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
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.