Earlier this year the folks behind the Ace Hotel chain announced that they were converting a former Salvation Army shelter on the Bowery into a minimalist “micro hotel” inspired by ““the functional perfection of Finnish saunas, Japanese bento boxes, rock-cut cliff dwellings of prehistory and John Cage’s 4’33.” Now we’re told Sister City, as the new hotel chain will be branded, will open in January with a restaurant, Floret, helmed by the owner of Carroll Gardens’ acclaimed Battersby.
Housing + Development
As you may have heard, the city’s proposed (and controversial) $250 million, 21-story retail and tech center off of Union Square moved forward last week. Council Member Carlina Rivera was key to the City Council’s unanimous vote, as her district will be most severely impacted by the so-called “Tech Hub.” During last year’s election, Rivera had even campaigned in part on the tech center, proposed for the site of the former PC Richard & Son at 120 East 14th Street. In a previous hearing on it, Rivera had said that without additional zoning protections south of 14th Street for local tenants and assurances that the building would indeed serve low-income earners, immigrants and residents of color—including tuition scholarships for tech training—that her vote was “seriously in question.”
Ribbons spanning all the colors of the rainbow hung from the gray walkway and black fences enclosing the trees perched in front of the salmon-pink Rivington House, a former public school that re-opened in the 1990s to assist individuals with HIV and AIDS. Scrawled on the ribbons in black marker were phrases and stories in support of the Rivington House in English, Chinese and Spanish. Each ribbon was dedicated to a specific bed number at Rivington House in honor of the individuals that the center served over the past two decades.
The Denizen Bushwick, an eight-story luxury rental building on the site of the former Rheingold Brewery, has finally opened one of its buildings, consisting of 444 units ranging from $2,000 studios to two-bedrooms exceeding $4,000. The inspiration for the controversial project reportedly stemmed from the idea of a European village, but in reality, the Denizen Bushwick resembles more of a glitzy, almost overwhelming megalopolis that is unlike anything else in the neighborhood.
Longtime East Village photographers James and Karla Murray installed a structure in Seward Park recreating the Lower East Side’s Cup and Saucer, which closed after more than 70 years in business. Now, they’ve set up a gallery show featuring photographs from their “Store Front” books just a few blocks away at The Storefront Project (70 Orchard Street). The exhibit, “Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York,” pays homage to the mom-and-pop shops of the Lower East Side and will remain open through August 12. Bedford + Bowery chatted with Karla Murray about her hopes and thoughts on the changing neighborhood. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
I hope the opening reception went well.
We got a lot of love and support from our friends and store owners as well. The granddaughter of Moe Albanese [of] Albanese Meats & Poultry on Elizabeth [Street]. Really the last butcher in Nolita. A neon sign fabricator who created the sign for Trash & Vaudeville and refurbished the Russ & Daughter’s sign was in attendance as well.
Tell me about your hopes for the Orchard Street exhibit.
The majority of the photos relate to the Lower East Side. You know, to relate back to the neighborhood that the gallery is in. We also have a smattering from our so-called other “favorite” ones, mostly departed stores like Zig Zag Records and the Ralph’s that you saw in the window. We included some others but concentrated on the Lower East Side because we wanted to continue our story. ‘Cuz certainly the Lower East Side has changed a lot with gentrification and different people moving in. Unfortunately, a lot of mom-and-pop stores have closed. Buildings have been knocked down—it’s not only the stores. They’ve destroyed a lot of old tenement buildings [that] have been replaced with newer developments. When that happens, what replaces them on the ground floor as far as retail [goes] is a massive space that usually doesn’t lend to a mom-and-pop store leasing it because it’s just too expensive.
Are you mainly trying to preserve the legacy of these buildings or do you think there is some hope for activists to see your work and get inspired?
Oh, of course. The way we’ve always thought of it is a celebration of the businesses that are still around. We always photograph vibrant, lively businesses. That’s why we always put the address with the cross street because we want people to be able to go to the stores and shop at them. That’s really the key to their survival, [which] is that they need customers.
And how many businesses did you end up photographing as part of this project?
It’s countless. Thousands of photos. There’s over 325 stores just in our first book. And we have three books on the subject. Too many to count and interviews with the store owners as well. It’s over twenty years now [that] we’ve been documenting these mom-and-pop stores.
You [and James] have been East Village residents for how many years now?
We’ve lived in the same apartment for 22 years now. So it’s been a long time. It’s changed a lot in the time that we’ve been there. To be honest: we wish we had photographed more. There’s many, many small businesses that we remember fondly, but frankly we didn’t ever take a photo of [them] because we didn’t think they would ever close. And then it was too late. It’s always been a race against time to document them because they seem to be closing almost on a daily basis. For the most part, if they don’t own the building they’re located in, with the cost of new real estate going up, the landlord will triple, quadruple [the rent]. One business, they increased the rent 15 times. I mean, no small business can absorb that kind of rent increase, so then they’re forced to close.
