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Open Letter to Elizabeth Street Garden Group: Please Cancel Your Rivington House Action (Updated)

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Rivington House, 45 Rivington St.
Rivington House, 45 Rivington St.

A community group, Friends of Elizabeth Street Garden, has scheduled a rally at Rivington House facility this morning to, as their Facebook invite explains, “Wake up Mayor Bill de Blasio and Council member Margaret Chin” to the lost opportunity for affordable housing at the former nursing home.

This event is not sitting well with other local activists, who have been advocating for the return of Rivington House for many months. Here’s an open letter from Melissa Aase, executive director of University Settlement. She has taken a leading role in the organization, Neighbors to Save Rivington House.

Dear Elizabeth Street Garden Association leaders and members,

I am the Executive Director of University Settlement, your 131-year-old neighbor to the east.

University Settlement, America’s first social settlement house, opened its doors on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1886, and has since grown to serve 43,000 New Yorkers annually. Through direct services, innovative program models, and active advocacy, we are committed to developing progressive solutions to alleviate poverty and inequality, serving as an anchor in the low-income and immigrant communities where we work. Our holistic programs span across early childhood care and education, youth development, literacy, theater and visual arts, senior services, mental health, and housing services.

Our headquarters has been on Eldridge and Rivington since our beautiful building was built in 1898.

The original PS 20 building across the street from us was built in 1899, and so as you can imagine, it has been a “neighbor institution” for 118 years, including the long and important struggle to transform it into “Rivington House” over 25 years ago.

University Settlement has been deeply involved in looking for “a way out” during the huge controversy and disappointing revelations of the last few years as Rivington House scaled back, then sold, then closed, then was lost entirely (but we hope not irrevocably) to luxury housing developers.

The loss of this skilled nursing facility for 250 people (and the $70 million in public funds to create it) — especially considering its symbiosis with the surrounding neighbors, amenities, services and partners — cannot be understated.  It is devastating, and all of us should certainly raise our voices in protest of this loss, and bring to bear our best thinking and resources to return this desperately needed facility for our community’s most vulnerable people.   We all have elders and friends who do now, or will in the future, need “care.”

Those of us working to get Rivington House returned to the community, even at long odds, weren’t informed, asked or considered by the ESG Coalition in your plan to use Rivington House as a backdrop or prop for your efforts on your Elizabeth Street Garden advocacy agenda, the “Wake Up” rally scheduled for (this) morning, March 3rd.

Now that we know, we are asking that you reconsider and cancel this event.  Here are a few reasons:

Not only does this come across as using the Rivington House situation for your situation, which seems disrespectful to our years of work, our pain, and the people we are or who we represent, but it is also is confusing to those we are hoping to galvanize to save Rivington House.  The two agendas are different agendas, and Rivington House shouldn’t be used as a part of the separate discussion about the Elizabeth Street Garden (or even of senior housing, since the conversion of this particular building to housing would be astronomical in cost, and still doesn’t return what we need most, a skilled nursing facility).

As we are ramping up to host a public event about Rivington House and the issues of “care” on March 12th, we are now dealing with questions from the community about the rally, and it is diverting us from precious organizing time, and it diverts from our demand of returning Rivington House.

The proposed garden rally also appears in part to target Margaret Chin, who on the issue of Rivington House and many other issues of care, seniors, and our desperate affordable housing shortage, has been a good advocate for the most vulnerable members of the community we are concerned about.  So we also wouldn’t be supportive of a rally targeting her that is staged outside of Rivington House, since again, it confuses the matter about her positions and actions.

We hope you will reconsider your plans and cancel or move the rally on March 3rd, and disconnect it entirely from Rivington House.  It would be excellent if you could make this clear to your whole group.  We ask that you do this out of respect for our organizing work and long-time ties to this block and building; out of respect for our strategies, history and knowledge of the issues surrounding Rivington House in particular; and out of respect for the highly vulnerable people and community needs we are representing.  We ask out of common neighborliness.

We also hope you will join us in several community projects and activities that may be “intersectional” and of interest to the members of the garden coalition, since we are such close neighbors – such as saving Rivington House, reclaiming an under-utilized Parks Department building in SDR Park at Stanton Street, supporting the M’Finda Kalunga Garden and the SDR Park Coalition, saving and improving the public housing in our community, preventing evictions and harassment of low income tenants on Elizabeth Street and throughout the community, contributing to the NYC Cultural Plan through our Performance Project at University Settlement, increasing access to safety and services for immigrants who are now so much more at risk, or many, many additional and necessary fights that are happening right now.

UPDATE 11:59 a.m. Here’s a response from Menashe Shapiro, a consultant working with Allan Reiver, the Elizabeth Street Garden leaseholder:

While we support any and all efforts to save Rivington House, it currently stands as a symbol of non-transparent and backroom politics.  Councilmember Chin employed the same non-transparent methodology  to ram her proposal to destroy the Elizabeth Street Garden through the Seward Park Rezoning and to get HPD to solicit bids.   Councilmember Chin’s hypocrisy on the matter of transparency is striking.  The authors of this letter have received –  for their organizations – over  $50,000 in direct  grants from Councilmember Chin since 2011 and over $1 million from the Council at large at the behest of Councilmember Chin during the same period of time.  One can easily surmise that this letter is nothing more than an attempt to protect their financial patron, Margaret Chin, from the bad press and the embarrassment of another constituent protest.  This letter was brought and paid for Margaret Chin, nothing more.


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