The tally of talent and passion that made today’s City Limits is a long one—of reporters and interns, fact-checkers and photographers, copy editors and illustrators, designers and web technicians, advertising agents, administrators, fundraisers and more. The people who’ve led the organization got to see the impact of that cast of characters up close, and note the role that the journalism they all helped generate played in an ever-changing city.
Editing or publishing City Limits is a uniquely personal undertaking, and not just because a media outlet as small as this one requires a certain kind of sweat equity. It’s personal because, in this line of work, you get to see—and love—parts of the city that you otherwise might never have seen, and certainly wouldn’t have become part of who you are. On the occasion of our 40th birthday, we asked many of the people who devoted part of their career to running City Limits to reflect on the places that defined their time at the helm. Here’s what they wrote back. –Jarrett Murphy
In the spring of 1980, a few months after starting at City Limits, I went down to City Hall to cover a meeting of the old Board of Estimate. On the calendar was a proposal to build a home for senior citizens and a smaller building for low-income families on a vacant site on the Lower East Side. By rights, even for a publication dedicated to chronicling efforts to rebuild the city’s battered neighborhoods, this should have barely merited a story. But it did. In fact, the meeting was one of the key pitched battles in a 30-year war, one of the fiercest of the many conflicts between citizens and government that helped give birth to City Limits a few years earlier.
In those days, the calendars distributed at Board of Estimate meetings, often thick as a meaty paperback, served as a score card for the day’s debates. In its pages, the project was innocently described as part of the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area, a vast swath of five vacant acres along Delancey Street. If you ever went to Ratner’s, the long-gone and much-lamented dairy restaurant on the north side of Delancey, you might remember what was across the street: A whole lot of nothing.
Delancey Street was a main thoroughfare, the gateway to the Lower East Side, but instead of shops and buildings you had a forlorn row of weed-strewn blocks that sat like an open wound near the mouth of the Williamsburg Bridge. Part of the reason for this was that Robert Moses had wanted to construct a massive ten-lane wide expressway here. That thoroughfare would have then plunged west across lower Manhattan to the Holland Tunnel, taking out much of Little Italy and Soho along the way. Community opposition in the late ’60s blocked that scheme. But before it died, City Hall dispatched bulldozers in the name of urban renewal to demolish the homes of more than 2000 residents and some 400 small businesses along Delancey and Broome streets.
It was a wound the political powers were not eager to heal. For one thing, two-thirds of those evicted had been lower-income Puerto Rican and black residents. They’d been promised new apartments on the site, assuming they ever got built. But every time a proposal to create anything even resembling affordable residences surfaced, local political chieftains, based in the white, middle-income high-rise co-ops just to the south of the site along Grand Street, managed to defeat it. New housing meant new voters, which spelled a potential political threat to the Grand Street poobahs who were led by a rising young lawyer named Sheldon Silver. As a result, the blocks remained dormant for decades, hostage to a politics of race, fear and power.
The Board of Estimate may have been fatally undemocratic – the borough president of tiny and largely white Staten Island had the same voting power as Brooklyn with its millions of minority residents – but it was nothing if not a true petri dish of citizen participation. Supporters and opponents of the Seward Park plan lined the benches and aisles that day, hooting and yelling at one another. Mayoral emissaries and lobbyists snuck up the back stairs to whisper in the ears of the representatives of the three citywide board members—the mayor, comptroller and the city council president. The borough presidents had an unwritten rule amongst themselves that they never crossed a borough leader who objected to a project on his home turf. This protocol put the decision on the Seward Park project squarely in the lap of Manhattan Borough President Andrew Stein. Elected in 1977 to a post that, he assured supporters, was an important step along his path to the White House, Stein was most remarkable for an extraordinarily abundant toupee of black wavy hair. He also had the great good luck to be a son of Jerry Finkelstein, wealthy publisher of the New York Law Journal and one of the city’s genuine powerbrokers.
When Stein took the mic to address the chamber he read from a paper before him. He was voting no on the project he announced to cheers and boos. The reason? “Every experience with low-income housing shows it creates crime and social problems,” he stated. At this, the room erupted into more screams and chanting. Whatever else Stein said was lost amid the din.
