Lower East Side Development Spells Decline of Old Jewish Power Brokers

Seward Park Project Signals End of Era in Old Neighborhood

Location, Location: The development of an unimpressive looking stretch of the lower East Side after decades of delay signals a political changing of the guard in the fast gentrifying area of Manhattan.
ari jankelowitz
Location, Location: The development of an unimpressive looking stretch of the lower East Side after decades of delay signals a political changing of the guard in the fast gentrifying area of Manhattan.

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published March 04, 2013, issue of March 08, 2013.
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Bulldozed as part of a slum clearance project in 1967, the blocks between Grand Street and the Williamsburg Bridge had been torn up and then left to rot. When the old tenements that housed generations of immigrants were first pulled down and nearly 2,000 poor families were evicted, the plan was to build new low-income housing. Many of the middle-class Jews of nearby Grand Street, however, didn’t want more poor neighbors.

The fight over the Seward Park site wasn’t over whether the tract should be redeveloped. Everyone wanted to put something on the blighted block. No one could agree, however, on how much low-income housing should be included in the redevelopment plan. Advocates and opponents fought bitterly for decades. A community meeting on the issue in 2004 “turned into complete and utter chaos,” Berg recalls.

When Berg was elected to head the community board in 2008, he saw a political opening. The Grand Street co-ops were changing. The apartments once full of older Jews were turning over, the long-term residents being replaced with younger families.

Some of these new families were Jewish. Some, like Berg’s, were half Jewish. They were separated from their older neighbors by a generational and a cultural gulf.

With backing from the new residents, Berg shepherded through a compromise on the redevelopment plan that was approved by the community board and the New York City Council. With the support of an enthusiastic Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the long-delayed Seward Park redevelopment, as the plan for doing away with the parking lots is known, is finally moving forward. Proposals for the site are due from developers in May.

“The co-ops have changed a lot,” Berg said. “There were people that were really able to say, this one voice that’s been on Grand Street isn’t a monolithic voice anymore. We want to see progress on these lots.”


On a Monday morning in February, Nick Rhodes, 30, is walking his tiny black dog outside the Seward Park Cooperative, the Grand Street co-op complex closest to the redevelopment site. He’s drinking coffee from Pushcart Coffee, a hip coffee shop on East Broadway, and has a hip moustache that ends in a swirl.

Rhodes’s great grandfather lived on nearby Henry Street, but when he moved into the co-op eight years ago he says he was the youngest person on his floor by 50 years.


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