With its long and continuing history as a haven for immigrants, artists, musicians, poets, and political activists, the Lower East Side has been a cultural incubator from its earliest days. Ideas, movements, trends and customs that derive from either Old or New World cultures, or both, have been born and radiated from here.
But it’s been only recently that the Lower East Side – which historically compromised the blocks from East 14th Street south to Fulton Street, and Broadway to the East River – gained wide recognition for its prominent place among America’s most historically significant neighborhoods. Now known as the East Village, Lower East Side, Little Italy and Chinatown, its streetscapes are incredibly rich in architecture and cultural history. Framed by floral cornices, pedimented entryways, hand sculpted window surrounds, and lattice fire escapes, these streets are not only a wonderfully robust aesthetic experience but vividly recall earlier generations who lived, worked and socialized here. Current residents and preservationists want to protect this heritage for the benefit of both our and future generations.
This heightened concern has been due at least in part to the intense development pressure being felt all over the Lower East Side. Demolitions of irreplaceable Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate and Classical style buildings, which date from the early 19th to early 20th century, have become commonplace. The neighborhood’s historic resources have been under such intensive assault that in 2008 the National Trust for Historic Preservation included the Lower East Side of Manhattan in its list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.
In 2008, ostensibly in response to the “wild west” mood of development, the NY City Planning Commission rezoned much of the area. Contrary to most expectations, this rezoning appears to have only increased development pressures. And sure enough, according to the Environmental Impact Statement prepared for the city’s review prior to the Planning Commission’s vote, the new zoning would have “significant adverse impacts on historic resources.” But unfortunately this warning was not heeded. Today the demolitions, defacements and stripping of our community’s beautifully ornate century-old buildings proceed all around us, at an increasingly accelerated pace.
We’re now at a critical crossroads for historic preservation. If we do not act quickly there will soon be very few if any historic streets with enough intact buildings to preserve as complete ensembles. Preserved streetscapes allow people to understand that, historically, life in New York was largely experienced in the streets, architecturally, culturally, and socially, especially in the Lower East Side.
The only effective way to ensure that New York’s historic streetscapes are preserved over the long term is for the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) to landmark them as historic districts. Once an area is designated an historic district, the LPC regulates changes to the exteriors of the district’s buildings to make sure that alterations do not diminish the architectural and historic character of the facades (LPC does not regulate changes to the building interiors). Other methods of designation, such as National or State Register of Historic Places, do not typically prevent or inhibit property owners from demolishing or defacing their buildings.
Since its formation in 2007, Lower East Side Preservation Initiative’s primary mission has been to advocate for NYC landmark historic district designation for the historically intact streetscapes of the Lower East Side. We have been building awareness among residents, elected officials, and the LPC of the importance of saving the neighborhood’s historic resources, starting with the East Village. We’ve also been working with other community and preservation groups to help amplify our message.
The LPC has now heard this call. In January 2012, less than a year after LESPI first met with senior LPC staff to press the need for historic district protection, the LPC voted to create the East 10th Street Historic District. This wonderful blockfront on the north side of Tompkins Square Park appears to be the first historic district created specifically to celebrate immigration history by targeting 19th century and early 20th century tenement structures. It was a wonderful first step toward preserving the East Village’s historic streetscapes.
The second step was close behind. On October 9, 2012 LPC voted to landmark the East Village / Lower East Side Historic District. At over 300 buildings this district is much larger than the East 10th Street district and contains a wider variety of building types. It celebrates not only the rowhouse and tenement history of the area but what, from the late 19th century to early 20th century, had been Kleindeutschland (“Little Germany”) and the Yiddish language theater district known as the “Jewish Rialto.” In February 2013 NY City Council voted to uphold the designation.
Going forward, there are still many other historically intact areas of the East Village that deserve landmark protection, and LESPI is now completing our survey to identify and bring them to the LPC’s attention. We are also eager to move forward to advocate landmark protection for intact areas of the Lower East Side below Houston Street. As LESPI grows and our volunteer base expands, we’ll be in a better position to actively push for historic district designation in the current Lower East Side, Bowery, Chinatown, and Little Italy neighborhoods.
Additionally, though LESPI’s focus is on historic districts, there are many local individual historic buildings worthy of NYC landmark designation. LESPI has helped advocate for such buildings as the Art Deco Bialystoker Home on East Broadway, landmarked in 2013; the Beaux Arts former Citizens Savings Bank on Canal Street, landmarked in 2011; and the early 19th century Federal style Hardenbrook – Somarindyck House at 135 Bowery, landmarked in 2011, then sadly de-landmarked by City Council later that year. See HERE to see LESPI’s past letters of support for local Individual Landmarks and Historic Districts. And see HERE for a list of local Individual Landmarks with links to their LPC Designation Reports – invaluable sources for the history of each building.
In New York City, preservation typically succeeds only when there’s a groundswell of popular support for maintaining an area’s historic architecture and cultural heritage. Lower East Side residents and preservationists are now poised to have garnered the political strength and determination necessary to ensure the preservation of their communities. By obtaining NYC landmark historic district designation for the area’s historically intact streetscapes, we can ensure that when change to the community’s historic architecture and streetscapes occurs – and change over time should and must occur – it is carried out with the respect that our invaluable and irreplaceable historic resources deserve.