After the meeting was over, I collected a few quotes from the crowd and then walked across Centre Street to the Municipal Building. I was curious to see what else was in Stein’s prepared remarks. I took the elevator to his office and told the receptionist what I wanted. A phone call was made and then I was sent down the hall to the press office. Stein’s press secretary, Marty McLaughlin, a savvy former Daily News reporter soon to become a full-time lobbyist, was leaning back in his chair, his feet resting on the radiator. He looked up with annoyance. “What do you think this is?” he asked. “The fucking library?”
No printed copy of the speech being forthcoming, I retreated back to City Limits‘ tiny office on East 23rd Street where it shared space with its then sponsor, the Association of Neighborhood Housing Developers. I pecked out a story on one of our two typewriters, the one with the missing hood over the keys. Editor Bernard Cohen, a brilliant and soft-spoken former UPI reporter who had brought some actual journalistic expertise with him when he took over the magazine from founder and former city housing deputy Bob Schur, looked over the story. After a while, he said, “The lede is kind of flat. Have you got anything else?”
I went back to staring at the naked keys on the broken typewriter. After a while I typed: “The use of those acres has been fought over almost as much as the certain areas of the Middle East, and nearly as many failed peace initiatives lie buried in the rubble of its demolished buildings.”
That actually wasn’t far off. It took another 30 years to break the stalemate over Seward Park. Shelly Silver, elected speaker of the assembly in 1994 and one of three men in the room determining all aspects of state politics, kept a studiously deaf ear to pleas to do something on the site. He was able to ignore the low-income housing advocates, who remained faithfully organized all those years, demanding justice for the former site tenants and the neighborhood. After all, they didn’t vote in his district, and he wanted to keep that way.
But as the downtown housing market heated up, they weren’t the only ones asking why it was that the largest single buildable site in lower Manhattan remained vacant. Silver may have already been hearing the baying of investigative hounds on his trail when he finally assented to a plan in 2010 to create a mix of market-rate and lower-income housing on the site. The deal was delivered in the final hours of the Bloomberg administration and, of course, in the style of how these deals are done now, it includes a rich array of commercial development as well. They have already started with the Essex Street Market and the cranes will soon be rising against the skyline for construction along Delancey. Meantime, you can go to the developers’ website and watch the video to hear the developers wax nostalgic about the glories of the old Lower East Side. The shame of the past 30 years that blocked affordable housing there somehow goes unmentioned.
Tom Robbins is the Investigative Journalist in Residence at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.
“They shouldn’t be there.”
In 1626, Peter Minuit “bought” Manhattan from the Lenape Indians for $24 – marking the first documented real-estate fraud in what was to become New York City.
But, as legend has it, the joke was on Minuit. He made his deal with a tribe that was just passing through, not the tribe occupying the land. Thus, the scammers were scammed. Violent skirmishes between settlers and natives ensued, as they jockeyed for control of the territory.
To this day, ferocious rivalries over property remain fundamental to the city’s psyche. Real estate – and who controls it – is the defining issue of our city.
As a reporter in the 1980s, I was incensed by the outrageous flimflam schemes — and by the brutal tactics – that unscrupulous New Yorkers devised to gain possession of land and housing. Landlords whose rent rolls were too low torched their buildings for insurance money. Others, speculating on up-and-coming neighborhoods, hired gangs to beat up tenants or rented apartments to drug dealers and prostitutes to drive out residents.
Mayor Edward I. Koch shrugged in 1987, as speculators bulldozed impoverished residents from their homes. “If they can’t afford to live in a neighborhood,” he scoffed, “they shouldn’t be there.” The powerless suffered through arson, eviction, unlivable conditions, astronomical rents, gentrification and ultimately homelessness.
City Limits gave me an outlet for my passion and the rare privilege of covering subjects I cared about deeply. City Limits introduced me to dedicated housing activists with smart ideas and unflagging dedication to fighting injustice. Together, we battled on the frontlines of housing wars and advocated for government policies that would make real differences in the lives of powerless New Yorkers.
More important, working at City Limits gave me the opportunity to meet the true heroes of New York City – people struggling to keep their homes or already homeless. Their images and stories remain with me to this day.
There was the city marshal knocking at the door of a paraplegic man who was terrified of losing his third-floor apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant –even though he could only go outside when his daughter carried him downstairs on her back;
There was the Crown Heights woman whose apartment was so dilapidated that she opened an umbrella every time she used her bathroom to avoid the leaks pouring from the floor above; an elderly woman in Harlem and her bedridden husband who faced an impossible rent increase once their city-owned apartment was sold to a private developer; the family in a homeless hotel – across from the elegant Brooklyn Academy of Music — who used a bucket in the closet of the single room they shared because the hotel’s plumbing broke down.
