Prices and Building Sizes Skyrocket as the East Village Gentrifies
by Anna London
It’s no secret that real estate in New York is a hot commodity, and that developers and affluent people have been buying properties in poorer neighborhoods, displacing residents and changing the face of communities. Harlem, Hell’s Kitchen (‘Clinton’), and the East Village have been subject to it for some time now.
However, gentrification reached new levels in the East Village this May, as the contractor commonly referred to by East Village locals as Ben “The Sledgehammer” Shaoul purchased an entire strip of buildings on Houston Street with the purpose of knocking them down and building high rises. Shaoul is known as the “Sledgehammer” following an incident where he was seen in a heated argument with East Village squatters while his employees stood beside him holding sledgehammers.
The “Sledgehammer” has made it his mission to gentrify the tight-knit Village ever since his first project in September of 2013, when he bought the building that housed the beloved coffee shop “The Bean,” and raised their rent so exorbitantly that it was priced-out from its location on First Avenue to make room for yet another Starbucks.
In June 2013, Shaoul bought the non-profit Cabrini Center which supplied health care to low-income elderly people, and renovated it into luxury apartments. Rent for a one-bedroom at the old Cabrini, now named BLOOM 62, begins at $3,450 a month and goes up to $7,600 a month for larger apartments.
After six months, BLOOM 62 was 82 percent leased and received glowing reviews from Real Estate Weekly, which exclaimed, “The smell of barbecue coming from the built-in outdoor grills and the blooming hydrangea summed up the building’s message: Just because you’re in Manhattan, doesn’t mean you can’t live as if you’re out in the country”. Rooftop barbecues are illegal in New York City. Neighbors, many of them long term residents, are infuriated and confused about this, as many of them recall being ticketed and harassed when they would have barbecues on their roofs.
Inspired by his success with BLOOM 62 and what is estimated to be around 40 other buildings that he owns in the East Village alone, Shaoul set his sights on the block of Houston Street between Ludlow Street and Orchard Street, a strip of restaurants sharing the block with the famous restaurant Katz’s Delicatessen.
His newest project on Houston Street has led to the closing of numerous old and loved businesses such as Bereket, a famous Turkish restaurant that opened in 1995. The only business remaining is Katz’s, which only remains because the owner of the deli also owns the building.
The block of buildings to be demolished on Houston Street, surrounded by high rises.
From The Ludlow on Ludlow Street to a massive 166-unit building on Avenue D, high rises have already begun to line Houston street, virtually blocking out the sky with their massive height. In response to the grumblings of numerous residents in the East Village, Shaoul told a reporter from the New York Times during a tour of some of his buildings, “Why is everyone so hung up on the East Village? How about saying to me, ‘Ben, wow, your building is really beautiful, let’s focus on how
well-built it is?'”
East Village resident Edward Arrocha, known affectionately to many East Villagers as “Eak”, disagrees strongly, exclaiming, “All this money they’re spending and they’re still getting tenements. These buildings are so badly built. I can’t fathom that they spend this much, when I moved here you could live on very little.”
The East Village was once protected by such New York zoning laws, which demanded that all buildings along avenues A, B and C be six stories high. In 2008, rezoning laws were approved, which stated that buildings on Avenue A could be up to 32 stories high. Buildings east of Essex Street on Houston could be up to 12. Elissa Sampson, an urban geographer in the East Village, holds out hope that the process is not irreversible, saying, “Gentrification is made by humans and can be prevented by zoning.”
Zoning did not prevent Community Board 3 from voting to approve the construction of a massive high rise on Houston Street and Avenue D, directly across from the NYCHA projects. and one of the most impoverished areas of the Lower East Side. Affordable housing advocate, Joel Feingold of GOLES (the Good Old Lower East Side), said to the Lo-Down NY, “this will be viewed as an incredibly hostile imposition. This building fits the exact caricature in people’s minds of neighborhood loss and change. I think it’s ludicrous to consider putting a building on Avenue D that’s all glass and steel and costs $2800 for a studio. I think it’s outrageous.” In addition, the building replaced a community garden.
Eak, who has lived in the East Village since the early 90’s, has seen a number of waves of gentrification. He states, “I feel that gentrification has become a victim of its own success. This isn’t gentrification that we’re facing now, it’s super-gentrification, gentrification-on-steroids. Suddenly, the people who originally gentrified (the East Village) got displaced by the people who look at is as an investment.”
