GREENWICH VILLAGE — A temporary exhibition on display at New York University's Kimmel Window Galleries showcases the half-century struggle to bring affordable housing to plots of long-derelict Lower East Side land that will soon be home to sprawling mega-development Essex Crossing.
Activist group Seward Park Area Redevelopment Coalition (SPARC) and curators working with NYU's Kimmel Galleries have teamed up to bring the story to the gallery windows in an exhibition called "Lost Streets: Seward Park's Fight for Housing Justice," where memorabilia is displayed alongside the history of the land and the personal stories of those who were displaced from buildings that previously occupied the area.
When the city in 1967 bulldozed the buildings bordered by Essex, Delancey, Grand and Willet streets, an estimated 1,800 families and several hundred businesses were displaced, according to SPARC.
"We’ve been the people — and many of us are still here — who were sort of the guardians of the site, making sure low-income housing was built on the site so the people who lived here, many of whom were scattered to the winds, would come back and live there," said Harriet Cohen of SPARC.
What followed was a decades-long fight to redevelop the land — efforts to bring affordable housing to the lots were consistently blocked by now-disgraced former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who wanted to maintain the Jewish presence in the Lower East Side, as reported by The New York Times.
"It was parking lots — it was just big, vacant parking lots for mostly 45 to 50 years," Cohen recalled. "We held vigils for a couple of years, honoring all the former site tenants…we made ribbons with their names on them so nobody would forget."
At last, in 2013, it was announced the land would be rehabilitated — Essex Crossing, from developer Delancey Street Associates, will consist of nine sites holding 1,078 units of housing, 561 of which will be affordable, along with a host of shopping, entertainment and health care destinations.
Former SPEURA tenants will be given preference in the application process for roughly a quarter of the affordable units. The city in March began accepting applications for the first of the units at 145 Clinton St. through the affordable housing lottery, which closed this week. Applications for senior housing at 175 Delancey St. are still being accepted.
But as the vacant land gives way to the long-awaited development, activists wanted to ensure the preceding struggle was memorialized in some way.
"For a while we've been thinking about how we can recognize and memorialize this epic five-decade struggle," said lead curator Noah Fuller. "The empty lots were really the only memorial that existed, and now that they're built over — which is a great thing — there will be really no public memory of what had happened there."
The "Lost Streets" exhibition is on display in the Kimmel Window Galleries through June 22. (NYU/Jess Frances)
The temporary exhibition, which will be on display through June 22, aims to raise awareness of both the history of the site and of the affordable housing lottery now open at the site — but it is just a step towards creating a permanent memorial closer to the SPEURA site, said Fuller.
"It should be in the streets, something that's permanently installed, something that draws people in that maybe has audio clips, visuals and things like that," said Fuller. "I think the key is to not have just some silly bronze marker on the side of a building that everybody ignores."
Former residents of the site were consulted and interviewed for the exhibition — their first-person accounts are etched into the glass of the displays.
A resident who was forced from his home as a teenager at 145 Clinton St. — now the site of Essex Crossing's Site 5, which this week stopped accepting affordable housing applications — recalled the hopelessness of displacement and the decades that followed.
"Some of us have been homeless, basically going form home to home, relative to relative, friend to friend for the last 50 years — it's a crime," said Tito Delgado, who left the site when he was 14.
"We persisted and we resisted, and now we’re here, and we will get our housing, and hopefully many or at least some of the former site tenants will be able to come back home."