I met families wrapped up in coats, shivering from lack of heat in the dead of winter; children whose bedroom ceilings collapsed on them; squatters colonizing vast blocks of abandoned buildings in the East Village and the Bronx; people in living in tent cities on rubble-strewn lots.
And in the ’80s, came the terrible tragedy of AIDS and its confluence with a relentless housing crisis that left critically ill, dying people with nowhere to live out their final days. City Limits covered these stories, routing out countless crooks and swindlers, officials on the take and a whole Wild West of real estate shootouts. We analyzed public policies that allowed redlining and neighborhood disinvestment; examined community “renewal” polices that turned neighborhoods into vacant lots; shone a light on homelessness and the last-resort reliance on the notorious hellholes of overpriced homeless hotels.
Much has changed since my time at City Limits. But the conflicts over land, development rights and housing have remained a constant. Images of apartments languishing in disrepair—a strategy to drive out tenants — remain disturbingly familiar. Back then, it was East Village gentrification; today, it is East New York. Soon, there will be nowhere left for impoverished New Yorkers to live.
City Limits has transformed with the times, too. No more hours poring over dusty city records or wearing out shoe leather. Big data and the Internet enable reporters and editors to find facts faster and bring greater depth to articles. Publishing is instantaneous: City Limits no longer has to fight with mobbed up distributors to land on a news stand.And City Limits has amplified its reach, going well beyond housing and development to covering communities and a myriad of issues that lead to social injustice.
Some things have not changed. Wherever inequity exists in our city, you will find City Limits editors, reporters and photographers asking hard questions, investigating, examining policies and alternatives, seeking solutions and advocating for positive change.
Working for City Limits was one of the most challenging, exhilarating and rewarding times in my life. I am fortunate – and honored – to have had this opportunity. I am prouder still to see City Limits reach its 40th anniversary, stronger and more relevant than ever and just as committed to providing a voice for the voiceless.
Beverly Cheuvront is the director of communications and marketing at CAMBA.
Better for Whom?
Walking up the subway steps, I tried to recall the last time I was in Bushwick and the nearly 30 years since I was there reporting for City Limits. I’d read the media stories. A few years ago The New York Times affirmed a “new era” in Bushwick “…where artistic and relatively prosperous newcomers have colonized the industrial zone and began settling into the residential blocks.” A recent item on Curbed described “a nice little house” selling for nearly $1.3 million. Not the Bushwick I remembered.
During the 1950s and 1960s the lure of the suburbs led many of the community’s long-time Italian and German families to leave. A wave of blockbusting, arson and abandonment followed. At the same time, many of the breweries and knitting mills that had provided jobs for local residents since the turn of the last century were shuttered, the owners chasing cheaper labor in the South and beyond.
Then came the 1977 blackout. On a sultry summer night the lights went out and riots spread in many parts of the city. But no neighborhood suffered as much damage as Bushwick, where four city blocks were burned to the ground.
Some basic numbers tell a stark story: In 10 years the population had fallen by more than 40,000—from 137,000 in 1970 to 93,000 in 1980; roughly 40 percent of the residents received public assistance.
But I didn’t go to Bushwick to retell this tale of neighborhood devastation—a series in the Daily News did a good job of that and led to a storied 1977 mayoral debate between Mario Cuomo and Ed Koch in the home of life-long neighborhood resident Kathleen Casuso.
I went to Bushwick for City Limits to tell a different story, one with an unusual twist. Several hundred units of public housing were being built there, and the new housing was being hailed by an unlikely constituency: local homeowners like the Casuso family.
“You see the new buildings, the trees, the grass,” Casuso told me in 1986. The public housing was built on a vacant, six-acre swath of land that had been left fallow for years after a Nixon-era halt to federally subsidized housing projects and the city’s own fiscal meltdown. Much of the project was atypical for public housing. The part known as Bushwick II comprised 57 separate three-story townhouses.
The physical design fostered a different type of dynamic between the newcomers and the long-time residents. “We’re really learning as blacks, Hispanics, Italians to live together peacefully. Because of the public housing the tenants and homeowners learned to work together,” Casuso said.
The public housing project provided about 1,000 apartments, including four far more typical 7- and 14-story high-rises, but even at that scale it was not enough. The neighborhood as a whole continued to struggle. The gentrification of Williamsburg changed that. With the rezoning of the Williamsburg waterfront by the Bloomberg administration prompting a wave of hyper-gentrification, Bushwick was “discovered” by those who could no longer afford Williamsburg.
