The Shame of Speaker Shelly Silver's Resistance to Seward Park Redevelopment

A stretch of the Lower East Side stands desolate and empty after 'urban renewal,' thanks to the Assembly Speaker

A lawsuit alleging discrimination by the co-ops lingered in federal court for years before a settlement opened the rolls in the late 1980s. The Riveras and other former residents kept waiting. "We always had that dream that the neighborhood would come back," said Lillian Rivera.

Every city administration has made a stab at resolving the situation. Back in April 1980, Ed Koch proposed a shopping center, 150 units of housing for senior citizens, and a modest 100 apartments for low-income families. A near-riot ensued at the old Board of Estimate. Residents of Grand Street shouted down speakers from north of Delancey. Taunts of "racist" and "criminal" flew. Andrew Stein, then Manhattan borough president, shot down the plan: "Every experience with low-income housing," he said, playing to opponents, "shows it creates crime and social problems."

Silver was then a two-term assemblyman from the co-ops. The Rivera sisters recall him as a bright young lawyer. Nilda Rivera, a social worker at Gouverneur Hospital on Madison Street, found him "very helpful with our clients." But he went stony deaf when the subject of Seward Park arose.

Exiled: Nilda and Lillian Rivera
Cary Conover

Exiled: Nilda and Lillian Rivera

"I am so disappointed in him," said Lillian Rivera. A couple years ago, the Bloomberg administration floated its own modest proposal, calling for a mix of low- and middle-income housing, along with more units for senior citizens. This one never made it to City Hall. Administration officials quietly dropped the plan after another raucous hearing, this one at a local community-board meeting. Lillian Rivera, a retired public-school teacher, tried to speak over the shouting: "These people were saying the new housing would devalue their property. I said, 'I was here before you were. I was your neighbor, remember? You'd see me in the supermarket? Now, all of a sudden, I'm not good enough to come back to my own neighborhood?' They booed me off the stage, but at least I got my say."

These days, the Bloomberg administration lapses into cautious bureaucrat-speak when pressed about the site: "There is a long history of underdevelopment, with great community interest," says a spokeswoman. "The city is interested in re-engaging and discussion about future uses. The community will be fully involved in any dialogue."

Pushing hardest for that discussion is a group calling itself the Seward Park Area Redevelopment Coalition. A year ago, Harriet Cohen, the group's chairwoman, wrote Silver requesting a meeting. "We never heard back," says Cohen.

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