My LES: Alysha Coleman

Photo by Alex M. Smith.

For our regular feature spotlighting the people who live and work on the Lower East Side, we talked with tenants’ rights activist and long-time resident Alysha Coleman.

Photo by Alex M. Smith.
Photo by Alex M. Smith.

How long have you lived on the Lower East Side?

I have lived on the LES for more than 30 years.

Why did you move here?

My parents moved here in the ‘70s because, as my mom said, “it’s a community that accepts you as you are. My mom was mixed, so she felt comfortable down here–more so than in the predominately African-American communities where my other family members lived. I stayed for my siblings; they have special needs and this neighborhood is a familiar place to call home.

What do you do?

I am currently in the healing process. I was diagnosed with stage-two breast cancer in 2010. Lost both breasts and underwent a year of chemotherapy. I am still on a daily med for five years, but in remission. I was a site coordinator for University Settlement (a Lower East Side nonprofit), after-school/summer camp, which was one of their first sites in Brooklyn.

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

I have lived in the Thelma Burdick Apartments (aka 10 Stanton St.) since August, 1985. We are a Section 8 project, which means the rent goes according to 30 percent of your household income. When we moved into our building, it was like heaven… However, times got hard and management changed. We (tenants’ association and residents) have to fight for every little thing. It’s down to the basic necessities at times: stoves, refrigerators, heat and hot water. Repairs take months to complete. Our community rooms had to be negotiated to be returned for use of the residents… We lost our backyard to developers. However, it has pushed our residents to stay active on the tenants’ association and community board.

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

My favorite meeting spot has always been Tompkins Square Park. I remember swimming in the pool there as a kid. Taking my boys there on playdates and having lunch with friends.

Favorite cheap eats?

My favorite cheap eats and reading zone is the Native Bean on Avenue A and East Third Street.

Favorite place for a special night?

My favorite place to hang has been BOHO Karaoke on Orchard. I can unwind and sing some old school tunes without judgments. I’m no American Idol, but I can hold my own. Oh, and the wings at One and One are yummy.

How have you seen the neighborhood change?

I have seen so many changes in this community! The buildings are a lot taller. The supermarkets are very expensive. Most of the mom-and-pop stores are gone (due to rent increases). I have seen an increase in nightlife activity; meaning every block seems to house a bar or lounge. Youth involvement, especially teens, has decreased. There are very limited Friday and Saturday night safe spaces for our teens. Housing is no longer affordable; rent goes up but not income. Churches are being knocked down. There are overcrowded clinics that don’t provide enough extended hours or affordable prices for low-income, working people. And 7-Eleven has come to the LES!

What do you miss from the old LES?

What I miss most are the family-style restaurants and diners.

Is there a new arrival you love?

There is a new boutique that just opened up down the street from me: Curvaceous K on Stanton off Clinton Street. Hip, fresh clothing for the plus-size ladies. I’m a big girl and I like to look fresh! Lol!

What drives you crazy about the neighborhood?

I don’t like people that disrespect our community. I don’t like the people that use us and throw us away, the ones that vomit and urinate on our streets and leave. I don’t like people that block the sidewalks while they wait in line for a bar or restaurants. Lastly, I don’t like people that don’t get involved in something; if you’ve live here and have kids here, it affects you.

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

What’s the strangest thing I’ve ever seen? Please, it’s the Lower East Side, and it’s all strange! Gotta love it!

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

I actually have two characters: Mr. Purple: he owned a building and garden on Forsyth Street and lost it to the city developers. He taught me to appreciate the gardens in my community. Every time we went into his garden, we had to hug the big tree.

My friend and mentor: Marie Christopher, tenants’ association president of 210 Stanton and community activist. She taught me how fight without using my fist. She told me the only way to get my landlord to respect me was to get educated on the HUD rules and regulations. We lost her this year.

Tell us your best LES memory.

My mom, Brenda Lewis, worked on what was going to be our home at 66 Ave. C. She was a homesteader. My mom couldn’t afford childcare, so she found an older woman, Sara Farley, to supervise us. Ms. Sara was an African-American woman that held the history of the LES down on East Sixth Street. She would come up with creative ways to keep me and my brothers busy. One was working on Jesse Jackson’s campaign for president. Me and my brothers rode on his float and handed out flyers all over the LES. We felt like celebrities.