Damaris Reyes, GOLES executive director
Damaris Reyes is the executive director of Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES), an influential neighborhood housing and preservation organization. Recently, we sat down with Reyes for a wide-ranging conversation on topics such as the gentrification of the LES, the redevelopment of the former SPURA site and youth violence. Reyes is the co-recipient of the 2009 Jane Jacobs Medal, awarded by the Rockefeller Foundation. In addition to her leadership of GOLES, she is a key member of a Community Board 3 committee drafting a plan for SPURA, the plots of land, mostly south of Delancey Street, that have remained underutilized for 40 years.
TLD: Tell us how you became executive director of GOLES.
Reyes: I live in the neighborhood. I was born and raised here. I think everybody knows that. I live in public housing. I kind of got introduced to organizing about 13 years ago when there were some efforts to privatize public housing. There were two different bills in the House and Senate. There were some folks who were going around the neighborhood, trying to educate people, trying to counter organize and, really up until that point, I think I was detached. When you come from, and maybe this is not true for everyone, but when you come from an urban, inner city, disenfranchised, marginalized community you think that success is making lots of money and moving out and leaving this rat hole. That’s the way that you think about it. So it was really at that point that – faced with the prospect that I might not have a choice in what might happen – and just listening to people talk about the value of this neighborhood, it just really changed my whole outlook. I sort of felt like I got punched in the stomach, if that makes any sense. Something just woke up. I think, also, ever since I was a kid I really had this really high sense of injustice. It’s just something that you have. That was it. After that I started to get involved. I started to go to meetings, I started to learn more about the neighborhood and learn more about the challenges we were facing. Ultimately I went to work for the local Council member. That was another great educational experience because I got to know all of the players and the issues. Through all that, we sort of carried on the original initiative that I had sort of come into. They were talking about public housing – decided to organize a group of stake-holders to preserve the future of public housing and GOLES was a member of this group, as were other people. I was kind of organizing it. I had all these roles. Well, let’s turn this into a real project. Let’s try to get some resources and we can do some real organizing… I was having a baby and I left the job I was at and like 10 months later, I got a call, ‘do you want to be the organizer?’ And I said ‘huh?’… That’s when I came to work here and that was about 8 years ago. And when my predecessor left I had no idea that I would ever try to run this organization. It was not a goal. But folks kind of convinced me to try it out and I did… And I feel pretty grateful.
TLD: What is GOLES?
Reyes: At the end of the day I would say to folks that GOLES is a grassroots community based organization that focuses on eviction prevention, tenant rights, economic development and community revitalization. Our primary focus is to ensure that people are not displaced and to fight gentrification and ultimately to keep people in their homes and in their community.
TLD: From your perspective, how is gentrification changing the Lower East Side?
Reyes: We are a community that is looking to cater to the needs of – in a variety of ways – through the development of luxury housing, a change in the kinds of services, the diversity of goods and services, restaurant culture, nightlife for folks who are not from this neighborhood, who are affluent or are not necessarily community minded. What’s sad about it is that I think people come here because of our trendy, hipster, diverse culture, race and economics and the very essence of who we are is changing because of them coming. So, that being said, what’s really happening is that the neighborhood is so desirable — it’s like supply and demand. You know, you are a property owner and you know you can get more money for your apartment and your goal as a business person is to raise your profit and revenue, so you’re going to do that. That means there are less opportunities for people like me or the children of people who live here who might want to stay here – so it’s displacing people.