History of a plot: Part 5, it’s not gentrification if it’s we who gentrify

April 18, 2014 | Affordable Housing, Atlantic Yards, community groups, Corruption, Development, Housing, Income mixing, Lower East Side, Manhattan, New York City, NIMBYism, Non-Profits, Politics, poverty concentration, Sheldon Silver, William Rapfogel, Zoning | No comments 147 views

[Continued from yesterday's Part 4 and the preceding Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3]

By: David A. Smith

When all the details fit in perfectly, something is probably wrong with the story.

– Charles Baxter

By the early 1990s, as we saw in the preceding Part 3, the SPURA site’s development standoff had defeated three mayors and was well on its way to outlasting its fourth (the urban placeholder David Dinkins) as the community had been unable to embrace developer Sam LeFrak.


GOLES (Good Old Lower East Side) rally

for 100% affordable housing at SPURA

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

As Mr. LeFrak built on his father’s legacy of building affordable housing, including the landmark LeFrak City in Queens, his description of a collision of interests rings true, because LeFrak was extremely successful in developing affordable housing elsewhere in New York City.

“It was an exercise in frustration,” said Richard LeFrak, a developer who was twice selected to rebuild Seward Park but was unable to move forward. “You had the collision between the Jewish community in the Grant Houses and the Latino and Asian communities.”


LeFrak City, from the air


LeFrak City, from the residents’ perspective

Once again, SPURA remained parking lots.

In 1994, Mr. Silver became speaker of the Assembly in Albany. Almost 30 years after it was cleared, the vast space on the Lower East Side remained desolate. That year he faced renewed accusations from housing advocates that he and U.J.C. had blocked plans for housing on the site to preserve his power and keep out other groups.

“They would rather have the vacant lots and rats than have minority people there,” said Frances Goldin, a leader in the Lower East Side Joint Planning Council, which fought for housing on the site, speaking to The New York Times that year.


Aux barricades!

Ms. Goldin’s reliability in divining other people’s motives has to be evaluated in light of her credentials as both a literary agent and a lifelong protester (seeking, among other things, lower rent for a favorite bookstore) who relished the Occupy protests,

In response, Mr. Silver said he only wanted “a buildable consensus plan” in a neighborhood that was too split to proceed.

But months later, he and Mr. Rapfogel quietly put their weight behind yet another new plan, from a handpicked developer who included no housing. According to official memos, Mr. Silver asked city officials to approve a “big box” store, like Costco, on the site.

And is it self-evidently clear that pursuing such a store is inherently nefarious and proof of political corruption?

The developer, Bruce Ratner, would build it.


The man who brought the Nets to Brooklyn: Bruce Ratner

The sponsor would be the South Manhattan Development Corporation, which Mr. Rapfogel then headed.

Aside from being headed by Mr. Rapfogel, the SMDC was and is the development arm of the United Jewish Council, so it was the most logical Jewish developer in the area.

“This proposal’s most prominent supporter is Assemblyman Sheldon Silver,” wrote Deborah C. Wright, the city’s housing commissioner under Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, in an internal memo. “I would love to see something positive happen here under our administration, but the conflicts here rival Bosnia!”


Wright though the Lower East Side politically rivaled Bosnia

Charles Millard, then the head of the city’s Economic Development Corporation, wrote in another memo that Mr. Silver told him “the community does not want housing on the site.”


Millard says he was told the community didn’t want housing

The plan was never publicly discussed and went nowhere.

Post hoc ergo propter hoc?  Can we ascribe the plan’s failure to the scheming of Mr. Silver and Mr. Rapfogel?

“We had no idea Silver had done that,” said Harriet Cohen, who argued for affordable housing on the site as co-chairwoman of the Seward Park Area Redevelopment Coalition.

Even without redevelopment, change came anyhow.

In the years that followed, Jewish dominance waned. A wave of fashionable urban professionals changed the look and feel of the shops and restaurants.

