Wednesday, October 22, 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: Elissa
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.


Anonymous said...

Wow -- so interesting and thought-provoking. On the last point about visibility/belonging, I wonder if age plays a role. I moved to the neighborhood in my 20s and am now in my 50s. I definitely feel outside the loud youth sidewalk culture, but that's true anywhere outside my demographic. I don't think we can expect the entire neighborhood to age in place. Obviously this is different from gentrification, which is unquestionably part of the mix here, but some of the change is probably in us.

FigKitty said...

"I would say the most important thing is to foster a sense of belonging."

But what if they don't belong in the neighborhood any longer? I'm really not trying to be a jerk, but - the LES has changed since the folks that the subject is talking about moved into the neighborhood. The LES has been changing for centuries, and sure maybe the pace of change has quickened in the last few decades, but change itself IS a constant.

I understand why it sucks for people who were once the majority to be pushed into the minority, but the fact is - there are plenty of people who "belong" in the LES these days, it's just not the people she is talking about.

bllue glass said...

belonging is not the problem.
it is the self-satisfied, self-centered, full-of-themselves, privileged (mostly young) whose "get outa my way" attitude permeates the atmosphere - and the greedy landlords that cater to this selfishness.
our political representation, on all levels, feed themselves on donations and therefore we not served by their reigning in the rapid replacement of the old with the new. anything new and expensive.
new york is a world-wide playground for those with absolutely no consideration of the history they have come to witness - it has all replaced by a stage-set expensive fantasy.
​these days money equals worth (e.g. power) and the more blatant and excessive you are the more your value grows exponentially.​

Laura Goggin Photography said...

Another wonderfully thoughtful interview. As for the (lack of) sense of belonging, I couldn't agree more.

Gojira said...

@FigKitty, so what are you saying? That people who were born in or came to this neighborhood when the vast majority of the trolls populating it today wouldn't have come anywhere near it should just leave, because the daily indifference, disrespect, and at times outright hostility shown towards us by the clueless morons flooding in is somehow okay? Anyone who grew up or came here before, say, 1990, is a survivor of what was a very tough, dirty, dangerous neighborhood and should not have to be treated as a pariah simply because the clueless yobs who pollute the EV/LES have no clue what it was like in those days and consider us merely a bunch of old farts they can disrespect. Who are you to tell me I no longer belong in the neighborhood I've live in for 36 years, a time span that few, if any of the aforementioned morons will put in, since most of them will doubtless be moving back to the 'burbs when they leave childhood behind? This is MY home. I FOUGHT to live here. I will NOT be driven out by ANYONE.

And whether you were trying to be a jerk or not - you were.

East Village Today said...

I definitely belong here!

Anonymous said...

I am so with FigKitty - I mean poor or working class people and old artists & older people in general should just go somewhere else - I mean people over the age of 35 should really just go away, do they really belong anywhere anymore - can't we just send them to somewhere in new jersey or something, because it really is a bummer to have to be considerate or aware of you surroundings and other people (who are not young, white, and rich) when you are out drinking.

Former East Villager said...

I loved this piece. Elissa verbalized, very eloquently, a basic truth about any neighborhood; the sense of belonging. When you lose that sense (at least, I feel this way) you feel without an anchor.

It's little things. When I used to walk home from work, I would feel a sense of gratitude walking past the firehouse on Great Jones, and maybe smile and say hi to a fireman. It's having a conversation with the ladies who work at my laundry, or my bodega guy asking me how I am when I pass his store.

What I loved when I first moved here was the diversity. I felt the world was on my doorstep. I was interested in everything and everyone, and got to know my neighbours, no matter their age or race, and talk to them. I felt a wonderful sense of belonging and community.

When I sang at the Amato Opera, many of the Mohawked and leathered patrons of CBGBs would talk to us during intermission or on a rice and beans run, us costumed in period dress. It was such a respectful and friendly curiosity, and indicative of that time. It was tolerance, plain and simple. It was neighborhood.

I must say in my last days in the EV I didn't feel I belonged. I was mentally (meetings with my potential laywers, and my landlord's lawyers) and physically exhausted with the process of eviction. I was making one of my many trips carting my belongings to the Manhattan Mini Storage in a large plastic bin on wheels. I was dripping with sweat, deeply sad, and yet somehow numb, just pushing the bin with all my strength and forcing my legs to walk. Crossing Second Avenue, a young male (he reminded me of a high-school smart alec) flanked by two females, barked out, "Ya got a dead body in there?"

I stopped and looked at him.

"No. It's my life. I've been evicted by my landlord."

"Ya want me to kill him?"

"No. It's bad karma... he'll get his."

One of the young females said, somewhat humbled by all this, "And you'll find a better place to live."

I thanked her (her boyfriend, or whoever he was, had gone mute) and pushed on, storagewards.

It was such a strange interchange as one of the things I learned living in NYC was to gauge people. How they were feeling. How to relate to them.

People skills.

This is how to belong, and dare I say, contribute on a human level, to a neighborhood. It costs nothing to say hello or just be kind but can be everything.

The local dudes who hang around on the corner of Third Street and Second Ave had people skills. They always offered to help when I came to those dips on the sidewalk. That is community. And I was super grateful.

Thank you Grieve. I loved reading Elissa's story stretching back to her grandparents, the hardships, the urban renewal, and the chalking. Miss Elissa, if you are reading, thank you for sharing.

Trixie said...

I belong here. I knew it when I got here in 1978 and I imagine I'll still be at home here when many of the current crop of idiots has gone on to where they belong.

Anonymous said...

