Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Out and About in the East Village

In this weekly feature, East Village-based photographer James Maher provides us with a quick snapshot of someone who lives and/or works in the East Village.

By James Maher
Name: Yehuda Emmanuel Safran
Occupation: Professor of Architecture at Columbia University
Location: 7th Street and Avenue B
Date: Thursday, May 15 at 4 p.m.

I was born in Palestine, but I’m officially French. I became French in 1989. I lived 20 years in London, a few years in Paris, and 18 years in New York, in Manhattan. I lived in the West Village, up in Columbia housing, and then seven years ago a colleague who was living on the corner of 7th and C invited me to stay for a month. That convinced me. The next thing I did, I found myself a place.

I’m a professor of architecture in Columbia’s School of Architecture. I also have a magazine called Potlatch. You know what potlatch means? It’s a word used by Indians from the northwest, near Seattle, to describe a very ancient ritual of giving presents. One tribe would give a great deal of presents to another tribe. My magazine is dedicated to the gift of art and architecture.

Seven years ago I established Alphabet City as a site for my project at Columbia. The project invites the students to write the program for some type of contribution to Alphabet City. There’s one library here ... there’s only one Turkish bath. There are no sports clubs. So we have been working for the last seven years, every autumn, doing different projects. We meet at Esperanto at the corner of 9th Street and Avenue C every Sunday evening at 8:30. The students decide. It’s difficult to say what the most interesting project was, because there are so many, from a boxing arena, to a kind of new type of housing, improving on the large housing down there on Avenue D, or a project to establish a swimming pool in the Park.

The East Village attracted me because it’s the least kind of consumer-oriented part of Manhattan and there are a lot of young people here and a lot of different people here. There’s a mixture. It’s more lively and more interesting, in my experience at least.

There are too many [new apartment buildings] and they are too ugly. I think the main problem is the ugliness and the inappropriate development. It’s troubling. Not enough attention is paid to the quality of the designs. It’s driven by real-estate consideration. Ultimately we cannot ignore it, but when it becomes a dominant feature, it doesn’t add anything to the quality of life here.

The problem here of course is the rent went up dramatically over these years. Landlords are very greedy and when they sniff out a chance to make more they jump at it. On the other hand, in 2008, the crisis was a good thing for Alphabet City and the East Village because until then there was a real threat of development, especially from NYU and private development. They were moving in very fast. The local people got threatened by it. They thought that the rent would become out of their reach, and they were right, except the economic crisis stopped this rush of development, which meant that I could even go to my landlady and negotiate the rent down. It came down for a couple of years, but then they picked up.

I think cheap housing is very important. It’s vital. That is a very lively problem in Alphabet City and the East Village in general, because there is a high average of low-income people. I think that is something to cultivate and not to stamp it out.

The East Village has a lot of the general kind of poverty, but poverty all the same. I feel more comfortable among poor people than among well-off people. I know many artists, writers, and so on. I live here because I’m attracted to the kind of ordinariness. This kind of ordinariness and low-key nature is very attractive to me.

There was a great man in France in the 19th century named Proudhon. He was a difficult man, so not completely great, and he wrote the book "The Philosophy of Poverty." Marx was so unkind that he immediately published a book called "The Poverty of Philosophy."

"The Philosophy of Poverty" was interesting because it argued in favor of being poor, in the sense that there’s nothing wrong with being poor. It’s just, society has to allow the poor to be poor, and not to make their lives unnecessarily difficult.

One of the worst things about our society is that it wants to punish you for being poor. It’s easy to understand why, because capitalism thrives on the relentless effort to become richer and richer, because being rich according to this kind of world ethic means that the gods are in your favor. So people are striving so hard that they neglect their life to the extent that they really make the lives of poor people unnecessarily worse, when in fact there are many virtues to being poor. A society that punishes people for being poor is much poorer for it. So that is what I have to say.

James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.


shmnyc said...

The crisis of 2008 was a good thing? Maybe he didn't notice all those moving vans, as people who had lost their jobs were forced out. Proudhonists/Anarchists have this idea that the worse things are, the better, because it will spur people to action. However, history has always shown that the worse things are, the worse they are. People become despondent. It's when things are better for workers that they agitate.