Investors soon followed in this neighborhood once redlined by banks. Savanna, a real estate firm that specializes in Manhattan office buildings (including the one I now work in) bought the former Schlitz Brewery for $34 million and is spending another $30 million with a partner, according to Crain’s New York Business, to convert it into offices and ground floor retail. The planned conversion of the old Rheingold Brewery to more than 900 apartments has sparked neighborhood protests calling for the project to make 30 percent of the units affordable to area residents.
The Rheingold project reflects the new challenges confronting Bushwick. Longer-term residents, many of them low-income blacks and Latinos, are trying to maintain a foothold in a community they have called home since well before the artists and investors showed up. In the decade since 2000, the white population has grown by 8 percentage points while the black and Hispanic shares of the population have edged downward. From 2005-2007 to 2011-2013, median rents in the neighborhood have grown at more than twice the rate of the city as a whole, according to the Furman Center.
My recent return to Bushwick centered on a visit to Dun-Well Doughnuts, a vegan doughnut maker symbolic of the newer residents and businesses now making Bushwick home. The place was packed, with a crowd you’d never have envisioned in Bushwick 30 years ago (nor would you have likely foreseen a vegan doughnut shop).
There’s no argument that Bushwick is a better place today than it was 30 years ago, with an improving housing stock and a more vibrant neighborhood economy. But the fundamental question remains one that City Limits has explored for 40 years in neighborhoods across the city and that my experience at the publication taught me to always ask: Better for whom?
Doug Turetsky is the chief of staff and communications director the New York City Independent Budget Office.
Knocking on Doors
Desolation was both wide and local in Longwood and the rest of the South Bronx. It stretched for miles, but it was also just inside the vestibule in broken-plaster hallways and wobbling, banister-deprived marble staircases. It was inside apartments with broken ceilings, wood lathe hanging loose over bathtubs, and rat holes by cold radiators. Today this sounds like the stuff of tabloid hysteria but in 1991, when I joined City Limits, it stretched well beyond Hunts Point, from the far side of Bruckner Boulevard to north of Tremont to the zoo, and west to the Harlem River. Miles and miles of avenues and streets, with graveled, ground-up blocks and lots scattered among the tenement homes of many hundreds of thousands of families.
Rainey Park itself was nothing but a few blocks of jagged rubble when I first saw this neighborhood in the 1980s. Walk along Beck Street today, the beautiful vintage brick four-story apartments look out on a glorious park, a broad circle of ballfields, walking paths and acres of grass. Around the corner, south of Kelly St. and Longwood Ave., gorgeous round-front houses have regained their old-time beauty.
As a reporter I had the freedom to spend my days talking with people who lived and worked here, tenant organizers and building inspectors, and mothers and grandmothers who proudly shared the graduation photos on their walls and kept a close eye on the little children who climbed over plastic-covered sofas and competed to hide my notepads. These women sometimes spoke of the sadness of older children caught up in addiction or otherwise lost, family disasters they could not repair; instead they patched together better lives for their children’s children, still at home, while their landlords wouldn’t do much to repair their low-rent homes.
Parents working day and night lived in many of these homes, but there was an element of menace as well: Multicolor crack tops in entrance halls, dealers nearby, a second thought before you knocked on the wrong door. Apartment doors were triple-bolted. Wise kids learned to stay home at night, away from the troubles and the police.
Some landlords made a comfortable living off government subsidies and turned a blind eye to the crack trade. On Beekman Avenue south of St. Mary’s Park in nearby Mott Haven, gangsters controlled the basement alleys and apartments in federally subsidized buildings from which wealthy Manhattan and Boston investors saved millions thanks to tax credits. Meanwhile, traffickers made millions manufacturing slow death, and the families they traumatized lived all around them.
The city government itself was at the time the biggest landlord of them all, not even counting public housing. Mayors and activists and everyone in between had just begun to work their way through new ways of renovating tax-foreclosed properties so that they could once again become the basis for neighborhood stability. It took years, but this city truly turned a corner in the early 1990s. While community development rebuilt the South Bronx, kids learned with their own eyes how to evade the reaper and a remarkable youth culture blossomed, valuing education and creative entrepreneurship and the good life. Social work and social justice emerged in new forms, focused on people instead of pathologies.