Former East Villager, I've just been through the same thing and have many of the same feelings you have about being 'evicted' and moving - and I lived in the LES, the fabled Clinton St.

I'd walk to work in the W. Village every day, taking a different route at times, to enjoy the people and buildings that a walk like that could offer.

Having lived in NYC for 40 years, all of it between Houston and Tribeca, East and West, most of it in the old Little Italy, East Village and for the last 20 in the LES, I never thought I'd experience so much one-directional change, in the form of rapid gentrification, so quickly and irreversible. And in addition be forced to leave NYC myself,to be made to feel I don't belong here after a lifetime of really loving what the city was.

I say 'was' because though change is inevitable, and I'm not a nostalgic person, it doesn't have to be cruel and exclusionary. And yet in the current environment in NYC, it is.

In a certain way, I'm glad to leave, though I'll be close enough to visit. It won't be the same but I'm exhausted from the pain of it all. My spirit has been depressed for some time and it's not worth that kind of suffering.

Thanks so much for this very thoughtful commentary, Elissa.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps you should just have 'approved' commenters. Stop asking readers to comment if you just want to hear the same opinions.

Anonymous said...

I feel sorry for you folks that just can't let go. I'm here more than 25 years now, yes it was great for a long time, heck that's why I came, and now it sucks, well that's the way it goes, I can't turn back time or turn this into other than the big dormitory/frathouse/sororityhouse for rich kids that it has become. Would if I could but I can't. Still here with my dirt-cheap apartment, sure, why not.
But I'm not dragging the body of the old EastVillage around with me. It's dead and buried, I'm here until something better comes my way.
The neighborhood sucks though. Let's face it.

Babs said...

Very thought-provoking.. I must say, as an undergrad about to declare an urban studies minor who is unusually passionate about the east village, I've always thought of gentrification as inevitable as well.

I've spent a lot of time figuring out which side I represent (I go to NYU - it's more than a bit unsettling to know that my tuition money is going to NYU2031) versus which side I'd prefer to be on. I feel a deep sense of belonging, I work on Avenue A, I support many community-based organizations... yet I fit the exact demographic that's gentrifying, changing, and, well, ruining the east village.

I'd love to visit her gallery and have a chat with her about this topic. Thanks for this.

FigKitty said...

@Gojira What I'm saying is that, if you don't feel like you belong here, you probably don't belong here. Whether you got here "first" (and I'm not even going to touch the arbitrary 1990 cut off nonsense) or not is irrelevant - there are probably some folks born in the LES who feel totally at home here in 2014; there are probably some 22 year old NYU students who feel like they don't belong at all. Granted - these people are probably exceptions to the rule, but my point is that there isn't some, like, census checkbox that defines who belongs here or not.

It's definitely your right to dig in your heels and stay put, but why you would put yourself in what you clearly consider to be a hostile and miserable environment is beyond me.

FigKitty said...

@Anon 2:08

Wow, project much?

No, I don't think all 'old people' should move to New Jersey. And I think being considerate is a great quality - one that some regular commenters on this blog seem to lack. The name-calling and gross overgeneralization of EV residents under the age of 35 is incredibly close-minded and just plain mean. You are your own worst nightmare: self-absorbed, self-satisfied, with a tiny, skewed worldview.

genevieve said...

A good thought provoking interview.
My hangouts were Times Square and the Village in the late sixties and early seventies. A lot of the old hangouts are gone. Though I lived in Brooklyn, I always felt a sense of belonging in these two neighborhoods.

Now you have a lot of these ugly monstrosities they call architecture. There are more bars than you can think of and people who think they are all that. I felt hat the neighborhood was mine and now it doesn't belong to me anymore.

Anonymous said...

@Figkitty: YOU are the precise reason there is "The name-calling and gross overgeneralization of EV residents under the age of 35." You attitude and your peers who share it completely disrespect and belittle everything this neighborhood was built upon. I, too, am part of the under 35 demographic to which you refer - however, I support small businesses and show respect to my neighbors. I am continuously embarrassed and frustrated to be grouped in with people of this perspective. As a result of the unfortunate, entitled attitude held by you and - let's be honest - the MAJORITY of people under the age of 35 who have moved to this neighborhood only to vomit all over it (literally and figuratively) and then leave in a few years, with your douche bag finance husband and carefully curated facebook life to your house in the suburbs, the rest of us will be left with a neighborhood which has been destroyed and is now void of all the culture and characteristics upon which it was built. It is YOU who does not belong here.

Anonymous said...

FigKitty has you all pegged!

Anonymous said...

What exactly are you talking about @anon 12:41?

Anonymous said...

Its the whites under 35- not welcome. Its the only aceeptable racial hatred in the EV/nyc. Its not the crazy homeless or the projects or the actual criminals who are bad. Cant say a word about them. To anon at 12:02pm- who are you to call someone a d-bag and say they don't belong? How about this- as a native who has lived here longer than 35 years- please leave. Changes are inevitable. Who knows what things will be like in 20 years. Ill be here- prob 90 percent of you won't.

Anonymous said...

You know, the real problem for me isn't the new breed moving in, if it were just an influx of clueless brats, we could all just make fun of them. Except that there is a systematic process that the real estate industry is following to make longtime residents feel unwelcome. The great sense of relief that I used to feel coming back into the city after a day visiting my family in NJ, is replaced with a dull sense of dread: What is the next bit of fuckery from my landlord going to be? Will they "lose" my rent check? Will they "forget" to renew my lease? Will they be accusing me of [fill in something illegal and eviction worthy]? Longtime residents are under attack and THAT is what is really destroying the neighborhood.