My Lower East Side
By Amy Chozick
New York Times
June 20, 2014
The way we heard it, the rabbi’s wife died on a Tuesday. That left just enough time for seven days of sitting shiva, and after that, a speedy white paint job and a Sunday open house that ended with our successful offer for a spacious and sunny two-bedroom co-op apartment.
We had searched for an apartment for nearly two years before we stepped across the threshold — nearly 1,200 square feet in the Seward Park Cooperative, the hulking red brick midcentury towers near Seward Park on the Lower East Side.
I thought we’d never be able to buy a home of our own. We felt priced out of Manhattan. The leafy Brooklyn enclaves where most of my friends lived were nearly as expensive. And I couldn’t kick the feeling that they were somewhat sleepy and homogeneous.
I’d spent my first 12 years in New York in an East Village walk-up The upstairs neighbor was the cowboy from the Village People. A Hare Krishna temple was in the retail space downstairs, and on Friday nights the orange-gowned devotees danced and chanted in our courtyard garden. The Mars Bar — the original, graffitied one with a distinct smell of urine — was across the street, and I’m pretty sure another neighbor made drug deals at the pay phone out front. It wasn’t exactly Park Slope.
After I got married and approached my mid-30s, the neighborhood — and, I suppose, I — changed. I grew up in a quiet suburb in South Texas, and loved the in-your-faceness of the East Village. In the early days when I was still unemployed, I’d lie on a bench in Tompkins Square Park perusing the listings in the Village Voice for a place to live. (I stopped doing this after someone dropped money at my feet, thinking I was homeless.)
But in recent years the only things in-your-face about the East Village were the Avalon Bowery Place condos and a TD Bank. The neighborhood where I used to get a Tecate beer and a shot of tequila for $5 at the Cherry Tavern had become the province of $11 green juices. Not to mention that my 500-square-foot one-bedroom apartment wasn’t ideal for me and my husband, Robert Ennis, as we contemplated the next chapter together. It was time to move.
In the end, we did not need to go far. The Seward Park Cooperative is one of the gigantic complexes in the cluster of utilitarian apartment buildings known collectively as Co-op Village. The buildings stretch along Grand Street from Essex to Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive. When we went looking, two-bedrooms at Seward Park were selling for about $700,000. We bought our place last August, but couldn’t close until October because of the Jewish holidays. We did some renovations and moved in in April. The Seward Park Cooperative alone sits on 13 acres of land and has 1,728 apartments, more than 4,000 shareholders and 50 commercial and professional spaces. “It’s a small city,” Frank Durant, the co-op’s general manager, told me.
The complex also has doormen, a gym, a vegetable garden, indoor and outdoor playgrounds, vast swaths of private tree-lined outdoor space with complimentary lounge chairs and a handful of cars that can be rented by the hour, among other amenities that we didn’t even know we wanted but now wonder how we lived without (except, maybe, for the electric car charging station, which is ahead of its time). All, I might add, for our bargain monthly maintenance fee of around $615.
But mostly, we were drawn to the Lower East Side because it feels so authentically New York, or, at least the New York that initially wooed this kid from white-bread Texas, as well as my Irish-born husband.
Here, Chinese, Latino and Jewish people come together (not always harmoniously) in a gritty mix of kosher bakeries, Dominican hair salons and Chinese massage parlors. “It’s not all one thing,” said our friend Christopher Oakland, who bought a one-bedroom apartment in the Seward Park Cooperative at an estate sale eight years ago. “You see old, young, black, Chinese, gay, straight, all of it.”
I also felt an intimate connection to the area. Had my great-great-grandfather Reuben Jacobs, a young Jewish émigré from Poland, not left the Lower East Side to peddle on the railroad, which took him to a dry-goods store in the little oil town of Luling, Tex., there’s a good chance my family’s story would have unwound in the shtetl south of Delancey.
The area still has the feel of an immigrant community. Each morning on my way to the nearby F train, I walk past Chinese women doing tai chi in the adjacent public park, also called Seward Park, built on three acres in 1903. On weekends, vendors sell vintage clothing and lobster rolls as part of the Hester Street Fair, a lower-key version of the sprawling Brooklyn flea markets.
