Just south of Delancey Street on the Lower East Side, near the bustling entrance to the Williamsburg Bridge, lies that rarest Manhattan commodity: vacant land.
This is not just a few buildable lots, but a huge swath of property, some five acres in all, every square inch of it owned by the City of New York. It is a fabulous parcel, the kind that developers—like those building theswanky new towers rising on the other side of Delancey Street—only dream about. The site is in that perfect pre-development stage, with parking lots covering most of its blocks. As the building boom has taught every New Yorker, this is the normal holding pattern for soon-to-be-developed urban land.
But not here. These weed-strewn lots have stood for more than a generation, their grim chain-link fencing, topped with barbed wire, all that passes for a streetscape. No one has dared break ground here in decades. Every promise to do so, every initiative that might bring new construction, has been buried by the political masters who control this barren turf.
Even today, as Mayor Bloomberg insists that he must add 65,000 affordable homes to meet the city’s housing crisis, this stretch of land—the largest chunk of vacant city-owned property south of 96th Street and the most logical spot to build low-cost dwellings—remains off the table, a political untouchable.
Who has such clout? Who tells a mayor, an entire city, to simply buzz off?
Who else but that wily old pol, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. This strip—carried on zoning maps as the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area—is the northern edge of Silver’s lower Manhattan district. And while he rarely leaves fingerprints, nothing moves here without his approval. In Albany, where he is the state’s second-most-powerful figure, Silver is notorious for his often-obstructionist ways. On Seward Park, he has outdone himself. Under his watch, this territory has remained desolate and empty for more than 30 years, held hostage to stubborn prejudice and fear of change.
Silver declined to discuss his role. But he issued a statement insisting that he’s blameless and calling for “a locally driven process” to develop plans for the site with all “stakeholders” participating. He also praised his own record of promoting affordable housing. Classic Silver.
Consider the facts: In 1967, the city cleared the last of some 2,000 residents and nearly 400 small businesses from the site. This was urban renewal at its destructive peak, demolishing tenements and evicting longtime residents with the feeble pledge that public good and betterment would result. Once new housing was constructed, residents were assured, they’d be first in line. Like most inner-city urban-renewal sites, minorities got the bulk of the eviction notices: Two-thirds of those moved off the land were black and Latino; one-third were white.
“We lived right over there,” Nilda Rivera, 69, was saying the other day, standing in the shade of a lone tree on Broome Street and pointing east toward Attorney Street. “There was me, my four cousins, my aunt, and my uncle who was in the Merchant Marine.” That was 1952, when Rivera’s family in Puerto Rico sent her to live with relatives.
When her mother and four siblings arrived a couple of years later, they took an apartment on nearby Norfolk Street. It was a fourth-floor walk-up without hot water. The tub was in the kitchen, the toilet in the hall. Was there a tiny balky refrigerator or just an old-fashioned icebox? The memories of Rivera and her sister Lillian Rivera, 58, standing beside her, differ. But both recall a mixed neighborhood of Jews, Poles, Irish, blacks, and Hispanics where people looked out for each other. “One day I played hooky, went to the park,” said Nilda Rivera. “I came home, my mother says: ‘So, how was the park?’ This old Jewish lady next-door had seen me and told my mother.”
Lillian Rivera pointed to a spot on Norfolk Street adjacent to a closed synagogue where Harry’s candy and soda store had stood. “There was a Polish grocery, a wedding hall, a Romanian restaurant, Mr. Brown’s bar. We lived here so many years. It’s where I made my friends. I shopped in la marqueta,” she said, gesturing toward the Essex Street Market a block away.
Initially, they were told the land was needed for a new expressway, one of Robert Moses’s schemes. When that failed, the city said it would rebuild on the site. The Riveras, with nowhere else to go, were the last out of their building. While they waited, the streets became a drug mart, dealers hawking their wares as customers cruised past.
It wasn’t all desolation. To the south, along Grand Street, rows of new high-rises sprung up, built by unions and nonprofit groups. The buildings were middle-income co-ops, with low purchase prices. Those apartments were quickly taken by garment workers and others, many of them Jewish. Blacks and Latinos somehow didn’t make the cut. “My mother was a single parent working in a factory,” said Lillian Rivera. “Whatever it cost to get in the co-ops, she didn’t have it. We were excluded.”
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.
“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.