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Search for Former SPURA Tenants Ratchets Up With Development Plan in Place

By Serena Solomon | October 17, 2012 7:47am

LOWER EAST SIDE — Tito Delgado has fond memories of the tenements he lived in as a youth that were razed 45 years ago to make way for a new housing development that never came.

"My mom always had a pot of stew, and all the kids from the neighborhood were always there," said Delgado, 60, of the small apartment his family was evicted from at age 14 to make way for the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA), a plan that only recently materialized after decades of debate over what to do with the massive undeveloped property.

"Back then people looked out for each other."

Despite Delgado's diverse mix of childhood friends in the tenements — including Poles, Italians, Russians, Hispanics and African-Americans — it wasn't hard to find common ground. 

"We understood we were poor," he said, "and that we were in this together."

Last week, after nearly a half-century of delays, a long-in-the-works plan for SPURA was unanimoulsy approved by the City Council, paving the way for a 1.65-million-square-foot mixed-use development along the smattering of of vacant lots where the tenements once stood.

Now, with anticipation of a construction happening in their lifetime, former site tenants such as Delgado are waiting for the city to make good on a recently reaffirmed promise — to give them priority access to any affordable housing built in the development.

"We are going to try to look up [former residents] in whatever way we can," said Harriet Cohen, the chairperson for the Seward Park Area Redevelopment Coalition (SPARC), a collection of groups and individuals that is assisting in the search for former site tenants.

So far, SPARC has located more than 75 former residents. 

"Reverse phone directories, school records, municipal archives, different districts in the community where people might have gone," she said, listing off the many search methods used to locate tenants.

The tenements were torn down in a "typical 1950s urban renewal philosphy of the city," according to Val Orselli, the executive director of Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association and a SPARC member. 

At that time, the city would clear tenement communities around the city — such as where Lincoln Center now stands — to make way for new housing and a higher-class community, Orselli said.

"There was drug issues and crime [in the Seward Park tenements], just like there is on Wall Street," he said. "This was just more class-based."

The land was also eyed as part of city planner Robert Moses's failed plan for a Lower Manhattan Expressway that would have leveled parts of Downtown to make way for the proposed highway running through Manhattan, Cohen added.

Councilwoman Margaret Chin, whose district covers the SPURA lots, recently announced a renewed committment to give affordable housing priority to former site tenants in a letter signed by the plan's developers, the city's Economic Development Corporation (EDC) and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD).

HPD spokesman Eric Bederman said the agency is already working with SPARC on efforts to locate former site tenants. The EDC did not return a call for comment.

The development will also include space for the future construction of a school, parkland and 1,000 apartments, split evenly between market-rate and affordable-housing units. 

Like other applicants, former site tenants must meet the income requirements to be eligible for the housing. Of the 500 units set aside for affordable housing, 20 percent will be for low-income earners, with a family of four required to earn less than $49,000 to qualify, according to HPD's Gabriella Amabile, who spoke at a recent City Council hearing on SPURA.

Before the tenements were demolished, a poor yet warm community existed for about 2,000 families living in the apartments, former residents recounted.

"A lot of it had to do with, every building was a unit of its own and people in it had a sense they belonged to something," said former tenant David Nieves, 50.

As a child, his family lived in three apartments —  396 and 382 Grand St. and 161 Clinton St. — while the city took down the tenements bit by bit in 1967.

From there, Nieves’ family was placed in the Seward Park Extension on Grand and Essex streets — a large apartment block of public housing that became stigmatized, Nieves said. 

"I personally liked it better living in a tenement," he said of his former home. "The reason for this is the mindset of people who live in this public housing is a defeated mindset."

Despite the decades-long wait, 51-year-old Nelson Santiago intends to apply for priority affordable housing at the future SPURA development.

"This was a wonderful neighborhood. I have a whole picture in my mind," he said, describing the area's cobblestone streets, food and shoe vendors, and playing baseball in abandoned yards with "imaginary" bases.

Santiago lived at four different locations in the long-gone tenements before his family was evicted when he was 5 years old.

"You could survive in the old days," said the current Brooklyn resident, who works as a superintendent. "Everybody was your family."

Locating former site tenants is just the beginning for Cohen, whose does the job unpaid on top of her full-time position in social welfare. An identification procedure of past residents in the tenements also needs to be developed, she said.

"It really depends on what people can say — voting records, if they saved a report card from school that has their address on it, hospital records," Cohen explained.

She and others working on SPURA must also manage their expectations, with the actual development still years away from becoming a reality.

As for Delgado, now retired from a career in civil rights, fulfilling a promise is more about the princple than a cheaper apartment.

"I don't need the housing," said Delgado, who now lives on West 21st Street.

"I just want to see justice."