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.
TLD: What’s the solution?
Reyes: I can’t give you one answer. I can say that as an organization we have developed what we believe, with the resources that we have, a holistic approach in trying to look at all the different factors, the ways in which we can mitigate those conditions. We understand, though, that even if we do everything that we are striving to do that it is still going to take a much more cohesive and collaborative approach. GOLES is one organization. At the end of the day, I don’t know that we can stop gentrification. I think the reason that gentrification is such a problem for us – it’s not about people coming here. It’s not that we don’t want people to come here. That’s so hypocritical. We’re the Lower East Side. We’re the gateway to America. People have come here always, and that’s what makes us so great and so beautiful – that we’re so diverse in so many different ways. But what we’re trying to achieve is this balance of – we don’t want to be an exclusive community. We want to stay an inclusive community. We want to welcome people and have them embrace our community and be able to embrace them. But not at the risk of pushing the people who choose to stay here, who want to be here, who see this neighborhood as home and want to contribute to the vibrant culture of the community. It’s not just the people, right. It’s the vibe. It’s the culture. It’s everything about us. There’s this conversation about historic preservation, and oftentimes, that gets characterized as structural… the low-scale character of the neighborhood, that’s one thing that contributes to who we are but the people make this a great place. I think GOLES is approaching it in a number of ways. We’re working with public housing residents to maintain that housing stock. We’re working with folks who live in tenements to maintain, as much as we can, rent stabilized stock. We’re working with the project based Section 8 tenants to make sure their contracts are being renewed and their landlords are not opting out of the program and converting their entire buildings into luxury housing. We’re trying to educate people about their rights and give them tools so they can protect themselves. We can’t be with everyone and at the same time we’re working with our leaders and our members to come up with a large-scale campaign that will address some of the sources of the problems. The reason we’re fighting to maintain rent stabilized housing is because of luxury and vacancy decontrol – and what that means and how units are being taken out of the rent stabilization program and landlords knowing that they can do that gives them more incentive to try to push people out and harass them. So it all is sort of connected. We’re also looking at land and how it serves the existing communities. And that’s where SPURA comes in but also the waterfront. We’re also trying to look at economic opportunities, and where are there job creation opportunities that people who live here can benefit from. We have like a 27-percent poverty rate in this neighborhood. That’s crazy. People need to be able to maintain their housing but to maintain their housing they need to have a living wage job. We’re looking at small businesses, because they contribute to the local economy, they provide diversity of goods at price points that people can afford. When businesses leave and you have to shop in other places, or they’re unaffordable, that contributes to your financial strain, your ability to make ends-meet, your ability to maintain a healthy and comfortable life in this neighborhood
TLD: How would you like to see the underutilized plots of land known as SPURA redeveloped?
Reyes: I think there are four major things that can happen. One, it can be a place where we develop a good portion of housing that meets the needs of the low, moderate, middle-income community. I think there’s also opportunity for small business preservation, either by making sure there is enough commercial space for either local residents to have a business or folks who are in danger of being displaced because of escalating rents. I think it’s also an opportunity to potentially create jobs through a number of ways, either through those small businesses or through other businesses, like maybe some offices for example. The maintenance of whatever is going to be created there could create a lot of jobs, a lot of people who are going to have to run whatever happens. And then I think there might be an opportunity to create something that’s recreational or community focused. There’s a lot at stake. There’s a lot that could potentially happen there.
TLD: Several weeks ago, in reporting about Community Board 3’s discussions regarding SPURA, we indicated that you were advocating for a stronger stance in support of affordable housing. Can you expand on the points you were making?
Reyes: What I was advocating for is the ability to have the discussion, which is different to me. There were some folks who wanted to talk about that. And I felt that it was important to allow that discussion to happen. If it couldn’t happen then that was fine, maybe we could have it at another time when more people were there. So that was really my goal. I have different roles. I am on this committee because of the organization that I work for, so obviously they know I am inclined towards a particular view… but I also respect my role on that board, which is to ensure that we work as collectively as possible and not dismiss anybody’s views. So I was really responding to other people. I was really saying. ‘why can’t we talk about it?’… or even what was the discussion? Why was it excluded? Do I personally think the principles should have strong language around that? Yes, I do. I’m happy with the compromise that we achieved. I just wasn’t happy at that moment with the way it was all happening.
TLD: You refer to the fact that you have dual roles, as member of the committee and as executive director of an organization that cares a lot about affordable housing. How do you balance those roles?
Reyes: The way I try to balance that is, I try to understand other people’s viewpoints and perspectives. I work really hard to be in a space where you can agree to disagree. I think in this particular instance that’s critically important because – nothing has happened at the SPURA site- because people have been at the opposite ends of what they believe should happen there. They haven’t been able to come together and compromise and think about ‘how do we create something that addresses all of the stake-holders in this neighborhood.’ So, for me, I may not agree with everything that everybody says. But I might be able to see their perspective and, as such, I try to respect that. I’m just a strong personality. When I have a point I’m going to make it, and I think oftentimes people
expect that I’m going to say something. You know, the problem we have is that we’re either too radical or we’re not radical enough. Let’s not forget. I’m a woman. I’m a Latina. I’m very passionate. I don’t say anything that’s any more off the wall than anyone else there sometimes but I’m always going to be perceived as, ‘Oh my God there’s Damaris.’ What’s funny about that, is when it suits different agendas, people love that. And when it doesn’t, or they think it doesn’t, then people want to sort of keep that down. It’s just a challenge. It’s a cross that I bear but I think that overall I hear a lot of things in those settings that piss me off or that I think are not right and I bite my tongue. Sometimes you have to bite your tongue.
