By Theresa Juva
The sorrowful drone of the saxophone melted out from an open door onto the dark street as a small crowd gathered inside around tubs filled with bottles of beer. The children were gone for the day, but their presence remained. Photo albums on a table in the back of the room were flipped to random snapshots of them smiling in anticipation of the flashbulb. They did not know their beaming faces would someday serve as the story to a gloomy tune.
After eight years and helping countless children grow up, the Stanton Street Settlement on the Lower East Side, between Eldridge and Forsyth Sts., will be emptied out and locked up by the end of the month another victim of the rising neighborhood rents that are pushing out humble community places to make way for trendy handbag boutiques and restaurants with posh menus.
Last week, the children’s after-school program held one last benefit to scrape together what it could before it is squished into a small classroom a few blocks away at LaSalle Academy on E. Second St.
“It’s like a wake; it’s sad but sweet,” said Greg Drozdek, the settlement’s founder and assistant principal at LaSalle. Two of Drozdek’s friends donated their photographs to be sold at the fundraiser. Drozdek found the saxophone player on Second Ave.
After being told the rent would triple to $66,000 a year for the side-by-side spaces, Drozdek was forced to leave and use a temporary space at his school.
“I’m 33 years old, and this is a quarter of my life,” he said. “I have to pack up. It’s hard for me to change.”
Just out of college and starting his doctorate at New York University, Drozdek passed the burned-out storefront one day in the late ’90s. Fixing it up with his own hands, Drozdek transformed the two adjacent spaces at 53 Stanton St. into a center for a dozen kids ages 6 to 12 to learn karate, dabble in some paint and eat leafy greens provided by Upstate organic farmers as part of a community-supported agriculture program. But most important, it was a place to go instead of the street corners.
Director Sasha Schulman said it shows the kids there is life beyond their neighborhood blocks.
“We take them swimming at a public pool,” she said. “It’s such simple things that, even if it’s going to the library, it’s [usually] just not an option for them.”
Drozdek can point in every direction around the center to all the public housing buildings where many of the kids live. About 25 percent of residents on the Lower East Side live in public housing, according to a report from N.Y.U.’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy.
But some area residents believe an emerging upscale flavor seen in the onslaught of new residential construction projects is creating an unsavory future for those who make their homes in the Lower East Side.
The Stanton Street Settlement is just one of many community services and businesses that are slowly vanishing and being replaced with what Drozdek calls “$500 sneaker stores,” and what one program board member calls “a psychological socioeconomic experiment,” in which the rich and poor are so close yet so far apart.
Neighborhood resident Forest Mars attended the final benefit event Dec. 12 and said the after-school program is just another example of what happens when the needs of the community are overlooked for opulence.
“No place for families, for living here,” he said. “The way the market is happening, money is dictating these communities.”
Rebecca Moore, a resident of Stanton St., said it’s not just the after-school programs and community centers that are suffering, but the small businesses like the dentist or baker that provide essential services.
“We’ve had bars replace everything below Houston St. We just lost six avant-garde theaters, art galleries, an untold number of mom-and-pop places,” Moore said. “People are being brainwashed into thinking these places are being replaced because they aren’t utilized, but they are services people need and use and depend on.”
The city is proposing a rezoning for the East Village and Lower East Side that is intended to keep new construction more in line with the neighborhood’s existing scale. Some, like David McWater, Community Board 3’s chairperson, think the rezoning is the best chance to stave off the development juggernaut, mainly because it will put an end to oversized towers by capping building heights and also removing the community-facilities zoning allowance, under which developers can add height if they are constructing an institutional facility, such as a dormitory, for example.
But Rob Hollander, an East Village resident, noted that despite the proposed zoning changes by the Department of City Planning, developers’ agendas will still be more powerful than the needs of residents. He and some others see some serious problems with the rezoning proposal.
Under the rezoning, developers would be allowed to build higher on some streets such as E. Houston and Delancey Sts. if they also agree to make 20 percent of their projects affordable housing.
Hollander said: “What we really need to save our neighborhoods are rent laws that protect affordable housing and a government that is willing to create or subsidize affordable housing directly without relying on developers to do the work that government is supposed to do itself.”
But possible improvements to zoning in the future will not save Drozdek in the next several weeks.
The mournful cry of the saxophone summed up the evening. Drozdek’s loss is no different from the passing of a dear friend. He walked by a photo of a group of the center’s kids wearing bathing suits, wrapped in towels and huddled next to a pool. He kissed his hand and touched the photo as he walked by.
“It’s a time of struggle and hope. I just want to find hope,” he said.