Also, Marx was not unkind in "The Poverty of Philosophy". He didn't criticize Prodhoun's idea that poverty was OK, he criticized Prodhoun's proposals for an alternate economic system, demonstrating the ways in which it was not feasible. Marx's economic writings were directed primarily at writers who were proposing alternatives to capitalism -- if you're going to change the system, you have to understand it first, and Proudhon didn't.

Anonymous said...

There is an arrogance that capitalist societies have towards the poor especially "poor" countries like Cuba where people often have lives based on family first and collecting frivolous stuff like this year's fashion item a distant second or not at all. Beyond the basics such as food, medicine and fresh water people need a non corrupt or oppressive government and life can be good.
In capitalism one person's gain is another's loss. The real-estate gold rush took a pause after the 2008 recession and this kept buildings which poorer people lived in from being sold, demolished or evicted from for several years. The poor is not entirely made up of welfare mothers as most people imagine when the word poverty is spoken. The poor or low income part of our population is also made up of artists, writers and those that pursue a calling which does has nothing to do with corporate America and the constant need for the latest iPhone. Society and our culture depends upon the eco-system of diversity and if you have lived in the EV for even a short time hopefully this is apparent.

Anonymous said...

REally? "I also have a magazine called Potlatch. You know what potlatch means? It’s a word used by Indians from the northwest, near Seattle, to describe a very ancient ritual of giving presents. One tribe would give a great deal of presents to another tribe." I'd like it if someone who is a professor actually did his research. It is a Chinook-based word and the languages that are connected (and the cultures that had/have a Potlatch) are more than just 'Indians ... near Seattle'. It was also not exclusively (by any means) between 'tribes'. I would also hope that someone who decides to appropriate a word learns enough about the people whose word it is to know that they do not have 'tribes', they have Clans, Bands, and Nations. Language is Culture.

And about how great 2008!! We have loads of unchecked development since 2008! What planet is this guy on?!

Please, Maher, could you do profiles on some people who are from the neighborhood and make it what it is? I nominate the nice people who run the two shoe stores on 1st Avenue between St. Marks and East 7th.

Anonymous said...

It's fantastic to have an architect, and especially one with influence on the formation of young architects, say that the new urban architecture is so ugly!

This problem is so much impinging on us every day--the densely ugly and disfigured new skyline. It's soul crushing. The very opposite of what a city and a designed space are supposed to be.The issue is not whether we actually have souls--it's whether or not we live in a society which treats us as if we do.

Thank you Professor Safran. Now, if only he could get the ear of President Sexton at NYU who has built some of the ugliest buildings in the entire Western Hemisphere, right in the middle of the historic, very soulful Washington Square Park neighborhood.

The area around Columbia seems to be preserving a little better. Come teach downtown!

Thank you for interviewing him, James.

Anonymous said...

he's right about 2008, in that it definitely halted rising rents for a bit, and even brought them down. I lost my rent-stabilized apartment when my landlord lost all his money in the Madoff thing or something similar and decided to "upgrade" with a video security system, jacking the rent another $500 and getting rid of several longtime tenants in the process. Because of the economy at the time, however, other apartments in the area were more affordable than they had been in several years, and I was able to get something else close to what I had been paying. Please don't be so harsh with this man. He clearly is making casual comments for an interview about what he enjoys in the neighborhood, and how he is active within it. It's great that he saw all the good things the EV has to offer; it is not just for people who were born in it.

Anonymous said...

And another thing..."There are no sports clubs."

He has no clue. There's tons of neighborhood sports groups, for kids and adults both. He should just go over to the East River Park early on a Saturday, bring his coffee and a packed lunch and hang out all day at the fields and take a poll!

Then there's the near impossibility of getting a bit of space spontaneously on one of the courts in Tompkins.

The Boys Club does sports. Several of the bars around here used to (and I assume they still do) play ball every summer for the grown-ups. A pal was on Lucy's team.

What kind of sport is he thinking of?

