The purpose of my visit to the US is to do the research for a book I’m going to write about the historic and current parallels between US and UK housing policy. Yesterday I joined a demonstration in the Lower East Side that captures the trans-Atlantic threat posed to working class and low-income communities by the juggernaut of private property development.
There is now an iron law that where you find a waterfront, public housing and an encroaching commercial sector you will find a grotesque corporate land-grab aided and abetted by public finance and officials. This bandwagon started rolling in London’s ‘Docklands’ in the early 1980s and has been replicated in many places since. So it wasn’t hard for me to find yesterday’s demo on Cherry Street on the banks of the East River, adjacent to a big public housing development and within sight of Manhattan’s financial district.
I’ve been involved in trying to ‘Stop the Blocks’ in London, but the scale of what’s planned for the Lower East Side dwarfs anything else I’ve seen, both in scale and aggression. A company called Extell has started building a 72-storey tower that will block the morning sun from tenants living in Rutgers Houses, which are themselves 20-stories high. The similarities with the UK continue with the provision of a piffling amount of ‘affordable’ housing and a ‘poor door’ to segregate the residents of the new ‘luxury’ apartments from the great unwashed who’ve lived there for generations. To compound this insult, there’s a plan to provide a shuttle bus from the new block to the nearest subway station so there’s no need to get your suit dirty by rubbing shoulders with the poor. A significant proportion of the current community are Chinese (the historic Chinatown areas is nearby) and they have been quick to identify the Extell project as racist. Another familiar feature is that the site used to be occupied by a local supermarket that sold cheap(ish) food, but as one of the speakers at the demo said, will no doubt be replaced with a Starbucks and various other ‘mixed use’ outlets that won’t serve the needs of the current population. One of the key figures in all this is New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has a progressive reputation elsewhere, but is seen by many here as an agent of gentrification and displacement. What wasn’t being said yesterday, but I’m sure is the case, is that the corporate colonisation of the Lower East Side won’t stop at 227 Cherry Street. The public housing across the road will be next.