Do my eyes deceive me?  Is the New York Times embracing … gentrification?

Stores that sold skullcaps or kosher wine were replaced by hip wine bars and cafes. Kossar’s Hot Bialys, a Jewish institution on Grand Street, remains, but two doors down is Doughnut Plant, which sells things like Valrhona chocolate doughnuts, for as much as $3 apiece.


An institution


Getcher hot bialys here

Not only did the minority become the majority, but also the great American wealth escalator worked its desired magic.  As New York City’s economy revived, the Lower East Side rose from armpit of Manhattan to being a highly desirable residential location, walkable to burgeoning Wall Street – and those co-operatives, developed to be affordable, had evolved into a source of substantial wealth.

At Cooperative Village, where the Rapfogels and Silvers raised their children and still live, tenants were allowed to sell on the open market beginning in 2000, after decades of values’ being capped. One two-bedroom apartment was recently on the market for $965,000.

In other words, the residents of Co-operative Village have now become fully market acclimated – and that is a good thing.

And the ties between Mr. Silver, Mr. Rapfogel and Mr. Ratner strengthened.


The Rapfogel clan: Ora, Michael’s wife, Michael, William and Judy Rapfogl

The Rapfogels’ eldest son, Michael, finished law school in 2005 and soon went to work for Mr. Ratner. The job was seen internally as a way to please Mr. Silver, say people familiar with the son’s work; Mr. Ratner’s company rejects the notion.

While we want to imbue political figures with skullduggeries worthy of the extended families in Game of Thrones, I doubt that young mister Rapfogel would go to work for a company just to please his father.


You will marry whom I tell you to, and you will give me a son by her

In 2006, the Public Authorities Control Board, over which Mr. Silver has significant control, approved Mr. Ratner’s Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn.

Now that connection is and has always been a scandal in its trampling of property owners’ rights. 

I posted extensively about Atlantic Yards at the time and several times thereafter, using in part the spectacular, Pulitzer-worthy work by the unceasing Norman Oder.  Whatever else it might have been, Atlantic Yards was a gross abuse of eminent domain for economic development, as well as a continuing bait-and-switch as to how much affordable housing would be developed, when and where and for whom, and whether the public benefit of that affordable housing was enough to justify the enormous public resources delivered to the project.

Intervention by Mr. Silver and others enabled the project to retain a lucrative tax break, even as that break was actually being phased out (and even as the affordable housing component kept getting deferred, whittled away, and watered down).

One must honor Norman Oder, who carries on as a self-appointed and incredibly effective investigator. 

Norman Oder carrying on.  He remains a steadfast witness.


At times, we can only witness

In 2008, Forest City Ratner, which compared to other developers makes few political contributions, gave $58,420 to the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee, which is controlled by Mr. Silver.  [And noted carefully at the time by Mr. Oder. – Ed.]

That same year, Mr. Ratner helped raise $1 million for Met Council and was honored at a luncheon given by Mr. Rapfogel and Mr. Silver. “Bruce is responsible for much of the development and growth that’s gone on in Brooklyn and in Manhattan,” Mr. Silver said at the event. “He is a major force in New York City for the good.”

Here again, Norman Oder did what for many years the New York Times would not: he chronicled these connections as they occurred (November 28, 2008):

Let’s take another look at the cozy relationship between Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty [the charity Mr. Rapfogel headed and from which he is alleged to have embezzled millions – Ed.], and developer Forest City Ratner. There’s nothing illegal, just another episode of the questionable one-hand-washes-the-other power configuration that seems so prevalent in the city and state.

Silver says that those who care about process are “naive.” Perhaps that’s also his message for those who had hoped he’d ask hard questions about Atlantic Yards.

It’s ironic that the Times is now trying to draw connections between Mr. Silver and real estate development when, six years ago, the Times chose to overlook connections right in front of its editorial face.  As I wrote at the time:


One Norman Oder, in time-lapse photography?

