All week, we’re bringing you a series of deep dives into the surprising histories of storied addresses. Back to our usual after the New Year.
The buildings themselves never had many allies. Repeatedly condemned to death, 13 East Third Street, like its 20-odd siblings, stands in spite of itself, renovated rather than replaced. “I’m not a fan of them,” Val Orselli says as we peer out at an antique tenement from a window in his office.
Paradoxically, it has been the 40-odd years of housing advocacy by people like Orselli that has directly led to the preservation of the refurbished tenements that make up the Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association. Mostly comprised of turn-of-the-century five- and six-story housing, the MHA comprises the city’s first non-profit cooperative housing venture, and perhaps its best model on how local communities can come together to hedge against the forces of gentrification.
East Third Street between Bowery and Second Avenue is a narrow, unassuming little block. About halfway down, a tangle of laces and weathered sneakers give form to an otherwise bare tree that sits in front of 13 East Third, one of the oldest buildings in the MHA.
On its left, the tenement is flanked by an open lot, the footprint of a once similar structure razed by the Works Project Administration in 1943. For decades the space was a parking lot, but today it sits chained and feral, and there isn’t much to look at besides a row of graffiti set against the jaundiced walls of its next-door neighbors. On its right, the back end of the La MaMa theater, the experimental “off-off Broadway” venue founded by Ellen Stewart in 1961. Its entrance is on East Fourth.
The building at 13 East Third street is a pre-law tenement, built in 1872 before the 1879 and 1901 Tenement House Acts, which regulated some of the more unscrupulous building practices that afflicted 19th century New York City construction. For one thing, that means the building has no air shaft, those quirky concaves that corset most of New York’s multi-family rowed housing, allowing for a stuffy, dark chamber for windows to open up to along the perpendicular span of the building. Old-law buildings are instead boxy dinosaurs with windows only along the street, and in the rear. Up until their long delayed renovation in the early 1990s, the apartments at 13 East Third, and for the most part throughout the MHA featured tubs in the kitchen and toilets in the hall.
The building is one of a handful in the neighborhood designed by Austrian-born William Jose, who built or renovated nearly a dozen Italianate tenements in lower Manhattan during the late 19th century. Its original floor plan would have squeezed in four apartments per floor, averaging just a shade under 400 square feet each.
The buildings, though, are far less interesting than what sits beneath them: 21 parcels of stupidly valuable yet completely decommodified land. Halfway between Wall Street and Midtown, the Lower East Side represents an especially sought-after location on one of the most land-scarce and desirable urban islands in the world. But that land can never be speculated on or sold for profit thanks to the legal machinery of the community land trust.
“It codifies the idea that land ought to be treated not as a commodity, but used for a public purpose,” says Tom Angotti, a professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College.
It’s an idea that came to New York through equal parts trial and error, fierce determination, and attrition.
It starts, as much of New York’s modern geography does, at the tip of Robert Moses’s pen. Moses is the polarizing and long-tenured planning czar behind most of the city’s bridges, expressways and literally all of its public housing stock. Some remember Moses as the mojo behind all that is quintessentially Gotham: The United Nations, Lincoln Center, and the once Shea Stadium. Others recall his Bond villain-esque indifference to the people displaced by his elaborate projects, pegged at a quarter of a million in The Power Broker, Robert Caro’s 1974 Pulitzer Prize winning biography of Moses.
But despite his omnipresence, Moses didn’t always get his way.
In 1948, Moses convinced Mayor William O’Dwyer to inaugurate a committee on slum clearance to orchestrate the demolition of the city’s poor and blighted neighborhoods. Moses, and indeed, the planning orthodoxy of the day, envisioned a city where most of the old tenements and row housing would be replaced by the aesthetic of “towers in the park,” efficient, high-rise housing set against expansive manicured green spaces. The East Side’s gargantuan Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village, an 18-square-block consolidation of uniform modernist towers, portray this dream realized.
One of the neighborhoods slated for this brand of bulldozer therapy during the mid- 1950s was the one now known as Cooper Square, a neologism which owes to none other than Moses himself. The slum clearance plan for Cooper Square marked for destruction every building between Bowery and Second Avenue from Delancey to Ninth Street. In response, community activists organized the Cooper Square Committee on March 17th, 1959.
