Volume 22, Number 28 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | November 20 - 26, 2009
Downtown Express photo by J.B. Nicholas
Frances Goldin, of the Cooper Square Committee, spoke at Sunday’s rally, as Harvey Epstein, left, and District Leader Anthony Feliciano stood by her side. Goldin called on the mayor to build 2,000 units of affordable housing on the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area.
With Chin in, renewed hope at renewal area
By Lincoln Anderson
With a new city councilmember strongly committed to affordable housing set to take office in January, housing advocates are feeling renewed hope that the long-dormant Seward Park Urban Renewal Area will be developed.
About 75 housing activists — along with a half-dozen former renewal-area residents — gathered at Suffolk and Delancey Sts., hard by the Williamsburg Bridge approach ramp, last Sunday afternoon.
Against the backdrop of an orange banner that read, “2000 People Lost Their Homes November 1967,” they marked the 42nd anniversary of when blocks of low-income housing — plus dozens of mom-and-pop stores — were bulldozed under the urban renewal plan. (In fact, 1,850 households were displaced.)
Although they hoped for the right of return to the redeveloped area, most of the working-class residents basically wound up permanently displaced. More than four decades later, a sprawling swath of land still lies barren, stretching away to either side of Suffolk St., used as nothing but a gigantic parking lot.
At the rally, shoulder-high cardboard boxes painted to resemble the high-rises that could be built on the site ringed the chain-link fence around a corner of the parking lot. Small signs on colored paper were hung on the fence with names of the many community amenities the property could support: “School,” “Shoe Store,” “Movie Theater”... .
During the two-hour rally, speaker after speaker ascended a small stepladder to vent their frustrations and hopes about the site, their words by turns fiery and poignant, sometimes both at once.
Edward Rudyk, who lived in the renewal area before it was demolished, recalled halcyon days growing up in a close-knit Lower East Side community that was like a small town. His parents were born in Poland, and during World War II were enslaved in a forced-labor camp, eventually immigrating to New York after the war.
Rudyk recalled a neighborhood brimming with ethnic diversity — his best friend was half German, half Puerto Rican — and small shops where he worked various jobs: packing eggs at a kosher butcher, washing the window of Mr. Lee, the Chinese launderer, for $1.
“I remember Tommy’s bike store,” he said. “I remember Yachee, who owned a candy store. Yachee said he would open a new candy store when the community rebuilt. ... Yachee’s dead now.
“The destruction around us was done by people that knew nothing about neighborhoods — the master builder, Robert Moses,” Rudyk said of the barren lots.
Another former renewal-area resident, Tito Delgado, told the crowd, “You should know that many, many of the children and grandchildren of the displaced residents live doubled and tripled up in public housing. You’ve got hundreds of people like that — I see them every day.
“It’s a war. They crushed it,” he said of the former community. “But we’re fighting back.”
Harriet Cohen, chairperson of the Seward Park Area Revitalization Committee, or SPARC, called for a moment of silence for all the displaced residents, as well as the shop owners who worked on the site.
“We are going to be here every November until they put shovels in the ground,” Cohen vowed.
District Leader Anthony Feliciano said if a plan isn’t put in place soon, market forces will take over.
“Change is going to happen,” he said. “But when change is controlled by real estate forces, we have a problem. ... What I want to see is not cars here — what I want to see is buildings.”
Looking across Delancey St. toward Blue on Norfolk St., Feliciano said, “If we don’t fight now, we are going to have seven Blue buildings here — that is ugly,” he said distastefully of the cubistic luxury building that resembles a humongous, old-fashioned radio microphone.
Others took up the Blue-bashing refrain, including Mildred Rivera, a former resident of the renewal area.
“I don’t want to see another tragedy like that,” she said of the aqua-colored, towering trapezoid, “even though my grandson says I’m not a modern thinker and he likes it.”
Councilmember Rosie Mendez, who represents the district north of Houston St., said, “This is a community that doesn’t forget. It’s the same simple message: Affordable housing now!”
“Ahora!” (“Now!”) someone called out in Spanish.