In all this, Mr. Oder has run absolute circles around the New York Times, even to the point of highlighting, and returning frequently to, the Times‘ conflict of interest in covering the story, since FCR has been developing the Times new headquarters.


No conflicts, but great interest: Norman Oder

Mr. Oder has done this, as far as I can tell, out of nothing more than intellectual orneriness, a sense that the full story has not been told.

In any case, now that Atlantic Yards is fully completed, and Forest City Ratner is no longer building the Times‘s headquarters building, the Times finally caught up with the story:


Occupied by the Times, built by Ratner

By 2011, with all the neighborhood changes, consensus finally seemed possible. The local community board adopted development guidelines that included 800 to 1,000 apartments, with 20 percent, or as few as 160 units, set aside for low-income tenants.

[Continued tomorrow in Part 6.]

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History of a plot: Part 4, Housing for whom?

April 17, 2014 | Affordable Housing, Atlantic Yards, community groups, Corruption, Housing, Income mixing, Lower East Side, Manhattan, New York City, NIMBYism, Non-Profits, Politics, poverty concentration, Public housing, Sheldon Silver, William Rapfogel, Zoning | No comments 108 views

[Continued from yesterday's Part 3 and the preceding Part 1 and Part 2.]

By: David A. Smith

The king died, and then the queen dies is a story.  The king died, and then the queen died of grief, is a plot.  – E. M. Forster

As we’ve seen in the three parts up to now, the site that became known as SPURA was an eminent-domain battleground in the 1960s, and then a vacant political landscape in the 1970s and into the early 1980s.


The Lower East Side, 1980s: probably the corner of Ludlow and Essex,

From a New York Times blog post that “documents the dwindling Jewish presence on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the 1980s.”

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

During this period, though I didn’t know it at the time (being too young to have any context), affordable housing was losing its brand value; indeed, we all called it ‘subsidized housing’ – a bad phrase – or ‘low income housing’, and that made its status as a code word and bogeyman even more manifest.


I’m moving in next door

Soon after, Mr. Rapfogel took a post in Mr. Goldin’s office as liaison to the Jewish community. He also became head of United Jewish Council’s development arm, South Manhattan Development Corporation, and soon after wrote an article in the group’s newspaper saying his mission was to “retain the distinctly Jewish religious and cultural identity of our community.”

“We wait with bated breath for the development of the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area,” he wrote in 1985. “City government must never again believe that it will force more low-income housing on a community that has been made into a poverty ghetto.”

Here again, two decades after 1967, is the recurring political theme of Messrs. Rapfogel and Silver: too much low-income housing will yield poverty concentration and turn the neighborhood into an economic ghetto.  Today that view looks ridiculous, given the property’s location, but even in the mid-1980s the area looked like something out of The French Connection.


Mike and Vinnie, Lower East Side Shopping, 1985


Street preacher, Lower East Side, 1985

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Mr. Silver and Mr. Rapfogel co-hosted annual legislative meetings put on by U.J.C., and later by Met Council, with the affable Mr. Rapfogel serving as the master of ceremonies and the taciturn Mr. Silver lending gravitas.  Plans for the site were an occasional focus of those meetings.

That was the case in 1988, after the Koch administration selected the Lefrak Organization to build a project with a mix of commercial and residential projects on the site. Advocates for the poor opposed the plan’s dearth of low-income housing.

The 1980s were a time of change for affordable housing’s public and industry perception. 

On the one hand, poverty concentration in public housing and Section 8, a consequence of the Federal housing preferences, was making affordable housing properties politically toxic.


I won’t vote for anything that stinks

Important historical note.  I cannot find the following on the Web, but I experienced it and remember it and know that it is true.

The Federal preferences, now made voluntary (though still followed in some places), advised owners of both public and Section 8 assisted affordable housing that they have to give first priority in new vacancies to people meeting any of three criteria: (A) living in substandard housing (which included homelessness), (B) paying a severe rent burden (housing cost greater than 50% of income), or (C) displaced by Federal action (e.g. eminent domain.  In practice, Items A and B dominated, and both of them had the inevitable consequence of selecting for the poorest of the poor – and most frequently, for the homeless. 

