Open City: Blogging Urban Change
The list
By Jerome Chou

 

The list records building demolitions in the East Village, the Lower East Side, and Chinatown in the 1980s. City workers demolished the buildings because they were considered a hazard, perhaps having been abandoned or set on fire. The list notes the address and, when it could be determined, the date of demolition. There are 236 entries in all. The earliest demolition on the list is 717 Ninth Street, in January 1978; the last is 513 Twelfth Street, December 1989.

The list combines the bloodless efficiency of a bureaucratic record with the idiosyncrasies of a diary. Each entry is marked with an “x,” which would seem redundant, since every building on the list was demolished; the “x” isn’t typed, but rather seemingly stamped on with a kind of quiet rage. (Or is it resignation?) To compile the list in an era before online municipal databases would’ve required an intimate knowledge of both individual buildings and the cumulative process of ruin, day after day, year after year. The list is perversely faithful, but is outpaced by the destruction it attempts to describe. Was 191 Stanton Street demolished in 1986? Did 64 Clinton come down in 1981? The dates are uncertain.

It takes many individuals and institutions to produce what the list records. Banks stop providing mortgage loans in the area. City agencies cut back on services. Landlords walk away  from the costs of owning an old building, residents move out. All of these things happened in many neighborhoods throughout New York in the `70s and `80s, during which time the city went bankrupt and became a national symbol of urban decline. But by the time of the last chronological entry on the list, the neighborhoods it describes had already begun to change.

May 28, 1984

In his essay “My Lost City,” Luc Sante describes the changes he witnessed on the Lower East Side in the 1980s:

The neighborhood was filling up, rapidly…Speculators were buying up even gutted shells, even tenements so unsound they would require a fortune to fix…the neighborhood was subjected to lifestyle pieces in the glossies…you could spot millionaires making the rounds in old sweaters.

Is it possible that the Lower East Side of the list and of Sante’s essay are the same? Could it have been that “the streets were visibly more congested than the day before,” as Sante writes, even as the city was tearing down scores of buildings? (And doesn’t the New York Magazine cover seem to corroborate Sante’s story while casting doubt on the list?) In fact both of these versions of the Lower East Side—one falling, the other gentrifying—are inextricably intertwined. New condos and bars emerge from a landscape of abandoned buildings that can be bought relatively cheaply, renovated, and sold at a higher price at a good profit, so long as people are willing to move in. The lower the original value–that is, the greater the level of abandonment–the higher the potential profit.

I don’t know who created the list, which I found in a box of materials a local housing activist donated to NYU. But the lesson of the list is clear: the process of a neighborhood becoming more upscale—what Sante first saw decades ago or the latest boutique clothing store to open in 2010—often begins with decline.

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About Open City
Open City: Blogging Urban Change is an interdisciplinary neighborhood blog and community project coordinated by the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. Five commissioned writers, called Organizing Fellows, are working with community organizations and neighborhood folks in Manhattan’s Chinatown/Lower East Side (LES), Flushing, Queens, and Sunset Park, Brooklyn to collect oral histories and interviews, offer commentary about gentrification, neighborhood change, and produce new creative work around these themes. Read more.
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CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities was formed in 1986 (formerly known as the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence) as a response to an increase in anti-Asian hate crimes both in New York City and around the country (which included violence by police officers against Asians).
They have two offices – one in Manhattan’s Chinatown (which houses the Chinatown Tenants Union, and the new Asian Youth in Action organizing project) and the Youth Leadership Project office in the Bronx – and have members from all over the city. Over the years, CAAAV’s main campaigns have focused on community-based organizing work rooted in Asian immigrant and refugee communities. Although their advocacy and organizing work is focused mainly in Manhattan’s Chinatown and the northwest Bronx, CAAAV’s work also touches upon larger issues (such as affordable housing, war, and immigration) shaping communities all over the world: “Our work is primarily centered around issues facing New Yorkers, but always with a global analysis.”
CAAAV’s mission is to organize and build the power of working-class Asian immigrants, refugees, and youth to change concrete conditions and participate in a broader social justice movement. In the past, CAAAV’s work included organizing South Asian taxi drivers, Korean women workers, and Filipina domestic workers. Several of these organizing projects have gone on to become their own organizations, such as the New York Taxi Workers Alliance and Domestic Workers United. CAAAV’s current work focus on three different program areas: Read more.

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Manhattan CB3 Land Use, Zoning, Public & Private Housing Committee
Monday, May 2 at 6:30 pm -- Rutgers Community Center, Gymnasium - 200 Madison Street (btwn Rutgers & Pike Sts)

Brooklyn CB7, Land Use/Landmarks Committee Regular meeting
Continued discussion on potential 8th Avenue rezoning

Manhattan CB3 Economic Development Committee Tuesday, May 3 at 6:30pm -- Community Board 3 Office - 59 East 4th Street (btwn 2nd Ave & Bowery)

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