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January 21, 2012

THE NEW YORK TIMES: Preservation Push in Bohemian Home Stirs Fear of Hardship By JOSEPH BERGER

Read article in The New York Times by Joseph Berger

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Photo: Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times
The Rt. Rev. Christopher Calin, dean of the Cathedral of the Holy Virgin Protection, says a historic district's restrictions will be tough to work around.

The East Village is arguably Americas bohemian capital, home to the major countercultural waves of the second half of the 20th century beatniks like Allen Ginsberg, hippies like Abbie Hoffman and punk rockers like Joey Ramone.

New York City is trying to honor the neighborhoods legacy and preserve it, as well as the signposts of earlier generations that housed and entertained the immigrants, artists and political radicals who peopled the coarse-edged streets.

But the effort to declare the neighborhoods heart a historic district is being fiercely challenged, and the protesters are not the lingering rebels who are the establishment-rattling descendants of Ginsberg and Hoffman. Instead, they are members of the establishment itself in this case the neighborhoods synagogues and churches.

Almost a dozen houses of worship, including the late-19th-century Cathedral of the Holy Virgin Protection and a crumbling century-old synagogue, argue that they are dependent on donations and that including them in a landmark district would make simple projects like repairing a window or fixing a roof more expensive and bureaucratically time-consuming.

Even worse, it would make their buildings and the valuable property on which they sit much less attractive since developers would be restricted in what they could do.

Religious institutions dont have deep pockets, said the Rt. Rev. Christopher Calin, dean of the cathedral, a neo-Gothic limestone building on East Second Street that is the seat of the Diocese of New York and New Jersey of the Orthodox Church in America, an offshoot of the Russian Orthodox Church. What this will end up doing is placing very difficult strictures on what we can and cannot do.

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But supporters say that landmark protection will ensure that religious buildings as well as others are not torn down or drastically altered, which they contend has almost happened to the cathedral and the synagogue. Elisabeth de Bourbon, a spokeswoman for the citys Landmarks Preservation Commission, which is working to establish the historic district, acknowledged that landmark status might add cost and time but said critics were exaggerating the consequences.

A hint of the stakes involved was on display this week when the commission voted to designate a smaller piece of the East Village as a historic district, just one block of 26 quaint row houses and tenements along East 10th Street on the north side of Tompkins Square Park. The commission, though, moved too slowly to block a developer who wants to build on the roof of 315 East 10th Street, a row house dating to 1847. Critics had argued that a taller structure would ruin the streetscapes aesthetic line, but the developer received a building permit just in time.

The larger district would stretch in zigzag fashion from St. Marks Place to Second Street and from Avenue A almost to the Bowery, and take in 330 buildings, including the houses of worship. A proposal to designate the enclave has not yet been placed on the commissions calendar, but a hearing could be held in the next few months. Preservationists worry that developers could make alterations in the meantime, as has happened with at least four buildings the commission did not protect.

The only other historic district in the East Village is a small enclave around St. Marks Church in-the-Bowery that was approved in 1969 and embraces buildings on Stuyvesant and East 10th Streets.

Preservationists worry about the steady appetite for development in magnetic Manhattan neighborhoods, which the East Village has certainly become. Several years ago, the cathedral considered a proposal to build an apartment house that would rise six stories above the rear of the church, though the idea was abandoned because many parishioners were opposed.

Meanwhile at the synagogue, Adas Le Israel Anshei Meseritz, which was built in 1910 on a tenement-size lot on East Sixth Street in what was then still part of the Lower East Side, the two dozen remaining members have talked to developers about tearing down the current structure, retaining only the neo-Classical-style facade. The developers want to replace it with an apartment building that will give the congregation worship space. That plan, members say, would allow the congregation to survive.

They want it to be a museum, but we want to save it, Sandy Ackerman, son of the longtime rabbi, Pesach Ackerman, said of the preservationists. If they keep it this way, it will die out.

The synagogue, one of the last of the roughly 500 that dotted the East Village and Lower East Side, is barely holding on and cannot afford the upkeep. One reason it has been able to survive is the octogenarian rabbis willingness to work without salary for 42 years.

The current controversy was born of an effort to honor the East Villages offbeat history. Beatniks like Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs and writers like Norman Mailer and W. H. Auden, lived in its low-rent tenements and row houses. In the 1960s, flower children like Hoffman and Jerry Rubin flocked to the neighborhood, and Bill Grahams Fillmore East on Second Avenue, formerly a Yiddish theater, became a showcase for bands like Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead.

Gina Stritchs memories start later, when young people like her began finding hippies too conventional. She would travel to the East Village from Perth Amboy, N.J., to hunt for black spandex pants, black leather jackets and stiletto heels in the punk-fashion shops and take in the Ramones at CBGB. It was precisely the neighborhoods anarchic, rough edges that attracted her.

It was kind of seedy and rundown and dangerous, said Ms. Stritch, 53, who ended up living for a time on East Fifth Street and has recently published a memoir, CBGB Was My High School. There was nothing like it in Perth Amboy.

But the neighborhoods significant history goes back more than a century before Ms. Stritch, when German immigrants called it Kleindeutschland and Jewish immigrants turned Second Avenue into the Broadway of the Yiddish theater. The influx, later supplanted by Ukrainians and Puerto Ricans, led developers to add floors to single-family row houses that had been as elegant as those lining Washington Square. Tenements with a range of styles cropped up as well, and together they gave the East Village its scattershot ambience.

Some German social halls are still there serving other purposes, and the Yiddish theaters now offer movies or entertainment like Stomp. Indeed, Second Avenue for several blocks below Sixth Street has essentially the same streetscape of a hundred years ago.

The proposed landmark district would include gems like the Aschenbroedel Verein, a society of German musicians that became the LaMama Experimental Theater Club; the headquarters of Dorothy Days Catholic Worker newspaper; the Hebrew Actors Union building, constructed in 1925 and a still functioning labor organization; and McSorleys Old Ale House, opened in 1854 and still serving beer.

Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, said neighborhood buildings had already disappeared, among them St. Anns Armenian Rite Catholic Cathedral on East 12th Street and the Variety Theater, a surviving nickelodeon-era playhouse, on Third Avenue.

Buildings are being lost as we speak, he said.

Just outside the proposed district is the headquarters of the Hells Angels, on East Third Street another symbol of the East Villages untamed days. Why was it not included?

Regulation of that would have been an interesting challenge, he said, only half joking.

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