By James Maher
Occupation: Urban Geography
Location: J. Antonio Galleria, Avenue A between 3rd and 4th (with a piece of salvaged Judaica).
Time: 3:45 on Tuesday, Oct. 14
My mother was born here on the Lower East Side. Her parents came from Poland in an arranged marriage in 1935. They considered themselves extremely lucky to come to the United States right after they cut off immigration. They both understood what Poland was becoming.
They were very poor. They worked in the garment trade in the sweatshops. She was a dressmaker and a finisher and my grandfather was a presser. I’m 5 foot 2 and my grandfather was about 4 foot 8 with arms like olive trees.
My father worked on Cherry Street, which is almost non-existent now. It was warehouses right next to Water Street, near the Old Gouverneur Hospital. The city tore them down as part of its usual slum renewal.
Slum renewal in this neighborhood meant anything that was seen as old, which was often wood or brick. Where my father worked got torn down. He used to make picture frames down there. About 10,000 people got displaced, by the way, when the Williamsburg Bridge was built. So the city has had a long history of trying to disperse people from this neighborhood by tearing down structures.
I moved here in the 1970s. I didn’t grow up in the neighborhood but I spent a lot of time here given I had a mother who was born here and a father who worked here. When I met somebody who I wanted to marry, I wanted to live in Manhattan. We both spoke Yiddish, his being much better than mine. The only two places in Manhattan I even considered remotely as neighborhoods, having grown up in Brooklyn, was either the Lower East Side or Washington Heights. Nothing else felt like a neighborhood to me.
So I grew up with family in the neighborhood and a real sense of what people had gone through in terms of immigration and the Depression and stories like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire were very real to me. I found myself one March 25 walking outside of my building and noticed that it had been chalked. There is a project called Chalk and on the anniversary of the Triangle Fire people chalk the names of those who died in front of the addresses where they lived.
I contacted people who did Chalk and became a chalker, learning to talk to residents about the Triangle Fire. It allows you to mark a place and say that the story is not forgotten. It’s an enormous opportunity to engage with people in the neighborhood from all walks of life and find other people whose lives have been touched by the Fire or by a similar sort of tragedy. It’s a different type of interaction and there is no way to separate yourself from that.
I worked in IT for about 30 years and then got very sick and had to think about what it was that I wanted to do. I ended up going back to grad school part time, slowly working toward a doctorate in urban geography. I started becoming far more concerned about the changes in this neighborhood taking place so fast ... that is the reason I wanted to go into urban geography and to try to understand what was happening in other cities and how people reacted to it. One of the things that I was disconcerted to find was that a lot of undergraduates thought of gentrification as inevitable, like a force of nature.
I wanted to understand how other cities had dealt with that and demystify the phenomenon in some ways in terms of looking at real-estate development, local community politics — the sort of things that can be done to strengthen a community rather than the things that fracture it, such as oversized development or bars going at 4 am and having your neighborhood become an entertainment district, or having people who have lived here for a long time starting to lose their sense of belonging, particularly in public.
It comes back to this neighborhood. But to understand this neighborhood you have to understand what’s happening elsewhere, whether it’s in street art or in real estate or in buyers coming from all over the globe ... or what is happening to historic buildings and the erasing of their memory that occurs when you [destroy] the built environment.
It’s extremely scary. I don’t think that there is a magic wand one can wave but I do think that the more that people think of gentrification as something that affects their lives in that they have to say something about it, whether its to their city council member or their Community Board, whether it’s through a global climate march or work at community garden, whether it is through a land use review procedure or whether it is through blogging.
I would say the most important thing is to foster a sense of belonging. What I keep hearing from longtime residents here across every ethnic group, though mainly people with less money, is that they feel they’re not wanted anymore. They feel they’re being pushed out. It’s not just by landlords. It’s on the street when people look at them like they don’t belong.
The sense of belonging for people to stay in place, the sense that this is their neighborhood, is absolutely critical to the future of the Lower East Side.
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.