City Lit: Alphabet City Slicker

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Should anyone care to learn how the gentrification of the Lower East Side has been nearly achieved, they should read this informative account of the phenomenon. Christopher Mele’s book, though academic in tone, is also in many ways an exciting read. Focusing on the area north of Houston Street, popularly called the East Village and known as Loisaida by Puerto Ricans, the author dissects with well-researched precision the reasons for the present condition of outrageous rent prices and rampant commercialism in the area.

Mele, an assistant professor of sociology at SUNY-Buffalo, has created a three-tiered thesis to support his argument. For 150 years, in his telling, city fathers have deliberately worked to sanitize the area by driving out the undesirable working class, both European immigrants and Puerto Ricans, and replace them with white middle-class residents. The media has glorified the artistic and radical character of the area. And real estate developers, in turn, have used these glorified symbols of poverty, art and radicalism to sell the neighborhood to young middle-class professionals in search of a faux-Bohemian lifestyle.

Over the years, subsequent groups have mythicized the neighborhood’s ethos: the Beats, hippies, Yippies, Young Lords, and finally artists and anachronistic liberals who’ve become pseudo activists. While a few riots and demonstrations protesting the gentrification of the area have taken place since the 1960s, the area has been devoid of effective tools for combating the formidable tandem of compliant government and voracious real estate interests. “Private urban development,” writes Mele, “is presented as a more desirable and ‘practical’ solution to urban social ills than government policies such as low-income housing subsidies or welfare programs.”

The area below Houston is now a shrunken version of the Lower East Side, in many ways staid in comparison with its earlier self. Given the transformation of Ludlow, Orchard and other streets into part of the marketable downtown scene, one can understand even more clearly the change of a working-class community into a gentrified playground. Six months ago, a symptom of this transformation appeared in a newspaper in the form of the name “Loho,” describing the area between Houston and Grand.

At the turn of the century the uptown bourgeoisie saw downtown as a den of corruption, sin and lawlessness. This perception did not change until the 1990s, when artists, backed by gallery owners, media and real estate began to effect a plan to upgrade the neighborhood through the infusion of middle-class, college-educated professionals. While it may have appeared that the artists were innocent settlers in search of loft space, Mele thinks otherwise: “A more accurate and less sympathetic explanation was presented in an influential article by authors Rosalyn Deutsche and Cara Gendel Ryan, who claimed that the artists’ attitudes towards the neighborhood’s poorest residents were mercenary, if not exploitative, creating an inviting atmosphere for real estate investments. The art scene promulgated a middle-class environment that made it possible for a ‘resettling of a white population in neighborhoods where they would never have dared to venture.'”

In explaining how the gentrification of the East Side came about, Mele also lays bare the causes for Puerto Rican social and political dysfunction in the area. The discrimination and lack of opportunities for Puerto Ricans in the last 40 years and the ghettoization of a people by master builder Robert Moses have been documented before, but not with such specificity and incisiveness.

Mele says the migration of Puerto Ricans to the Lower East Side was part of a deliberate strategy, with the Puerto Rican residents of the projects along Avenue D placed there by fiat. “Urban renewal projects, nicknamed ‘Puerto Rican Removal Plans,’ forcibly relocated thousands of Puerto Rican families from one poor neighborhood to another.”

And the trend may be continuing. The housing projects that extend from Houston Street to 14th Street along the East River contain 3,750 apartments. As is the case in all of the housing projects of the era, they are landscaped with pastoral care, the trees on their grounds now reaching seven and eight stories high. The projects’ tenants have long accused the New York City Housing Authority of warehousing 800 apartments for possible sale to wealthy tenants. (The Housing Authority has denied this.) Vieques is not an option, but further displacement just may be in the cards.

The Lower East Side performance artist Penny Arcade recently told an anecdote that is amusing but uncomfortably close to the truth about the transformation of the neighborhood. She said that a young woman of means, who was considering moving into the neighborhood, asked her if the drug addicts in the area were dangerous. “Of course they’re dangerous,” Penny replied. “They all work on Wall Street.”

Edgardo Vega Yunqué is the author of three books of fiction and the founder of the Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural Center.