TLD: How much “tongue biting” will you be able to do?
Reyes: The ultimate outcome is what people want to see happen. Our report is going to talk about what people want to see happen. If we feel that is not happening, we probably will not be able to remain part of that process. What happens after that I can’t tell you. I think I am committed at this point to using the existing structure that we have to try to create a diverse group of people, stake-holders, that can for the first time in a long time work on something that can make everyone happy. But if in the end I don’t see that, then I can’t be a part of it, because at the end of the day I have a very particular community that I serve. That community are folks who are being pushed out, don’t have housing opportunities, or their children don’t have housing opportunities – and I’ve got to make sure their interests are served. Right now, if I lose my apartment, I can’t live here. That’s crazy. I wouldn’t be able to live anywhere else in this neighborhood. I can’t imagine that.
TLD: There are some people who believe that the New York City Housing Authority is warehousing apartments, with the ultimate goal of privatization. Do you believe that?
Reyes: I think people believe that. I think there have been some efforts to sort of prove that. But the truth is NYCHA has less than a one-percent vacancy rate. They have to keep some apartments empty, because what happens when people have fires and then they have no place to move them? And then, they’ll be told they should have done some contingency planning. I have a lot of problems with NYCHA. Over the last decade or so the administration has demonstrated their dedication to preserving public housing. I think the other truth is that they are being squeezed. Some believe that they don’t manage their money properly and an audit needs to happen, and that may all be true. But first let’s close the budget gap – it’s $200 million – let’s make sure we preserve this housing, and then let’s do an audit. Maybe that doesn’t seem fiscally responsible, but the truth of the matter is it’s kind of like the chicken and the egg, which is going to come first. So I don’t think that NYCHA is warehousing apartments as a means to privatize. Do I think privatization is possible? I do think that’s possible. In different parts of this country public housing has been demolished in large-scale. Chicago is an example. 20-thousand units have been demolished… Atlanta is the first place to get rid of its public housing. There’s no more left. That has happened in these communities to make way for other kinds of housing under the auspices of the de-concentration of poverty and they those communities have been gentrified. So I do think it’s possible. Do I think NYCHA has some hidden agenda at this moment? No. Do I think they may be looking at options if they can’t raise the revenue? Yes.
TLD: Some residents in the neighborhood’s housing projects believe youth violence is escalating and there aren’t enough resources available to help teens stay out of trouble. Do you agree?
Reyes: Their concerns are warranted, and they are not the only folks who feel like there is an increase in violence, gang activity. There seems to be what we would call “a beef, ” with some of the youth that live in some of the different developments. That’s true. There’s more activity in this neighborhood than meets the eye. That’s another thing I’ll say. And I think we have to be really careful about how we talk about this because we’re talking about, in certain respects, certain folks’ economy, if that make sense. What GOLES is focused on is trying to look at alternatives to violence by creating spaces and opportunities for young people to do something positive and productive and be engaged in something that’s meaningful that could be recreational, that could be summer jobs. It could be all kinds of things. We do work as part of the POP Coalition, which is the Power of Peace. For example, on August 15th at the Generation X Garden (4th Street between B & C) we are having our second day of programming for the GO LES Summer Fest, which will include open mic for young people from the community, to come share their talent with us. It is a way to encourage them to come do some positive things. So there is need for concern, there is activity that is happening, there’s more that meets the eye and they are right, to some extent, there is a lack of a focus on that age group – and positive activities and resources that will help them, steer in another direction.
TLD: There’s a lot of talk about community centers closing down. What impact does that have on this community?
Reyes: When there aren’t places for young people to be, to grow, to have positive experiences, you know when they don’t have the right mentors or have the right opportunities. When you leave people at the mercy of the streets, things are going to happen. It’s a sad reality. But there are other issues, too – police accountability issues. I think Police are trying to address these issues but they may not necessarily do it in a way that is productive. Like you don’t shout out a young person who comes to you for help and then make him a target for his peers because they see him as a rat or something.
TLD: Is there a need for the Police to focus more on engaging the community rather on emphasizing enforcement alone?
Reyes: I think they are trying to do their job in the way that they know how. And that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are completely addressing the problem. So there’s lots of room for improvement in the way they look at violence, gang violence and youth. I’m not going to talk about anyone’s intent. I can only say that the programs they have are not adequately addressing the needs that exist. Clearly because we continue to see this activity, I think we all have to work at it including them. It would be great to work collaboratively in a way that really addresses it and helps people feel safe, young people included. If I’m 15, and I’m being harassed by the group from another development, I’m not going to go to the police… I’m just not going to do it. I’m going to figure out my own way to get through this problem. That’s what happens, because why would you? You’re terrified. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. It’s a problem. For us, we’re not going to look at – GOLES is not going to be the anti-gang violence organization. We’re just going to look at how do we create spaces that are positive, that provide alternatives for our young people, so that they don’t have to be involved in those things.
TLD: What else should people know about GOLES:
Reyes: GOLES is deeply committed to preserving this great community and working to ensure that the people here have a voice and have input into the future of this community – and that in no way does that mean we are taking the stance that we don’t want people here. We just want to be respected for being here, because we understand our tradition and our historical context… We’ve been around for 32 years. We started because people were being constructively pushed out because of dis-investment, of blight, burning buildings. The conditions were just really horrible, so we started to organize tenants, so they could remain in this neighborhood. And 32 years later we’re doing exactly the same thing but now we’re doing it because we’re being pushed out because now the neighborhood is so desirable. And that to me is incredible. I feel grateful to be a part of this. Who gets to do this?… Not to say that it’s not a challenge. But who gets to do this? I’m just a poor Puerto Rican girl from the projects.