Today people still struggle to get by on these same blocks. Prospect Family Inn, a Tier-2 shelter, is just down Kelly Street from Rainey Park. There’s a nursing home across from the park, and a stable home for people with serious mental illness. My work in child welfare includes harsh daily reminders of the stress inflicted on families who deal with schizophrenia or depression or drugs. There’s no shortage of trauma. Material need is ever present: not enough income, unaffordable apartments, the menace of an inequitable economy in a booming city, and poverty increasingly concentrated.
Yet so much seems nearly solvable now. St. Mary’s Park is a playground filled with children on sunny days, and Rainey Park and the surrounding blocks are fine places to grow up. In Longwood in 1991 there was vitality and resistance and hard organizing, but I wasn’t hopeful about this city’s trajectory. By comparison, and with all awareness of the challenges people are dealing with today, we’re living in New York’s glory days.
White is the Deputy Commissioner for the Division of Policy, Planning, and Measurement at the New York City Administration for Children’s Services.
The Towers Next Door
During my run as editor from 1999 to 2005, City Limits staff and contributors gave their MetroCards a heavy workout. Our New York was a city apart from our Wall Street offices.
It was a city we mapped via accounts of combat for the future of battered affordable housing complexes in Brownsville and Bedford Stuyvesant; in cover stories on the fading rooming houses of the Rockaways and the dancehall clubs of Jamaica (Queens); in exposing the devastation of Harlem rooming houses by a mortgage-fraud ring (the bad guys, I’m happy to report, went to prison); by listening to the miseries of the homeless families languishing at the Bronx entryway to a shelter system that deemed them ineligible.
The City Limits home base at 120 Wall Street, when we discussed it at all, made easy fodder for jokes about being rabble-rousers headquartered in the financial district, back when the bankers still reigned. And oh, were the views of the East River gorgeous.
Then with a sickening suddenness one sunny morning, the luxury of a faraway gaze was no longer ours. On the morning of September 11, 2001, Senior Editor Matt Pacenza, Associate Publisher Anita Gutierrez and I had made it into the office on what had started as a hopeful primary election day full of possibility in the wake of a new term limits law — the subject of a cover story we had done featuring the twin towers made out of folded paper ballots.
Now, the nearby World Trade Center was burning, for reasons still not quite fathomable to us. We quickly agreed that leaving 120 Wall Street and heading home to Brooklyn, together, would be the wisest course of action. We ended up separated but then forever bonded, joined by Publisher Kim Nauer and Senior Editors Annia Ciezadlo and Jill Grossman in dealing first with the emotional earthquake of so much death and destruction in our midst, then with mundane practical conundrums (how to get the next issue of the magazine or fax Weekly out without access to the office?) and then upon our return with a dreadful reckoning of what had become of the city neighborhood whose health we had taken for granted while chasing stories of urban adversity everywhere but.
Even if we had tried to forget, the stench of human flesh that pervaded lower Manhattan and the photos everywhere of the missing wouldn’t let us. I coped the best way I knew how, by covering the story — not on the searing-hot pile of Ground Zero, the focus of more than enough journalists, but on the easy-to-overlook ripple effects within and beyond lower Manhattan.
For our next issue’s cover, we commissioned ace cartoonist R.J. Matson to memorialize the towers by reimagining them as two facing sides of a city street, each teeming with the everyday life of a New York City neighborhood. I wanted to will the towers back into being, and on the cover of City Limits, that and more was possible. We chronicled the economic upheaval of black car drivers suddenly thrown out of work and the heavy toll on the Chinatown economy.
In a rare freelance venture, I wrote an article for The American Prospect about the false and ultimately fatal assertions by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Environmental Protection Administration Secretary Christie Todd Whitman that the lower Manhattan air was safe to breathe. Later, City Limits monitored the multi-billion-dollar Liberty Bond program, which inexcusably gave New York’s top developers government financing to build luxury high-rises on the bankrupt premise that lower Manhattan couldn’t bounce back otherwise.
We at City Limits knew better. All around us, as we walked from subway to office to subway to assignment, blossomed the signs of rebirth: The return of the silver roti truck, which still plies lower Manhattan to this day. The hordes of yellow-ribboned tourists who, without museum or memorial but only the scene of the horrendous crime as a destination, flocked down Broadway to witness and pay respects (and the street vendors who popped up to sell them morbid bric-a-brac). The thronged protests against President Bush’s misbegotten Iraq War, which had used the murders of our fellow New Yorkers as cynical justification.
