My LES: Marc Richardson

Marc Richardson

My LES For our regular feature spotlighting the people who live and work on the Lower East Side, we talked with community activist Marc Richardson.

 

 

How long have you lived on the Lower East Side?

I moved with my mom to the LES in late 1979 and have been here mostly ever since; so I guess that’s 35 years now.

Why did you move here?

My mom was a struggling artist at the time and was back to being a single mom. So it would seem the prospect of “affordable” housing brought us to the LES, as we had heard through word of mouth about the new buildings now known as Land’s End II were opening up. … I came of age on the LES; it’s the one place I’ve lived the longest and have some of my oldest surviving ties. I got my first “on the books” job at age 15 while living on the LES, selling papers for the New York Post.

What do you do?

I’m an office manager in general services at a mid-sized financial corporation downtown by the World Financial Center. I’m also the vice president of the Land’s End One Tenant Association and a board member of Tenants United Fighting For Lower East Side (TUFF-LES). … There is power in numbers; we need a forum for residents to hash out differences and develop consensus so we can present a unified front and produce a sustainable community that we all can be happy with.

Tell us about your apartment – the good, the bad and the ugly.

I live at 257 Clinton St., a.k.a. Land’s End One. … The average square footage of apartments in my building are smaller than our counterparts at Land’s End II and Two Bridges Tower next door. All things considered you could do much worse for city living, so I’m pretty satisfied with my apartment though I could use more space.

What’s your favorite spot on the LES and why?

When I was a teenager, it was often right on Cherry Street between 265 and 275 Cherry St., where everyone from the neighborhood would pass; so folks would stop, we’d play the boom boxes and consume other unmentionables, but otherwise hangout all in good fun all year round.

Some years we spent plenty of time on the basketball court on South Street and Rutgers Slip. Some years after my mom remarried we opened a deli restaurant on the corner of Henry Street and Jefferson Street called Aten-Ra International Gourmet Deli Restaurant. It was an interesting vantage point to experience the neighborhood from as a proprietor of a business.

Nowadays I don’t hang out as much, but occasionally take in the East River Esplanade waterfront, or rollerblade along the East River park or have dinner at Café Petisco on East Broadway.

Favorite cheap eats?

Given food inflation these days, cheap eats are becoming somewhat of a challenge. Pizza would seem to be an option though it’s not so cheap anymore and I’ve even witnessed the Chinese food portions getting a bit skimpier in recent years. There’s no shortage of variety on the greater LES, but whipping up some rice and beans with pork chops at home is easily becoming the cheaper option.

Favorite place for a special night?

OK, so I’m a bore as I don’t splurge or do “special” very often. But when I do, it’s typically outside the nabe. That said, there are some nice places in the local area in addition to Cafe Petisco, like Eastwood for yummy fish and chips on Clinton and East Broadway or Café Mezcal on Orchard Street.

How have you seen the neighborhood change?

Oh boy, has the neighborhood changed, yet in some ways it hasn’t at all. Back in 1979, the streets looked like a scene out of the ’71 film The French Connection; in fact, I think they actually shot a scene on Dover Street and Front Street. The old Pathmark site still had Water Street, running through from Rutgers Slip to Pike Street, with what looked like a scary dark alley of dilapidated tenement buildings.

Prostitutes still walked the street and frequently serviced johns up Water, Pike, Rutgers and all along the East River under the FDR, which was one huge parking lot. The only thing stopping cars from rolling into the river were square cut logs that ran the length of the embankment. Storefronts posing as legitimate would in some cases openly sell illegal drugs, and wouldn’t even attempt to stock groceries or anything for sale except a blatantly obvious token showing of goods.

The streets were abuzz with teenagers and kids hanging out: playing stick ball, football, basketball and all sorts of street games, as this was a time before the rise of the internet, cell phones and all the things that keep our kids preoccupied these days.

