“Of course there are problems in this more sensitive kind of urban renewal. What is to be gained? Only a sense of history, of cultural continuity, of civic enrichment through cumulative architectural styles, of neighborhood individuality through retention of a heritage. What is to be lost? Nothing but the depressing, blight-inviting monotony of standard redevelopment.”—The New York Times, “How to Tame a Bulldozer,” February 26, 1962
Last fall, the first condos within the Essex Crossing megaproject, at 242 Broome Street, hit the market, marking a major step forward for the largest contiguous undeveloped site in Lower Manhattan. This void in the cityscape sat vacant for nearly half a century, and the story of its rise, fall, and rise again involves a failed promise by city government—and an ethnic conflict left untouched by a local legislator who just happened to be the most powerful man in the state. But before we unravel that knotty bit of history, let’s start with a brief look at simpler times.
The early Lower East Side
When Europeans began settling Manhattan, the land of today’s Lower East Side was a buffer zone, separating the city at the island’s tip from the Native American encampments to the north. Black farmers were among the first to cultivate the fields in the area. The descendants of Stephen de Lancey, a Huguenot noble who had escaped French religious persecution in 1686, bought and consolidated much of this land throughout the 18th century. (Although their loyalist sympathies caused them to lose their holdings after the Revolutionary War, their legacy lives on in the name “Delancey Street.”)
By the early 19th century, the area around the present-day Corlears Hook Park had become an important port for shipbuilding and shipping. The neighborhood, as a result, turned into a haven for just-arrived immigrants—Italians, Irish, Germans, Greeks, and Eastern European Jews, among many others—seeking work along the waterfront.
With almost every parcel of land covered by buildings, and far too many people crammed into each tenement, the quality of life was terrible. There was little space for parks, for example, leading children to play in the streets, even in sewage-laden ditches next to horse corpses (as captured by Jacob Riis). By 1900, around two-thirds of Lower East Side residents lived in slum conditions.
Title I and the first round of slum clearance
In the depths of the Great Depression, the Lower East Side—defined then as the area south of 14th Street, east of the Bowery, and north of James Street—had 225,000 residents living in 3,000 tenement buildings. If that number sounds large, consider that earlier in the century, 400,000 Jews alone lived in the area; the opening of the Williamsburg Bridge in 1903 had led many to escape across the East River to roomier confines.
The Housing Act of 1949, part of President Harry S. Truman’s Fair Deal, opened the door for the city to replace these conditions of squalor. The first section of this law, Title I, allowed cities to clear slums as part of urban renewal projects, with a goal of building nearly one million units of affordable housing across the United States. Local governments could claim blighted properties by eminent domain, then sell those properties to developers at a reduced price. The federal government would bear two-thirds of the cost of this process, with the city picking up the rest.
The first six slum clearance sites in New York City were approved in 1955; the best-known, Lincoln Square, would lead to the creation of the Lincoln Center performing arts campus. Another, Seward Park, would set the stage for four large buildings on the Lower East Side, replacing an area that was 96 percent tenements—many of which were home to Puerto Ricans, who had begun moving to the neighborhood en masse after World War II.
With all this focus on buildings, one might forget the real, tangible effects of slum clearance on actual human beings. To construct these new apartments, the city would have to raze the existing tenements, and to raze the tenements, the city would have to evict the existing residents. Where would they go?
Sponsors of developments receiving Title I benefits were supposed to provide relocation assistance to evicted tenants, and give priority to former residents for the new buildings. But some cronies of the Slum Clearance Committee, led by the all-powerful Robert Moses, had little time for poor people, especially people of color—particularly when development on these sites was such a lucrative proposition.
Several developers quickly reneged on this promise, and because of Moses’s stranglehold on the press, the disenfranchised had no effective way to make their voices heard. (For further reading on this, Robert Caro’s The Power Broker is indispensable.)
On July 1, 1959, the last of nearly 1,500 families was relocated from the Seward Park site, ending a process that had begun three years prior. Of those, only 185 chose to take up residence in the new cooperative buildings, according to a 1961 valedictory report by the United Housing Foundation, the site’s developer [PDF].
Abraham E. Kazan, the developer’s president, was already known as “the father of cooperatives” in New York City; he had successfully built Amalgamated Housing Cooperative in the Bronx and the various entities within Cooperative Village on the Lower East Side. Although he found further success in his development of Seward Park, he was quick to cast blame for its delays on critics: “The unwarranted misdeeds of one sponsor is exploited time and again,” he wrote, “and all sponsors no matter how conscientiously, considerately and carefully they try to do the job, are charged with the same wrong doings.” (Moses, for his part, defended these actions: “Title I, involving as it does private funds, must make its contribution to better housing in such a way to return some profit to the investors.”)
“Slum clearance” had already become a loaded phrase. But before building at Seward Park had even begun, Moses had set his sights slightly north.
The Seward Park Extension is proposed
In 1958, the Slum Clearance Committee proposed the Seward Park Extension Slum Clearance program, which would create 1,800 units on 26 acres at a total cost of $12 million. All but 40 of the 738 houses extant in the plan area had a “substandard” rating.
