New Yorkers Anonymous
Over the holiday weekend I had the pleasure of watching a film called The Cobbler starring Adam Sandler. And by pleasure I mean pain, the film was terrible. Although, despite it’s lack of laughs and outrageously silly storyline The Cobbler did a decent job of reminding me of gentrification in the Lower East Side.
For many people Manhattan has always been expensive and filled with young professionals grinding hard to pay for their rising rents and brunch menus. It was when these same young professionals realized that just over the bridge they could find more real estate and better bars at a more affordable price did Manhattan’s residential appeal start to decline. Brooklyn in return became the desert to it’s once intense culture and a budding hotspot for baby strollers and specialty taco shops. However, it’s easy to forget that before Brooklyn, the Lower East Side of Manhattan was famously unlivable but since the early 90s it’s residents have experienced a major shift in livability. Once a huge scene for artists and musicians, the LES was known more for it’s grit and grim then it’s bars and apartments.
In The Cobbler, Sandler meets a young woman, played by Melonie Diaz, who is trying to stop the tearing down of an apartment building in the Lower East Side neighborhood. One of the building’s tenants is an old man who refuses to be put out by big land developers. We’ve heard this story numerous times and we are hearing it now with the residents of 400–402 Grand Street and the Seward Park Extension Urban Renewal Area. Tenants who have the convenience of living in this desired real estate are reluctant but for the most part allow themselves to be relocated, residents or bought out or like in parts of Brooklyn get to stay and watch fancy doorman buildings get put up around them and dangled in their faces (the latter rarely happens but when it does oh is it a shot to the gut).
In my own experience inhabiting the LES I remember being allowed to leave my high school campus for lunch. Me and friends of mine who’d shown up on time to school that day wouldn’t walk far to get grub. There was the pizza shop on Essex next to the pickle guys. The Chinese restaurant right across the street on Grand or depending on how my allowance was set up we’d head east on Grand to a little chicken and sandwich shop called Chesters, which had the best Ice Tea but unfortunately for you is no long run business. Even when we had a pretty decent lunch we’d still walk over to St. Marks after school for the new phenomenon of the dollar slice. Two Bros was new and fresh and St. Marks still had loud music, spiked hair, and a ton of illegal activity going on.
After high school I took a break from the Lower East Side. Mainly because I didn’t want to see anyone I went to high school with. High school is terrible for all. Anyways, when I came back as an adult who could walk into a bar without showing a fake I.D I was flabbergasted at the changes the neighborhood had made in my absence. On the corner of Grand and Ludlow was a Subways! A SUBWAYS! Do you know what I could have done with a Subways sandwich shop in high school? They also decided to stick a Dunkin’ Donuts and Papa Johns next to the Chinese Restaurant we’d frequent. Again, Do YOU KNOW what I could have done with a Dunkin’ Donuts? I would have been the happiest girl alive. Aside from the many food options that I could have enjoyed as a hungry teenager there are a ton of other specialty shops have been erected in close proximity to the corners I used to roam looking for food options. Bars have been booming and from what I hear rents have been soaring. The Lower East Side seemingly transformed overnight.
Gentrification is nothing new. It’s been happening in cities for decades. Once the mainstream career oriented young people get wind of a neighborhood with affordable rent, a decent commute, and only one or two drug dealers in the are, they are on it like white on rice. Who can blame them? No one wants to and many people can’t afford the numbers being thrown at them by agents and brokers. Everyone deserves to call someplace home. But my concern clearly doesn’t lie there.
At my job we get issues of ‘The Lo-Down,’ a news magazine specific to the Lower East Side. This month’s coverstory is “The Last Building Standing: The Story of 400 Grand Street.” Immediately I read the article with a co-worker and couldn’t help but make the connection to the terrible movie I had seen only a few days ago. We could see this building from where we stood. My co-worker was baffled. “Where do they go?” He said. Referring to the residents who have lived in these buildings for as long as him and I have been alive and who most often then not can’t afford to live anywhere else. I don’t know where they go and even with DeBlasio’s attempt at creating more affordable housing options (hopefully without those fucking poor only doors) for the city, my real question is where do we as New Yorkers go from here? When it’s too expensive to live anywhere other than Coney Island (and we barely even want to visit there) or the Bronx (and I know how you guys feel about that part of town) what will happen to the people and the culture that made New York, New York?