[Continued from yesterday's Part 1.]
By: David A. Smith
The beginning of a plot is the prompting of desire.
Yesterday’s Part 1 introduced us to William Rapfogel, protege of both Sheldon Silver (Assemblyman from the Lower East Side, and long-serving Speaker of the New York Assembly) and Ed Koch (mayor from 1978 through 1989, preceded by Beame, succeeded by Dinkins), and a parcel that became known as the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA), “the largest tract of undeveloped City-owned land in Manhattan south of 96th Street.” Is the Times telling the story of a conspirators’ plot, or just a real estate plot?
How’m I doing? Ed Koch at a James Taylor outdoor concert, 1979
Back in 1967, that wasn’t supposed to happen; SPURA was to be redeveloped swiftly. But politics and the changing city intervened.
Sources used in this post
New York Times (March 23, 2014): the story damning Mr. Rapfogel and Mr. Silver
New York Times (September 25, 2013; green font): Mr. Rapfogel’s indictment
New York Times (September 17, 2013; blue font): Announcement of development
New York Times Letter to the Editor, November 29, 1989; red font); Local opposition
Now, nearly 50 years later, the land is still a fallow stretch of weed- and rat-ridden parking lots, though in the waning days of the Bloomberg administration, the city announced that the land would finally be developed into a complex called Essex Crossing, to include retail markets, restaurants, office and cultural space. And new apartments.
The SPURA site in October, 2012
In the late sixties, few thought the cities had much future – and it is to the credit of Mayor Koch, elected in 1969, that his effervescence perfectly captured what New Yorkers wished for their city. So in 1967, ‘affordable housing’ meant public housing, and public housing meant blacks and Hispanics, and they were those people.
Mr. Silver has long characterized his role in plans for the site, known as the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area, or Spura, as limited to insisting that all groups have a voice in the outcome, not promoting a specific plan or developer.
The undeveloped squares of the Lower East Side
But an extensive review of the archives of four mayors and more than two dozen interviews show Mr. Silver and Mr. Rapfogel diligently working behind the scenes to promote specific plans and favored developers. Mr. Rapfogel made clear that the goal was to maintain the area’s Jewish identity, seemingly at the expense of other communities.
I love that understated ‘seemingly’.
New York’s Lower East Side, circa 1920
Mr. Silver and Mr. Rapfogel were born in the neighborhood to Jewish parents. Mr. Silver, 70, grew up in a tenement on Henry Street.
Delancey Street from Essex to Ludlow, circa 1943
In 1943, when Mr. Silver was born, the Lower East Side’s population was this:
Total population – 234,934 (larger than Omaha, Nebraska, at the time)
Native white – 124,234
Foreign-born white – 100,566
Negro – 1,800
Other races – 8,334
High-end rent (families) – 53
Low-end rent – 50,505
Two out of every five residents of the Lower East Side were born in a foreign country – and this before the great wave of post-WW2 refugees who flooded into New York City. The Lower East Side was part of the authentic American melting pot.
A play first staged in 1908: The Melting Pot, by Israel Zangwill:
America is God’s Crucible, the great Melting-Pot
Where all the races of Europe are melting and reforming…
Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians –
into the Crucible with you all!
God is making the American
His father owned a neighborhood hardware business. Mr. Rapfogel’s father was a clerk for city government.
When they were boys, the blocks along Grand Street teemed with Jewish peddlers and dozens of small synagogues.
The Lower East Side, summer, 1937
Unions were building 12 apartment buildings in the neighborhood to house 4,500 families, mostly garment workers. Known as Cooperative Village, the apartments would anchor a new Jewish middle class.
The historical description is quite striking:
Recognizing the need for additional housing a memorandum from Abraham Kazan and the United Housing Foundation was written on May 19, 1950, which proposed an extension of the recently completed Hillman Houses.
Campaigning to save the world, and save the Jews: Sidney Hillman
We cannot forget that this Jewish housing initiative arose in the years immediately after World War II, when the Nazi holocaust was made vivid in people’s lives by the Nuremberg trials, and the world’s collective guilt was at its strongest.
The East River Housing Corporation was incorporated on November 28, 1950. The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, headed by David Dubinsky, was invited by the United Housing Foundation to become the financial sponsor of the new cooperative which the union agreed to after reassurances that the mortgage loan would be insured by the Federal Housing and Home Finance Agency. The Edward A. Filene Good Will Fund provided financial support for the initial planning stages.
A clock two hundred yards from my office
East River Houses was also the first project in NYC to qualify for slum clearance funds under Title I of the  Federal Housing Act.
When today we hear ‘slum clearance’ and think ‘involuntary displacement’, we do a huge disservice to those grappling with the emergent post-automotive city. Bob Moses wasn’t all wrong.
Under the provisions of Title I the Federal government paid two-thirds and the city government one-third of the write-down value of the land acquired for the development. The land was acquired by the city by condemnation [A form of eminent domain – Ed.] at a price of $5,900,680. On the same day the East River Housing Corporation purchased the land at public auction for a price of $1,049,240.
Thirteen acres of slums, south of Lewis Street to the FDR Drive and fanning out from the Williamsburg Bridge to Cherry Street were cleared to make way for the East River Housing site.
The first of the four apartment buildings completed -two are 21 stories tall and two are 20 stories – were dedicated on October 22, 1955.
The East River Cooperative
These were the tallest reinforced concrete apartment structures in the United States at the time of their construction. The development provided 1,672 units with the average rental of $17.00 a room per month.
Commercial area in East River Cooperative, 1956
Applications for membership in the cooperative were first received on August 22, 1952. If there was ever any doubt that moderate income families were in desperate need for decent housing, it was dispelled by the long lines of people stretching for blocks, who were waiting to fill out applications for apartments which would not be completed for many years. Nearly five thousand applications were received for 1,672 apartments.
Cooperative Village became a haven for refugees, from the Nazis, from Europe, and from the rest of New York City.
It was the quaint urban hamlet that served as the home of Bubbie in the movie “Crossing Delancey.” But it was also an island apart.
And the times they were a-changing – and the Lower East Side with them.
Not your mother’s Jewish neighborhood any more:
Orchard and Delancey Street, 1970s
[Continued tomorrow in Part 3.]