Aaron From: Heading a Changing Hillman Board
The contentious board elections at the Seward Park Cooperative have been grabbing all of the headlines lately. But the winds of change are also blowing through another Grand Street co-op.
As we reported last month, the residents of Hillman Housing elected three new board members – continuing a subtle but significant transformation in the leadership of the 60-year old residential complex. Recently, I sat down with Aaron From, elected board president last year, for a conversation about the changes at Hillman.
One of four large cooperatives lining Grand Street, Hillman has more than 800 apartments in three buildings stretching from Willett to Lewis streets. From, a semi-retired optometrist (he still sees patients in Brooklyn most afternoons), has lived in Hillman virtually all of his adult life. Last year, he succeeded chair Hy Meadows, who stepped down after heading the cooperative for more than 40 years.
Noting the bruising and still-unfolding election debacle at Seward Park, From referred to Hillman as “the quiet co-op.” With a bit of a gleam in his eye, he explained, “we’re a relatively staid, conservative group that does not have the same turnover of the other buildings.” During a tour of the grounds – including a walk past the compost area and community garden – he boasted, “we’re family-oriented — we have the most greenery, the most open spaces, the largest apartments, the tallest ceilings.”
In the recent election, newcomers Elizabeth DeGaetano, Mathew Quezada and Ted Greenberg (as well as incumbent Kira Wizner) were victorious, while two other veteran board members were defeated. I asked From, who has served on the board since the late 90′s, what he thought about the outcome:
I think that there is a new wave of energetic people who are taking an interest in the community and the environment and see these apartments as more than (investments), but (a way) to develop a community… As a co-op, we welcome younger, new people who want to make this neighborhood their life… It’s always good to see new, young faces and baby carriages and things changing.
From has deep roots on the Lower East Side. His family came to this country in 1898, settling near Tompkins Square Park, where his grandparents ran a grocery. They moved to Grand Street when the Hillman opened in 1950, part of a major push to create new middle income housing where dilapidated tenement buildings once stood. From attended the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School. After college and stints living in other Grand Street cooperatives, he and his wife returned to Hillman, where they raised three children.
This evening, the Hillman board will meet to elect its officers for the coming year. From discussed some of the issues he believes the cooperative must deal with in the years to come. Among them: spiraling real estate taxes, increasing water rates and higher energy costs. “We’re converting our boiler room to burn natural gas,” he said, “a major change (for Hillman) the likes of which has not been seen in the last 50 years.” From indicated it’s in the interest of all Lower East Side residents to advocate for more services, including new schools, hospitals and senior programs catering to an evolving community.
In varying degrees, all of the Grand Street cooperatives are trying to balance the needs of residents with diverse economic realities. A decade after the complexes privatized, there has been an influx of newer residents who paid market-rate prices for apartments that once sold for $1000 per room. From said he thinks the perceived tensions between new and longtime residents are often overplayed:
At both ends of the economic spectrum, it’s in everyone’s interest to keep carrying charges as cost effective and as low as possible. We can’t forget the needs of senior citizens, who are on fixed incomes. For them, every dollar is difficult. But at the other end of the spectrum, someone who might have purchased their apartment for $700,000-$900,000 — don’t forget that person is carrying a mortgage of $3,000-$4,000 a month, plus carrying charges… So no one wants to see big increases in fees. I think everyone has common goals.
I asked From for his views on SPURA, the 7-acre Seward Park redevelopment site just to the west of Hillman. After four decades of false starts, Community Board 3 and the city are moving towards a consensus plan for the parcels. But From said he believes there are still major obstacles to overcome, especially given the continuing weak economy:
The basic reality is that construction is pretty much at a standstill and financing is at a standstill. Although we may hope and wish for a particular entity, if the finances are not there to make it a reality, as much as you might hope and wish and dream, it simply will not happen. So it’s a broader picture that’s way out of our control. At the state level or city level, there’s a decision to be made about whether they want to inject a large amount of financing to enhance a particular policy… So the ultimate project may rest more on who has the money than on what we in the community hope for.
For the moment, From chooses to focus on projects within his grasp. As a board member of the Bialystoker Synagogue (across the street from Hillman), he plays a major role in preserving the historic building. Just this past month, he refurbished the front steps and doors leading to the sanctuary. During my visit From showed off the synagogue’s sukkah, which he built from scratch.
From said he appreciates the fact that many of the cooperative’s younger residents have taken an interest in their neighborhood. It was a core group from Hillman, for instance, who spearheaded (with other LES residents) a major fundraising drive this past year to refurbish Luther Gulick Park, the once neglected public space behind the co-op. “Most people move here for life and build a community,” he said.