“I am looking forward to working with my sister Margaret Chin in the City Council so that we can bring what this community needs — affordable housing!” Mendez pledged.
Chin — who will represent the renewal area in a few weeks’ time — received cheers when she was introduced standing in the crowd, and photographers wheeled around to snap her photo.
“Forty-two years... . I think it’s a moral question,” Chin said. “Do you remove families for urban renewal to build a new neighborhood — to build new housing — but it wasn’t done? Something has happened here, and affordable housing has to be part of the equation — for working families, seniors. We can make history here by doing something great,” she said. “The opportunities are endless if we can come together and work together. We can’t take no for an answer. When we come back next year, we’ll have something started.”
District Leader John Quinn said, “There’s no plan here. This is a disgrace. We need to see a plan to do something with this property. Whether we can argue with it or pick a fight — I need to see something, and it has to be this year.”
Carlos “Chino” Garcia, director of the CHARAS community group, recalled that he grew up near the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area.
“It is important to remember that this area used to be represented by Miriam Friedlander — both areas [Council Districts 1 and 2],” Garcia said. “Now it is represented by Rosie Mendez and Margaret Chin — it is important that both areas are being represented by people who are progressive.”
Garcia said not just affordable, but ultra-affordable housing is needed.
“Let’s stop kidding ourselves,” he said. “‘Low- income’ [housing] is a joke. ‘Working-class poor people,’ let’s use those words — people that are making less than $7 an hour.”
Toward the end of the rally, an excited chant of “Si se puede!” (“Yes we can!”) arose from the crowd, as Father Neil Connolly, in his gleaming white robe, pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church on Grand St., came marching down Suffolk St. with a group of congregants.
Noting he’s been at the church 25 years, Connolly said of the vacant renewal-area land, “I had always been curious about the property.
“The working people, the low-income people, they don’t have enough to afford what is going up around here,” he said of the new developments, like Blue. “So we have to stick with it. There might be many demonstrations — we have to stick with it,” he urged.
It’s generally accepted that the main reason the renewal area has mostly lain undeveloped over the years is opposition from residents of Co-op Village along Grand St., who don’t want low-income housing built there. Although Co-op Village was built by union members as limited-equity co-ops with cheap buy-in costs, in 1998 their residents voted to go market rate.
Sheldon Silver, the powerful Assembly speaker, lives in Co-op Village, and the popular wisdom is that he is the main force blocking development on the city-owned site — hence the renewal area’s nickname, “Shelly Silver’s parking lot.”
The city needs too much from Silver for the administration to cross him on Seward Park, the thinking continues.
Advocates say there’s another reason for Silver to maintain the status quo: Were hundreds of low-income residents added to the renewal area, it would change the district’s demographics, potentially posing a threat to his re-election.
Councilmember Alan Gerson — unlike Chin, who defeated him in September’s primary election — always deferred to Silver on the renewal area.
Right before the housing rally last Sunday, a couple of blocks south, Silver led a rally to save the Pitt Station post office from being closed. Asked his views on the renewal area’s development, he told Downtown Express: “There is nothing new. It’s been going on for a long time. At some point, there will be a plan that is acceptable to the community.”
Asked what that plan would contain, Silver answered, “That will be up to the community.”
One leading activist at the housing rally privately confided that some believe nothing will ever happen on the renewal site unless someone can defeat Silver in an election and unseat him.
In a telephone interview, Michael Tumminia, president of the Seward Park Co-op, one of the four developments comprising Co-op Village, said of the renewal area, “I would say the issue of what might or might not happen on that land is of great interest to the residents of Seward Park Co-op. We would like some development to be done there that is fair to everyone who lives in the area.” As for what he’d personally like to see at the site, he said, “I think a mixture would be appropriate,” though adding that he
was not speaking for his board.
Calling it a positive step, Tumminia said Pietro Filardo — an architect on Seward Park Co-op’s board and chairperson of the co-op’s Master Planning Committee — was just accepted as a public member of Community Board 3’s Land Use, Zoning, Public and Private Housing Committee, which is holding ongoing discussions on the renewal area’s future.
“We are very open to being part of the discussion,” Tumminia said.