And that is rich, students coming in from elsewhere to find solutions. How much real conversation does he have with the people who actually have been living here?

moe said...

If nothing else I am enjoying the level of the discourse both in the article and the responses. It's better than the "poor folk good, rich folk bad" caveman level stuff one usually gets.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this guy's views on the EV...I feel like there's many people of his ilk that feel the same way...more comfortable in the "Ordinariness" of society than, say, Tribeca.

James Maher said...

Olympaise this was a casual conversation, as Anon at 9:55 mentioned, so I would be careful to take every specific word so literally. Thank you for the clarity about the use of the word tribe. While I can't speak for him and I could be wrong about this, I do not think that he meant that the 2008 crisis was good for everyone, even though it was spoken that way. He seemed to be talking about housing costs and housing and that there were some temporarily beneficial sides to it.

Whether or not he's lived here for 40 years or 7 and whether or not you agree with his opinions, he's a resident of the neighborhood who seems to enjoy it and care about it. He also seemed to care about the people in the neighborhood and their struggles. It seems that his project is focused on teaching students to think about how to improve the neighborhood instead of how to profit from it, which is very important.

I'm far, far from being an expert on these issues but I really enjoyed speaking to him because I thought his opinions would be good food for thought and would inspire some discourse on these issues, as moe just mentioned.

Giovanni said...

I think he is making a few good points. In fact every real estate bubble burst was good for affordable housing in New York. Back in the early 70s you could rent a penthouse on Park Avenue for $1500 and move in the next day, or get into a Mitchell Lama coop for $3000 and have cheap rent forever. Today that penthouse apartment is over $10 million and the waiting list for Mitclell Lamas is a decade long.

In the early 90s when the recession hit, quality of life improved, prices came down, clubs which once charged 20 bucks dropped their door charges, the velvet ropes came down, empty cabs were easy to find, apartment prices were falling. I had a friend panicking that they would never be able to sell their $250k coop on lower 5th Ave, today it's worth well over a million.

The result of the economic slowdown was that the city was mich more relaxed, with places like Bob and Sapphire on Eldridge St, Global 33, Life Cafe and Save The Robots, Dojos on St Marks all had an affordable and relaxed vibe that most of the new places do not.

Back then a few guys could open a new bar, restaurant or store without having to raise millions of dollars. The most recent banking and real estate collapse of 2008 probably saved Stuyvestant Town from a condo conversion and stopped Bloombergs ultra luxury condo policy dead in its tracks. A number of projects were cancelled, or put on hold for the last 6-8 years, and many went bust and were sold to NYU for dorms or were rentals instead of condos.

Unfortunately in a nation that has so few protections for the poor and working class, economic downturns can also provide some protection from the upturns. In an economy built on vulture capitalism, sometimes the only way to stop it is to starve the vultures.

Anonymous said...

I would posit to 8:45 that the difference between the poor welfare mother and the poor artist, writer, etc., that you mention is a level of VOLUNTARY submission to poverty that may be made when one chooses to pursue art, literature, etc, as a sole means of earning a living, assuming one is not born wealthy. The poor single mother from the projects did not make the decision to bypass the pursuit of material wealth in order to follow her 'muse' as it were. The struggling artist, writer, musician often did; and they often maintain the (more or less realistic, depending) hope of eventual success and even great wealth and fame.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful interview and denizen of the LES.

One point--it's not so much that Capitalism "punishes" the poor--it's that our type of Capitalism creates them. Hungry, terrified people at the bottom of the ladder provide cheap and endless labor and never expect good wages or a social safety net.

Or to be more accurate, the lower east side used to have a type of real Capitalism---local, diverse, mom and pop's, woven into the community, and competing with each other to be successful . But today we have global corporatism and the hideous, expensive but chintzy architecture flows from this. In a way, it can be argued that this architecture reflects the death of old style Capitalism.

But of course, Capitalism will always gobble its way back to a form of serfdom for the majority. From the Capitalist's point of view, the poor of the lower east side are simply not useful anymore. It's not "punishment", it's just business. Or let me put it this way--Capitalism hates poor people, but loves poverty, and is uses.