The result was steady poverty concentration – residents who moved out of Section 8 or public housing tended to be those who had elevated their income, while those who moved in were quite poor (now called Extremely Low Income or ELI).  This steady adverse economic section had two consequences: (1) Section 8 became ever-more costly per apartment, because new renters paid 30% of an ever-smaller incoming income, and (2) Section 8 became the place to go if you were homeless. 

That, in turn, led to a backlash by communities, something I did not fully appreciate until our company, Recap, was completing the LIHPRHA preservation of an elderly property just outside of Pittsburgh, and the town sued in Federal court to enjoin the closing, because the elderly residents and the city alderman were terrified that adding the Section 8 would turn the property into a homelessness den where substance abusers would prey upon the elderly.


Are we clear on this yet?

As the correlation strengthened between public housing/ Section 8 housing and ‘Zip codes of pathology,’ as Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski called them, localities (and judges) began mandating poverty deconcentration, as codified legally in Chicago’s 1976 Gautreaux decision which deemed poverty concentration to be segregation.


Toto, I don’t want to live in the projects anymore:

Plaintiff Dorothy Gautreaux of Chicago

On the other hand, meanwhile, poverty concentration, the de-institutionalization of what we then called the mentally ill, and the addictive effects of hard drugs (especially crack cocaine, which entered America in the mid-1980s and directly contributed to a spike in crime rates at affordable housing properties – again, I remember this hitting our properties), led homeless advocates to argue that (1) housing had to be focused on those most in need, even if that meant fewer apartments at much higher cost, and (2) for many extremely low income households, housing had to be coupled with ongoing supportive services funded by government. 


An epidemic in low income neighborhoods: Tom Brokaw, 1980s

The rise in New York City’s homeless led to confrontations, including around the Delancey Street site, like that referenced in, as shown by this New York Times Letter to the Editor (November 29, 1989; red font):

Recently a group of squatters took over a building on Fourth Street, between Avenues B and C, and dubbed it the ”Alphabet City Community Center in the East Village.” This group is not representative of the community and has sought to work outside it for its own agenda.

The building on Fourth Street is the proposed site for 82 units of single room occupancy housing for single homeless elderly people, to be sponsored by the New York Foundation for Senior Citizens. Those who protested the city’s action to empty the building did not even know that a project for the elderly was proposed for the site. When the Department of Housing Preservation and Development and the police tried to secure the building, the squatters threw eggs, bottles of urine and stones at them.

Shades of the thankfully-vanished Occupy squatting fad.

One squatter was quoted as saying that a tree that needed to be cleared should not be cut as it will last forever, but the senior citizens will die.

There is a great housing need in the Lower East Side. Given the increase in homelessness and limited resources of land and money, we need to work together as a community for the best possible plan. Those who are not part of the solution are part of the problem.

Elaine Chan, Budget Coordinator, Lower East Side Joint Planning Council New York, Nov. 9, 1989

Ms. Chan stayed on the issue, as demonstrated by another New York Times Letter to the Editor (April 16, 1991):


Lower East Side protest, 1991

On the Lower East Side, no single minority has the population needed to create a Latino, Asian or African-American council district. But by combining their numbers, we achieve lines within which lives an 83% minority population. From that district a minority candidate has the best opportunity to be elected. (Most people working on districting around the city believe a minimum of 75% minority population is necessary to assure the election of a minority candidate.)

That is politics, the minority becoming the majority, either via immigration/ emigration, assimilation, or coalition:

The longstanding split in the community had some Latinos and housing advocates demanding that the city build only low-income housing on the site, while residents of the nearby co-ops countered that only commercial development was appropriate.


Sam LeFrak and his son Richard, some years ago

[Continued tomorrow in Part 5.]

