Alan J. Gerson is feeling positively folksy these days. The bespectacled, boyish-looking lawyer and former Board 2 chairman was on hand at the Feb. 27 meeting of Board 3 to pitch his latest project, the Folk Music Museum of Greenwich Village. Flanked by folk and blues legend Odetta and Greenwich Village luminary Paul Colby, owner of the Bitter End nightclub, Mr. Gerson enthused at length about plans to build the nation’s first museum dedicated entirely to folk music in the Village.
The presentation was an early heads-up to the board members and the community but it had a bit of a twist. Because, while the Folk Music Museum is the easiest sell since Boys’ Life cold-called Michael Jackson, the preliminary plan is for the museum to occupy part of an embattled city building: the site of the Cuando Community Group, which has been locked in a court battle with the city since 1990.
But who could kick up a fuss with Odetta standing there? The legendary singer, whose musical career began in 1954 with her debut album The Tin Angel , told The Observer that she thinks the East Village is a natural location for the museum. Arthur D’Lugoff, former owner of the Village Gate and one of the brains behind the project, told The Observer that he had no trouble convincing board members and folk superstars such as Odetta and Judy Collins that the Village is the best home for the museum.
“It was my hang-out place. I can’t see [the museum] on 55th Street, you know. I can’t see it necessarily over there by the Metropolitan Opera Company. Nothing against any of those places, but this was kind of the bedrock of folk music in the late 40’s and 50’s. It started here,” Odetta said.
Mr. Gerson told The Observer that he believes the project will garner “across-the-board grassroots support.” And maybe it will. However, a lot of people have invested a great deal of animosity in keeping the Chapel Building complex occupied by Cuando and left open as a community space.
Since 1990, the Chapel Building complex has been the center of a court battle between the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development and the 30-year-old Cuando Community Group. The complex, a two-building structure on East First Street between Bowery and Second Avenue, consists of a three-story chapel attached to a five-story school building and former seminary founded by the Methodist Church of All Nations. It’s been around since about 1900, but the school building has been facing a death sentence since 1973, when the city which had recently acquired it condemned it. The complex, venerable but run-down, occupies an entire block adjacent to the Liz Chrystie Garden on Houston Street.
Once a refuge for the Young Lords activist group in the 1970’s, Cuando provided a range of cultural services to the neighborhood’s primarily black and Latino youth. But in 1989, the Fire Department shut down a rap concert put on by the center, citing safety violations, and soon after the city decided not to renew the group’s month-to-month lease. Cuando fought back and filed suit, charging the city with breach of contract. After several court hearings in which Cuando refused to give up occupancy of the school building, the courts granted an unusually long temporary stay on the suit. According to Jackie Bukowski, Cuando’s lawyer for the case, the fate of the community center then stayed in limbo for nearly seven years, until the city renewed its efforts to win control in November 2000.
Jackson Krall, a longtime supporter of the center, told The Observer that the city still wants to tear the former school building down, but is required under the conditions of its original deed to maintain the adjacent chapel because it is a religious site.
“It’s a shame,” said Ms. Bukowski, “because it’s a well-built building and they want to tear it down. It’s bound to affect the garden next door.”
According to Ms. Bukowski, a status conference is scheduled with the city’s lawyers on March 22.
Meanwhile, Fred Harris, vice president of Avalon Bay Communities Inc., a Manhattan real-estate development firm, with the help of financing from Chrystie Venture Partners, has already begun talks with members of the Folk Music Museum’s board about the complex. Preliminary plans call for the museum to occupy the chapel building, which would be renovated to accommodate a music school. A restaurant and performance and music space will be housed in another location. The city could still move ahead with its plans to tear down the school building.
But Mr. Gerson, who was brought on board as the museum’s secretary by Mr. D’Lugoff, told The Observer that the museum’s location is not yet set in stone. “We’re not wedded to that particular building. We’re very, very flexible. The building obviously has some aesthetic value for us, but in the spirit of folk music, we’re not going to do anything without getting the full support of the community,” said Mr. Gerson.
East Siders Try To Sink Ferry Plan
Given the crowded state of the East Side subways and the fact that the Second Avenue line may be just another New York myth, Upper East Siders should be grateful for an opportunity to commute without having their faces buried in a stranger’s armpit.
But that’s not the way the residents who turned out for the Feb. 21 meeting of Board 8 are viewing the city’s plan to institute a commuter ferry service along the East River. Though the service is still two years away, residents expressed their reservations and opposition to the proposed East 90th Street stop, the northernmost station in a ferry loop that will include stops at 75th, 62nd, 34th and Wall streets.