We were introduced to the neighborhood by Christopher and his roommate, Martin Wilson. On the Fourth of July, we’d watch the fireworks from the sprawling balcony of their 15th-floor apartment, with its unobstructed views of the Empire State Building and the Williamsburg Bridge. It seemed as if every time we visited, we’d see a new shiva notice posted on the message board downstairs, inviting neighbors to partake in the Jewish mourning ritual. Not much for political correctness, Martin and I used to joke that we should bring a babka (chocolate, not cinnamon, of course) and check out the apartment.
Cringe if you want, but we wouldn’t have been the first to turn a shiva into an open house. We’d all like to believe that our legacies are larger than a rent-controlled apartment, but this is New York, where mortality and mortgages are intrinsically linked. The sad truth is when your lease on life is up, your family members will whisper, possibly over your cold, dead body, about what will happen to that Brooklyn Heights brownstone you purchased in the 1960s for $80,000.
That is particularly true on this stretch of the Lower East Side, which seems a world away from the youthful barhopping on Orchard and Rivington.
Co-op Village is an N.O.R.C. or Naturally Occurring Retirement Community. The bulletin boards downstairs in our building display notices on advertising workshops with titles like “From rotary phones to smartphones, how do we cope?” or events such as a rally to restore escalator service at the East Broadway subway station. From sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday, a Shabbos elevator stops on every floor so that elderly Jews do not have to take the stairs when they must refrain from pressing the buttons.
The seniors make the place special and infuse it with a sense of history. I am listening to our elderly neighbor play Shalom Aleichem on his piano as I type this. I love it here.
But the elders are also sometimes (understandably) annoyed by us youngsters. I don’t know the exact age of the person who posted a message about proper garbage disposal that read: “The hazards of leaving your garbage in this manner are myriad. MYRIAD, I tells ya!” But I can guess. One Seward Park resident told me his long-resident next-door neighbor asked if he and his wife had just moved in. No, he replied, they’d lived there for seven years. She scoffed. “I can’t keep up with all the comings and goings.”
Seward Park, and its sister co-ops Hillman Housing, East River Housing and Amalgamated Dwellings, were built by garment workers’ unions in the early and middle part of the 20th century. The co-ops have a muscular industrial aesthetic; midcentury murals by Hugo Gellert depicting victories over injustice and tyranny adorn the lobby walls of the four Seward Park towers.
Designed as utilitarian dwellings to replace squalid tenements, the largely Jewish and mostly union workers received limited-equity apartments for what now seems like almost nothing — as little as a couple hundred dollars per room in the 1950s. If a resident died or moved out, his or her apartment would be sold back to the co-op board for roughly the original price. The board would then sell the apartment for a similar sum to the next middle-income family on the waiting list.
Back-room deals sometimes dictated who got the apartments. That meant that shiva notices often served as the closest thing to a real estate listing.
“It became a place to go and sit down and say, ‘Sorry about your parents, when can I move into your apartment?’ ” said Juda Engelmayer, who was born in Co-op Village and lived there for 42 years.
By the 1990s the neighborhood had been badly bruised in the drug epidemic of the previous couple of decades, and the co-ops had fallen into disrepair. At a recent community meeting to discuss the future of the co-ops along Grand Street, the moderator had to remind the audience: “Clinton Street was the bridal district before it was the heroin district.”
The co-ops made the controversial decision in the mid-1990s to allow tenants to sell their apartments; prices were at first capped, but later went to the open market. In exchange, sellers paid a flip tax of around one-fourth of the sales price. Many of the residents were quick to cash in, selling the two-bedroom apartments they bought for less than $2,500 for as little as $65,000 in 2000, still well below the market rate. From Jan. 1 to May 22, the median sale price of an apartment in Seward Park was $608,985, a 91.2 percent increase from the same period in 2002, according to Miller Samuel Real Estate Appraisers.
“There were old socialists and communists turning over in their graves” when the co-ops privatized, Jacob Goldman, the president and founder of LoHo Realty, which specializes in the more than 4,000 apartments in Co-op Village, told me over coffee at the Ost Cafe, among the first Brooklyn-style coffee shops to open east of Clinton Street near the Amalgamated buildings.
