Jews and the american city: Planning, Developing and Imaging Urban Space and Jewish Space. November 10, 2010. Lila Berman

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Sulieman Osman: Thank you for having me. I had a little bit of a printer problem last night so I’ll use a little bit of technology and read or at least glance to the screen. Thanks for having me. I’m a late edition to the panel and I think it’s a fascinating topic. Although I don’t specifically work on the specific topic of the panel, I do do research about ethnicity, about urbanism and about development in Brooklyn, so I want to talk a little bit about my research related to the panel and then also maybe a little bit about family history or about my own biographical connections to these spaces.

My project is about what would be described as either back to the city movement, the stay in the city movement, by beginning to look at the origins of-although it’s a loaded term-gentrification in Brooklyn after World War II. While a lot of historians have looked and traced what we’ve talked about, the broader trend of people moving to the periphery of cities after World War II…We know the story, the flight from the Center City even as early as the Forties, even tracing to the Twenties. There’s always been a significant population that stayed in the city that was moving into older tenement districts. The origins of the type…there have been a lot of neighborhoods similar built environment to here, sort of townhouse districts. You can think of Society Hill or Rittenhouse Square or University City. I don’t know Philadelphia that well. I was trying to make a connection to Philadelphia neighborhoods, but certainly Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C…definitely a place like San Francisco. I’m sort of tracing the history of the origins of this kind of revitalization and rooting it a lot earlier in post-war history. Rather than looking at the 1990’s and developers and real estate agents in the 1990’s, I look at the 1960’s or the 1970’s and link this back to the city movement, to the counter culture, to the new left, to sort of a search of authenticity for baby boomers. A kind of rediscovery of central city districts as sites of authenticity, critiques of mass consumer, the emergence of a new generation that grew up in the suburbs and was beginning to look towards older central city districts, particularly old townhouse districts, as potential refuges or sites in the critique of the suburbs.

A lot of these sort of older industrial districts and town house districts also began to emerge. If you think of Hanson’s Live, the idea that the grandchild wants to remember what the son wishes to forget. They were beginning to look towards the landscapes of their grandparents as sites of ethno-genesis, a place where you could return, sort of beginning to chafe against the perceived assimilation of the suburbs and beginning to rediscover ethnicity in the central city.

A lot of the spaces, a lot of the neighborhoods-we think of things like Little Italy or the Lower East Side, Sugar Hill in Harlem-are both memories of the 1920’s but also linked to sort of the 1970’s, people beginning to look to these spaces, both real and imagined, as sites of what the panels refer to as sort of the myth of the neighborhood, which has real benefits in sort of revitalizing the central city and also some aspects of the city that’s begin re-imagined. I sort of look at these shifts in the central city in a kind of…what are the benefits and drawbacks to the back to the city revitalization of the central city, but then also anxiety about higher prices.

I wanted to talk a little bit about…rather than Brooklyn, I wanted to talk a little bit about the Lower East Side. There’s certainly both this sort of landscape, although I’m not going to focus on the brownstone Brooklyn landscapes of the Lower East Side, and look at actually…look at a different sort of landscape. There is much in the Lower East Side that’s similar to brownstone Brooklyn. You can sort of see, you can really trace in a certain area, let’s say the East Village, a similar history of the emergence of a counter culture, sites that were also…sites I forgot to mention, a real kind of movement against urban renewal, like a lot of these central city districts you think of. Greenwich Village or East Village or brownstone Brooklyn were sites of neighborhood resistance to post-war development, this sort of anti Robert Moses movement, in a lot of these central city districts.

The Lower East Side had a similar kind of history, where you have the burgeoning counter culture, the squatter’s movement, a lot of activism and anxiety about redevelopment, eventual sort of concerns about gentrification in the 1980’s. Rich debates about the contemporary Lower East Side-is it museumification of the past or is it a sort of celebration of local place that’s a contrast, a sort of stark modernism of older forms of development in the Fifties and Sixties? But I want to kind of look and take a different look on a panel about development and kind of do an analysis not of familiar ground, let’s say Katz’s Delicatessen or the tenement museum or former sweatshops turned into artist studios, and look at another striking landscape of the Lower East Side when you’re driving on the FDR, which is the modernist landscape and ostensibly destroyed much of the Lower East Side.

If you drive on FDR, driving, you see these rows of red brick houses of public and middle-income subsidized housing. I’ll sort of make an argument or a suggestion that although they seemingly seem to be placeless, they seemingly seem to be stark and a contrast to this sort of colorful landscape of East Village, that in some ways these are also important sites of Jewish history and Jewish reform and that they are also, in some ways, authentic sites of history. We’ll talk a little bit about the development and politics of development.

To just talk a little bit about personal matters, I have lived…I grew up in both sorts of landscapes before my family moved to…Well, first of all, through my mother’s side of the family I’m from a mixed household. I’m Jewish through my mother’s side of the family. We’re descendant from…everybody is from Minsk in the 1880’s. Not through Ellis Island but through Boston, so mostly in the Worcester area. Before moving to Parksville in 1981, we lived in Masaryk Towers on the Lower East Side, on Columbia Street, which was a tall, urban renewal project from the last Sixties. It was a stark tower. I was on the 18th floor, right next to the Williamsburg Bridge. It was sort of a classic modernist…was critiqued as being a tower in the park but it was surrounded by open space with super blocks and unadorned…very similar to a lot of the landscape. Across the street from Masaryk Towers was the Baruch Houses, one of the largest public houses, low income. The one I was in was a Mitchell Lama project. It was a subsidized, low-income project. Across was the Baruch Houses, the largest low income project in Manhattan. I looked up some of the numbers about the Baruch Houses. Seventeen red brick towers ranging from seven to fourteen stories and home to five thousand people. The building I lived in, Masaryk Towers, was only a small section of an enormous landscape of public subsidized housing on the Lower East Side. It was like I was saying-you’re driving on FDR, it’s one of the most striking characteristics of the Lower East Side.

