Sunday, October 12, 2008

America’s Most Endangered Place: New York’s Lower East Side

In May 2008 The National Trust for Historic Preservation listed New York Lower East Side as one of America’s 11 most endangered places. After a year of producing films on our endangered natural environment, my latest project is giving me a whole new perspective on how the term “endangered” can also apply to a man-made place.

Lower East Side, historically an immigrant neighborhood has in the last two decades gone through much development. Gentrification, as defined by is “the restoration and upgrading of deteriorated urban property by middle-class or affluent people, often resulting in displacement of lower-income people”. Located in downtown Manhattan, the Lower East Side's close proximity to the Financial District has attracted bankers and business professionals. Gallery owners who can no longer afford the priced out Chelsea has seeped into the LES and settled their little galleries on Clinton Street and various other streets. Original resident buildings called tenements were once homes to a lot of immigrants have now have increased in price. The first hotel, a glass-walled 22 stories building opened on Rivington Street in late 2004. Many condominium towers are sprinkling up and the prestigious private university, New York University has also expanded their campus down to the LES. As more and more higher buildings are constructed, there is huge concern whether the LES will become a place where only the wealthy can afford to live.

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

~ Emma Lazarus’ poem on the Statue of Liberty

Lower East Side has been the most culturally diverse square mile in United States since the founding of this country. Most Americans can trace their roots to the Lower East Side one-way or other: Irish, Germans, Italians, Jews, Chinese, Hispanics, etc. When my family immigrated to New York City in the mid 1980s, we settled in Chinatown and LES. Speaking no English, the immigrant neighborhood provided support and resources with those similar to our backgrounds. Coming to America with nothing, immigrants learn English, get work, get an education, become American – Lower East Side played such vital place for many immigrants like my family that I can’t imagine growing up anywhere else but here.

Lower East Side developers such as Misrahi Realty talks about how change is inevitable and how development is necessary for a neighborhood. New York City is always changing, and LES is no different. For the developers, Lower East Side is still an immigrant neighborhood, just a new sort of ‘immigrants’ now. These ‘immigrants’ are international young professionals, college educated, good credits, and carry Blackberries. In face of these new ‘immigrant’, the traditional immigrants of the Lower East Side suffer. From long time tenants who are struggling to keep their rent control homes to small business owners (known as mom and pop stores) to artists, everyone is struggling to survive in the new Lower East Side.

Marylou, a Dominican American and Sharon, an African American were born in the neighborhood have lived here for half a century. They met when they were in second grade and have been best friends since. Greg, an old time resident in his mid 50s says any kid should be proud to grow up in the LES where there are all kinds of people and you learn to live with others very early in life. John, a long time Lower East Sider in is early 60s of Spanish descent said he could hardly recognize the changes now and missed the old time community feel of the LES. Shalom, an artist originally from Europe settled in the LES in the early 80s. Feeling the lost of the true flavor of the city, he said it’s just a matter of time that he will go back to Europe. He claims Berlin or Prague is more dynamic and open to poor artists than NYC. The list of long time residents affected by gentrification goes on and on. With development increasing every day, both the physical and symbolic character of the LES is eroding.

What is the future of the Lower East Side? Will it stop being a place that welcomes the poor, and instead only become a place for the affluent, for those who can afford to live here. In the natural environment, trees and oceans are potentially resilient; in time they may grow back. But once a neighborhood is changed and its historic buildings torn down with families and communities uprooted - it is all gone. For a country with little history as United States, I feel the need to hold on to its roots, more necessary than ever. But above all, I think what is endangered is not just the actual neighborhood of the Lower East Side – I feel, tragically what is also endangered is the idea and symbolism of an America that is a place accessible to all.