And at last the return, for us at City Limits, to once again observe and advocate for the great big city out there that we so loved, its neighborhoods rising and falling like parts of a breathing body kept alive by the will and strength of their people.
Alyssa Katz is a member of the editorial board of the New York Daily News.
On the Sidewalk
Senior editor and web editor, 2003-2006
I don’t recall ever setting foot inside the Emergency Assistance Unit (EAU) on East 151st Street in the South Bronx, which was then a notorious hub for families seeking shelter. The Department of Homeless Services offered occasional press tours, but they were few and far between.
So in 2005, working on a City Limits story about who qualifies as “homeless,” I spent several hours on the sidewalk outside the EAU, talking with families waiting to be deemed eligible or ineligible for long-term shelter. Some folks were just smoking a cigarette, taking a breather from the long wait inside. Others had all their belongings in tow, squished into beat-up suitcases or garbage bags. It was summer and that meant a surge in applications, in part because kids were out of school, taking up more space in already overcrowded apartments.
Jacquene Miranda, a young pregnant woman, was there with her husband and two children. She was in obvious pain and told me she was having contractions. She said she had tried to go to the hospital that morning, but wasn’t dilated enough to be admitted. So she returned to the Brooklyn homeless shelter where she and her family were staying, only to learn that their temporary placement had ended. That landed Miranda and her family back where they started: at the EAU.
“I hope my water breaks in there,” Miranda said, nodding toward the squat brick building. “Then they’ll have to give me a placement.”
Miranda’s family was one of many that the city considered not truly homeless. Investigators from the Department of Homeless Services had told her she could stay with her mother in Bushwick, even after Miranda showed them a notarized letter from her mother stating that they were not welcome in her home. Despite three rejections, Miranda and her husband kept reapplying, hoping the city would change its mind.
In the past, families like theirs were sometimes forced to camp on the floor of the EAU overnight as their applications were processed. By 2005, they no longer slept at the intake center, but still languished there for hours on end before being bused to shelters for the night, woken up at 6 a.m., and then bused back to continue the wait.
In 2006, the old EAU was torn down and in 2011, it was replaced with a new $65.5 million intake center with three times more space, a bilingual announcement system and a place to check luggage. The new center could process applications in an average of six to eight hours, rather than 20.
Yet the overall picture has gotten worse. When I wrote my story in 2005, there were around 8,000 families officially considered homeless. Today, there are more than 12,000. A 2015 report by the Coalition for the Homeless found that roughly half of families with children seeking shelter are still found ineligible for long-term help. And, as City Limits recently reported, the quality of shelter offered to those homeless families who do make the cut remains dismal. A December audit by the comptroller’s office found that half the units surveyed had rodents, roaches and other vermin. Nearly 90 percent had issues like mold, peeling paint or blocked fire escapes.
While the problem of homelessness in New York is depressingly intransigent, it’s reassuring to know that City Limits is around to cover and contextualize it, drawing on four decades of reporting. Then and now, City Limits tried to make New York better by putting a human face on city policies. For me, in the summer of 2005, that face belonged to Jacquene Miranda – wincing through contractions as she waited for a home.
Cassi Feldman is an associate producer at 60 Minutes.
The Art Deco Ziggurat
Web editor, 2006-2010
It was an end-of-summer lunch break. I recall sitting on a bench near Wall Street in the stillness of September 2008, accompanied only by a few pigeons, reading The New York Times with an intensity unmatched since 9/12/01. I was trying to understand the financial crisis that was shaking the country. Bear Stearns was no more. The government took over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy. The feds bailed out AIG. And the Street itself was unusually quiet.
When I first came to 120 Wall Street as editor of the City Limits website in June 2006, the staff had dwindled to one person. Editor Cassi Feldman kindly trained me in creating the e-bulletin Weekly, then turned over her office with a river view. I was now it: the entire editorial staff of a venerable publication. Over the following nearly-four years of my editorship, although City Limits had been headquartered on Wall Street for years, never had Wall Street so much suffused City Limits.
These were the heady “peak Bloomberg” years not only of the billionaire mayor, but of private equity discovering affordable housing as an investment, and how. We wrote about predatory equity – with the help of input from our neighbor-organizers at the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, among others – in the Bronx and Harlem and Brooklyn. And in downtown Manhattan, in spring of 2007, my new colleague Jarrett Murphy and I passed out the first issue of the revived print magazine, now called City Limits Investigates, at a “hands around Stuyvesant Town” event. It was a protest against the misguided biggest real estate deal in American history, Tishman Speyer’s $5.4 billion purchase of Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village. (Where, ironically enough, I now live.)
