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TLD Interview: Tenant Advocate David Nieves

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Today we continue our series of interviews with community activists engaged in the ongoing debate about the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA).  The development site near the Williamsburg Bridge has languished for 43 years, as neighbors feuded about what should be built on five parcels condemned in 1967.

Recently I met with David Nieves, a longtime resident of the Seward Park Extension, a public housing development at the corner of Grand and Essex streets. The complex, consisting of 359 apartments in two 23-story towers, sits on a part of SPURA that was redeveloped in the early 1970’s. Nieves moved to the Seward Extension with his family when he was a boy.

Sitting at a concrete table in a ground floor courtyard, Nieves talked about his family’s history in the neighborhood, his involvement with the SPURA issue and what he’d like to see happen as a CB3 task force steps up its efforts to coalesce around a development plan.

Nieves’ parents came to this country from Puerto Rico in the 1950’s. His father was 29 – his mother 13. For most of the past 50 years, they called the Lower East Side home. Early on, they moved around the neighborhood frequently – Nieves recalls apartments on Grand, Clinton, Delancey, Pitt and Hester streets. Some of those homes were located on the SPURA parcels.  One building where they lived was demolished to make room for the Seward Park Cooperative.

Seward Park Extension.

The family moved into the Seward Park Extension in 1974. Nieves has six brothers and sisters. He now has three boys of his own, works as a tour bus guide and is an actor and director. Some of his siblings have not fared so well. Nieves told me he struggles to understand how all those years of upheaval and uncertainty may have impacted his family:

One of my brothers was killed in 1986 in a robbery (on Jefferson Street). And my other brother died over in the home on Broome Street. I can’t help but think these situations — moving around and having to shift from one place to another — I ask myself, “what trauma did my brother experience?” Of course it didn’t affect me the same way, but we’re not all the same, we experience things in different ways… I wonder sometimes if all of this shifting around caused stresses that could have been unbearable — I don’t know.

Only recently, Nieves became actively involved with the redevelopment issue. Representing the interests of the Seward Park Extension Tenant Association, he presented a letter last month to John Shapiro, an urban planner and facilitator who has begun guiding CB3’s SPURA task force. In the letter, Nieves and another tenant leader, Carmen Orta, urged Shapiro to meet with residents, who are determined to be heard:

We are what they sometimes call “disenfranchised people”—a lot of the former site tenants were struggling to survive when the buildings were torn down, and we are struggling now. Many had to start all over again. The City has said that you will meet with “stakeholders.”  We assert that we matter, and that we are “stakeholders.”  The City has had many intentions for the site over the years—and then City planners changed their plans.  We don’t want a repeat of the past.

The community board task force includes representatives from many organizations. There are affordable housing advocates from groups like Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES), the Seward Park Area Redevelopment Committee (SPARC), the LES People’s Mutual Housing Association, among others. Also on the committee are residents of the Grand Street co-ops, who have historically fought efforts to build more low income units on the SPURA site. Nieves said he became actively involved at the request of some of the affordable housing activists on the panel, who wanted help outlining the community’s wishes. He told me those wishes are “basic and obvious:”

The Lower East Side was always a place of immigrants, of working class people, not high income, and the people who are here are descendants of those people. The people who have stayed have stayed for a reason. I think the development should reflect what the neighborhood is and was. Times change, and we consider that, but there should be something that reflects what this neighborhood once was. You don’t uproot people. You don’t say, ‘well move to the outer borough.’ My father in 1968 was told he had an apartment waiting for him… up on 155th Street, and he said, ‘hell no, this is where I live. Give me a place here.’ He was not the only one. Why should they move to another neighborhood if their roots are here… Those lots are empty and that is an injustice.

In the past, the SPURA debate has been characterized (perhaps too simplistically) as a struggle between the residents of the Grand Street Co-ops (most of whom were Jewish) and the Latino community. Tenant advocates sued the New York City Housing Authority in the 1970’s after Latino and Black residents were denied apartments in the Seward Park Extension. Latino activists fought a similar battle for the right to move into the cooperatives. Over the years, some co-op residents have argued the LES is already burdened with too much affordable housing.

Photo by A. Jesse Jiryu Davis

Nieves says there’s definitely a shortage in the neighborhood  of apartments working class residents can afford. But it might surprise some people to hear he’s not necessarily a proponent of more public housing projects like the complex he’s called home most of his life. “The fact that you lump certain people together in one place, there’s not much diversity, and you’re going to create certain dynamics… In this new development something should be done to combat the problem of people feeling like they’re being punished.

I think it’s a terrible thing, especially for children,” he said. While Nieves acknowledges that old-style public housing served a purpose, he would like to see  integrated housing on the SPURA parcels. “It should be mixed,” he said. “Forty or 50 percent of it should be low (income) and the rest could be a mixture of other housing types.”

Nieves recalls a certain “tranquility in the neighborhood” when he was growing up, followed by waves of crime and drugs and decay. Even now, he has vivid memories of the fires started in abandoned buildings in the middle of the night. He said, “that was a very traumatic experience for me, so much so that to this day if I hear a fire truck a two in the morning it wakes me up. I still wake up at two in the morning to look.” Nieves also remembers the thriving small businesses that once dotted the SPURA site. While housing is their top priority, many of Nieves’ neighbors feel strongly about creating opportunities for independent businesses in the development plan:

Everyone agrees there should be some businesses involved in the complex. Some of them have said they would like a big market. One of the aspects of the LES that has disappeared is the small mom and pop stores. They used to be all over the place. I still remember them. I could tell you every store that was on Broome Street, on Grand Street. They’re gone. These stores gave a character to the neighborhood that made it a community. The new kind of franchise stores are so distant and removed from the community, that people can’t identify with them. We need a sense of community.

Nieves said there’s another issue important to many of his neighbors and former neighbors. “One of the things the tenants have mentioned is compensation,” he said. “A lot of them want to be compensated for the fact that they were made to move out of this area, and I think it would be just.”

Like most longtime Lower East Side residents, Nieves has his own theories about what’s kept the SPURA site from being redeveloped all of these years:

I think it’s a combination of things. It is indifference on the part of some, and I think some politicians take advantage of this indifference. They know it exists and they think they can take this indifference and set their own agenda. They hope no one notices, but I think the people are a little wiser now and I think there’s greater involvement in these things now because people have wised up to the idea that, when a  politician speaks you have to listen carefully, because what he says may have triple and quadruple meanings.

Nieves believes many of his friends and neighbors are involved now because they’ve realized how much is at stake:

If our communities become extinguished then there goes the whole thing, the entire picture of what this country is supposed to stand for. I think politicians should take that into account. Do you want something for the general good or do you want just some people to have something and everyone else to disappear?

Follow these links to read our previous interviews with SPURA stakeholders:

Damaris Reyes, executive director of Good Old Lower East Side

Michael Zisser, executive director of University Settlement

Michael Tumminia, president of the Seward Park Co-op

Harold Jacob, general manager of the East River and Hillman co-ops

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