor to the Berkshire Eagle, where this article first appeared. Mulberry Street, c 1900

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The Lower East Side was the center of Jewish immigrant life in New York from the 1880’s until the advent of WW1. Streets like Orchard and Hester stretched for blocks filled with peddlers with packs and stalls selling everything from carp, pickles, and dried fruit to bandannas, suspenders, and tin cups. Above the swirling noisy crowds were six-story dark, foetid, airless tenements ("great prison-like structures of brick") whose overcrowded apartments sometimes doubled as shops in which women did garment piecework. It was a picturesque and intellectually intense world filled with Yiddish theatres, newspapers, political groups and ideological debates, but also a world where crime, poverty, and disease were common. By 1916, however, many of the Jews had begun to move to other sections of the city like Harlem, Brownsville, and the East Bronx. The Lower East Side was no longer the centre of Jewish culture in New York. In 1998 there are still many Jews in 28 middle income co-operative apartment buildings on Grand Street (from Essex Street to the East River), and there are a number of synagogues left on East Broadway. But just as the Jews and Italians replaced the Irish in the 19th century, the dominant immigrant groups are now Hispanics and Chinese, and the area is dotted with bodegas and Pentecostal churches, and cheap Cantonese and Fukienese restaurants. In fact, a number of the Orchard Street bargain clothing stores are now owned by Chinese and East Indians.

But what’s most striking now about these streets is not the Bangladeshi grocery or the store selling kitschy Buddha statues, but the gentrification that has begun to take place. On grey, treeless Ludlow amidst shops like the La Esperanza bodega, there are vintage furniture and clothing stores, an avant-garde basement theatre called Todo Con Nada, and a stylish pub, The Local, offering a wide variety of connoisseur beers. Altman’s Luggage, Friedman’s Clothes, and stores with sidewalk stalls are still in business on Orchard Street, but trendy boutiques and a brick-walled bar, the Rivertown Lounge, are increasingly visible and more of their ilk are in the works. It’s not only the shops that are being gentrified. Tenements whose windows have been bricked and boarded up since the 1930s are being renovated with one-bedrooms renting for $1400 a month. Even the building on East Broadway that once housed the fabled Yiddish Social-Democratic daily, The Forward, is now being converted into condominiums.

The housing stock and visual look of these streets remains run-down and charmless, but that won’t stop the flow of artists and the hip young, who have been priced out of the East Village and Soho, from moving here. (Whatever the area’s defects it’s still ‘Downtown,’ and not the South Bronx.) Gentrification of this sort often elicits a reflexive, negative response where the moneyed are seen as renewing a neighbourhood only to sacrifice the poor in the process. According to this scenario, store and apartment rents rise, the poor are pushed out of their own neighbourhoods, and elitism triumphs. The only building then left that will remind us that poor immigrants once lived on the Lower East Side will be the one the Tenement Museum (which provides programs focusing on the immigrant experience) has worked hard to restore. The building is on Orchard Street, and contains apartments of 19th and 20th century tenement inhabitants so visitors can remember where they came from. The old Lower East Side then merely becomes a theme park so suburbanites can celebrate their roots.

However, this scenario is much too dire, since the hip and well-heeled can never really dominate the area. There are seven public housing projects with 9,465 apartments in the neighbourhood—a critical mass of low income people who will neither be eating nouvelle cuisine nor moving out in the near future. And there are a number of non-profits building affordable housing in the neighbourhood—a further sign that the Lower East Side will not be transformed into another Soho.

Still, one shouldn’t be blithe about the consequences of inflated rents. Obviously, a number of small traditional stores will be displaced, and affordable apartments in privately owned buildings will be hard to come by. Gentrification and rehabilitation, however, dislodge far fewer people than disinvestment and housing abandonment. Also, most low-income people move from their homes for other reasons than gentrification.

For all the outrage and divisiveness it evokes, gentrification, on the whole, is a good thing for the neighbourhoods and the city. Not only does it improve the city’s tax base, but, more often than not, rather than destroying viable working class neighbourhoods, it revitalises areas (e.g., renovating decrepit houses, giving new life to the shops and streets) that are deteriorating. For example, the gentrification of Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues on the Upper West Side, Chelsea in Manhattan, Williamsburg in Brooklyn— resurrected neighbourhoods that were under-utilised or going to seed. Clearly, the number of middle class people willing to gentrify the Lower East Side and other gentrifying neighbourhoods is much smaller than those willing to abandon the city for the suburbs. What’s important is that the Chinese and Hispanic immigrants that want to stay on these streets are not steamrolled by greedy speculators. There is no way, however, for urban neighbourhoods to eternally maintain their original character. New York is a city built on flux, and the Lower East Side has gone through innumerable radical changes over the last century. The best we can hope for is that the gentrification of the Lower East Side creates a more vibrant and aesthetically pleasing neighbourhood without turning itself into a homogeneous island of upscale boutiques and bars.

Article reproduced with the permission of the author L. Quart

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