Landmarks Hears Mixed Testimony on Proposed East Village/Lower East Side Historic District

Proposed East Village/Lower East Side Historic District. Credit: LPC

New district would encompass more than 300 buildings in an area that was home to successive waves of immigrant groups. On June 26, 2012, Landmarks heard extensive testimony on the proposed designation of the East Village/Lower East Side Historic District. The proposed district would encompass approximately 330 buildings located primarily along Second Avenue between St. Marks Place and East 2nd Street and adjacent side streets. A portion of the district would extend along East 6th and East 7th Streets, reaching Avenue A.

The area is largely characterized by multi-family 19th century tenement buildings that housed various immigrant groups newly arrived to the country. The area became home to German and Irish immigrants as wealthier New Yorkers moved uptown, and in time became known as Kleindeutschland (Little Germany). Later, the area became home to Jewish and Eastern European immigrants, and Second Avenue became a focal point for lower Manhattan’s Jewish community, gaining the title of the “Yiddish Rialto.” After World War II, the neighborhood came to be dominated by Latin American immigrants. Realtors began calling the neighborhood the “East Village” shortly after the removal of the elevated Third Avenue subway line in 1955. The area has a rich legacy in the arts, and in social activism. Landmarks calendared the district on June 28, 2011.

At a packed hearing on June 26, 2012, elected officials and preservation groups testified in support, while some residents and representatives of neighborhood religious institutions spoke in opposition. A representative of local Council Member Rosie Mendez called designation “long overdue,” while representatives of Assembly Members Brian Kavanagh and Deborah Glick described the intense development pressures facing the neighborhood. Representatives of Borough President Scott Stringer and State Senators Thomas K. Duane and Daniel L. Squadron also spoke in favor of designation. Manhattan Community Board 3’s Carolyn Ratcliffe testified that CB 3 supported designation as a way to “protect existing streetscapes from rampant development.” Ratcliffe, however, noted that some local religious institutions are worried about the impact of Landmarks’ oversight, and asked the commissioners to consider their concerns.

The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation’s Andrew Berman testified that the neighborhood’s tenements provided “a record of the lives of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers for whom this city was their first stop in a new world.” Christabel Gough, of the Society for the Architecture of the City, noted that the area had been home to writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, artists Claes Oldenburg and Robert Rauschenberg, and social reformers Dorothy Day and Isaac Hopper, among many others. Neighborhood resident Namita Luthra said that the historic buildings served as “reminders of lives lived before us,” which “tell stories of deep struggles and overcoming those struggles.” Other residents, as well as representatives of preservationist and community groups, including the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors, the East Village Community Coalition, the Historic Districts Council, and the New York Landmarks Conservancy, testified in support.

Opponents included representatives of religious institutions that would fall within the district, and some property owners. Representatives of the Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Virgin Protection at 59 East 2nd Street stated that landmarking would add to their “financial duress.” Father Tadeusz Lizinczyk, of Saint Stanislaus Bishop and Martyr Roman Catholic Church, questioned many of Landmarks findings, and said the Church should not be “forced into being landmarked against our own wishes…as being landmarked will be a very expensive proposition which will not be of any benefit to our community.” A representative of St. Mary’s Orthodox Church on East 7th Street said the costs associated with landmarking could force the Church to close. Joanne Kennedy, of the Catholic Worker based at 6 East 1st Street, testified that it was “not in our mission to preserve our building,” but to serve the poor.

Edward Shapiro, a local property owner, argued that “everything has a history, [but that] does not make it historical.” Shapiro noted that the tenement buildings were long considered substandard housing whose residents left as soon as they could afford better options. Another resident accused Landmarks of perpetuating the housing crisis. Carol Van Guilder of the Real Estate Board of New York also testified in opposition, focusing her testimony on the economic hardships REBNY believed would be caused by designation. Van Guilder urged Landmarks to create a “next generation Landmarks process” that would create a more equitable partnership with the property owners being asked to be stewards of the built environment.

Landmarks Chair Robert B. Tierney closed the hearing after thanking those who had taken the time to attend. No date has been set to vote on the district.

LPC: East Village/Lower East Side Historic District, Manhattan (LP-2491) (June 26, 2012).

Editor’s Note (7/24/2012) – REBNY’s Carol Van Guilder did not testify in opposition to the proposed historic district. She offered her testimony to comment on the problems associated with this type of designation. Van Guilder has provided CityLand with a copy of her full testimony, which can be read here.

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