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.