So how do you feel about new developments like the Target in the East Village? Do you feel that kind of bodes ill for the mom-and-pop businesses?
We live on that street.That was all mom-and-pop stores. We documented them on film in the ‘90s. There was a pizzeria. There was a Permacut [Beauty Salon]. There was an old dive bar. Blarney Cove. There was a little bodega. There was a 99 cent [store]. There was a whole strip of store after store after store. Mom-and-pop places. They knocked all that down and built that development. I mean, you can go anywhere and shop in Target. You don’t have to be in New York City. That doesn’t make a neighborhood. To us, it’s the mom-and-pop stores that define a community. The very reason we moved to the East Village years ago [was] that we thought it was fun and funky and had a lot of cool and interesting shops. When those types of stores close, the fabric of the neighborhood suffers.
James and Karla Murray will lead a walking tour from their Seward Park installation to the Orchard Street exhibit on Saturday, August 4th from 1-3 p.m. Check their Instagram and Facebook for further details coming soon.
I had been caught in the pouring rain without an umbrella, and my shirt was soaked through like a wet dog on the night of the East Village Target’s soft opening. “This is a bad omen,” I muttered, the weather not improving my already lukewarm attitude toward the behemoth chain store right across from my home in the East Village. As a resident of 14th Street, I had walked by the 27,000-square-foot, two-floor Target at 500 East 14th Street nearly every day for the past year, spanning its early construction all the way up to its glitzy opening day. To confess: until yesterday, I– like many East Villagers— found the Target to be a mostly unwelcome eyesore and a reflection of the hyper-gentrification of the neighborhood. It didn’t help that one of my go-to Chinese food joints had been shuttered in 2017 in the same location. Sitting atop the Target are luxurious, $3,695-per-month apartment units.
As I peered into the store’s open windows and looked at the svelte mannequins sporting trendy summer dresses, I thought that it resembled something more akin to a Saks Off Fifth than the decidedly un-hip Targets of my suburban California childhood. But by the end of the store’s opening that night, I’d become mostly convinced that if a megastore must take over a corner of the East Village, it might as well be Target.
How did they convince me? Target plans to open up a new store on the Lower East Side in August and is coming to Kips Bay and Hell’s Kitchen next year. Part of the brand’s commercial success in metro New York may lie in its distinct appeal to the communities it serves. That’s evident from the moment you walk in the store and spot the pastel-pink mural designed by Vault49, which spans the length of the checkout area and references Avenue A and the Nuyorican community of the Village and LES. Or the kombucha in the grocery aisles and the sliced toasted coconut chips hanging near checkout, perhaps catering to the area’s millennial population.
“When we think about going into a community, we spend a lot of time talking to guests and understanding what they would be looking for from Target,” said Target spokesperson Erin Conroy. “Making sure the store fits the flavor not just from an assortment perspective but from an aesthetic perspective as well.”
The East Village store’s team leader, Steve Dyba, echoed comments along a similar line. “I think we really have an opportunity to become the neighborhood store.”
I spoke with both Stetzer and Alysha Lewis-Coleman, chair of Community Board 3, near the first-floor produce section. Both were generally pleased with the new Target, which they said had been consulting with the community board prior to the store’s opening to hire local employees.
“Jobs are so needed and so scarce right now. I’m just happy they created another job source for families and young people in this area,” said Coleman. She added, “They wanted to do right by the community.”
Over the course of the night, I did, however, learn that not all store employees were from the area. Not including senior Target team leaders or communications officials, I spoke to two of the store’s 110 employees. Neither of them lived in the East Village. Many employees who were not from the area seemed to be part of the extended Target family, such as Teresa G., a lively young woman who had been promoted from her previous station in Queens to oversee home goods and other items here in the East Village.
The star of last night’s show was the iconic English bull terrier and Target mascot Bullseye. I wondered how they had managed to paint the Target emblem—a bullseye, of course—around the pooch’s eye. I then decided better of it. Attendees gleefully posed for photos with the terrier, who was perched atop his own pedestal.
Following that, attendees sipped red wine, chowed down on mini Korean BBQ tacos being passed around by servers, and explored the store’s wares, which included an array of women’s wear and reasonably-priced produce on the first floor, as well as apparel and home goods—including a Target-owned men’s clothing brand and candles affixed with the image of Jesus Christ—on the lower level. The odd, but somehow fitting assortment of items made me think that while this Target would never become a beloved neighborhood fixture, it was going to do just fine. Maybe I would even stop by and pick up some of their $2.99 mini watermelons to make a summer slushie. But as I left, I frowned, asking myself, “Am I a sellout? Or just adjusting to the changing reality of the East Village?”
The East Village Target is located at 500 E 14th St. The store launched for its soft opening yesterday. Its grand opening will take place on July 21.
“Hey hey, ho ho, illegal hotels have got to go!” On a rainy Wednesday afternoon at the First Street Green Cultural Park, a dedicated group of 15 or so elected officials, activists and local residents sporting “Save the Lower East Side” T-shirts gathered to protest commercially operated, short-term rentals like VRBO and Airbnb.