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History of a plot: Part 3, Code words for ‘those people’

April 16, 2014 | Affordable Housing, Atlantic Yards, community groups, Corruption, Development, Housing, Income mixing, Manhattan, New York, NIMBYism, Non-Profits, Politics, poverty concentration, Public housing, Sheldon Silver, William Rapfogel, Zoning | No comments 95 views

[Continued from yesterday's Part 2 and the preceding Part 1.]

By: David A. Smith

In order to have a plot, you have to have a conflict; something bad has to happen.

– Mike Judge.

As we saw in Part 1 and Part 2, The Lower East Side of Manhattan was a crucible of the changes sweeping American cities during the 1960s. 


A protest (over a police shooting of 15-year-old James Powell): Harlem, 1964

With the slow collapse of the industrial-manufacturing city model, and nothing rising in its place, America experienced frightening and incomprehensible urban riots starting with the Harlem Riot of 1964:

On Thursday, July 16, 1964, James Powell was shot and killed by Lieutenant Thomas Gilligan. The second bullet of three, considered lethal, killed the 15-year-old African American in front of his friends and about a dozen other witnesses. The incident immediately rallied about 300 students from a nearby school who were informed by the principal.

This incident set off six consecutive nights of rioting that affected the New York City neighborhoods of Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant. In total, 4,000 New Yorkers participated in the riots which led to attacks on the New York City Police Department, vandalism, and looting in stores.

At the end of the conflict, reports counted one dead rioter, 118 injured, and 465 arrested. It is said that the Harlem Race Riot of 1964 is the precipitating event for riots in July and August in cities such as Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Rochester, New York; Chicago, Illinois; Jersey City, New Jersey; Paterson, New Jersey; and Elizabeth, New Jersey


That became a riot: Harlem, 1964


The morning after

The 1960s riots led, among other things, to the creation of HUD’s new affordable housing production programs. 

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

To its residents, Cooperative City must have seemed a Jewish enclave of reason in an America apparently going mad, as the world had gone mad twice already in the century.


Two nice Jewish mothers for a nice Jewish girl from Delancey

Cooperative Village was surrounded by more than 14,000 units of public housing to the north, east and south.


Co-operative Village (B, C, and D) surrounded:

To the south is NYCHA’s Vladeck Houses, to the north is NYCHA’s Baruch Houses


The Lower Weast Side, looking east at the Williamsburg Bridge:

Vladeck Houses in the foreground


Baruch Houses, otherwise known as ‘the projects’

Those buildings were full of less prosperous African-Americans and more recent Hispanic arrivals.

In the Sixties, ‘affordable housing’ meant public housing, public housing meant blacks and Puerto Ricans, and that meant ghettos and crime, and the Lower East Side Jews wanted no part of that.

Mr. Silver and Mr. Rapfogel steadfastly opposed any mention of affordable housing, which would have altered the demographics of the neighborhood and put Mr. Silver’s political base in question.

They might also have opposed losing the area’s Jewish identity, or the neighborhood’s middle-class character.  With elected officials, the voters’ wishes, good public policy, and their own power base all become ineluctably fused.


You got a problem with that?

“They’re the reason that this site has been empty for 50 years,” said Edward Delgado, known as Tito, who was a teenager when the city cleared the blocks and his family was evicted. He has been advocating for affordable homes at the site in the decades since.

Are they?  Are these the two self-interested individual who singlehandedly blocked development? 


Do I look anti-development?  Mr. Rapfogel in 2009

The major tussle was, and for the next four decades would remain, how much affordable housing?  And underneath those words, the tussle was about what kind of people, and which people, would live in the neighborhood.  From the beginning, the new development’s residential composition was a code for political power coupled with neighborhood character and identity.

From the perspective of Grand Street’s Jewish leaders, any development with affordable housing that replaced the cleared tenements would tilt the balance of the entire neighborhood.