Local residents like Arthur Livingston, who spoke before the board, are worried that a ferry stop at 90th Street would destroy the existing dock at that location and bring unwanted commuters tramping through Carl Schurz Park, the neighborhood’s only park, which offers the only direct access to the proposed ferry stop. They are pushing for the dock (adjacent to the original Gracie Mansion estate) and the land surrounding it to be landmarked rather than developed.
Mr. Livingston told board members that “even Robert Moses, who bulldozed a great many things, wanted to preserve Gracie Mansion and when the F.D.R. was developed, Moses decided not to put it next to the mansion.”
Gerson Lesser, a resident of East End Avenue, told the board that while he was not opposed to the idea of commuter water transport around the city, he felt that a stop at 90th Street wasn’t economically feasible because he didn’t believe enough commuters would make use of the location. “Earlier trials showed there would be very little interest commercially,” he told the board.
The city’s Economic Development Corporation apparently feels differently. In cooperation with the Department of Transportation and the Department of Parks and Recreation, the E.D.C. has been in charge of building and in cases where a dock already exists upgrading the ferry landings along the East River with funding from the Port Authority. The completion of construction is slated for late 2002, and once operational, the ferry service will be run by a private company.
But while representatives of the E.D.C. have been making the rounds of East Side community boards to sell members on the benefits of a 20-minute East River ride to Wall Street, residents at least those on Board 8 still have questions and doubts.
The board ultimately decided to table the discussion and not to resolve anything until the E.D.C. provided them with additional information. Even so, some members wanted to take a harsher stand.
“I think we should just vote against it and force them to work with us,” said board member Elaine Walsh, as others nodded in agreement.
But Barry Schneider, chairman of the Board 8 East River Ferry Work Group subcommittee, said he didn’t think that tactic would aid their cause.
“I don’t agree with this attitude of rejecting something before you know what it is about,” Mr. Schneider told The Observer . “You know the old phrase, ‘You can catch a lot more flies with honey …'”
Park Naming Hits Smooth Waters
The tribal council has spoken. No, not a Kucha or Ogakor reality-TV tribal council, but a Native American one, headed by Linda Poolaw. Ms. Poolaw, the grand chief of the Grand Council of the Delaware-Muncie nation, has given her approval to a proposal by Board 4 to name a new park at 14th Street and 10th Avenue “Sapohanikan.” Now it’s up to the Hudson River Park Trust to take the board up on its proposal.
In the early 1600’s, when the first Dutch settlers came to Manhattan Island, a path already existed along what is now 10th Avenue. According to ancient maps viewed by Board 4 member Edward Kirkland, who spearheaded the research in preparation for the park’s completion this spring, that path led to a meeting or landing place called Sapohanikan by the local Carnassee tribe, which spoke a dialect of Delaware.
The Delaware (or Lenape) tribe, which stretched from southern New York State into New Jersey and Pennsylvania, was largely wiped out and pushed back by the European invasion, with most of its remaining members concentrated in Oklahoma (where Ms. Poolaw lives and works) today. There are few Delaware speakers left, and the meaning of the word Sapohanikan is debatable. The board wrote in its letter to the Hudson River Park Trust, ratified unanimously at its Feb. 7 meeting, that Sapohanikan means “meeting place.” A linguist contacted by The Observer , Dr. Jim Rementer, who heads the Lenape Language Project in Bartlesville, Okla., said that spelling doesn’t mean much in Lenape.
But he verified that Sapohanikan was “an authentic place name.” And, he told The Observer , spellings got confused over the course of years of phonetic transcriptions by foreigners. Chappaqua, the new seat of the ex First Family, for example, was actually called Shaphake , meaning “land where there’s a gentle, rustling noise.” (Wow. And we thought the name “Dances with Wolves” was chock full of meaning.) From that, Dr. Rementer deduced Sapohanikan could be a variation of the word Shapohanikung , which could mean “place where water makes a rushing sound.” An appropriate name for the new Chelsea park especially when a water main breaks.
March 7: Board 4, Hudson Guild Fulton Center, 119 Ninth Avenue, between 17th and 18th streets, 5:45 p.m., 736-4536; Board 10, Harlem State Office Building, 163 West 125th Street at Seventh Avenue, second-floor art gallery, 6 p.m., 749-3105.
March 8: Board 5, F.I.T. Building, 227 West 27th Street, Building A, eighth floor, 6 p.m., 465-0907.
March 14: Board 6, N.Y.U. Medical Center, 550 First Avenue, between 30th and 34th streets, Classroom A, 7 p.m., 679-0907.
March 15: Board 9, District Office, 565 West 125th Street, 6:30 p.m., 864-6200.