Oral Histories of the Lower East Side – Part 3: Selected Transcripts

Part 3: Selected Transcripts

SaMi Chester, a tenant’s rights organizer who got his start in Chicago in the 70’s, shares in the below excerpt his insights on race and development in New York City. He explains how neighborhoods like East New York and Red Hook have become home to luxury condos and boutique coffee shops, speaking to the tension and frustration felt in previously neglected communities now subject to an uncertain future. A long-time resident of the East Village, Sheila Rothenberg has been witness to the many incarnations of the neighborhood. Sheila, who ran a greasy spoon diner for a few years here in the eighties, describes what the neighborhood felt like in the 80’s and the changes she watched in the following three decades.
Even though neither SaMi or Sheila are currently small-business owners, they have both forged deep, sustained relationships with the neighborhood. In light of the recent election I think it is even more crucial to highlight the importance of speaking with your neighbors and knowing your community. We might live in a liberal city, but that doesn’t mean we can stop learning from each other about our differences and working to protect safe spaces in which such differences can thrive.

SaMi Chester

SaMi is a tenant organizer and human right’s activist who has fought for tenant’s rights since the age of fifteen. He currently works at Cooper Square Committee and is also the Founder/Artistic Director of BeBop Theatre Collective.

Interviewer: Can you talk a little bit more about the “true growth”? What does that mean?

Sami: This is a rock that we live on. There’s only so much property available but for years and years and years, certain pockets of this rock have been neglected in terms of services, in terms of all of that schools, hospitals, you name it. So now developers have figured out, “Oh, if I want to change, if I want to make some money, I’m going to go to Red Hook. I’m going to buy up all these buildings. I’m going to go to East New York, I’m going to buy up all these buildings. I’m going to buy some politicians, I’m going to buy — right? I’m going to do whatever it takes to do for me to get this land and then I’m going to build condos and all this lovely stuff and rent’s going to go from eight hundred dollars a month to five thousand dollars a month and oh those rents stabilized tenants, “Oh, don’t worry about them. We’ll figure something out.” So we’re just keep on upping the rent, upping the rent, upping the rent so that those apartments become destabilized and where are this people going to go?

So that’s the fight that I think is worth fighting. I think — but it has to be worth fighting and it has to be spoken about for what it is and where it stemmed from and how it happened. And then why it happened? We can’t be so nonchalant about it. We can’t solve race by having a three-day retreat and that’s not going to happen. It just doesn’t because the first question I always ask anyone is when you have this discussion around a race, were there any Black straight man in the room? Usually the answer is always no. When we had this conversation about race, was there anybody who’s been incarcerated in that room? Were there any mothers who are on public assistance, were any of them in that room? Were there any mothers who lost their children to police or gun violence, were they in that room? If they weren’t in the room then you’re not having a conversation about race. You’re having a feel good moment so that you can go to your parents and say, “Mom and dad, you won’t believe, you know what? You really have to start tipping the landscaper for a little bit more money.”

And those are real, real issues. We need to deal with those issues until we start to really, really understand that that is at the root of gentrification. I mean, America is the largest and best case for gentrification. How? Ask the Native Americans. We’re just going to come in. We’re going to be here for a little while but while we’re here, you’ll stay in this little bit of land over here and don’t come out of that. And by the way, here are these blankets [laugh], right? So I take the fight a bit differently, politically that I look at. I understand what we do here. Cooper [Square Committee] is very much in terms of educating people about their rights in empowering them with those rights but at the same time we are not here to coddle them. We are here to tell them the truth and to try to get them closer to understanding that whether you were rent — whether you are market rate tenant or rent stabilized tenant still getting screwed by a bad acting landlord. You are still being screwed by a bad-acting developer who are being underwritten by a bad-acting bank, who has board members that are senators and judges. So we have to stop playing this game. I feel sometimes, there are days when I just want to stop.