Cooper Square wasn’t the first blighted New York City neighborhood to be slated for renewal, or the first to organize and protest against its own impending destruction. A similar planin the West Village, for example, routinely brought out hundreds in opposition. It was, however, the first to answer City Hall with a plan of its own: The Alternate Plan for Cooper Square, packaged by a then 40-year-old Walter Thabit, a man Angotti describes as the “anti-Moses.” The alternate plan wasn’t just a list of demands or requests like some other communities had managed. It was a full-fledged, actionable document written by an experienced urban planner and backed by empirical data.
The guiding principle of Thabit’s 1961 plan for Cooper Square was simple and logical, but was yet to be articulated in the realm of post-war renewal: Those affected by urban renewal should be its beneficiaries, not its victims. The creed appears three times in the plan’s first six pages, and undergirds its every proposal.
In some ways, the alternate plan was not terribly different from the Moses plan. It still called for demolition, but on a shrunken scale. Of the 12 blocks originally in the crosshairs, six would be preserved and restored. The six between Stanton Street and East 5th Street would be razed and replaced with modern mixed-income family housing, furnished rooms, loft space for artists, housing for seniors and ample green space. The plan called for mixed height buildings to avoid a “monotonous landscape,” but it was still aesthetically in the mold of “towers in the park.”
On January 7, 1970, the City approved a modified version of Thabit’s plan for Cooper Square. This followed nine years of tireless agitation and noisemaking complete with a “Warpath” campaign in 1965, carried out with wigwam camps on Chrystie Street and an operation to flood City Hall with feather-clad postcards.
Thabit and his early co-conspirators, like the radical socialist activist Frances Goldin, built their work around disrupting the orthodoxy which suggested that the public good was served best by pushing Manhattan’s poor to the city’s periphery so that middle class people might take their place. The alternate plan was not so much attached to the buildings as it was to the land, and to the people who called that land home.
Orselli says he believed, naively, when he first started in the housing struggle that the Urban Renewal planners were basically well-intentioned, but unaware of the consequences these plans would have for the poor communities they targeted. “Then as I got into it more, I realized that they well understood the consequences and the purpose of urban renewal was not merely to tear down derelict buildings and build new ones, but it was also to remove populations.”
Active in protesting the Vietnam War throughout high school, after graduation in the late 1960s, Orselli moved from conservative suburban Mamaroneck, New York, to the cauldron of dissent that was the Lower East Side — and it was a perfect fit. Ever since the neighborhood’s 19th century transformation into Kleindeutschland, or “little Germany,” there had been a strain of radicalism and counter-culture baked into its every subsequent iteration, from the Beatnicks in the 1950s to the hippies in the 1960s. “Yippies” co-founder Jerry Rubin is believed to have lived for a time at 13 East Third Street after settling in New York in the late ‘60s, and is rumored to have stashed his (likely substantial) marijuana supply in a hollowed-out door in his apartment.
Longtimers will remember Rubin and his oft co-conspirator Abbie Hoffman as two of the most visible iconoclasts of 1960s radicalism. Their “Youth International Political Party” was built around the notion of infusing the spirit of the hippies with sharpened political activism especially in the realms of satirical spectacle and guerilla theater. One of Rubin’s most famous exploits came when he and Hoffman, on a tour of the New York Stock Exchange, began showering traders with money (real and fake) from above, “creating mayhem as the traders scrambled for the bills.” That’s how Martin Torgoff described the scene in “Can’t Find My Way Home: America’s Great Stoned Age.” “And so began the guerrilla media burlesque that would turn Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman into the most famous radicals of the 1960s— the hippie-activist version of Abbott and Costello.”
Orselli quickly immersed himself in local draft resistance and anti-war organizing. Then in 1972, as Vietnam was winding down, came that serendipitous moment that sparks an opus. “I happened to be walking by the Cooper Square office, and they were looking for an organizer. They were actually paying the, in those days, astronomical sum of $7,500 a year” – which, compared to his previous organizing jobs, “was like being named president of a company.”
By 1974, he was the Cooper Square Committee’s director. Besides a brief sabbatical to organize with ACORN in Louisiana during the late 1970s, Orselli has been part of the Cooper Square Committee ever since those halcyon days. He was at the helm when it still looked like the plan might, however grudgingly, be completed.
