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Change is Bittersweet for Lower East Side's SPURA Locals

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Welcome back to Camera Obscura, Curbed's series of photo essays by Nathan Kensinger. This week, as part of a series on soon-to-change neighborhoods, Kensinger visits the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area.

[The Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA) has been neglected by New York City for over 45 years, but may soon be redeveloped by the Essex Crossing project. All photos by Nathan Kensinger.]

For over 45 years, the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA) has blighted the Lower East Side. Generations of children have grown up near these empty lots, and tell stories of the rats, drug dealers, prostitutes and junkies who patrolled their streets. Like the desolate wasteland of South Edgemere, Queens, this area was demolished and subsequently abandoned during the Robert Moses era as part of a failed urban renewal scheme. Today, SPURA is mostly home to dusty parking lots paved with dirt, gravel and broken concrete. In September, however, Mayor Bloomberg announced plans to finally develop this largely uninhabited site?"the largest stretch of undeveloped City-owned land in Manhattan below 96th Street"?with a project called Essex Crossing, "a 1.65-million-square-foot development anchored by 1,000 units of housing." For locals who have navigated this strange, vacant landscape for their entire lives, the coming changes are bittersweet. 

"I used to play in these lots as a little kid," recalls Andre Gonzalez, a lifelong resident of the Lower East Side. "All this was wide open. We used to do all kinds of dumb stuff. Start fires and stuff. Build clubhouses. Until the junkies moved into them." Andre now works at one of the many parking lots in SPURA. Its headquarters are inside a rickety shotgun shack near a decommissioned firehouse, and the lot shares a fence with the tenement building where Andre grew up. These are some of the last few original buildings still standing in the footprint of Essex Crossing. "They let the properties rot," said Andre, but "when the neighborhood started to uptrend, they wanted back all the properties they had originally burned down, because they wanted in on the real estate boom down here."

"I was raised right here. I used to ride big wheels around this neighborhood," recalls Robert Rivera, who grew up in the Lower East Side and who now works the night shift at a SPURA parking lot. He remembers what it was like when the area devolved into a wide open drug zone during the 1980's. "This was the worst shithole in the city. You could come here with two kilos of cocaine and two kilos of heroin and sell out in two hours and walk out a very wealthy man, everyday." For Robert, though, the more recent changes in the neighborhood are even more startling, as new hotels, condos, restaurants, bars and nightclubs have crept up to the edges of the area. "I never in a hundred years thought they would put a hotel on Delancey Street."

"I think this neighborhood has been one of the last neighborhoods to change," said Nathan Sklar, a fourth generation resident of the Lower East Side. Nathan has lived in the same building on East Broadway for his entire life, and is the president of the Comprehensive Center for Rehabilitation, whose offices look out over the SPURA parking lots. "I'm 44. It's been there as long as I can remember," said Nathan, who looks forward to watching as Essex Crossing is built. "Before, people didn't know about this neighborhood," he said, but after the redevelopment, "I think there will be a lot of traffic. It will be like the rest of Manhattan. We've been spoiled to a certain degree with openness."

The SPURA, located on the south side of Delancey Street, has improved somewhat since the crack epidemic of the '80s and 90s. "It's cleaner, there's less graffiti, more people walking around at night," said Nathan Sklar. "It's quieter."

Nathan's offices look out over the proposed Essex Crossing construction site. He hopes the project brings more visitors to the neighborhood. "We need a jolt. The businesses need more customers."

For Andre Gonzalez, who works at a parking lot on Suffolk Street, the Lower East Side has already changed dramatically. "This neighborhood used to be a bombed out drug area. Now look at it."

Andre lived in this tenement building for over 20 years. "This used to be a jungle back here." Now, though, "if you make less then $80,000 a year, they want you out of this area."

Andre's old building is now home to the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy visitor center, and is next door to a semi-abandoned tenement. Both buildings will likely be demolished to make way for Essex Crossing.

When Andre was growing up, "there were so many rats back there. And these rats were not afraid of people," he recalls. Rodents and other vermin are still a problem in the area.

Many of the SPURA parking lots are used by local businesses. "I want to see what these businesses do when they close these lots down," said Robert Rivera. "Where they gonna park their trucks when these close down?"

"I think its gonna get ugly. These businesses are going to pack up and move to New Jersey or something," said Robert. "It's going to hurt a lot of people, I'll tell you that."

A series of new condos is already encroaching around the edges of the SPURA. "I think they are building all the towers for the rich people," said Robert. "You know they are not going to put nobody from Section 8 there."

Only a few stores are still located inside the SPURA, include this liquor store from 1928. "It's changed to a more yuppie type store area," said Nathan Sklar. "You had more regular type stores."

"My grandmother had a haberdashery store they destroyed to create the SPURA," said Nathan. "My father's parents and grandparents were in the soda business. They had a horse and buggy."

As part of Essex Crossing, the vendors of the Essex Street Food Market will be relocated. "No one really believes that rents won't go up," one vendor told the Times.

The market itself, which was built in the 1940's by Mayor LaGuardia, will be demolished, another lost piece of neighborhood history. "Change is going to happen," said Nathan Sklar. "Whether you are a part of the change is the question."
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· SPURA coverage [Curbed]
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