Blast From the Past: Artists Gather In East Village to Protest Gentrification

croman - may 3 rally artist's parade

”I see them walking down the street in identical blue suits with their briefcases and I think, ‘There goes the neighborhood,’ ” said the leathercrafts maker who has lived in a loft behind her studio on East Seventh Street for 21 years. ”Why are all these people coming here, where they’re so riotously out of place? I don’t want my neighborhood to change.”

The passage above is from 1984 New York Times article entitled “The Gentrification of the East Village”—a process that, by most indications, would seem to have been largely completed thirty years later. After all, David Schwimmer built a six-story mansion with a roof terrace on East Sixth Street, the average rent for a non-doorman studio is now $2,282 a month, and last January an exclusive, “contemporary pet care hub” called Ruff Club opened on Avenue A of all places.

Nonetheless, local activists are planning an “artist’s anti-gentrification parade” on Saturday; we wish them all the best. (Not to be confused with the re-enactment of the Tompkins Square Riot for a movie taking place tonight.) Their mission may sound impossibly quaint, but their complaints are genuine—the illegal deregulation of rent-controlled units—even if the only artists who live in the East Village now are either multi-decade residents or Guggenheim-show-worthy superstars.

The event, which is being put on by the Stop Croman Coalition—named after the much-hated local landlord who runs 9300 Realty—and Good Old Lower East Side, is also a rally for a rent freeze on rent-stabilized units. Given that Bill de Blasio is pushing for the same, this seems like a goal substantially more practical than any general attempt to turn the East Village back to a time before things really got bad. (In 1984, it seems, gentrification remained no more pernicious than a proliferation of sushi bars, slate-floored lofts and “neoned” art galleries; call it the calm before the storm, or rather, the storm before the squall.)

But sushi bars and art galleries are more or less just the historic versions of juice bars and dog spas, right?

Would that they were… and not only because nights at sushi bars and galleries are a lot more fun than hanging out at juice bars or dog spas.

What’s interesting in reading about gentrification circa 1984 is how different it is—aside from the burgeoning of trendy new establishments—from gentrification circa 2014. It’s not only what sound to us now like laughably-low “high” rents: as one resident of that era put it: “You can find one-bedroom apartments for $700… higher than it’s ever been here.”

Back then, one of the great neighborhood controversies revolved around the creation of mixed-income housing, namely, Mayor Koch’s plan to sell nearly 200 city-owned abandoned buildings to private developers for a mix of low-income and market-rate apartments. Referred to as “cross-subsidy” at the time because it raised money for other projects, the kind of plan that would likely be hailed as innovative affordable housing policy today was slammed as a “double-cross subsidy” by neighborhood activists, who objected to the buildings being sold to for-profit developers, even those willing to incorporate affordable housing.

These days, a permanently “affordable” apartment going to a family making $120,000 a year would be count as laudable progress toward Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ambitious affordable housing goal.

As for the artists, who at the time were arguably among those gentrifying the East Village, many now don’t even have the luxury of being priced out of hot, up-and-coming neighborhoods. Instead, they are pushed out places like Industry City, an isolated industrial complex in Sunset Park.

And those other East Village “gentrifiers” of 1984—editors who moved to the neighborhood as students, clothing designers who opened neighborhood boutiques down the street from their apartments and business writers, like the one who “felt the need to defend the red Lacoste shirt he wore to brunch one Saturday morning”? Good luck finding many of their ilk who can afford the neighborhood today.

The East Village may have coined the term “die yuppie scum,” but even many of the yuppies are, at present, having a pretty rough time of things.