In Rem

I’m working on a post regarding the effort to prevent 7-Eleven from opening on Avenue A and East 11th Street in the Lower East Side, but I have a wicked cold and it’s hard to put my thoughts together right now, so I’m just going to quote Neil Smith again.

A 1982 consultants’ report entitled An Analysis of Investment Opportunities in the East Village captured the City’s strategy precisely: “The city has now given clear signals that it is prepared to aid the return of the middle class by auctioning city-owned properties and sponsoring projects in gentrifying areas to bolster its tax base and aid the revitalization process” (Oreo Construction Services 1982).

The City’s major resource was its stock on “in rem” properties, mostly foreclosed from private landlords for nonpayment of property taxes. [I’ll come back to this in a later post: How it is the City wound up with title to so much land.] By the early 1980s the Department of Housing, Preservation and Development held over 200 such in rem buildings in the Lower East Side and a similar number of vacant lots. With sixteen of these properties, the Koch administration made its first significant foray into the real estate frenzy of gentrification: artists were to be the vehicle.

In August 1981 HPD solicited proposals for an Artist Homeownership Program (AHOP) and the next year announced a renovation project that was to yield 120 housing units in sixteen buildings, each costing an estimated $50,000, aimed at artists earning at least $24,000. Their purpose, the Mayor proclaimed, was “to renew the strength and vitality of the community,” and five artists’ groups and two developers were selected to execute the $7 million program (Bennetts 1982).

While supporting artists portrayed themselves as normal folks, just part of the working class, a population already largely displace from Manhattan who deserved housing as much as anyone else, an artists’ opposition emerged — “Artists for Social Responsibility” — who opposed the use of artists to gentrify the neighborhood. HPD, the mayor and AHOP were untimately defeated by the City Board of Estimates [sic], which refused to provide the initial $2.4 million of public funds (Carroll 1983).

Neil Smith, The New Urban Frontier (London/New York: Routledge, 1996) 24.

A Brief History of Lower East Side Development

In the decade and a half after 1877, with the economy expanding and immigration growing, the area experienced its most intense building boom. … New York’s ruling class has long sought to tame and reclaim the Lower East Side from its unruly working-class hordes. Only five years after the federal government severely curtailed European immigration, the Rockefeller-sponsored Regional Plan Association offered an extraordinary vision for the Lower East Side. The 1929 New York Regional Plan explicitly envisaged the removal of the existing population, the reconstruction of “high-class residences,” modern shops, a yacht marina on the East River, and the physical redevelopment of the Lower East Side highway system in such a way as to strengthen the connection with neighboring Wall Street…

The stock market crash of 1929, the ensuing Depression and World War II, the unprecedented wave of post-war suburban expansion, and eventually the New York City fiscal crisis all mitigated against the planned reinvestment and reconstruction of the Lower East Side as a high-class haven. …

Not until a further half-century of disinvestment, dilapidation and decline did the 1929 vision begin to be implemented. Even as yuppies and artists began to pick over the wreckage in the 1970s, everyone else was moving out.

Neil Smith, The New Urban Frontier (London/New York: Routledge, 1996) 20-21.

Miscategorizing Employees

A tweet I forwarded today reminded me of a problem I had a couple of years ago. The tweet was from Jobs With Justice:

I was laid off in October of 2008 from a company called Indigo Design. (Since that time, the owner underwent a nervous breakdown and the company is out of business). I had only worked there for six months, but prior to that had worked for another company long enough to qualify for unemployment benefits.

I applied for unemployment, accurately stating my most recent employer and the cause for my leaving, which was “lack of work”. Shortly afterwards I received the following email:


(You may notice that the Subject header is “Letter of Recommendation”. I wrote to him shortly after I was let go, requesting a letter of recommendation. I waited until I got it before submitting my unemployment claim, since I didn’t think I’d get one from him if he knew I was filing.)

