Towering Expectations

A Community Fights for a SoHa Landmark

In a dissertation on the history of the institutionalization of cancer, Dr. Lawrence Koblenz writes: "Conventions and convictions excluded cancer patients from traditional general hospitals in America until the end of the nineteenth century. . . . Cancer was considered a woman's disease by physicians and laymen alike . . . because women were more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with cancer."

In the blocks around the Towers, rents are already very high. But a couple of blocks west—on Columbus Avenue, where brownstones give way to tenements and public housing—the Frederick Douglass Community Center is trying to meet the needs of less affluent residents, who include an increasing number of immigrants, mainly Mexicans, Dominicans, and Central Americans. The center's director, an affable man with graying hair named Robert H. Hill, says that in the community at large, there's "a not too subtle fear of losing out to the upper class. [Real estate development] affects the amount of affordable housing, the prices stores charge, and the type of goods they sell. It also decreases the number of low-income people." He describes the process as "class clashes."

The 116-year-old Towers: neglected but coveted
photo: Sylvia Plachy
The 116-year-old Towers: neglected but coveted

Indeed, all communities eventually face clashes of cultures and shifting demographics. Nonetheless, such struggles symbolize the healthy tug between economic imperatives and a community's values. Most likely, the committee can't save the Towers—the Board of Standards and Appeals says its decisions are seldom overruled, and the Landmarks Preservation Commission wouldn't comment—but surely the battle is worth it in a city where money often wins out over what matters to a neighborhood.

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