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Exit Interview: State Senator Thomas K. Duane, East Village Advocate - The Local East Village Blog - NYTimes.com

Exit Interview: State Senator Thomas K. Duane, East Village Advocate

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Tom Duane with votersCourtesy Thomas K. Duane Tom Duane with voters, Nov. 29, 2011 at City Hall.

Thomas K. Duane announced this week that he won’t be seeking re-election, but the state senate’s first openly gay member is still railing against “malevolent” landlords. In an interview with The Local, the Democrat discussed his 14 years of representing the East Village as state senator, including his battles with landlords like Benjamin Shaoul, his preservation efforts for the proposed historic district and the now-demolished 35 Cooper Square, and his attempts at curbing an explosion of nightlife in the neighborhood.


You’ve been fighting for tenants’ rights during the 14 years you’ve served as Senator. How did that spill over into the East Village?


I really fought just a terrible landlord, Ben Shaoul. He wants to expand at 514-516 East Sixth Street and 329-335 East Ninth Street. We’ve been reaching out to both of the city housing agencies, the Department of Buildings and H.P.D. [Department of Housing Preservation and Development], and working with the tenants and the neighborhood activists to force him to comply with the law.

The Shalom family octopus was trying to get a variance to convert a building on St. Mark’s Place and turn it into a restaurant in 2007. In the early 2000s, I formed, along with the tenants, the Shalom Tenants Alliance because the Shalom family tentacles were making tenants’ lives miserable. We put tenants together so they could work together and use strategies that had been successful in one building owned by the Shaloms, to plant those successful seeds of forcing compliance by the Shaloms and stopping their illegal activities.

The Shalom family, under multiple corporate names, wherever they got their hands on a building, it immediately started to deteriorate and you could almost always tell the signs: broken locks on the front doors, intercoms that didn’t work, illegal construction all day and all night and filled with dust that had who knows what in it, and new tenants moving in and not knowing what they were getting themselves into. I could go on. It was a bottomless pit.

We put this coalition together. We also asked the district attorney to look into their activities. We don’t know what happened with that but things have quieted down somewhat. They haven’t totally disappeared from the scene, but things have settled down somewhat with them. We’re vigilant about the Shaloms.


How would you characterize Benjamin Shaoul?


I would say he is certainly as dreadful as the Shalom family, although he doesn’t seem to own as many properties as the Shalom family corporations that try to hide themselves with various names.

Unity Rally with SeniorsCourtesy Thomas K. Duane Unity Rally with Seniors, March 27, 2011 at City Hall

Rent has been a huge concern of yours. How have you helped tenants here?


There are many good landlords and we never hear anything because they’re good landlords. And then there are landlords that have always been terrible, and landlords who buy buildings and create terrible conditions for the tenants, like the Economakis family and their cruel efforts, which sadly, they eventually won, to use 47 East Third Street allegedly for their personal use. That was a heartbreaking case and the destruction of a community that is created in a multiple-dwelling building.

People who come in and destroy what made others want to live in the neighborhood is unconscionable. Any time that happens, we try to help a tenant, but it’s been very difficult with owner occupancy issues. We offer and do some technical assistance on setting up tenants’ associations in those buildings.

They are a horrible harassing, cruel, lacking conscience landlord group, Croman, Shalom, and Shaoul. They’re all equally malevolent.


You’ve been a preservation proponent and support the proposed historic district. You also fought to keep 35 Cooper Square standing before it was demolished. How did you feel when it came down last year?

Tom Duane with votersCourtesy Thomas K. Duane Tom Duane with voters, August 10, 2011 at Verizon’s
NYC headquarters at 140 West Street

I felt awful. I do not like to lose and I fight to the bitter end. But, the silver lining is the East Village historic district has been calendared for late June. Finally something good is happening. We’re going to try to make that district even more inclusive. We’re still in the process of figuring out our priorities for that district, but there will be strong suggestions for that district.


How has the neighborhood and the issues you’ve fought for changed since you started in the 90s?


One of the areas is nightlife. There are battles to stop liquor-license establishments from getting liquor licenses if we believe they are not going to be good neighbors. We help to compel the S.L.A. to revoke the liquor license, for instance, the notorious problem with Sin Sin, where a patron was shot outside. We helped to negotiate stipulations for the Cooper Square Hotel when they went for their liquor license. While not perfect, it did help to mitigate noise and intrusiveness on neighboring residents.


Do you have any thoughts on the shortlist of possibilities to take your place who would represent the East Village, including State Assembly members Deborah Glick and Brian Kavanaugh, Brad Hoylman and Corey Johnson, the chairmen of Community Boards 2 and 4?


I am very close to Brad Hoylman and his partner. He’s done a masterful job as chair of Board 2. He’s worked extremely well with me, Rosie Mendez, Deborah Glick, Chris Quinn, with Daniel [Squadron]. Though I haven’t made a formal endorsement yet, I absolutely think that Brad Hoylman would be a wonderful state senator.


Whoever takes your place, what issues do they need to focus on moving forward with the neighborhood?


Certainly tenant protection and expansion. There’s more that needs to be done. For too many years until recently, laws and regulations have been way too weighted in favor of landlords. We need to restore balance so the tenants have equal access to fair regulations and laws and ways to make sure that they are upheld. That is very important for the next representative.

I also think that fighting to preserve as much as we can of the historic fabric, now that we’ve gotten the historic district calendared [is important]. I don’t think the next senator will rest, and will work with preservationists to do even more.

Certainly zoning is a tool to make sure neighborhoods keep the contextual ambiance, which makes them so desirable for people who live there to stay in, and makes them a place where people would want to live. Zoning can be a tool that can be helpful to achieve that goal. Quality of life and monitoring the efforts on the part of various entities to expand nightly needs to be closely monitored, and the impact on the quality of life of residents and law-abiding businesses already there. The express buses, I would like to see the next representative continue to improve public transportation in the East Village.

We have been missionaries for the tree pits that are part of the protected bike lanes, to beautify them by planting flowers and helping the neighbors to take ownership. We’ve started that and I would like to see that continued, beautifying the East Village. I think Brad would be good at that. I feel confident that the work will go on.


You’ve fought hard for same sex marriage and gay rights. How do you view the incredible amount of gay rights activism that has come from the East Village?

Tom Duane speaks at Harry Wieder WayCourtesy Thomas K. Duane Senator Duane speaks at Harry Wieder Way, May 6,
2012 at Forsythe & Rivington Streets.

One of my closest friends, and one of the greatest losses that I have had and the East Village has had, was [gay rights activist] Harry Wieder’s death. His memorial was in the Cooper Union hall. There’s been happy gatherings, angry activist gatherings, and there’s been sad gatherings in that space. That’s true of other spaces, too, like St. Mark’s Church.

The East Village is incredibly diverse. There are many L.G.B.T. singles and families living there, and there are still Ukrainian families, and senior citizens. And there’s the best Indian food in the United States there!


Will we still see you in the neighborhood?


Oh, you couldn’t keep me away! The East Village is ground zero for fights for social justice. Of course I will be involved with the East Village.