LMDC in the LES

It’s not been an easy week for the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation.

The people who brought you one of the biggest public consultation exercises

of all time – the one culminating in the decision

to award Daniel Libeskind the mandate to design the new World Trade Center site

– now have $1.2 billion of federal money burning a hole in their corporate

pockets. This is money which is meant to be spent for the benefit of Lower Manhattan,

and so the LMDC has tried to ask the area’s residents what they think the money

should be spent on. The problem is that its Neighborhood Outreach Workshops

– or at least two of them – have been chaotic.

Here’s the relevant

bit from the LMDC website:

Specific LMDC activities and programs are presently funded by a $2.0 billion

Community Development Block Grant administered by the United States Department

of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for the World Trade Center disaster

recovery and rebuilding efforts and an anticipated second grant for $783 million

targeted for damaged properties and businesses, including the restoration

of utility infrastructure, as well as economic revitalization related to the

terrorists attacks, and to assist businesses that suffered disproportionate

loss of life from the September 11 attacks.

The LMDC scheduled six workshops: for the City Hall/Seaport area; for Battery

Park City; for the Financial District; for Soho/Tribeca; for Chinatown; and

for the Lower East Side. Only the Soho/Tribeca workshop has yet to happen, and

no one is foreseeing any problems there. The first three workshops all went

smoothly, too. But Chinatown and the Lower East Side – that’s where the

shouting started.

The workshops were organised by inviting the LMDC’s community and cultural

contacts to nominate people who they thought should be involved. In the case

of the Lower East Side meeting, which took place this evening at the University

Settlement on Eldridge Street, 100 people were eventually invited, 90 RSVPed,

and about 50 actually showed up on a hot and muggy Wednesday evening.

Most of the participants arrived in the expectation of a collegial meeting,

where community representatives could help the LMDC prioritise the kind of projects

it is going to undertake in the neighborhood. What they didn’t expect was what

they found when they reached the venue: a crowd at least as big as the number

of people inside, standing outside with signs and bullhorns, protesting at being

excluded from "this secret closed-door meeting". The protest on the

Lower East Side wasn’t as out of control as the one in Chinatown, where windows

got smashed, but it was certainly loud and disruptive. It was organised by NMASS,

the National Mobilization Against SweatShops; their main complaint

was that "LMDC is not giving out the money they are supposed to give to

poor people, instead they are using these funds to build luxury housing to kick

poor people out of the Lower East Side and Chinatown."

It was actually a fair complaint, and one with which most of the invited community

representatives were sympathetic. In fact, there was a general feeling in the

meeting that at least some of those outside – as many as could be accommodated

– should be allowed in to participate, since they had at least as much

right to take part as any of us inside. But it was not to be, and the LMDC promised

instead to hold another meeting in the next couple of weeks to which anybody

excluded from this one could come.

Even if they had been allowed inside, however, the protestors would not have

been happy. There were many people with identical views in the meeting, and

the general feeling was one of mistrust: that they were being used as a "PR

vehicle" for the LMDC to be able to claim community consultation while

in reality simply ramming through whatever spending decisions its men in suits

had more or less already decided should be made.

The LMDC didn’t help matters by opening the proceedings with a general overview

of the New York City "Vision

for Lower Manhattan", which is in reality only peripherally related

to the disbursement of the HUD grants. The assembled neighborhood activists

were presented with a glossy PowerPoint presentation all about a grand new transit

hub, the importance of new communications corridors between the Financial District

and New York’s airports, and in general the outlines of the plan (which, I have

to say, is an excellent one) for integrating the World Trade Center site into

Lower Manhattan, and for integrating Lower Manhattan much more effectively into

New York City and its environs.

Since the plan has been around for the best part of two years now, the general

impression given was one of a process where the big decisions have already been

made. While the LMDC thought it was generating genuine bottom-up grassroots

ideas for how it should spend its HUD money, the grassroots activists thought

they were basically being used to provide a veneer of democratic accountability

for a top-down decision-making process which is sorely lacking in transparency

and which they had very little trust in, much of the money already having gone

to subsidising luxury accommodation in the Financial District.

The LMDC’s next big mistake was to ask for ideas under certain headings, one

of which was transportation. With the plans for transit hubs and air trains

fresh in our minds, it certainly seemed as though the LMDC was pretty determined

to go ahead with its large-scale projects, to the detriment of the things which

really mattered to the community: things like low-income housing, job retention

and creation, and the strengthening of existing neighborhood institutions, from

small businesses to arts and community centers.

In fact, while I’m sure the LMDC would love HUD’s money to help realise its

broader vision, there’s no conflict between transit hubs and community outreach.

The money for each comes from different places, and money spent on the World

Trade Center site is not money which could or would otherwise be spent on the

Lower East Side.

The suspicions of the attendees notwithstanding, then, I think the exercise

was useful. It’s clear, for instance, that there’s precious little interest

in, say, traffic-control measures, but that many people are very interested

in a genuinely community-focused redevelopment of Seward Park. If there

was unanimity on one thing, it was this: that the Lower East Side does not stop

at Houston Street, and that the LMDC should concentrate its attention all the

way up to 14th Street rather than drawing lines in the sand which bisect longstanding


In reality, however, the whole exercise felt a little bit fraudulent, and smelled

of political pandering. Look at this

map: it’s the boundaries of the assembly district of New York State Assemblyman

Sheldon Silver, one of the three most important politicians in the state, and

a key mover behind this community outreach program. It should help explain why

the Lower East Side and Chinatown – the "problem" meetings in

the outreach program – are included in it at all.

Do we Lower East Siders really need HUD help more than any number of neighborhoods

in Harlem, or Brooklyn, or the Bronx? Were we more severely affected by the

events of September 11 than commuter towns in Jersey or Long Island? Not really.

The Lower East Side is not Lower Manhattan, and what people were asking for

this evening is exactly what they would be asking for had September 11 never

happened. This federal money was meant to go to help repair the gash which appeared

at the bottom of this island that day; it was not meant to subsidise the Lower

East Side Boys’ Club, no matter how worthy a cause that might be.

If I were the HUD, I would consider the shouting and the demonstrations in

the Lower East Side and Chinatown to be evidence – if any were needed

– that the impact of September 11 is a bit like gravity, decreasing with

the square of the distance from the center point. There’s little controversy

over what needs to be done for the neighborhoods in the immediate vicinity of

the World Trade Center, because they were genuinely devastated by the events

that day and because their needs are being intelligently (if not adequately)

addressed by both the LMDC and the mayor’s office. Get much beyond the Brooklyn

Bridge, however, and quotidian neighborhood concerns – the kind of things

which can be found in any community in any city in the world – rapidly

outweigh anything directly or even indirectly related to the events of September


But try telling that to NMASS.

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One Response to LMDC in the LES

  1. hooljack says:

    The show was organized by the Pakistan Fashion Design Council and it saw the glitterati of Lahore applauding 32 designers from around the country who gathered to celebrate a glamorous event that organizers showcased as being representative of Pakistan’s rich culture, and burgeoning fashion industry.

    Seats were filled almost immediately for the eight shows every day, forcing many to stand amid mad screams, applause, boisterous cheering and blaring music as 30 models sashayed down the aisle. There was enough of a display of cleavage, navel and skin to infuriate the country’s conservative mullahs.

    “Life, in actuality, is a circus,” was how the announcer introduced the colorful collection of the fashion designer Nomi Ansari on the final day.

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