The following op/ed was written by Jan Hanvik, executive director of the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center. It first appeared in the May 2014 edition of The Lo-Down’s print magazine.
Whether viewed with dread or high hopes, the enormous, complex Essex Crossing project– 1,000 apartments, retail outlets, a park, a cinema and other amenities–is coming to the area south of Delancey between Essex and Clinton streets.
In formulating their proposals, developers vying for the lucrative city contract were required to collaborate with community partners, a loosely defined term. The idea was to engage existing Lower East Side organizations and institutions in plans to replace the forlorn parking lots that have occupied the site since low-rise housing was torn down nearly 50 years ago.
My organization, the Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural and Educational Center on Suffolk Street, was approached by three developers. Together we fantasized about cultural amenities–some spectacular, some modest–that might be included. However, none of the developers we worked with was chosen.
The winning bid from L+M Development Partners, Taconic Investment Partners and BFC Partners includes plans for an annex of Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum. It would be appropriate, in the view of many, to celebrate Warhol in the city that gave rise to his legend.
In the view of others, the innumerable galleries, music venues, cultural centers, settlement house art programs and other arts and culture players could badly use the visibility and support that this massive development will bring to the shrinking old Lower East Side and the expanding new Lower East Side.
For example, one specific amenity that would boost local arts is a kiosk displaying promotional materials of local cultural and arts groups, placed inside a planned park on Broome Street, a proposal I recommended to the community board in March.
When it comes to the question of the Andy Warhol Museum, there’s certainly a value in having such a high-profile facility in the neighborhood. However, it should not be considered the only cultural amenity that might occupy space in the project, when such an enormous range and depth of homegrown programming has been thriving here since the neighborhood’s founding.
In the 1980s, I worked with grassroots cultural groups in the South Bronx, and a well-known choreographer told me once she was tired of “outreach.” She preferred that large institutions do “in-reach” instead. She meant that arts community leaders from places like Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center should go into a new community, embedding themselves, getting to know the community and its needs. People shouldn’t have to leave their neighborhood to participate in high-quality cultural activities. Why couldn’t cultural assets be developed in formerly neglected communities?
That argument supports the idea of the Andy Warhol Museum as a plum prize in the Essex Crossing project. We haven’t stopped the expensive high-rise apartments; why try to stop a cultural amenity? One major plus: Executives of L+M, the lead development firm, have expressed a commitment to hiring locally for the museum, should it come to be.
Bringing the Warhol legacy to the neighborhood would ensure that residents and visitors have a high-quality contemporary cultural amenity at hand, ideally, with a portion of the museum dedicated to such an entity as the Lower East Side Performing Arts Development Center, much as The Factory and Warhol himself were open to all types of collaborations, experimentation and cross-fertilization.
All that said, given that resources are limited and there is not much incentive for developers to invest in spaces that won’t produce returns, those resources should be dedicated to already proven needs at the grassroots level.
At the top of the list is affordable space for visual and performing artists to develop their work. As a former modern dancer and a member of the League of Independent Theaters, whose 70-plus members have stated that the crisis in affordable space is their No. 1 priority, I–and they–would love to see a space dedicated to locally grown arts and culture.
There’s an opportunity here to create a win-win on the arts front that mirrors the outcome of the debate over affordable housing at Essex Crossing. Some members of the community fought hard for 500 apartments, all below market. We wound up with 1,000 apartments, 500 below market and 500 at market, which met the desires of the affordable housing advocates but also made the numbers feasible for the developers.
Lower East Side residents shouldn’t have to leave their neighborhood to partake in a high-visibility, high-quality experience such as the Warhol Museum. Neither should we plan a future that does not take into account the vast, varied and urgent needs, resources and talents of the existing Lower East Side community. Essex Crossing, which will replace acres of eyesores, will hopefully forge a unity and a synergy between the cultural resources that are already here, and those that are to come.
Jan Hanvik is the executive director at the nonprofit Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Educational Center at 107 Suffolk St., which houses 13 not-for-profit arts organizations, 43 art studios, four theaters, three galleries and three rehearsal studios. He currently oversees the multi-million-dollar renovation of the center, an architectural landmark Collegiate Gothic building built in 1898. Hanvik also serves on Community Board 3.