Speculators snapping up working- and middle-class residential buildings was one housing problem we wrote about. Widespread mortgage foreclosures tied to the overall financial crisis was another. Both of these trends were driven by Wall Street, and both wreaked massive havoc in the lives of everyday New Yorkers. Yet, in making the case for rewriting law to allow him a third term as mayor, Michael Bloomberg invoked his own status as a financial insider to put things aright.
In an article in that same fall of 2008 about whether lower-income folks supported the mayor’s desired term extension, then-Pratt Center Director Brad Lander summed up the nexus of interests. “I see why the real estate and Wall Street community believe that Mike Bloomberg is good for them,” Lander said, “but we’re at a moment when it’s not clear that real estate and Wall Street interests are in everybody’s interests. …I don’t remember Mayor Bloomberg raising questions about subprime lending. I don’t remember the mayor asking whether overpaying for Stuy Town was good for middle-class New Yorkers or the New York City economy. It turns out it was bad for both.”
City Limits, or course, was raising those questions. In article after article, we did our best to expose, explore and illuminate these critical issues. The reporting took our intrepid reporters into far corners of the city, but it was the Art Deco ziggurat at 120 Wall – the city’s first “association center” for nonprofits – that served as home base for the small City Limits staff, trusty interns, and writers from all over.
I treasured the people of City Limits, the place, and the majestic view from my desk of New York Harbor, whether glowing in the sunset or lashed by a thunderstorm. In fall of 2010, however, we packed up the office for a move into the United Charities Building on Park Avenue South. Our neighbors on the Street, who generated so much bad news in City Limits, may not have noticed. But we stayed dedicated to the proposition that our reporting does get noticed. One of its impacts on our city is to encourage citizens to listen to watchdogs before they’re proven correct, not just afterward.
Karen Loew is a writer and preservationist in New York.
On Strivers’ Row
Mark Anthony Thomas
Business director, 2008-2010; Publisher, 2010-2013
I may be one of the few New Yorkers who lived in the same apartment during my time in the City. One of Harlem’s historic areas, Strivers Row, which included Manhattan’s 138th and 139th streets, served as the backdrop for my time in the City. As a student of the neighborhood’s history and culture, I jumped at the opportunity to center my New York life here. The neighborhood’s old timers would always remind me that even in Harlem’s darkest days, my area remained a gem and a symbol of hope.
Strivers Row has been depicted in art and books, even fashion clothing lines. It has attracted great figures from art and politics as residents, including Adam Clayton Powell. My council member also lived on my street. But like the city, it was never perfect, even if culture depicted it as such. Around us were mostly burnt out abandoned storefront properties alongside small businesses that struggled to connect with the newcomers to the neighborhood. Many of the brownstones appeared abandoned. A treatment center for HIV patients sat across from a 1930s gutted out casino and theater. It is the type of community that City Limits covers and represents: striving, imperfect, misunderstood, but full of narrative.
Whenever I revisit New York, it’s a special moment to return to Strivers Row. Redevelopment is finally finding its way to the blocks that surrounded my apartment. Even the gutted out casino will soon be a new multiuse development. Journalists, writers, and artists have this ability to create narratives within their moments and memories, making a stroll along a city block or the curiosity of new construction crane much more than a moment.
Most people aren’t as fortunate to receive every moment or every memory as a gift of analytical, journalistic thought. In that same breath, however, people look to good reporting and in-depth storytelling to fill that void. For four decades, this has been the making of a City Limits reader. They represent every color, every financial demographic, and they live, work, and travel among us. City Limits is a curriculum in truly understanding how we discover issues and the heart of communities. Each generation has discovered City Limits in the latest storytelling technology and connected with the voice its writers scribe and the images its photographers share.
City Limits will forever stay with me. It was much more than a job or a role, but a catalyst for my segue to the policymaking arena. We covered so many issues that I’ve seen stem greater coverage in the mainstream and that served as a reference for how to think differently about issues people believe they already understand. As complexity become the frame of every aspect of policymaking and urban policy, City Limits serves as a permanent destination for those who strive for a greater awareness.
Mark Anthony Thomas is now director of the operations innovation team for the mayor of Los Angeles.