I didn’t call him because I saw no reason to, and because I didn’t want to have to explain that the claim wasn’t against Indigo Design, but with New York State. Withdrawing my claim would put me in the position of not collecting what was owed me due to my previous work!

Anyway, a while later I received a letter from the Department of Labor stating that my claim was under review and that payments would be suspended until the time of its resolution. The reason was that my most recent employer stated that I was terminated for “lateness”, and not because of lack of work.

Unfortunately, the DOL was swamped with new claims, as it was the beginning of the mini-Depression, and employers were challenging these claims in record numbers. This went on for months, and finally I received their decision: they were accepting Indigo Design’s claim that I had been a contractor. As a result, my weekly check was $102 less than it would have been, but at least I was finally getting something.

Around this time I also received from the DOL a questionnaire to determine if I had actually been a contractor. I looked at it and could see that if I answered every question accurately, it would demonstrate beyond all doubt that I had been an employee and not a contractor. I didn’t fill it out and send it back because I knew if I did it would result in my claim being frozen again, and I had already gone for too long without money. I saved it though, with the intention of waiting until I had exhausted my benefits, and then sending it in. By that time, though, the owner had gone mad and the company was out of business, putting another half dozen or so people into the same position I had been in.

So, what is the lesson to be drawn by this? Don’t wait until you file for unemployment to challenge your boss’s misclassification of you. Take a look at the IRS page describing employees vs. contractors, and fill out the PDF if you think you’ve been misclassified.

Artists Made This Neighborhood?

No matter how thoroughly obscured by the art world, the role that artists and galleries play in the gentrification of the Lower East Side is clear to those who are threatened with displacement, as well as to the community workers who are trying to save the neighborhood for its residents. “I think that artists are going to find themselves in a very unfortunate situation in the coming year,” says Carol Watson. “There is going to be a real political struggle, a very serious struggle on the Lower East Side. And those who line up on the side of profit are going to find themselves on the enemy list. It’s just that simple…” It is not a case of mistaken class identity for the people of the Lower East Side to place artists among the neighborhood enemies. For despite their bohemian posturing, the artists and dealers who created the East Village art scene, and the critics and museum curators who legitimize its existence, are complicit with gentrification on the Lower East Side.

The second moment in the process of gentrification is contingent upon the success of the first. … On the Lower East Side it was not until artists, the middle-class’s own avant-garde, had established secure enclaves that the rear guard made its first forays into the “wilderness.” The success of these forays can best be measured by the rapid escalation in real-estate activity. According to a December 1982 article in the VILLAGE VOICE, Helmsley-Spear, Century Management, Sol Goldman, and Alex DiLorenzo III had all invested in empty lots, apartment houses, and abandoned buildings. Rents in the last two years have risen sharply. A small one-bedroom apartment rents for approximately $1,000 a month, and storefront space that once rented for $6.00 a square foot now costs as much as $35.

Rosalyn Deutsche and Cara Gendel Ryan, “The Fine Art of Gentrification,” THE PORTABLE LOWER EAST SIDE, Volume 4, Number 1, Spring 1987, 22 Jan. 2013 #

Lower East Side Artists Were Not Immigrants

While it might be tempting to view this current situation as merely the latest development in an unchanging immigrant history of the Lower East Side, there are fundamental differences between the past and the present. The experience of European immigrants was one of gradual assimilation; for today’s minorities, it is one of attrition. Any attempt to equate these experiences would result in profound distortions. The immigrants admitted to this country from the mid-nineteenth century to the close of the First World War belonged to a displaced, “floating” labor force following capital, which had itself emigrated to the New World. Because most of these European immigrants were allowed a niche either in the closed circuitry of the immigrant economy or in the city’s burgeoning manufacturing industry, there were opportunities for many eventually to move out of the tenements and beyond the borders of the Lower East Side. The present inhabitants of the area have no equivalent role to play in today’s economy, and therefore “upward mobility” is not the reason that fifteen percent of the residents left the neighborhood between 1970 and 1980. The exodus was due instead to arson and the wholesale abandonment of buildings by landlords.