Mr. Silver and Mr. Rapfogel fought that possibility, chiefly through a community group called United Jewish Council of the East Side. Mr. Rapfogel’s father, Hyman, was a co-founder and Judy Rapfogel was on its board of directors in the 1970s. Mr. Silver was the group’s lawyer and headed one of its housing corporations.

They were friends from the neighborhood, and in their view their neighborhood was threatened, and with it their society, and they banded together.


“Silver has appropriated $868,000 in discretionary funds to the Met Council since 2006.”

In the early 1970s, the city built a 360-unit housing project on a corner of the site. But that project wound up the subject of a court dispute when Jews were given many of the apartments. And the fate of rest of the site was still deadlocked.

By December 1977, Mr. Silver was still serving as United Jewish Council’s lawyer. He wrote to members of the departing administration of Mayor Abraham D. Beame about a plan he and the group had submitted years earlier for a “mini shopping center” on the Spura site. In drawings, it resembled a massive airplane hangar. It included no housing, but the group said it would create needed jobs.

In the late Seventies, with New York City having barely escaped municipal bankruptcy and the information/ financial revolution not yet taking hold in the revitalization of urban cores, a jobs-creating retail complex might well have been an excellent idea.  (For one thing, it may have anticipated the current policy fancy of eliminating ‘food deserts’.)


Retail anchors a neighborhood too, doesn’t it?

Ed Koch, campaigning in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, 1978

 “I would very much appreciate meeting with you or members of your staff in order to set up a program of incentive to get this plan off the ground,” Mr. Silver wrote. “It has been quite some time since the proposal was submitted and, to date, there has been no action.”

Mr. Koch took office weeks later. He hired Mr. Rapfogel, then 23 [Almost exactly my age – Ed.], as a spokesman at a city agency. Mr. Silver was pleased. He was sure Mr. Rapfogel would be “a capable spokesman in such a sensitive area of your administration,” he wrote to Mr. Koch.

They were buddies from the neighborhood, though Mr. Silver and Mr. Koch are both many years older than Mr. Rapfogel.

Soon after, United Jewish Council began pushing its friends in the administration to support the “international mall” plan, and its handpicked developer, Howard Blitman, arguing that the neighborhood was “clearly saturated” with public housing.


Al Smith Houses, Lower East Side

While there can be little doubt the neighborhood did have plenty of public housing (Baruch Houses contains 2,193 apartments and 5,400 residents, while Vladeck has 1,523 and is home to 2,800 people), affordable housing is quite a different animal – private non-governmental ownership (subject to government regulation), generally better property management, and higher levels of average resident incomes.  Even in the 1970s that distinction was visible and relevant, though perhaps not to Messrs. Silver, Rapfogel, and others.

Eventually, the Koch administration selected the Chinatown Planning Council to build a 156-unit building for seniors on a lot near the main site. United Jewish Council, working with the Bialystoker Synagogue, was awarded 124 senior units in a different project nearby.

Through the late Seventies and into the early Eighties, ‘affordable housing’ continued to be a political flashpoint.

Three years later, in April 1980, another proposal that included low-income housing was considered by the city’s Board of Estimate. It was opposed by Mr. Silver and United Jewish Council, according to records and former city officials.


Jay Goldin was opposed

Mr. LoCicero, the political adviser to Mr. Koch, said Mr. Silver made his opposition clear and won the support of Harrison (Jay) Goldin, then the city comptroller, who had a crucial vote on the board and coveted the Grand Street Jewish vote for future elections.

Though the Times  is laboring mightily to make Mr. Silver and Mr. Rapfogel into puppeteers with powers to command others, at issue under all the politics is an ongoing feud over what type of development should occur, and if residential is to be part of that development, what type of residential and for whom (both ethnicity and income level).

“Shelly said: ‘Are you crazy? We’ve got enough low income housing,’ ” Mr. LoCicero recalled. “He aligned himself with Jay Goldin at the Board of Estimate, and they beat us.”