We had a greasy spoon on the corner of Madison Street and Rutgers Street above the train station; you could get a souvlaki, gyro, cheeseburger or anything that could be fried on a griddle while standing on the sidewalk through the window or sweat inside on a counter stool.

Pizza was 50 cents. So were cigarettes, which I could buy for my mom along with a six-pack without a second look. We had a butcher, a same-day on-premises cleaners and a real pizza shop right on Madison. Oh, and a video arcade, penny candies and housing cops.

There was only one school in each school building and Gouverneur was still a hospital with a working emergency room. I could go on… Strangely it often feels as nothing has changed as the buildings in many areas are all the same, or at least structural change has been slow and in spurts over the years I’ve been here.

What do you miss from the old LES?

Some of the neighborhood small business staples like the old school barbershop which also used to be on Madison Street, or a number of the other local shops that are now nonexistent in the local area. Even though Pathmark came with mixed reaction in the early ’80s, it is sorely missed now that it’s gone. I miss many of my old friends, most of whom have moved out; I sometimes feel like a stranger in my own community. It’s harder than I thought it would be to sustain that sense of community that I once felt a part of.

Is there a new arrival you love? Why?

I like the look and feel of the recent modifications to the East River Esplanade, like the exercise areas are really an eye-opening novel idea to me. I’d like to see more valuable uses of community space like this. I’m torn over other aesthetically pleasing additions only, as they represent in some sense gentrification and often do not appear to be targeted to the lower/moderate-income residents who have long characterized and embodied our community.

What drives you crazy about the neighborhood?

Ironically, given all the recent work on our infrastructure and the gentrification inspired retrofitting of the community; certain quality of life detractions persist, such as the filthy and often disgusting state of East Broadway and many of the adjoining streets where food services’ distributors and other shops operate, the sidewalk clutter and makeshift awnings. I just feel like it’s gotten worse since I was a teenager; perhaps I didn’t notice it as much then, but there’s the rub.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen on the LES?

Besides prostitutes and johns right behind my building or grocery store “fronts” selling illegal drugs in the open? I’d have to say the emergence of apartments selling for millions a couple of blocks away from the former sites of the above illicit activity. Particularly, the recent Extell proposal for a 68-story luxury condominium building; I mean I don’t even think we have anything even half that height in the area.

Who’s the best neighborhood character you’ve met and why?

Ha, are you kidding me? This is the Lower East Side, virtually everybody is a character including me. I once got in trouble for scratching the “Gr” off the “Keep off Grass” signs at Land’s End One; I realize now I should have added a comma after “off,” as that is what I was going for but ended up saying something entirely different. We certainly have notables like Jayson Williams who I used to play basketball with when he was actually shorter than me or institutions like Shelly Silver who I’ve met once or twice.

Tell us your best LES memory.

OK there are so many stories and so little time, but this one comes to mind: It was late and we teenagers were out late drinking and engaging in other ill-advised behavior. As I was one of the few who actually worked a summer/after-school job and thus had a little money in my pocket, I volunteered to go get some pizza and other sustenance for the group, as was my custom. In the wee hours of the morning I recall hopping on my bike, which had no brakes, to ride the empty streets all the way up to Stromboli’s in the East Village, which I think was on Eighth Street. I carefully balanced the pizza box on my handlebars while holding down the pizza box with my thumbs and otherwise precariously allowing it to rest up there somehow. Despite not having brakes and having to navigate through a stop here and there, I managed to make it to Madison Street and decided to cut through the long path going through LaGuardia Houses. As I approached Cherry Street a quick gust of wind came off the East River and whipped open the pizza box, which flew into my face, I swerved out of control and crashed right on the lawn behind 55 Rutgers St. and landed right on the pizza box. I wasn’t injured or anything; all I remember was my friends running over and grabbing slices of pizza from the box and even one which someone peeled off my back. It was so hilarious, we thoroughly enjoyed the moment. I didn’t even get a slice, by the way.