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The Lower East Side
gentrification generation
by: Andrew Spaulding - January 29, 2008

The cops were assholes. Well, thatís not entirely true. One cop had a very pointy finger and guillotine voice; the other cop was a nice toe-headed southern boy who was, with reluctance, doing this for our own good. They sat in their car writing gigantic pink tickets, listening to the four of us drunkenly protest. They shot dour glares at us from inside their car with that cop face that all cops master in cop school.

I couldn't believe my bad luck. How had I managed to net a ticket in New York City already? I had just dropped my car off with my family in Memphis, collecting speeding tickets on the way like bug-guts on a windshield, and thankfully settled into my first post-college apartment in Brooklyn at long last. This was to be my triumphant coming-out party in the city: I, the blushing debutante, being guided by three brand new friends who would drag me through every glowing bar in The East Village and the Lower East Side. I had money to burn and a high tolerance for debauchery: I was game.

Late at night, lungs tired with cigarette smoke, brains bobbing sprightly in vodka and beer, we had decided to hop a very low fence blocking a major thoroughfare of Tompkins Square Park. We emerged at the other end into the headlights of a couple of rookie cops with itchy pen fingers and quick-draw ticket pads. It was July 7th: one month before the eighteenth anniversary of the Tompkins Square Park Police Riot.

The Manhattan Community Board 3 had adopted a 1 A.M. curfew for the park, a move that would displace countless homeless people living in the park (not to mention the late night hang out spot for punks, hippies, ne'er-do-well's). On August 6th, 1988 hundreds of activists coagulated in the park to protest the curfew. The day ended in a violent billy club and beer bottle clash between the protesters and the police at around midnight and lasted until the next morning. Much to the horror of the quickly gentrifying population of the East Village, 38 people, including reporters and police officers, were injured.

Unbeknownst to the drunken four of us, we had stumbled upon a land mine pregnant with meaning; faint ripples of what had happened in the park at midnight on August 6th, 1988. Our tickets were shining pink avatars representing the ultimate outcome of that night: a lasting curfew due to gentrification.

In college I read an anthology of Cynthia Carr's writing for The Village Voice in the Eighties and early Nineties. Her insights into the wild, ground-breaking performances of the Avant-Garde heroes of the East Village like Ethyl Eichelberger and Karen Finley made my desire for the city run hot: I decided to husband this passion with my already deep love of music and I moved to New York in the summer of 2006. But in college the landmarks Carr mentioned in her book, like Tompkinsís Square, were sun-bleached, skeletal structures in my mind. The first words in the introduction to her book bespoke a different New York than Lou Reed's streets or Fab 5 Freddy's canvas:

"I came to New York to live on the art frontier, and I remember the moment when I had to face the fact of its evaporation. A week after getting caught up in the 1988 Tompkins Square riot, which was basically a turf war over gentrification... I felt that this war was already lost, that whatever the East Village had ever meant to me was over. The wretched park just symbolized the tension in the air. " These words would ring true for the year following my hedonistic, ticket-getting first night in New York.

On April 13th, 2007 Tonic, the Avant-Garde music venue that had been in its spot on 107 Norfolk Street in the LES for nine and a half years, closed its doors. "We simply can no longer afford the rent and all of the other costs associated with doing business on the Lower East Side," read an email sent out by its owners Melissa Caruso-Scott and John Scott. Attorney Streetís Sin-e closed its doors on April 2nd, 2007. CBGB, that den of iniquity emblazoned across countless people's chests who maybe don't even know the import of those four letters, closed its doors on October 15th, 2006. Had I brought a blight on the soles of my shoes that seeped into the sidewalks and withered the very venues to which I had come to pay homage?

There is an impossible amount of writing, both positive and negative, devoted to gentrification. Benjamin Grant, writing for PBS.org, affords us an impartial explanation: "Gentrification is a general term for the arrival of wealthier people in an existing urban district, a related increase in rents and property values, and changes in the district's character and culture." In other words: people with paychecks to burn move in and improve the social, economic, and educational aspects of the location. Moving out: the artists and low-income families with paychecks that burn up on arrival who never had the capital to improve the structures in their neighborhood in the first place.

There are, understandably, two major opposing camps on each side of gentrification. Those to whom the influx of money into the community is welcome, typically the landlords, politicians and business owners. Who doesn't like to add a digit or two to their income and a tree or two to a playground? With higher rents come higher prices for goods, more money for local improvements of schools and other social organizations and a push to reduce the vagrants in the area. Example: the curfew imposed upon Tompkin's Square in 1988.

Those who have lived in the area for generations, typically blue collar minorities, are compartmentalized into smaller and smaller spaces with higher rents or are simply shunted into distant, cheaper areas. Businesses that are no longer necessary or deemed unpleasant to new residents are pushed out and replaced by more expensive boutiques and restaurants. Eventually, seeing the growing cash flow in the area, large lumbering corporations trundle their appendages into the area, removing the local distribution of cash to distant locales in the country.

Displacement of large groups of people and businesses is not uncommon to the city of New York. Eminent Domain is a clause in the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Bill of Rights stating that "private property [shall not] be taken for public use, without just compensation." Meaning, in backwards talk, that the Federal Government has the right to take private property with the caveats that the property must be used for the public and that the private owners are compensated.

This particular clause has been used and abused throughout the years by the government and by private companies with the wherewithal to sway political officials. In the early sixties the tactic was famously used by Robert Moses, engineer of the Cross-Bronx expressway, to displace hundreds of thousands of families in the Bronx. In his book, "Can't Stop, Won't Stop: a history of the hip-hop generation," Jeff Chang provides a succinct summary: "...Using 'urban renewal' rights of clearance to condemn entire neighborhoods, he [Moses] scared off thriving businesses and uprooted poor African-American, Puerto Rican, and Jewish families."