There was a wrinkle, though: the federal government wanted to spread its Title I wealth to places other than New York, where Moses’s clout, work ethic, and lack of interest in dissenting opinions made it possible to overcome the community opposition that had sunk numerous projects in other cities. Congress limited available funding to $10 million per state—barely enough to cover Seward Park Extension, let alone three other slum-clearance projects Moses hoped to launch. But Moses, as usual, eventually won the battle, and by early 1959, the Urban Renewal Administration had set aside $7 million for Seward Park Extension.
The move forward came too late. The anti-Moses momentum that had begun at other Title I sites—coupled with revelations that organized crime had its hand in the scheme, which loosened the blackout against unfriendly press coverage of Moses—resulted in pushback. According to Kazan, two religious congregations, emboldened by stands made elsewhere, led an ultimately successful charge against the city’s eminent domain campaign, causing Kazan to abandon the Seward Park Extension project. He said his group failed “because city political leaders are afraid to tackle any religious institutions, whether Jewish, Roman Catholic, Protestant or any other.”
The city selected a conglomeration of three developers in 1963, but their work was further complicated by the specter of the Lower Manhattan Expressway, one of Moses’s pet projects. Although it had been killed unanimously by the Board of Estimate in 1962, it continued to exist on official planning maps, so the new developers would still have to take its possible route into consideration.
Official city approval for the Seward Park Extension Urban Renewal Area finally came in 1965. Its aims included “scale and variety” and avoiding “uniform, monotonous buildings that looked as if they had been stamped out of a cookie cutter.” The plan called for six large 20-story buildings at a cost of $50 million; 2,150 low-income families would be forced out.
They were made to leave, but by 1969 most of the space remained “scarred with deserted, brick-strewn lots, cleared now of decayed tenements, waiting for new buildings.” A major sticking point: the bids placed by contractors far exceeded the maximum on projects funded by the federal government. Ultimately, just two buildings rose: 64 Essex Street and 154 Broome Street, both of which now fall under the aegis of NYCHA.
The site lies fallow
Those two buildings became a point of contention in 1972, when a group of former residents sued the developer, claiming Jews had received preferential rentals. (The building was located across from a popular synagogue.) In siding with the plaintiffs, the judge noted that 40 percent of pre-demolition residents were white, but 64 percent after were white. The court also found the housing authority had unfairly disqualified residents who had moved to other public housing while awaiting the new buildings’ construction. In 1974, the two classes agreed to divide the two 23-story buildings at the previous 40 percent white level.
The following four decades saw a series of false starts, many sunk by this ethnic divide. The Board of Estimate approved some commercial use on the site in 1980, but further discussion of development stalled. Hispanic former residents wanted the government to fulfill its promise of housing, while local Jews wanted the jobs that would come with commercial development.
In 1988, developer Samuel J. LeFrak and the city agreed to an unusual arrangement: LeFrak would build and sell 400 condo units in one building; the profits from sales on these condos would be used to build 800 rental apartments for moderate- and middle-income households. LeFrak did not stand to make money on the venture, calling it “a civic gesture to the City of New York” in honor of his 70th birthday.
A mixture of opposition sank that plan: local advocates, particularly those representing the displaced population, felt it didn’t provide enough lower-income housing, while competing developers were angry that LeFrak had been chosen behind closed doors to craft the proposal on such a plum piece of land.
There were three other efforts to develop the vacant lots before the 40-year Seward Park Extension Urban Renewal Area legislation expired in 2005. These included a 600-apartment plan from Kraus Enterprises in 1993, which included a movie theater and a park; a joint bid by LeFrak and Minskoff Equities in 2000, which got the nod from among nine interested developers; and a mixed-use proposal from the city’s Economic Development Corporation in 2003, which received a lukewarm reception from all sides.
These plans “failed to move forward generally due to a lack of consensus on the best use of the sites,” the City Planning Commission wrote in 2012 [PDF]. There was more happening behind the scenes, however: a 2014 expose in the Times revealed that Sheldon Silver, the since-disgraced Assembly Speaker, had led a cabal that purposely stalled development on the site for nearly four decades. (This appeared to confirm a rumor first published at least 20 years earlier: “They would rather have the vacant lots and rats than have the minority people there,” said one resident in 1994.)
Silver’s refusal to support housing on the site was seen by many as an attempt to consolidate his Jewish voting bloc, rather than dilute it by allowing members of other ethnicities to move in (or, in many cases, to move back in).
Of note to the “neighborhood boundary” focus of this column: around 2000, realtors tried to re-brand the area bounded by East Houston, Forsyth, Canal and Clinton Streets as “LoHo,” for “Lower Houston.”
With renewal comes progress
In October 2012, after a four-year period of community discussion and planning, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg signed the Seward Park Mixed-Use Development Plan, paving the way for the development on the vacant sites from the original Seward Park Extension (along with a few additional nearby sites). It also led to the rechristening of the area: SPEURA was now “Essex Crossing.”
The plan allows for 1.65 million square feet of development, 60 percent of which will comprise 1,000 housing units; half of those will be either “affordable” or reserved for senior citizens. What’s more: residents who lived on the now-vacant sites between 1967–1973 will receive preferential consideration, although they still must meet income guidelines to qualify.
The development has since seen some controversy, but it’s been muted in comparison with prior battles. The past year has marked several milestones in Essex Crossing’s progress: one building has topped out, several more are under construction, and condo sales are underway. It’s only a matter of time until this area’s term of vacancy is, for better or for worse, a thing of the past.