An influx of young residents and families moved into the co-ops, and the steep flip tax meant the complexes could quickly replenish their coffers and make improvements. Today, about 48 percent of Seward Park shareholders are original tenants or their descendants, Mr. Durant said
Privatization, Mr. Goldman said, coincided with a real estate boom in Brooklyn that pushed out writers and artists (or what brokers call “the creative community”). In Co-op Village, they and other new arrivals found an oasis with open floor plans and more affordable prices. The architect of many of the buildings, Herman J. Jessor, wanted working-class families to have apartments with eat-in windowed kitchens, proper foyers, windowed bathrooms for ventilation and hallways to provide privacy between bedrooms and living rooms, features railroad tenements lacked.
“You had the 3H’s needed to make the area Williamsburg-like: Hasidic, Hispanic and hipster,” said the author Gary Shteyngart, who lived in the East River co-ops from 2004 to 2010 and wrote “Super Sad True Love Story” there. Lenny Abramov, the sad sack hero of that novel, lives in apartment E607.
For others the decision to go market-rate brought the unwelcome sting of gentrification. And, I recognize that the arrival of people like me, with our renovated kitchens and affinity for designer doughnuts, has made that sting all the worse.
In particular, many Latinos who had lived in the area for generations felt priced out of the co-ops. The complexes have a long history of ethnic clashes, including a 1970s lawsuit brought by the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund that said the co-ops discriminated against blacks and Latinos. The co-ops lost and for a period were required to allot a portion of available apartments to blacks and Latinos.
Even as sales prices rise, Co-op Village remains among the more affordable areas in Manhattan. In 2012, median household income in the Lower East Side/Chinatown area was $41,512, compared with $68,227 in Manhattan overall, according to a report by the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy of New York University.
“There are younger people coming into the community who want to have a family and stay in New York City,” said Michael Tumminia, a former president of the Seward Park co-op board who has lived in the building for 10 years. “Seward Park allows them to do that.”
Part of why shiva notices often lead to an apartment sale is that some in the next generation of observant Jews prefer the New Jersey suburbs or the Upper West Side to the insular corner of Manhattan in which they grew up.
Our neighbor’s son lives on the Upper West Side and chuckled when he saw us moving in next door to his mother. The restaurants and galleries on Orchard and Clinton Streets didn’t exist when he was growing up, much less Cafe Grumpy on Essex Street, where I (reluctantly) pay $3.25 for a 16-ounce coffee each morning.
“You think it’s hip, but for my generation it carries a stigma,” said Mr. Engelmayer, who was until recently an owner of Kossar’s Bialys on Grand Street and who moved to Teaneck, N.J. two years ago. “It was where you lived if you were white and poor.”
By most estimates, only around 400 Orthodox Jewish families remain in Co-op Village. After intense debate, the Seward Park board recently voted 7 to 4 to allow the nonkosher Comfort Diner to take over the space that had been the Noah’s Ark kosher deli.
“There’s a part of the area that is clinging on to what used to be,” said Ed Litvak, a 47-year-old former TV news producer who lives in Seward Park. In 2009, Mr. Litvak and his wife, Traven Rice, started the Lo-Down, a monthly publication and website that chronicles the changing area. He partly modeled it after the Grand Street News, which shut down after its publisher moved to Israel.
The neighborhood will soon face its biggest change since privatization as developers move forward with a plan to develop six neglected, unused acres along Delancey Street into a mixed-use retail and residential complex called Essex Crossing. The development, one of the largest in the city, is expected to include restaurants, a movie theater, green space, an Andy Warhol Museum, and 1,000 apartments, half of which are to be designated for low-, moderate- and middle-income families and senior citizens. Some of the nearly 2,000 mostly Puerto Rican families displaced in the 1960s when the area was razed have been promised priority.
There are also plans to build the Lowline, a subterranean version of the High Line, in an old trolley terminal that runs under Delancey Street.
Lots of people I talked to for this story told me how fabulous all this is for us homeowners, using words like “appreciation” and “return on investment.” That’s nice and all, but, I do worry that the neighborhood we’re so happy in will lose its teeth. I can always walk 15 minutes uptown if I want a green juice.