And Tom Gaudette, that very first guy in my head, I hear him saying here’s a clipboard, here’s a pen, go do your job. And I’m going to keep on doing that job but I have to be true to who I am. You know what would be great? What I live for, what I think every organizer activist lives for, is the day when we’re not needed anymore and I can plant some flowers. I can write some poetry about nice things. But God look who’s running for president? I’m going to be busy for a while.

Sheila Rothenberg

Sheila moved from Brooklyn, NY to the East Village in 1978 and lived on East 7th Street. In 1993 she moved to Saint Marks place with her family and has been there ever since. She owned a Greasy Spoon diner in the East Village called Dine East from 1983 – 1986. She now works at Works in Progress NYC, a not for profit in the East Village.

Interviewer: What did the East Village look and feel like when you lived here in the 70’s and 80’s?

Sheila: Well, the crack… there was always dope there. That was not pretty but it wasn’t as threatening. Like, you’d have dope bags coming in to try and use your bathroom. Sometimes you’d go in and see blood on the wall, but they weren’t threatening because I think they were just really high all the time. But with crack, people get really up up. So it was a little more of a threatening feel at the time. You’d see groups of people because there’d be a drop somewhere and they would just be kind of milling around and that was… the way it is now, the residential living on First Street wasn’t even like that at all. Between Second and Bowery there was parking lots and a couple of buildings. And in between First and Second there was a paper factory. It was really, really different back in the late ’70s, early ’80s.

So then in ’86 I got married and had my first child in ’87. So I kind of didn’t go out as much then. Things really started to change. It was more than including the kid stuff. Tompkins Square Park was disgusting. Just sandboxes with rat shit in them. Dangerous things, like the see-saws. Really dangerous play things. And then over the next decade I think that’s when some good things and some not so good things started to happen in terms of change.

Interviewer: What did that change look like?

Sheila: Well, there was the whole thing that I’m sure you heard about Tompkins Square Park with the tent city, how they kind of threw out all of the homeless. And I was away in Italy when that happened, that summer. So on the one hand, the park didn’t feel like such a great place to go to with your kids sometimes. Not that I didn’t ever feel that threatened by homeless people and I just wish that that didn’t happen because I think some people liked being there. A lot of people would rather have a home, I think most people would rather have a home. The way it was done I thought was really terrible, but then they started to fix up the park. So those of us in the neighborhood who had kids, and there were a lot of us and not just middle class. There had always been lots of people with kids but I think the impetus was that the more middle class people like myself were moving in and being kind of demanding. So they fixed up the playgrounds in a way that was great. It just was a great place that you could take your kids and I think that was beneficial to the community. People started planting, the gardens… I remember a time we were in there, it had to be like ’79 or ’80, with a friend who is a photographer, we were doing some pictures. She set up a camera on a tripod. We were sitting on a bench by where the park on A is, the kids’ park. And all of a sudden this group comes running and shooting. Literally, this guy, I remember, I could still see him jump up on the fence and shoot, and we jumped behind the bench that we were in front of. But there was no bushes even to hide, so I’m like, “Oh yeah, this is a great hiding place.” It was more violent.

Even later when my kid, in 1989, was going to preschool on Tenth Street, his babysitter got mugged for his bike. There was definitely more criminal activity. My house got robbed in ’84 while I was home sleeping, someone broke in. Not that that stuff doesn’t happen anymore, nothing terrible ever happened to me here, really. I’ve sometimes walked down the street and got a vibe and cross the street or went into a store. But nothing really bad ever happened to me. Also, until the late ’80s, I didn’t go below A, hardly at all especially at night. I had this one friend who just got mugged all the time because he was buying drugs stupidly going below there. It was really rough. The neighborhood was really different. Certain blocks were just bad. Really bad and really scary.

Interviewer: Is there a tipping point you can identify with the changes in the neighborhood? Where it went from being dangerous to more middle class to what we kind of are dealing with now, which is not middle class?

