As I write, another street protest simmers outside the former Esperanza community garden on East 7th Street and Avenue C. Founded 23 years ago by the Puerto Rican residents of the homesteaded co-op next door, the garden was bulldozed last month to make way for mostly market-rate housing. Now the boarded-up lot has become a symbol of the Giuliani administration’s agenda to privatize public properties and uproot both green space and the multicultural life of the Lower East Side (LES).
Just a few doors west, near Avenue B, a new luxury residence offers swank rentals priced between $2500 and $4500, along with amenities such as valet service, a fitness center, and high-speed Internet access. The lobby’s crisp decor is enlivened by a series of photographs—an attractive female punk with multiple piercings, an old Latino man picking an electric guitar on the sidewalk, a black kid playing in an open street hydrant—that harken back to the old neighborhood’s vibrant street life.
The irony of aestheticizing a building with images of the very people that such upscale housing displaces is not lost on sociologist Christopher Mele. In his new book, Selling the Lower East Side, Mele traces how prevailing stereotypes of the East Village as an ethnic haven or bastion of working-class dissent and countercultural rebellion have been “reworked as place themes” by real estate players seeking to capitalize on the area’s “alternative allure.”
The architectural features and interior designs of the East Village’s new, high-end commercial and residential spaces produce a contrived sense of urban grittiness and feel of “downtown” without the risks and inconveniences of poverty. . . . The effect of this latest form of urban development is the gated community without the gate—the symbolic inclusion of difference coexists with its material exclusion.
Mele is an academic, not an insider. This book grew out of graduate research he began during the 1980s while living in the East Village and studying at the New School. Now an associate professor at the University of Buffalo, Mele seems to have written from afar. This might explain how he can still refer to “the area’s dominant population of working-class and impoverished families, minorities, informal workers, drug dealers, prostitutes, petty criminals, and homeless.” He limits his study to the area south of 14th Street and north of Houston, ignoring the recent boutiquification of the old Jewish quarter south of Houston, dubbed “Loho,” where an Orchard Street condo just sold for $1.1 million.
Nevertheless, Mele compiles an impressive wealth of archival data and historical surveys along with his own field research to illustrate how cultural representations have helped shape the political and economic development of the LES since the 19th century. Early portrayals of the overcrowded immigrant quarter as a “jungle” or “underworld,” he argues, were used by both the state and property owners to justify neglect. The area’s marginalization in turn fueled working-class resistance in the form of rent strikes and demonstrations, like the so-called “Communist” riot of 1874, which attracted the city’s first bohemian community. Over the last 100 years, successive generations of avant-garde and subcultural movements (the beats, hippies, punks, squatters, queers) have sought to harness this legacy of dissent in order to bolster their own rebellions.
With his penchant for postmodern lingo, Mele can get carried away with notions about how “prevailing discourses” have “sculpted” the neighborhood. Was the area’s sluggish development caused by the prevailing conception of it as “inferior and marginal,” dating back to 19th-century slums, or by the fact that it was for many years a high-crime area with crummy housing stock where you had to pee in the corridor? Was the “culture of conflict” fostered by squatters and activists over the squats and Tompkins Square Park during the late 1980s successful in undermining efforts to market the neighborhood as a desirable middle-class district? While local unrest and the ubiquitous tag “Die Yuppie Scum!” no doubt frightened off some investors, the slackening of gentrification at the end of the decade probably had more to do with the stock market slump.
The more compelling question posed by the book is how, since the 1990s, resistance to gentrification has itself been co-opted. The shift, Mele writes, has to do with the emergence of a “hyperconsumerist culture” capable of assimilating aspects of underground culture as mere lifestyle choices. The “East Village” he says, has become a brand name, “a stylized and depoliticized subversion borrowed from past and present images, symbols, and rhetorics of protest, resistance, and experimentation.” Mele cites the Broadway play Rent, which reduced squatting to a nonthreatening bohemian romance, and the mid-’90s cybersoap The East Village, which allowed Internet browsers to interact with a fictional cast of trendy artist-types.
In today’s new “rental niche market,” Mele asserts, “[media] content workers pay high rents to tolerate the area’s above normal levels of crime, noise, and drug-related social problems that are viewed as integral to the ambience of Downtown urban living. Thus they derive social capital from occupying an area that the stereotypical middle class are reputed to avoid.” Netheads are no doubt drawn to the area’s funky ambience and profusion of theme bars and cafés, but skyrocketing rents reflect its proximity to Silicon Alley and Wall Street, along with the reality of life in a rapidly globalizing city where the vacancy rate has dropped below 4 percent. Indeed, given these market realities, Mele’s conclusion that the neighborhood’s allure may fall victim to media overkill seems rather naive. Absent an economic crash, the demand for housing will continue to rise.
The challenge to community activists today, Mele contends, is to remain a step ahead of the culture industry by “manipulating the realm of ordinary activity and coding it with political meaning.” Here Mele falls victim to the old neighborhood’s romance. LES activists used to think that projecting animage of cultural freedom would trump establishment power. But as longtimers have learned, real power comes from who controls the land.