To portray artists as the victims of gentrification is to mock the plight of the neighborhood’s real victims. This is made especially clear by the display of wealth. At this moment in history artists cannot be exempted from responsibility. According to Carol Watson, the best thing the artists of this city can do for the people of the Lower East Side is to go elsewhere. She realizes, however, that the hardest thing to ask individuals is not to act in their own best interest. Nonetheless, they need to decide whether or not they want to be part of a process that destroys people’s lives. “People with choices,” she says, “should choose not to move to the Lower East Side.”

Rosalyn Deutsche and Cara Gendel Ryan, “The Fine Art of Gentrification,” THE PORTABLE LOWER EAST SIDE, Volume 4, Number 1, Spring 1987, 22 Jan. 2013 #

Slouching Toward Avenue D

On the Lower East Side two industries define the new urban frontier that emerged in the 1980s. Indispensable, of course, is the real estate industry which christened the northern part of the Lower East Side the “East Village” in order to capitalize on its geographical proximity to the respectability, security, culture, and high rents of Greenwich Village. Then there is the culture industry — art dealers and patrons, gallery owners and artists, designers and critics, writers and performers — which has converted urban dilapidation into ultra chic. Together in the 1980s the culture and real estate industries invaded this rump of Manhattan from the west. Gentrification and art came hand in hand, “slouching toward Avenue D,” as art critics Walter Robinson and Carlo McCormick (1984) put it.

Neil Smith, The New Urban Frontier (London/New York: Routledge, 1996) 18-19.

Why This? Why Now?

I haven’t had much luck keeping a blog going for very long. I’ve had at least three that I can remember, and each one went through the same cycle: initial, tepid interest; eventual disregard; deletion.

I still have a somewhat-active site going, my New York Occasional Photos blog. Things have been slow there, though, since my camera lens malfunctioned.

So why another blog? Because this time I’m expanding the scope. The previous blogs have all been on one topic — topics that I’m not an expert on either, just topics I’m interested in.

I got the idea to do this after participating in discussions in the Comments section of EVGrieve. There’s been a lot of chatter there lately regarding a 7-11 store opening on the corner of Avenue A and East 11th Street. After seeing that there was no clear understanding of what gentrification is, or what fuels it, or even the of history of the “East Village,” I decided to start this blog.

Once I made that decision, I started piling on other ideas I’ve had lately too. I had intended to read Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of … series and post snippets from them on Facebook. I almost went as far as to declare this as a New Year’s resolution! I have the set of four books (Age of Revolution, Age of Capital, Age of Empire, and Age of Extremes). I read Age of Revolution a few years ago but, as with blogs, something else got in the way of my completing starting them.

But I don’t really like Facebook, and I didn’t make the declaration, and I haven’t start reading them yet, because: 1) I am not finished with Bully For Brontosaurus, by Stephen Jay Gould, and; 2) I need to re-read Neil Smith’s book The New Urban Frontier for my gentrification posting.

I hope that answers your question.


I know what you’re thinking. What is a quilas?

Many years ago, I was playing Scrabble with my brother and his then-wife. I had a jumble of letters that I couldn’t make a word from, so I put down:
Q – U – I – L – A – S.

They were suspicious.

“Are you going to challenge me?” I asked. The penalty in Scrabble for an incorrect challenge is to lose your turn.

“What is it?” they replied.

“It’s one of those African musical instruments, that you play with your thumbs,” I said.

“Yeah, I’ve seen those,” they said.

At this point, almost every word or name that’s ever existed has been claimed by WordPress bloggers. It’s nearly impossible to secure a name these days. I went through quite a few ideas before hitting on this one. And it came to me because I was recently telling someone the Scrabble story above.

Today I did a search for quilas on the internet. Naturally, something showed up. I think if you search for any random string of characters, something will show up. It turns out that Quilas is the name of a Mexican restaurant in British Columbia, Canada.

Watch me get a cease-and-desist letter from them now!