Sheila: Well, middle class has changed too. I would say it was the mid late ’80s was when it started to become more…this is my perspective because of my age and me having kids at that age. It was kind of a little boom. And then more new schools opened up between 1989 and… Lower East Side School opened in ’88 or ’89. And then these little smaller schools catering to more progressive education and more middle class people started to open and that was a turning point because mostly everyone I knew who had older kids than me left the East Village and they went to the West Village for school. They went to PS3 or PS41 on the west side because they couldn’t afford private school. Everyone was faking addresses to get in because the schools were so bad here. I think it was that parents were saying that we don’t need to do that, we need to start new schools and there were a couple of people that I knew who were at the fore front of that. So I got involved with them before my kid was even pre-school age when the first school has had its name changed since then. I think it is called the East Village Community School now. It used to be called the Lower East Side School. That was the first one to open with this mind on progressive education. So that was a big turning point that I saw.

Then the bars and the restaurants started to change. When I first moved here, if my parents came to visit there was only two restaurants we can go to with them. One was this place called Pier 9 which is where the Thirteen Step is now. That was the Telephone before that. I cooked there for three years. But before that it was this place called Pier 9 that had seafood. It was a real restaurant. And there was Hisae’s on the Bowery. I actually just noticed another Hisae’s opened on Ninth Street. But it used to be where The Standard Hotel is now and it’s catered to theatre. Otherwise, there were no place… I could take them to a diner, but if they wanted to take me out for my birthday that was it. There was only really one. And then I guess it was 1981 or ‘80 that this guy Yagi Bon who owns a bunch of restaurants opened up this place called 103, where Mighty Quinn’s is now and that was a little higher end. It started to become .. like it wasn’t just dive bars and Polish restaurants. That started in the mid ’80s, I would say, more strongly, more intensely.

Then you also started to see places you liked close. So that started. The bank on the corner of Tenth Street used to be a diner, L and M diner. All these places, I don’t even remember what year, but slowly, slowly, the good wholesome, not expensive restaurants started to close. Some more chains, commercial, Subway and McDonalds has been there. McDonalds has been there quite a while but that was the only place. Woolworths was there. St. Mark’s Place, I used to hang out on St. Marks, between Second and Third. There was bar we used to call Pig Pen, it didn’t really have a name but it was really cheap then there was the Butcher on St. Mark’s. St. Mark’s bookstore was actually on St. Mark’s. It wasn’t at all like the circus it is now. It was really different.

Interviewer: Was there ever a day you felt really strongly like, “Wow, these changes have been dramatic.”

Sheila: I think in the early ’90s when we wanted to move it occurred to me. We had another child and I had a really nice apartment that Manny wound up moving in with me when we got married. We could have lived there but it was kind of small for three or four people and we started looking. Almost all our friends had already gotten something. We didn’t know if we’d be able to stay in the neighborhood. It wasn’t that expensive like it is now. I was paying $189 a month for a big apartment. I would say it was about 700 sq. feet

Interviewer: You were paying $189?

Sheila: Yeah, when I first moved in in ’78. So by the time we were ready to move, we were up some $375 because of improvements that were made and the 7% increases you get over the years because it had been 15 years that I’d been there, which was still really reasonable. We started looking at things which were really much more expensive than that and people were starting to go… the rent stabilization were still on the books but they try to rent to people that don’t know that but at the same time as that happened there was a commercial banking fiasco. It was called the Savings and Loans debacle, whatever they called it, that bad mortgage… sort of in 2008 but only in commercial loans so it became hard to sell commercial buildings. We couldn’t get a mortgage. So there was a little delay then so that made the real estate market go way down in New York much more than it did in 2008 in the commercial real estate market. So we were able to get something commercial building that, well that’s a long story, but anyway, we were able to buy something cheap because no one could get a mortgage at that time.

This post is part of FABnyc’s summer-fall oral history project undertaken by former FAB intern Molly Taylor, an NYU student from California, who has worked with FAB numerous times over the years. You can see part 1 of this blog series here and part 2 here.

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