Alphabet City: The ABCs of Gentrification

By Karin Pekarchik

About 10 years ago, gaily colored banners were hung along the street in my neighborhood, Alphabet City, in the southeastern corner of Manhattan. Their slogan, "Avenue C is the place to be in the '90s," seemed more than a bit optimistic, since the area then was thick with ruined buildings and ridden with poverty and crime. But judging by the teeming nightlife and lively business growth now, it looks as if the banners were just too early. Symptoms of hipness and disposable income are everywhere these days: restaurants with sidewalk tables, an upscale jazz bar, an abundance of automated teller machines. Judging by the heavy foot traffic on Avenue C on a weekend evening, Alphabet City certainly seems the place to be in 2001.

The recent move toward affluence contrasts vividly with the area's profile just a few years ago. Then, Alphabet City--a neighborhood squeezed between the largely Puerto Rican housing projects by the river and Greenwich Village to the West--was synonymous with the sleazy underbelly of the city. To the Empire City's middle class, it was a no-go zone: bizarre, scary, sometimes dangerous. Drug deals were transacted openly or in crack emporiums in condemned buildings. The dealers' whispered litany of "smoke, dope, coke," followed pedestrians down the streets. Neighbors kept chickens penned in tiny plots of land. Pit bulls strained against leashes. On summer nights people sat outside watching TVs run on power hijacked from streetlights. Taxis were nonexistent. On Sundays, junk was sold on the sidewalks as if at an open-air bazaar. Squatters brushed their teeth in the spray from water hydrants. And recurrent tension between police and activists in Tompkins Square Park erupted into full-blown riots. "Anything east of First Avenue was like the Wild West," says Stu Rubinfeld, president of Matel Realty, a local real estate firm.

The lettered avenues of the East Village--built largely on reclaimed harbor--had been an immigrant ghetto since the 19th century, but in the 1970s they started drawing artists, activists, and other bohemian types, many of whom took over empty buildings. That trend deepened in the 1990s. A strong neighborhood feeling grew out of the patchwork of communities thrown together on these mean streets. The area became known for its easygoing ambiance. Here everyone, particularly the anti-Establishment, had a home.

And then, something happened. A trickle of successful artists and left-leaning professionals followed the bohemians. This trickle became a flood, and for the first time Alphabet City became the trendy choice for the pretty, the young, the well-heeled. Part of the reason lay in the area's increased safety. According to police statistics, from 1993 to 2000 crime in the area dropped by almost 57%. Andrew Reicher, of the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, a community housing group, dates the original influx of "gentry" to the mid-1990s, and explains that it was catalyzed by the creation of new housing in what had formerly been warehouses or empty buildings. Strongly contributing to the neighborhood's ability to grow in the 1990s was activism from locals, including squatters, to control drug sales and crime. Says Gregory Heller, a member of Community Board 3, which represents the neighborhood: "On some blocks, gardeners and squatters drove the drug dealers off the block. Little did they know that they would open the door to gentrification and their own eviction."

Paul Stallings, a developer in the area, says of the late-'90s surge: "What triggered the change was that the rental numbers justify the development costs of new construction. Earlier development had been in rehabs and renovations. Now new construction makes sense." Stallings credits city government with making key sales of public property, which allowed development to take off. It may well be that forced (and well-publicized) evictions of squatters, coupled with changes in rent laws, also favored development interests.

QUADRUPLED RENTS. Whatever the cause, there is no denying the reality of the change. And as always in New York, the harshest reality is reflected in the cost of living space. A one-bedroom condo on Avenue D and Sixth Street was recently advertised in The New York Times for $448,750. "Commercial rents in the East Village have doubled, tripled, and even quadrupled or more over the last eight years," observes Heller. Matel's Rubinfeld says few tenants move, but when they leave, rents rise. Of apartments subject to laws that regulate rent increases, he says the average studio is $1,200 to $1,400 a month, and one-bedrooms are $1,400 to $1,800. Stallings has waiting lists for some of his luxury market-rate buildings, where, he says, "nothing is under $2,000. An average small one-bedroom is $2,100 to $2,600."

The change in real estate prices is astounding, but no more than the shift in the feel of the place. A walk east of Tompkins Square Park reveals new businesses, new buildings, and rehabs fast replacing empty lots and former crack houses. On once-empty streets far east of Avenue A, bars and restaurants--Zum Schneider, the C-Note, 9C, Esperanto--appear to be thriving. There is even a fancy gift shop, the East Edge, and a brightly lit veterinary center, Urban Vets, on Avenue C.

Heller also notes that business signs, which used to be exclusively in Spanish, are now in English, reflecting a telling shift in demographics. Proof of that shift: New York City Planning Dept. statistics show a 6.9% rise in whites and a 14.1% decline in Hispanics from 1990 to 2000 in the area covered by Community Board 3. The one-time barrio known as Loisaida (a deliberate Hispanicization of Lower East Side), once isolated by poverty and the grimness of the Avenue D projects, is finally disappearing in the face of affluence and a drum-tight housing market.

UHAB's Reicher worries that the new high-end housing will squeeze out not only the Hispanic population but also the core of artists and activists who gave it the bohemian feel that is now part of its cachet.

"OPEN AGGRESSION." The future does indeed look bleak for an artist eking out a living on freelance wages. On Davis, a tenant-union organizer at Good Old Lower East Side Inc. (GOLES), says: "Changes in the community have resulted in open aggression [by] landlords against longtime residents...paying truly affordable rents." Lower-income residents who lose a good lease often have no choice but to leave the area. The neighborhood does have an infrastructure of low- to middle-income housing owned by the city or nonprofit organizations, but the supply is woefully short of demand.

Some are optimistic that the gentrification of Alphabet City will beat the odds by preserving the edge that made the area interesting in the first place. Sharon Thompson, a longtime resident and a broker for the Corcoran Group Inc., cites three reasons. First, she posits, "the `gentry' like to live in a mixed neighborhood. They have a taste for it. Second, many buildings have rules that are intended to preserve housing for people who are not rich. And third, the gentry came to the community to shape their lives in the community." Activism remains strong in the area, whether it is GOLES' commitment to advocating tenants' rights or the fight to protect La Plaza Community Garden and Charas/El Bohio Cultural & Community Center. Thompson says that Alphabet City residents are "lively, contentious, and have passionate convictions," characteristics that are vital if the neighborhood is to keep its unique identity in place.

She could be right. But it's hard to feel confident that the Prada-clad types promenading down Avenue C after a day's work in the financial district won't radically change the nature of the community. If the pedigree pooches now sniffing the area's hydrants are any indication, the day of the pit bull may have passed.

Freelance editor Pekarchik has lived in Alphabet City for 11 years.

Edited by George Foy

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