As you pass by the Baruch Houses, you’ll pass by the Vladeck Park Houses, named after one of the former managers of the Forward and a founder of the Jewish Labor Committee, original board member of the New York City Housing Authority. Next to that would be the William Wald houses, and along with the low-income housing built and operated by New York City Housing Authority are middle-income subsidized housing, limited equity coops, similar in design, similar red brick, similarly unadorned, similarly modernist, built by unions like International Ladies Garment Workers Union, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America and Abraham Kazan’s United Housing Federation.

Starting in 1936…you see, the Lower East Side has one of the most extensive collections of public housing or government subsidized housing for a variety of incomes in the country. A lot of it is really created during this era from the mid-Thirties to the late-Sixties or early-Seventies, an era that is colloquially referred to as the era of urban renewal, of urban redevelopment, with the striking remaking of the landscape.

How can I sort of make an argument that these kind of seemingly faceless buildings-I mean really no references to local place aside from the names, almost intentionally no references to ethnicity, seemingly indistinguishable from other projects on the part of the cities, how can I argue that these were also important sites in Lower East Side history or even more provocatively, as sort of authentically historic as, let’s say, Katz’s delicatessen up the street?

One can certainly point to either the names or the demographics of the developers or residents. Historians talk about, when they talk about urban renewal, this kind of mix, and I think they talked about. This mix of interest kind of came together to build and rebuild the center cities. They refer to them as either growth coalitions or the pro-growth machine, and a variety of kind of actors who unified, for a variety of sometimes conflicting reasons, to kind of knock down large sections of the cities and build these towers.

Certainly in New York or in this area you have figures like idealistic housing reformers like Charles Abrams. You have real estate developers like William Zeckendorf. You have non-profit hospital and university directors who want to expand their campuses. You have big, important part of union leaders and cooperative housing advocates like Abraham Kazan and of course, there’s the type of urban redevelopment of New York City, Robert Moses. So there are certainly figures you can point to as historic figures that can link this to at least New York Jewish history.

When we talk about what is sort of the impulse that united this group, is I think what people were talking about in maybe the first…sort of a sense of civic responsibility in this era of development. I don’t mean to be sanguine about the sort of negative aspects of urban renewal but these leaders were all of a generation that shared a type of faith in modernity as a solution to the city’s ills. They’re rooted in a spectrum of political views ranging from the sort of New Deal liberals but really also the old left. You can sort of use scientific progress, modernist design, slum clearance, to break from the sort of provincialism of the ghetto, to break free from neighborhoods where many of them grew up or many of them are second generation. A lot of people I mentioned-not Robert Moses-grew up in places like Brownsville or the Bronx and grew up in tenements, and the sense of looking towards the possibility of renewal, of modernization, later generation assimilation, as a source of mobility and freedom from being trapped. They had little nostalgia for dilapidated housing, for tuberculosis, for the industrial scene. And in these buildings we look at some of them, aside from this cost deficiency-these things being unadorned-was the sense of they’re intentionally unadorned, sort of a sense of universal…a universal mission of this housing. There’s almost intentionally no reference to local place. It was almost a faith in mass consumer culture. You can sort of link this to other spaces around the city, maybe to LeFrak City or to even William Levitt and other Brownsville raised…this sort of mass production, as being a possibility of a liberating force. In some ways you can detect, even in those sort of destructive elements of it, a perhaps misguided progressive element to the performist wing of development in this period, which makes it so interesting to sort of contest.

So in some ways it’s interesting. My parents moved from Masaryk Towers to Park Slope. When you walk from Masaryk Towers to the East Village, you’re really kind of shifting from two sorts of eras of urbanism and two different urban visions. You’re moving in some ways from maybe you can say pro-growth era of Judaism to a slow-growth era of Judaism. Perhaps a space that was an outgrowth of the old left to a space that’s kind of an outgrowth of the new left. From Robert Mosesesque Judaism to a Jane Jacobsesque Judaism. A reform tradition centered in areas like…a Jewish reform tradition centered in the Amalgamated Housing Cooperative or Coop City to one centered more in Park Slope or the East Village or the Upper West Side. From the Thirties…something that’s an outgrowth from the Thirties to an outgrowth from the Sixties, or maybe you can say from a modernist urbanism to perhaps a post-modern landscape.

So the goal here, though, is not to commemorate urban renewal or sort of celebrate the tens of thousands of people who were displaced by some of these projects, or to kind of return to, let’s say, that sort of slum clearance of the 1950’s, but it is an interesting era now where a lot of that landscape is being dismantled, that era of housing from the Thirties to Sixties. The sort of packed towers, low income housing, are largely being knocked down in a lot of cities or replaced with a different style. A lot of the Mitchell Lama, or sort of subsidized limited equity coops are being privatized. There’s a kind of a shift away from that.

I think it’s important to remember that the places, as flawed as they were, aren’t necessarily places, are placeless. There actually was a history to those places that’s interesting to remember, not so much to replicate but perhaps for future developments to remember that development can incorporate a reformist spirit, not just a destructive spirit. It’s a difficult marriage but there is that sort of possibility, and to sort of rethink if those places as interesting historic places, perhaps as to the mission that could be preserved or remembered.

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