On September 8, 1976, the city completed its seizure of the buildings in the renewal area through eminent domain. The compensation price for 13 E. Third Street rang in just north of $1.25 million. The city would remain the landlord for nearly 20 years, selling it to the newly formed Cooper Square Land Trust for the kingly ransom of one dollar in 1994. Perhaps due in part to this type of investment acumen, the city quite famously went broke in the mid-1970s. The near-bankruptcy shut down every non-essential project, and the Alternate Plan Cooper Square, something the city was dragged to kicking and screaming, fell very heavily on that side of the ledger.
Even though the redevelopment agenda was on the backburner, the city was still trying to demolish buildings in the old renewal area. The threat of demolition at 13 E. 3rd, for example, was described by Thabit in a chronology of Cooper Square as “imminent” in 1979, after all the buildings beams were found to be rotten. “After much discussion and pressure, it was decided to rehabilitate the building.”
Orselli recalls how tenuous the Committee’s relationship with the city’s Housing and Development Administration was during this era. “We were able to secure an internal memo that was circulating at the HDA that said something like ‘giving money to Cooper Square is like giving hand grenades to the PLO…’ That’s how they saw us.”
Such was the tack of the HDA under the direction of Roger Starr, a close second to Robert Moses in the annals of New York’s most notorious bureaucrat-antagonists. Starr was the man mind behind“planned shrinkage,” a term like Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s “benign neglect,” understood by most as a thinly veiled euphemism for abandoning the city’s poor and vulnerable in the name of austerity.
These hands-off strategies for managing poor neighborhoods foreshadowed the seismic shift the 1980s would bring not only to the city but to the world. By the reign of Ed Koch and David Dinkins, the stagnation of the 1970s was giving way to the government retrenchment of the Reagan-Thatcher era. Big funding for big projects was no longer a part of the script and as the city looked towards dispossession of its rather sizable real estate holdings, the Cooper Square Committee saw its chance to pounce.
Over 40 meetings were held between 1984 and 1993 as the Cooper Square Committee worked to construct a revised plan that could fulfill its mission within the political climate of the day. The idea of renovating buildings and organizing them into a Mutual Housing Association and Community Land Trust emerges as the preferred model, and on January 6, 1994, the city and the committee consummated the deal.
There is a technical element to what makes this model important. Its division of power between two governing entities can legally ensure that the land, and anything constructed on it, serves the interests of low-income tenants in perpetuity. But more powerfully, or at least more poetically, is the model’s deep symbolism. The land trust essentially says: this is space set aside for everyday people to live their lives on, nothing more, nothing less. No amount of money or power can disrupt that fact. Here in New York, where land, money and power so often violently converge, this is an awesome reality.
Manhattan’s native Lenape – the ones who, so it is said, sold the island to the Dutch for $24 – would have understood that land through the lens of something like a community land trust. In “New York City in Indian Possession” R.P. Bolton writes, “The Indian method of land tenure during its useful occupancy seems to have been totally different from the European conception of land as a commodity for permanent private possession.”
In a satisfying turn of irony, some 350 years later, the Dutch returned to New Amsterdam to teach its inhabitants how to think about land with the same notion of social purpose that the Lenape held. Because what was being created was a fairly new concept in America, in the late 1980s the Cooper Square Committee enlisted professionals from the University of Amsterdam’s Urban Geography Department to help design the legal structure.
A decade removed from his most ambitious antics in lower Manhattan, 13 E. 3rd Street’s most famous one-time resident, Jerry Rubin, reflected on his transition into the business world. “I know that I can be more effective today wearing a suit and tie and working on Wall Street than I can be dancing outside the walls of power,” he said, and that’s exactly what he did – securing a position at Wall Street firm John Muir & Company. By that time he was already a millionaire thanks to an early investment in Apple Computers. In many ways, Rubin came to represent the ways that youthful optimism and big ideas can melt away with the passage of time, without changing the core ideology of a person.
And to some degree, the culmination of 50 years of agitation on behalf of Cooper Square’s residents followed that same trajectory. The fanciful proposals for a newly styled block with attractive high rises and abundant parks and playgrounds fell to the realities of stagflation and neoliberalism. The theatrics of teepees and street demonstrations gave way to earnest discussion with the mayor and fluency in legalese.
In the end, Cooper Square’s 1960s idealism put on a suit and tie, sat down at the bargaining table, and came away with something that was at the same time, completely different and completely in line with what it set out to do. Living in 21 properties, on its 21 tracts of priceless real estate, The Cooper Square Committee has preserved low-income housing for hundreds of its tenants, forever.
Correction: The original version of this post was revised to correct the surname of Tom Angotti.