A fight for tenants rights and subsequent involvement in a grassroots movement made a local photographer capture their changing East Village in Manhattan.
Fight the power
In early June 2015, the block between Bowery and Second Avenue in the East Village was suddenly invaded by speculators. Residents called them, “The Men in Black,” because they arrived in shiny black SUVs, wearing black suits. They swarmed over the buildings in groups, banging on apartment doors, demanding permission to inspect them. They offered no identification beyond stating, “We’re from the bank!” or “We’re from the insurance company.”
In their siege, they targeted five buildings on the block, all formerly owned by Morton Tabak and his heirs. The speculators’ arrival signaled to tenants that their buildings were on the market. Frightened, feeling bullied and not sure what to do, the residents began to talk with each other.
I had some experience in community organizing from decades earlier when I lived in the Bronx during the years when it was burning down around me. To mobilize the community, I began walking from block-to-block in the East Village, speaking with tenants, shop owners and our local community organizations. By mid-July, with the help of these organizations, those once apprehensive tenants from 27 buildings that were up for sale in the East Village and Chelsea, had gathered and formed the Toledano Tenants Coalition.
On gentrified battlegrounds
The four years since we organized, our collective has developed some successful methods for preserving our community and drawing support from elected officials and the press. We started by arming ourselves with information about policy, documenting the process and strengthening as a community with these regular practices:
- We familiarized ourselves with our rights, resources and responsibilities.
- We met regularly, once a month, and kept in touch with each other in the interim.
- We kept a log online detailing the time, date, place, and nature of every interaction with our new landlord. Every threat, late-night visit, pressure to take a buyout offer, lack of heat and gas for cooking, air quality conditions, illegal short-term rentals like Airbnb–every violation we experienced was recorded on this log. Eventually, we turned it over to the New York State Attorney General’s office, and according to Attorney General Letitia James, our careful record-keeping was instrumental in the recent passage of this state’s renters’ protection laws.
- We kept researching, working with pro bono legal counsel offered by the Urban Justice Center, finding out all we could about our landlord, who turned out to have a criminal record.
Next, we researched the powers behind our landlord. Soon after, we ended up meeting with the boards of banks who practiced predatory lending, and even bought shares in these banks so that we could disrupt their shareholders’ meetings. To add, we maintained more tactics such as the following:
- We took action regularly, contacting press and developing relationships with reporters to ensure that we could get coverage in the media. We designed actions that were as creative as possible, to draw attention.
- We reached out to other communities around New York City.
- Our abusive landlord went bankrupt, and we are currently meeting with preservation buyers committed to preserving quality of life, diverse racial and economic community, and affordable housing to see if they can buy our buildings. It is possible that this dream may become reality, because the combination of our insistence on being treated according to law and the new laws protecting renters’ rights may make us seem like more of a liability than an opportunity to speculator realtors.
Capturing changes, yet holding onto our story
The photographs on these pages offer a visual illustration of some of the changes that we in the East Village experienced. To me, they are a love letter of sorts to my community and to all communities struggling to keep their identities while maintaining safe and healthy homes, and control over their futures.
Gentrification by Explosion 1
East 7th Street and Second Avenue, where Nicholas Figueroa and Moises Ismael Locón Yac, both in their 20s, were killed in the March 26, 2015. Their deaths were caused by gas explosion that also destroyed three adjacent buildings. Court ruling attributed the explosion to deliberate landlord negligence. Ironically, the day court’s passed down the decision fell on the anniversary of the devastating Grenfell Tower disaster in London. Both incidents were due to landlord negligence. With you, I share this remembrance. We need to stay vigilant, active, and united.
Gentrification by Explosion 2
Police lights flood the site of the 2015 gas explosion at 2nd Avenue and East 7th Street, now slated for condominium development. The corner was a favorite camping spot for “crusties”, 21st century hobos who settled there for the night, along with their dogs, their guitars, their drugs and their iPhones, which could be recharged in the station conveniently located nearby.
For some “new gentry” of the community, crusties were a threat. The lights were a welcomed solution that drove them away. To others, the crusties seemed like guardians of the space from which the bodies of Nicholas Figueroa and Moises Locon, two young men killed in the explosion, were never recovered. These “guardians” seemed appropriately fierce and angry. With them being driven away seems like more evidence that, with gentrification, the neighborhood lost its character, compassion, diversity, and funk.
New wall on new building for New Gentry
Here is the tasteful faux-East-Village wall of, The Standard, a luxury boutique hotel. Located on the Bowery, it was a street that once served as home to cheap bars, fertile music clubs and lofts, opera houses, burlesque halls and dollar-a-night flophouses. The Bowery, was the soul of the neighborhood, but has lately been gutted by speculators and luxury high-rises.