As a resident in the East Village myself, I have witnessed this gentrification firsthand. When my family moved to the East Village twenty-five years ago, it was an entirely different place than it is today. My parents, both self-employed artists, were typical of the first waves of gentrifiers. According to Sampson, who moved to the Lower East Side in the 70’s, “We were early gentrifiers. We were what the French call “bobo”, basically meaning ‘bourgeois bohemians’. People who chose to live in poor areas but had more conventional backgrounds.”
The Lower East Side and East Village attracted those with low incomes, artists, ‘oddballs and outcasts’ who could not afford to live in affluent neighborhoods. Steve Weintraub, a choreographer and former East Village resident, describes the neighborhood in those days, “That was kind of the funkier village. The Alphabet Jungle was just where you didn’t go.” The “Alphabet Jungle”, also commonly known as “Alphabet City” and “Loisaida”, refers to the region east of Avenue A, where the avenues have letters instead of numbers.
The East Village wasn’t always referred to as the East Village. According to Sampson, it used to be called the Lower East Side (which now refers to the area below Houston Street). “They began calling it the East Village in the late 50’s early 60’s, [which was meant to show it was] a continuation of the West Village and bohemian, [but which] destroyed the continuities with the past and made people think of them [the Lower East Side and the East Village] as two separate areas with two separate futures.”
While parts of the Lower East Side were dangerous and rightfully feared, others had a flourishing art scene and a tight-knit community. Collectively, it was a community built on support and creativity, with little to no emphasis on luxury.
As someone who first began spending time in the Lower East Side in the late 80’s, Eak explains, “It was risky, but there was music, poetry readings, it was sad but beautiful. I fell in love with it. I came to the place where my heart felt it belonged. My heart led me here and suddenly I was home. I have nowhere else to go, my heart is here.”
Frank London, a musician (and my father), explains, “When I moved to the East Village in 1990, I got a six-floor walk up apartment with a bathtub in the kitchen. It was a small one-bedroom and it cost $650 a month – which felt quite expensive at the time. The building that it was in, on Fourteenth Street, has recently been torn down for new construction. Our next apartment was a larger one bedroom for which we paid about $770 in approximately 1993. Around 1995 or so we moved to another apartment in the same building, a 700 square foot, 2-bedroom apartment. It cost about $850 when we first moved in, but by the time we moved out in about 2007, it was almost $1100 a month. Each of those were rent-stabilized apartments.”
Rent stabilization is a system which tries to keep rents affordable for tenants, and rent stabilized apartments are apartments which increase in cost by small percentages yearly. Rent controlled apartments are much less expensive and only slightly increase in cost, but are nearly impossible to get ahold of. According to nakedapartments.com, only 2% of NYC apartments are rent controlled, and they’re passed down through family, making them unavailable to anybody whose family hasn’t lived in the apartment since 1971.
Today, the average one-bedroom East Village/Lower East Side apartment is not covered by rent stabilization and rents for $3,611 a month.
Eak admits there are benefits to gentrification, but explains, “At first, a certain level of gentrification made it a more agreeable neighborhood to live in. I could go to a store and buy fresh vegetables, I could get edible stuff at a corner store. I suddenly had a better sense of safety. But these points drove it to such a point that they didn’t exist anymore. Now I can’t afford it. Once it ultra gentrifies it won’t even benefit the rest of us [the original pioneers]”
The severe disproportionality in the economy has created a social divide in the East Village. Sampson elaborates, “This neighborhood still relies on food and clothes pantries. There are people on the top end and bottom end of the economic ladder. When you have neighborhoods with extremes and no middle class, you see people who are really needy, and the people who buy mink coats for their dogs”.
This latest demolition of buildings on Houston Street reflects the transformation of the beloved neighborhood from community gardens and small buildings with affordable apartments to glass high rises and overpriced wine shops (no less than twelve have opened in the East Village over the last two years). When he moved to the East Village, Eak explains, “It was all about individuality. We were all real oddballs looking for affordable rent and certain individuality. We didn’t have to like each other but we could live together”. Now, he resigns, “The people moving here are tone deaf, they don’t hear anything. You could be lying dead in the street and they’d keep walking. Nobody exists to them, there’s nothing, everyone is invisible. To see this in my community, it breaks my heart.”