Former Koch political advisors Peter Aschkenasy (left) and John LoCicero (right)

[Continued tomorrow in Part 4.]

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History of a plot: Part 2, Crossing Delancey

April 15, 2014 | Affordable Housing, Atlantic Yards, community groups, Corruption, Development, Housing, Income mixing, Lower East Side, Manhattan, New York City, Non-Profits, Politics, poverty concentration, Public housing, Sheldon Silver, William Rapfogel, Zoning | No comments 397 views

[Continued from yesterday's Part 1.]

By: David A. Smith

The beginning of a plot is the prompting of desire.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

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

1967′s slum clearance can be seen as urban redevelopment; it could also be seen as a mild form of ethnic cleansing, removing ‘those people’ from our neighborhood.

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.


SPURA-ious development?

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:

1943 Statistics
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 [1949] 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.]

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History of a plot: Part 1, The sixties

April 14, 2014 | Affordable Housing, Atlantic Yards, community groups, Corruption, Development, Housing, Income mixing, Lower East Side, Manhattan, New York City, NIMBYism, Non-Profits, Politics, Poverty, poverty concentration, Public housing, Sheldon Silver, William Rapfogel, Zoning | No comments 177 views

Storytelling is about two things; it’s about character and plot.

– George Lucas.

By: David A. Smith

They grew up in the same circles, and they came of age politically together.  For almost four decades, they did favors for one another, because that is what friends do.  Eventually, one of them, the youngest, the protege, went bad.


The power, my friends, is voting in the booths

The power is voting in the booths

Along the way, did they stymie development for their own reasons?  Instead of just being friends and political allies, were they conspirators?


Friends or conspirators?  William Rapfogel (left) and Sheldon Silver (right)

If you judged by the headline from this New York Times (March 23, 2014), you’d think so:

They Kept a Lower East Side Lot Vacant for Decades

When I read the headline and the opening paragraphs, I too thought this was a story of political capture and power corrupting.  (And I might have liked that, as Mr. Silver had been a steadfast defender of New York City’s indefensible rent control and rent stabilization.)  But writing this multi-part post changed my mind, especially as I kept adducing evidence from the story of four and a half decades of dramatic change in our conceptions of cities, neighborhoods, affordable housing, and community involvement (a slippery phrase) in deciding what can be built and where.


Does marriage cause happiness?

[I think the Times pulled a classic rhetorical trick: post hoc ergo propter hoc.  "This happened after that, therefore that caused this."   The Times’ event sequence and selection makes Messrs. Silver and Rapfogel culprits and co-conspirators wielding vast power whose mechanisms are unseen and inexplicable.  Ed.]

Nearly four decades ago, a new assemblyman named Sheldon Silver and his young protege escorted Edward I. Koch, then a mayoral candidate, through the Orthodox Jewish enclave on Manhattan’s Lower East Side where the two had both grown up.


Young Jewish politicians from Lower Manhattan:

Sheldon Silver, Edward I. Koch and William E. Rapfogel in 1977

It was the first day of Rosh Hashana, 1977, and Mr. Koch and his opponent, Mario M. Cuomo, had agreed not to campaign, even as they were locked in a frantic runoff for the Democratic nomination.

They were part of the boomer generation that was supplanting the depression-generation political aristocracy:


Then-mayor Abraham Beame, 1977

The air of religious observance provided cover for Mr. Koch to walk along Grand Street with his two new friends, shaking the hands of influential rabbis and throwing bread into the East River, part of the ritual casting off of sins.

Six days later, Mr. Koch carried the Jewish vote and won the primary. His team long remained grateful for the guided tour by Mr. Silver and the protege, William E. Rapfogel, then a recent college graduate who ran his own Jewish newspaper.

“They helped us big time in the runoff,” recalled John LoCicero, Mr. Koch’s chief political adviser. “It revved up the Jewish vote for Koch against Cuomo.”

