Bowery Bummer

Downtown Plan Will Make and Break History

It's been 97 years since any bartender poured a shot at McGurk's Suicide Hall, a turn-of-the-century Bowery dive that was legendary as a place where numerous patrons, especially prostitutes, took their lives. But Kate Millett— author, artist, founding feminist and, not coincidentally, a tenant in two gargantuan lofts in the building that housed McGurk's at 295 Bowery— thinks the saloon's memory should be preserved.

"Together with Fifth Avenue, the Bowery is one of the most famous streets in the world," says Millett, 64, a four-decade Bowery resident. "This is a very precious part of the American experience."

Millett has asked the Landmarks Preservation Committee (LPC) to designate 295 Bowery, near Houston Street, a historic site. But her interest is as much in the building's future as its past. Last month, Community Board 3 endorsed a plan for the Cooper Square Urban Renewal Area, a seven-block patch that includes the city-owned building where Millett and two other households of artists have lived since the 1970s. Without landmark status, 295 Bowery will likely face the wrecking ball.

The board's endorsement is itself historic: since Cooper Square was designated an urban renewal area in 1959, community opposition has outlasted five mayors and countless economic tides. In 1997, the department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) convened a task force to nudge the community into agreement. The result was last month's vote.

The task-force plan calls for about 625 apartments to be built on several sites along Houston Street between the Bowery and Second Avenue; 75 percent will be market rate, 25 percent for low-income tenants. A 46-unit single-room occupancy hotel is also planned. HPD expects to pick a developer by the end of summer; meanwhile, various land-use and environmental reviews will ensue, and the City Council and mayor must approve any final plan. Task-force members expect construction within two years.

Most of the land to be developed is vacant, but three buildings— 295 Bowery, an adjoining restaurant supply wholesaler, and church center — would be wrecked. "If you don't demolish those buildings, you lose new units," says Steve Herrick, a task-force member and executive director of the Cooper Square Committee.

But Millett and neighbor Sophie Keir say the plan could be reconfigured to produce housing and preserve their lofts. Keir will present an alternative to the community board on March 23. Most important, Millett and Keir argue, the task-force plan shortchanges the neighborhood. "What this is all about is business and the market and how much money the city can get; greed, in short," says Millett, who pays about $600 for two 2000-square foot lofts. "But they have us over a barrel, saying, 'Aren't you for low-income housing?' Emphatically, we are. But the deal this time is not a very good one. It's nothing like as good as the schemes we used to fight for."

Indeed, Millett served on a committee to keep new construction in the urban renewal area affordable: A 1971 plan would built 1000 new units, half for low-to-moderate-income tenants and half for middle-income. But as government money for housing shrank, so did the number of affordable units, and the current plan— which cuts out middle-income renters and sprinkles only 25 percent low-income units in a predominantly market-rate development— is by comparison lopsided. The skew is somewhat offset by the SRO housing.

"One thing we did lose forever is middle- income housing," acknowledges Herrick. "But HPD is not willing to put it up, and doesn't want more than 25 percent low-income because it would reduce the interest of developers."

The plan emerged after HPD made it clear that money for the project was gone and it intended to capitalize on the robust real estate market. "They're saying to the community, 'Look, we're unloading this anyway, so you'd better do something," says councilmember Kathryn Freed. "We either had to get on the bus or lose out."

Keir, a sculptor, finds the plan confounding: it saves the Liz Christie Garden and squats in a Second Avenue building, but destroys her home. Troubles for 295 Bowery tenants are compounded because, while the city must relocate them in comparable space, HPD will be hard-pressed to find anything like the four large lofts, each bathed in light from three exposures. HPD limited its own relocation options when it made a side deal last summer, selling a string of partly vacant loft buildings in the urban renewal area to the artists living there. In 1994, lofts in one of the buildings had been offered to 295 tenants, who were facing an earlier demolition plan.

"We negotiated a golden parachute for those tenants, but it wasn't good enough for them," says Valerio Orselli, a task-force member who directs a Cooper Square housing group. "Now their options are limited." Herrick argues that 295 Bowery tenants "have been subsidized for years. Kate has two floors and a farm upstate. It's not like this is her only place to live. If she wasn't a well-known writer, she would not get this attention."

Millett disputes all that. She says the 1994 offer was not real— "We were shown the place with a flashlight, never allowed back, and then HPD never spoke to us about it again." As for fortune, she says she's near broke, relying on a paycheck from teaching a class at NYU. She does own 90 acres and a farmhouse in a Dutchess County women's art colony she founded in 1979, but pays for it by raising Christmas trees and renting the house most of the year. "People think I should be rich and famous," says Millett. "The fact is, I'm 64 years old and a farmer."

Millett was in a similar situation in the late 1970s, when the city moved her out of a Dutch-era house it owned at 307 Bowery, declaring it unsafe. She was relocated to 295 Bowery, and now looks daily on the empty lot where her old home stood. "The last time this happened to me, I went into a terrible depression and didn't fight," Millett recalls. "I lost two years of my life. In fact, I almost lost my life. This time we intend to chain ourselves to the door to save what is our home and this last piece of the past."

Last week, Keir made her pitch to the LPC, but chief of staff Terry Rosen Deutsch told the Voice, "It's unlikely that the agency will battle for landmarking," since demolishing the building has been long debated and since HPD wants to move forward.

As for McGurk's, its memory was revived in 1992 when author Luc Sante's Low Liferecalled waiter Short-Change Charlie, bouncer Eat-'Em-Up Jack McManus, and prostitutes who suicided with carbolic acid. Sante, who has issued a statement favoring landmarking 295 Bowery, wrote in Low Lifethat reform mayor Seth Low shuttered the joint in 1902. Archival records show that when John H. McGurk's saloon closed down, he changed professions. He went into real estate.

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