According to a May 6th 1945 New York Times article, Moses, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and the Met Life Insurance Company used eminent domain to condemn the East Villageís extremely poor Gaslight District in 1944, displacing 11,000 people and hundreds of businesses to create Stuyvesant Town towers: affordable postwar housing projects. In 2006 Met Life attempted to transform Stuy Town into luxury apartments, a much criticized move that many said was an attempt to push out long term residents whose rent-controlled apartments were well below the local market rate. In 2002 the NY Times reported on an unsuccessful attempt by The Lower East Side Tenement Museum to convince local authorities to condemn an inhabited neighboring building with Eminent Domain in order to create more exhibits and add an elevator for wheelchair access.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median value of a household in the Lower East Side (zip code 10002) in 1999 was $178,100. City-data.com estimates that the median house/condo value for the same zip code in 2005 was $271,795, which is $12,895 more than the median house/condo value for all of New York and represents a median increase of $93,000 in just five years. Now imagine these same rising tides for businesses in the same general area and you'll understand why Trigger, owner of The Continental in the East Village, told The Village Voice in September of 2006 why he replaced The Continental's musical performances with a big screen TV: "It's expensive, and for every great night there are 10 or 15 slow ones, because the arts scene, especially when it comes to rock 'n' roll, just isn't what it once was. There are still some bands doing it, but even then the crowds just aren't here to support them."

A source from a club in the East Village who wished to remain anonymous likened the venue closings to "Global Warming," a metaphor perhaps even more harrowing than Trigger's statement because it implies inevitability. Melissa Caruso-Scott, part-owner of Tonic with her husband John Scott, described the situation as "heartbreaking" saying there are more "banks and condominiums" going up every day in the Lower East Side taking over New York's music and arts scene. "We (New York) are not supposed to be like that...it's embarrassing!"

The final email from Tonic's owners alludes to economic coercion strikingly similar to the LES Tenement museum's coup attempt back in 2002: "[Tonic] was repeatedly harassed by the city's Quality of Life Task Force which resulted in the debilitating closing of the ))sub((tonic lounge in January. Coincidentally, this campaign began as our immediate neighbor, the Blue Condominium building - a symbol of the new Lower East Side - prepared to open its doors." The Quality of Life task force mentioned is a government agency that keeps track of New York's building codes. In our conversation Melissa admitted that any connection between the task force and "Blue" is merely speculation on Tonic's part. However, she stated that Tonic had "Always had a good relationship w/ [their] neighbors" and, until Blue erupted one street away several years ago, they "didn't receive police visits...it hadn't been an issue until then."

No doubt, the music industry is preparing the life vests (women and children first) on old business models due to changing industry paradigms like MP3 downloads and less focus on albums over popular singles. Unfortunately, the primary outlets of sound - record stores and music venues - are getting hit hardest by this sea change. In the wake of Tonic, Democratic councilman Alan Gerson has proposed a bill to allow tax-breaks and government subsidies to music venues. Musician Mark Ribot, arrested with Rebecca Moore on Tonic's final day for refusing to leave the stage after the club had closed, told Downtown Express that musicians and Gerson are "asking the city Council to build a dike by capping rents or subsidies [because] a rising tide of real estate is drowning the New York City music scene." Under the bill, music venues will have certain tax-breaks and a small amount of government funding afforded to them. "I would love to see that happen...It's only good for the city to help those business that support the arts...[it] definitely would have helped Tonic" said Melissa about the proposed legislation. Members of Gerson's staff claim that the councilman is preparing to present the bill to the City Council, but at the time of publication the bill remains in its alleged gestation.

The truth of the matter, all legislation and sinking music industries aside, is that gentrification appears to be rolling over New York City's centuries old art scene. That pink piece of paper I received when I first moved to the city was not a ticket allying me with the punks and activists of the 1988 clash in Tompkins Square. If anything, it was a gift from my college educated, gentrifying forefathers standing behind the police in 1988 and shaking their heads at these crazy drunk assholes throwing bottles. I may have holes in my pants and nary a dollar to spend, but the economic power imbued in my body through my extra four years of school makes gentrification follow me like an obedient, Great Dane puppy.

I do, however, have enough self-reflexivity and power to direct the flow of my cash in an empowering way. Active participation in the New York music scene by researching, contacting and supporting council members like Alan Gerson as well as keeping track of and participating in protests against the negative aspects of gentrification such as the displacement of age-old businesses, homes and artistic landmarks can put these issues in the public eye. But the simplest solution to help closing venues also happens to be the most fun: paying six bucks to support a friend's band could quell the tides of gentrification, at least for a little while.

I recognize that it is a bit heavy handed for me to be proscribing these "answers" to gentrification. My anonymous contact who stated that the music scene in the East village and Lower East Side is undergoing changes akin to "Global Warming" is quite right to use that metaphor. Once gentrification begins in any neighborhood it is extremely difficult to prevent its negative consequences. Throwing more money indiscriminately at the situation is hardly the answer. However, using one's bodily presence, like the protesters at Tompkins Square Park twenty years ago, to help prevent gentrification's casualties will at least tell the fat cats up at city hall that there is still enough of a vibrant local community to salvage in the Lower East Side, the East Village and in New York City herself.

 
 

LES map by Michi at Quibbly.net. [you can download the high res version of the map of the Lower East Side (year 2007) here]

"Gentrification appears to be rolling over New York City's centuries old art scene. [We] do, however, have enough self-reflexivity and power to direct the flow of my cash in an empowering way [...] the simplest solution to help closing venues also happens to be the most fun: paying six bucks to support a friend's band could quell the tides of gentrification, at least for a little while.


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