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My LES: Jonathan Gardenhire

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For our regular feature spotlighting the people who live and work on the Lower East Side, we talked with Jonathan Gardenhire, a student who serves as the vice president of the Smith Houses Residents Association.

Jonathan Gardenhire. Photo by Alex M. Smith
Jonathan Gardenhire. Photo by Alex M. Smith

How long have you lived on the Lower East Side?

I will be 21 in December, so it’ll make 21 years on Dec. 28.

Why did you move here or (if you were born here) why did you stay?

My mom grew up in Juncos, Puerto Rico, and moved to Forsyth Street after high school in the ’60s. She moved to Rivington Street after, and now my family has lived in Smith Houses for more than 40 years. I stayed because I had to. This was home, and it’s remained home since I was born.

What do you do?

This fall, I’ll be a senior at Parsons, The New School for Design. I study photography. My current work is based heavily on black and Latino masculinity and the influence of hip-hop culture as a global force in perceptions of black men in America. Look at my website. I also serve as the vice president of the Resident Association at Smith Houses, a New York City Housing Authority development in between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges. Apparently, at the time that I became vice president, about two years ago, I was the youngest vice president to serve on a NYCHA resident board.

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

I’ll talk about the development that I have been fortunate to represent. Smith Houses is one of the developments targeted in NYCHA’s infamous infill plan. A couple of weeks ago, we celebrated the developments 60th anniversary in one of the areas NYCHA would like to “lease.” (The irony!) I had the chance to view LaGuardia and Wagner Archives at LaGuardia Community College. According to the archives, in addition to vivid anecdotes from my family and friends, Smith Houses was once full of roses and beautiful greenery. We are truly a family with vibrant memories that span the entire 60 years the development has existed. It is NYCHA’s true gem, sort of tucked away in between Chinatown and the Financial District, the lowest of the Lower East Side! One of the most important goals the board has is to bring the neighborhood back to those beautiful images and keep NYCHA from single-handedly ruining something that’s not broken.

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

My favorite spot in the LES lies anywhere along the East River. I like to just sit, watch the river and think. (Excuse the poetics.)

Favorite cheap eats?

Cheap is relative, and I really like food. The Essex on the corner of Essex and Rivington has a great prix fixe brunch. Their crab cakes eggs Benedict are amazing. Loud sometimes, but a great atmosphere!

Favorite place for a special night?

I can splurge anywhere, especially in the LES. There’s La Esquina, The Fat Radish, Katz’s, Freeman’s, Azul.

How have you seen the neighborhood change? What do you miss from the old LES?

I grew up as the LES changed to what it is now. I am not sure that I am the best to answer this question. I’ve been forced to love the LES as its evolved with a combination of my own discovery and stories I hear.

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

I see something strange every day. There was one night where a man walked down the street yelling on his phone about how much he hated the LES. Every block, more and more people defended their LES. Probably both the strangest and coolest thing!

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