As they rose, they did favors for one another, because that is what old buddies do.  And they wanted their old neighborhood to remain as they nostalgically remembered it must have been, an ethnic neighborhood for people like them in a huge city that was an ocean of people not like them.


A vacant lot along Delancey Street, circa 1980.

The long-ago walk was the first public display of an alliance that became central to the lives and careers of both Mr. Rapfogel and Mr. Silver. They worked together across the decades while climbing parallel ladders: Mr. Silver to Assembly speaker and Mr. Rapfogel to leadership of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, a large, publicly financed charity.

They were friends, and they stayed friends.  Along the way, they combined forces to keep part of the old neighborhood undeveloped, because what could be developed was not what they wanted.  Over the decades, at least one of them went very, very bad.

Their long affiliation came to an abrupt end last year when Mr. Rapfogel, 59, was arrested and charged in a scheme that had allegedly looted more than $7 million in kickbacks from Met Council’s insurance broker over the years. He is due back in court in April.


Look contrite; be contrite?

But more interesting and relevant for our story is how their commonality and overlap of interests served to kill development on a site in their old neighborhood, and how that story shows the changing nature of American cities, of American urban development, and of the role elected and unelected officials who wield political power can accelerate, or more often prevent, the city’s development and even its organic growth. 

The redevelopment of the area had eluded Mayors John V. Lindsay, Edward I. Koch and Rudolph W. Giuliani, as well as Mr. Bloomberg in 2003.


A savior for 1965?  John Lindsay, mayor of New York when Essex Crossing was razed

As cities become more interdependent (a consequence of them becoming more dense, and more technological), development of any parcel of land becomes a more convoluted process, and that makes it both more protracted and more political – all likely to the city’s detriment.

A primary focus of their alliance had been a struggle to preserve the Jewish identity of the neighborhood they delivered for Mr. Koch all those years ago.

And that raises the second story: who owns a neighborhood?  If the first story is about evolving ethnic politics, the second story is about evolving views of urban affordable housing.


The North End, before Boston starting doing infill

Over the course of three hundred years, for instance, Boston’s North End has been a puritan enclave, the posh neighborhood of American revolutionary patriots –


– a dense slum where Irish battled protestant Yankees (1860s) –


Prince Street, North End, probably 1880s, where the Boston Draft Riots began

– a Jewish landing spot (1890s) –


Salem Street, North End of Boston, 1891

, and most recently a Little Italy and home of Boston’s Italian mafia


Italian-Americans celebrating the Fisherman’s Feast

Who owns a neighborhood?  Four and a half decades ago, these young Jewish politicians were certain they knew.

Their battleground was some 20 barren acres along the southern side of Delancey Street, where, in 1967, the city leveled blocks of rundown apartment buildings.


The Essex Delancey parcel today (from space)

As the above photo shows, the parcel has a tremendous location: adjacent to Delancey Street, scarcely steps from two subway stations (on the F, J, and M lines), in the heart of the Lower East Side.  Today it’s a gold mine waiting to be dug up and developed: in 1967, by contrast, it was an imploding slum … or so it was seen by the political powers that be.

More than 1,800 low-income families, largely Puerto Rican, were sent packing and promised a chance to return to new apartments someday.


More than 1,800 low-income families, mostly Puerto Rican, were promised a chance to move into new apartments in the Lower East Side lot, after a 1967 clearance. But plans were blocked over the years, with affordable housing the usual sticking point.

This was the heyday of eminent domain for slum clearance and economic development, and as I’ve recently posted, Puerto Rico has long been America’s Caliban, with New York City being by far the largest recipient of Puerto Rican immigrants.

This story also shows how, over the course of a half century, a similar evolution has occurred in affordable housing: in what we envision it to be, its symbolic meaning, its meaning as a political code word, and its place in the twenty-first-century city.


A neighborhood in transition” New residents and hippies replacing immigrants”

[Continued tomorrow in Part 2.]

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