The five empty blocks along Delancey Street near the Williamsburg Bridge weren’t supposed to spend 50 years housing parked cars.
Yet there stand the parking lots, their half-century-long presence a testament to the political muscle of the Jews of Grand Street in blocking unwanted development on New York’s Lower East Side. But new construction on these sites may start soon and that, in turn, is a testament to how Jewish political muscle is starting to weaken.
Power on the Lower East Side lacks mystery. Ask a resident of the Grand Street co-op apartment complexes who has power in the neighborhood and the answer is straightforward: Shelly, Willie and Heshy.
That’s Sheldon Silver to you, speaker of the New York State Assembly and a Grand Street local. William Rapfogel, also a Grand Street resident, is head of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, a massive citywide social service agency. Heshy Jacob is officially the manager of two of the Grand Street co-ops, but he’s also a local operator involved in just about everything.
The three are the backbone of Grand Street, neighborhood shorthand for the co-op complexes built by the heavily Jewish garment unions after World War II.
“We put in time and effort for the people,” Jacob said. “It’s not that we simply are despots.”
Their leadership isn’t being directly challenged. But the Lower East Side is changing, and the men are working to keep from being left behind.
When former Community Board No. 3 president Dominic Berg moved to Grand Street in 1999, the Lower East Side was on the brink of gentrification. Within a few years, the neighborhood would be full of luxury apartment buildings and expensive restaurants. The parking lots on the south side of Delancey, however, would still be parking lots.