This wall always strikes me as a celebration of having scraped all of the meat out of this community because it recreated an evocation of old tenement buildings and fire escapes out of these “bones.” Or, it’s like a well-crafted stage set: With the right lighting, this wall — and other walls nearby, covered with colorful murals memorializing artists who once lived here — might convince a visitor that they really are seeing the East Village, though it’s long gone.
Tompkins Square Park philosopher skateboarders
Skateboarder: “I don’t get it. Why’d she quit you?”
Blue Boy: “She says why right here: ‘You ain’t got no job.’”
Skateboarder: “Well, you got to get you a job, man. Right now. Any job!”
A real-life conversation, overheard and representative of another community within the old East Village.
Skateboarders traditionally convene and practice on one concrete corner court in Tompkins Square Park. Recently, the city announced plans to cover their concrete court with astroturf, which would make skateboarding impossible. In 2019, with support from long-time residents, skateboarders won the fight to preserve the concrete court.
Organizing for tenants rights 1
We were well stocked to keep ourselves from going, … um, bananas, while we gave out information on tenants’ rights and gathered neighbors’ memories of the East Village. Written on the spot and taped on the back right of our booth for all to read, it documented our nostalgia in real time.
We asked participants, “What makes a community? Please share a memory of the East Village.” In the picture, Nina D’Alessandro and Robert Pinter, with Wallace, Corin and (in the background) Chino Garcia, at 2016’s Taste of the East Village, an annual festival featuring local independently owned businesses.
Organizing for tenants rights 2
Lifelong community resident, April Diaz, runs our Toledano Tenants Coalition table at the annual street fair, Taste of the East Village. The festival features local, independently owned businesses. April gives housing advice and spreads the word about our Tenant Empowerment Conference, held on September 23, 2017, at Middle Collegiate Church. Free and open to the public, the conference included breakfast and lunch, panel discussions, free individual housing counseling, and simultaneous translations from English to Spanish and Chinese.
Organizing for tenants rights 3
Artist and Toledano Tenants Coalition member, Sally Young with our great ally and advocate, New York State Senator Brad Hoylman — both are warriors to whom our community owes so much. And with them is Senator Hoylman’s baby daughter Lucy, to whom we owe a better world. At 2017’s Taste of the East Village.
Organizing for tenants rights 3
This is Frances Goldin, who created a community and fought to shelter it and help it grow. Frances co-founded the Cooper Square Committee, 60 years ago, in order to fight against Robert Moses’ urban renewal plans. Because of her and Cooper Square Committee, the neighborhood was preserved. As well, affordable housing continued and land trusts and preservation buyers established and protected a thriving low-income, racially diverse community of homeowners.
Tenant Empowerment Conference 1
Held on September 23, 2017, the conference, sponsored by Toledano Tenants Coalition, drew residents from around the city’s five boroughs.
Middle Collegiate Church offered the space to Toledano Tenants Coalition. The day-long conference provided free food and counseling, along with testimony and advice from; elected representatives, housing officials, tenant activists, community organizers, small business owners. Most empowering was the fact that it drew together residents of New York City’s five boroughs, creating community to build on, demonstrating that the people of this city really are stronger together.
Tenant Empowerment Conference 2
One of the youngest members in attendance.
Our Toledano Tenants Coalition demonstrated outside the Upper West Side home of our landlord, Raphael Toledano. Since he, his employees and lenders showed up at our homes day and night, we decided to return the favor.
After obtaining free legal advice from Urban Justice Center attorneys to make sure that nothing we said, wrote, or did could justify a lawsuit, we gathered at his building, wore masks with our landlord’s face on them, danced and sang songs. Even, we wrote about him then handed out fliers just to be sure that his neighbors knew who he was and what he had done — harassing, investigating and threatening us. We wanted to make it especially known how he targeted the tenants with regards to immigration issues, denying us gas and heat, offering buyouts to get us out of our apartments and then not always paying the buyouts.
Our masks and signs ensured that everyone would recognize our bad landlord, “The Bad Egg, Toledano.” Do not do this without legal advice regarding what you can do and say without getting sued. The Urban Justice Center provided free legal services to us throughout the whole four years of our struggle and continues to stand by us to this day.
Call and response, led by our friend and Cooper Square Committee organizer, SaMi Chester. One important component of a successful grassroots movement is the active support of other community groups: You show up for their actions; they come to yours. We are stronger together. In this action, we were joined by brothers and sisters from Brooklyn and Northwest Bronx. We show up in their communities. They show up in ours. And together, on Martin Luther King Day, we boarded a bus we had chartered and joined actions in Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan. Without that kind of creativity and solidarity, I doubt that many grassroots groups would make it. Lately, we have been joined by housing coalitions from as far away as Cape Town, South Africa. The struggle for affordable housing is global.