Despite a boisterous, chanting crowd that filled an auditorium in Cooper Union’s Great Hall and called for a rent freeze or rollback, the city’s Rent Guidelines Board voted to allow 1.5 percent increases on one-year leases and 2.5 percent increases on two-year leases in a narrow 5-4 decision last night.
Like the preliminary vote meeting the Rent Guidelines Board held in April, last night’s meeting was packed with tenants and activists hoping for at least a rent freeze on rent-stabilized apartments, which some said was the only thing between families across the city and homelessness.
“There is one barrier between a lot of us and homelessness: the Rent Guidelines Board,” Fitz Christian a member of CASA, told the crowd before the meeting began. “We who are living in our homes for 30 or 40 years are having a hard time living in our homes. It is a tremendous burden for us and our children. We want a rent rollback so we can live as human beings.”
In addition to speakers like Christian, tenant representative Leah Goodridge made the case for a rent freeze to the crowd and the board before actually introducing her motion. Goodridge pointed to the city’s rising numbers of homeless people and to data that she said showed landlords had actually made over $312,000 per landlord during the rent freeze period compared to $296,000 per landlord in non-rent freeze periods.
“My vote is for tenants struggling to make ends meet when the rent goes up,” Goodridge said before asking the board to vote for a rent freeze. “The tenants who have to decide ‘Should I buy a MetroCard or should I pay my rent? Should I buy food for my child or should I pay my rent?’”
The rent freeze proposal failed 6-3, but only after the 7-2 failure of a loudly booed motion from the landlords’ representatives to tack on a 2 percent increase for one-year leases and a 4 percent increase for two-year leases.
Ultimately, the board approved the 1.5 and 2.5 percent rent increases 5-4, before adjourning the meeting while the crowd chanted “Shame on you” before leaving the Great Hall to continue to rally outside. “It seems to me they were not relying on the testimony we heard from tenants,” Goodridge told reporters after the meeting, accusing the board of putting “profits before people” and refusing to consider the stories of tenants who testified in front of the board at five public meetings through the spring.
However, one of the board’s owner representatives disputed the dichotomy of “people vs. profits.” “The owner’s perspective or at least my perspective is you want to keep enough of an incentive for people to keep the housing in a state of good repair,” owner representative Angela Pinsky told reporters after the vote. “You don’t want to encourage them to look into other options like selling or redeveloping the land.”
In choosing against a rent freeze, Pinsky said the board was looking for the kind of compromise that allowed landlords to avoid “all sorts of market pressures that are pushing them towards other options than keeping an aging building with low-rent tenants” and cast the vote as the best possible scenario for the tenants.
“The most stable place for a lot of the people who came to testify would be in their current apartment in a state of good repair. I think moving around is costly for them, having your building bought and sold is expensive for them,” she said.
Tenant activists, of course, disagreed with that assessment, and promised a political fight. Before the vote itself, Assembly Member Harvey Epstein (who represents an area including Stuy Town, Alphabet City, the East Village and the Lower East Side) exhorted the crowd to vote in the 2018 state legislature elections and to “hold us all accountable, me in the Assembly and all our members” in an effort to repeal the Urstard Law, a long-running campaign by tenants advocates against the law that gives the state authority over rent regulation.
Rolando Guzman, a deputy director for community preservation with the St. Nicks Alliance, also promised tenant organizing would ramp up as the year went along, pointing to the march against Governor Andrew Cuomo’s housing policies held earlier this month as an example of a motivated and mobilized base. “There’s [political pressure] being built already, and this is pressure being built from the base up, from tenant associations and tenants who are being harassed,” he told Bedford + Bowery.
Still, in the moments after the vote, activists and renters couldn’t help but be somewhat discouraged by the board’s vote, which Guzman said amounted to a message of “We don’t care about you.”
“Nobody had a conscience, they’re not thinking about poor people,” Sondra James of the Flatbush Tenants Coalition told Bedford + Bowery outside Cooper Union. “What should we do? Hold our rents and force the landlords to know that we can’t pay it? Build tents around on corners, decorate New York with tents and live in them to show how many homeless people there are?”
Hundreds of tenants and activists for renters and the homeless marched from the New York Public Library to Park Avenue and 63rd Street last night, where Governor Andrew Cuomo was getting an award inspired by Robert Moses from a contractors association, in a demonstration against what protesters said was Cuomo’s failures on affordable housing and the state’s homelessness crisis.
South Williamsburg’s Domino Park is finally finished and open to the public, and it is a gleaming example of what approximately $50 million can do with six acres of prime waterfront property. Funded entirely by Brooklyn mega-developers Two Trees Management, who are also responsible for the mini-city of luxury apartments springing up where the Domino Sugar Factory once stood, this undeniably lovely quarter-mile park and esplanade amounts to a fantastic amenity to all new and future residents of site. Fortunately for the rest of us, it’s one amenity that they have to share with the public.