Friday, June 27, 2008

Looking back: Red Square and gentrification

[Photo by Stephen L Harlow, via his Flickr page.]

In the last few weeks, I've posted several archival articles that discussed the gentrification of the East Village/Lower East Side, including one from the May 28, 1984, New York magazine ("The Lower East Side: There Goes the Neighborhood") and one from the Sept. 2, 1984, New York Times ("The gentrification of the East Village").

The New York piece focused on the Christodora House, which some viewed as a symbol of gentrification in the neighborhood, and later a focal point of the "yuppie scum" protests during the 1988 Tompkins Square Park riots. I recently came across an additional good read that examines another symbol for change in the East Village/Lower East Side: Red Square, the luxury apartment building (featuring a statue of Lenin on the roof) that opened in June 1989 at 250 E. Houston St. between Avenues A and B.

Frederique Krupa, a Paris-based designer and writer who teaches at the Parsons School of Design, wrote a fascinating article on Red Square that was published March 10, 1992. The article is online here at

In the article, she interviews two key people involved in Red Square's creation, Michael Rosen, a former NYU professor of radical sociology who now lives in the penthouse of the Christodora, and Tibor Kalman, the renowned graphic designer who passed away in 1999. (In a review of the 1998 book "Tibor Kalman: Perverse Optimist," The New Yorker wrote, "A witty, eclectic tome of images and writings . . . spanning the career of the graphic designer . . . the man behind Benetton's Colors magazine; a Communist-theme apartment building called Red Square that hastened gentrification on the Lower East Side while seeming to subvert it...")

Krupa's article on the revitalization of the East Village, and the role of Red Square in this, is far too complex to summarize in a blog posting.

However, one passage is particularly interesting: The Red Square marketing campaign. She notes, "[I]nstead of doing a slick brochure like so many buildings now have, they are marketing the coarseness of the area as the primary selling point.

"The Disneyfication of the area and its population, written like a movie script, is obnoxious."

She then quotes part of the Red Square brochure copy:

"A seamstress and a presser, shy as villagers falling in love over the accompaniment of whirring sewing machines and sweet tea...[fade to...] The lint of sweat shops swept out by raucous Spanish accents...[fade to...] Long haired poets silk-screening posters for the revolution...Today it's an after hours club. Or is the apartment where the incredible Dutch model with one name lives with Mr. Wallstreet?"

Krupa continues with a description of the brochure, which I'd love to see for myself:

"Considering that Mr. Wallstreet is most likely one of the prospective tenants of Red Square, the last quote reads like bad subliminal seduction. Never mind that the account executives may well be forcing out the pressers, seamstresses and long-haired poets. The sepia-toned cover features a kissing, tangoing white couple swinging a piece of cloth in a standard tenement apartment, with its open shelves and small windows. He wears a large, stylish suit; she wears a plain, loose dress. He has short brown hair in a standard businessman haircut; she has long, peroxide-blond hair. The standard clock is on midnight. Wires dangle down from strangely placed sockets. The picture appears ordinary, yet it is incredibly strange that it would be chosen for the cover. These people are probably celebrating the fact that they will be able to trade in the five story climb for an elevator and crumbling walls for new construction. In other words, they are trading reminiscence for amenities."

Perhaps this trying-to-be-provocative approach served as the template for the free-for-all that is now the Lower East Side with the multiple hotels and high-rise condos like The Ludlow, which according to its site, "connects the buzz of the neighborhood with the tranquility of home."

By the way, the community work of Michael Rosen since Red Square should be noted. Krupa writes that he "is now focusing solely [on] subsidized housing for the poor . . . as well as construction of half-way houses and shelters for battered women. His early ventures are then seen as an anomaly to his social convictions." As a Nov. 23, 2006, article in the Times on Rosen notes, "He dresses shabby chic and rides his bicycle to community meetings to fight what he sees as insensitive development." As this article in the Aug. 4-10, 2004, issue of The Villager reports, Rosen has held various fund-raisers to protect the special character of the East Village. He and his family have been part of helping save St. Brigid's, creating the Kids' Art Bike Ride for the Lower East Side, among many other admirable endeavors.

[For more of Stephen L Harlow's amazing photos like the one above, please visit his Flickr page.]


Anonymous said...
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Unknown said...

I have often wondered about the inability of Red Square to attract upscale businesses below the complex or down the block.

What's there now? among others, the usual types of business catering to the poor/working class - a check cashing place, chinese take-out, auto parts store, dunkin donuts, failing discount pharmacy, korean nail salon and a kinko's.

Kind of ironic. Or it this part of a deliberate plan?

Anonymous said...

a strip mall of mostly franchises, kinkos fed ex, sleepy's,
Dunkin donuts,Blockbuster,Kinkos fedex, western union, the blue building sales office temporarily, all from a guy who hawks "go local" a campaign against the franchises. the Chinese food joint and strange empty discount store are certainly anomalies in Rosen's portfolio, but once his inspired EV/LES rezoning goes through the strip will go commerical and he can get into the bar business, like his new friend David Mcwater, the commnity board 3 chair and x co vice president of the New York Nightlife Association, NYNA.
developers dont just develop real estate they develop relationships

jw said...

red square has always been a strange entity, when i moved to the LES years ago Johnny Swing, the guy who made lots of the art in its lobby and around the EV, still had his studio in one of the storefronts. The only things that have been there consistently are the chinese takeout and the pizza place. I heard,, back then (early 90's) that they had a hard time filling the building, that there were a bunch of empty units for years. I read Krupa's writings a few years ago, very enlightening. i feel like houston in general has a hard time supporting anything high end, as its such a busy throughfare and so much of the neighboring streets are more cosy. hence restaurant/bars open there instead. houston is a bit like delancey in that way.

Anonymous said...

Andrew - I have no involvement in the management of Red Square any longer. What happens there in terms of leases is completely absent of input from me. I wish, in retrospect, that the zoning required contextual construction, but that wasn't the case, and like others, I sought to fill the zoning envelope in a conventional manner. The City plans to increase the FAR along Houston, Avenue D, Delancey and Christie, which I oppose as a part of the current zoning plan. As to Anonymous - we rented the residential portion to 100% within ten months of starting to market apartments, and the commercial space has harder. Photographs from then showed empty pedestrian traffic - so times have changed. I've developed only one property in NY, and that was nearly 20 years ago. And David McWater is a friend, who has done a great deal of good for our community. Anyone slamming him blindly can't know much of the countless hours he has devoted over the years to our community.

Anonymous said...
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