One of our Toledano Tenants Coalition children poses here with a sign that she and her neighbors posted in her half-empty building. The message is for Airbnb guests. Over several years, a constant flow of short-term, Airbnb renters caused chaos, and even hazardous conditions.
Unfilled units are due to speculator landlords like ours who try to compensate for extremely high loan payments that they must make to predatory lenders. Our landlord paid 24% interest, an agreement guaranteed to drive him to bankruptcy, but not before he emptied many apartments by driving out rent-regulated tenants. The result was, and still is, nearly empty buildings, poor service to the remaining tenants and hazardous living conditions caused by sloppy, unfinished construction work. Dangerous lead levels, mold, lack of heat and gas and vermin all combine to make the living very challenging.
Toledano Tenant Coalition action at City Hall. Speaking truth to power, always as creative as we can be with our signage, to draw press coverage.
New gentry, new coffee space 1
At The Bean, which lives in the space that once held the independently owned St. Marks Bookshop. The words of artists — who once lived in the East Village, read their work and sold their broadsides and books at the St. Marks Bookshop — are stenciled on the walls.
Construction crew taking a break, East 7th Street
Who is really making America great? And under what conditions? Some of these workers hide their faces fearing detection by US Immigration & Customs Enforcement.
When bad actors and speculators are involved, the gentrification “playbook” involves following a proscribed series of steps: First, harass non-English speaking tenants and the elderly. Then, single women. Then, the rest.
Our landlord harassed a building full of Spanish-speaking tenants, threatening to report them or their relatives to ICE and offering them very low buyouts (of $14,000, for example). The tenants recorded their conversations with him and, after excellent press coverage and fighting in court for over two years, won their case. In that victory, they received a quite sizable financial settlement.
Chinatown residents are beginning to feel the pressures of new speculator gentrification and a vigorous movement to push them out of their homes. I stopped to photograph the flyer posted on the lamppost on the left of this frame. Immediately, this woman raced up with her shopping cart, filled with redeemable cans and bottles. She put on gloves and plunged her hands and arms deep into the garbage, looking for more. That’s one way of fleshing out your income when the neighborhood you live in becomes unaffordable. Lafayette Street and Bleecker Street.
Small business closing
Since the 1960s, independent business owners exist without the protection of the rent control they once enjoyed. Such businesses often ground the communities they serve. Landlords can break lease agreements and evict them at will. Such businesses are pretty much gone from the East Village.
Here, the owner of Clayworks Pottery, on East 9th Street, posted her farewell letter to the community where she lived and worked, selling her ceramics in the storefront, for over 40 years. “The new building owner and the plethora of shell companies he hides behind wants me out, and this is a war that I cannot win,” her letter says.
“I have spent the past 2 years fighting. I am tired and my time is up. Let me be clear — this is not the story of an unsuccessful store hanging on for dear life. This is the intentional stomping out of yet another mom and pop store by predatory real estate weasels. We small businesses are a family. Every store whose light goes out is a small death among us, another cross in the graveyard. There, we are legion.”
New gentry bros on a fire escape above empty storefronts
Small businesses have been closing at an alarming rate in the neighborhood and throughout Manhattan. However, the retail spaces remain empty over several years. The local businesses once provided the indispensable eyes on the street, making the streets safe, creating the community’s culture and services, holding the community together.
Floating above their environment, the “New Gentry” seem oblivious to the emptiness felt by longtime residents.
Graffiti on a construction barrier at Astor Place in the ever-gentrifying East Village. What happens to history when its physical markers are removed?
Daily comments are scratched on a wooden divide between a pedestrian walk and construction of the new Astor Place Plaza, part of gentrification of the East Village. Today’s comment: A succinct one, right on the mark.
6 BC Garden Founders
6BC Garden founders at work, creating a safe place of beauty for the community. In the late 1960s through the 1970s, landlords abandoned their buildings, in some cases burning them down for insurance money. The results were devastating. The residents who remained created a series of pocket gardens, some of which have been preserved despite the recent building frenzy, and these gardens have grown into the places of peace and beauty that their originators dreamed of. Some of the founders are still here to enjoy the fruits of their labor, though many have been driven away by speculators and gentrification.
6 BC Garden Today
East Village pocket gardens are a selling point to new residents. They seem oblivious to how hard won their pleasures are. Unfortunately, longtime residents are once again battling real estate interests. Some of the gardens may become construction sites.
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