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Radical Memories of Knickerbocker Village

group-2012Laura KupersteinReunion of former and current KV residents, 2012.

In the first part of a two-part story, Mary Reinholz speaks with some former residents of Knickerbocker Village.

Although hard hit by Hurricane Sandy, Knickerbocker Village still looks like an urban fortress, with its aging collection of 13-story brick buildings spanning one full city block. As lower middle income residents once again consider the option of going co-op, it’s worth noting that this sprawling complex, a precursor to the Mitchell-Lama Housing Program, was once a hot bed of tenant activism and radical politics during the Depression era on the Lower East Side.

This was a time when the gangs of New York held sway in impoverished immigrant neighborhoods, and mobsters controlled the docks on the East River nearby. An infamous “lung block” on which the complex sits between the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges got its name because so many tenants there had died from tuberculosis in squalid living conditions.

“It used to be all alleys and tenements, the worst kind of tenements you can imagine,” said Hal Kanter, 83, a retired restaurateur and former owner of Manhattan’s Broadway Joe steak house who lived at Knickerbocker Village from 1935, a year after it opened, to 1948. “Knickerbocker Village cleaned all that up. I was a tot when it opened and it seemed so safe. It was like a prison–with walls and gates so high you couldn’t scale them.”

DSC00232Photo courtesy David AlmanlRosenberg author Dave Alman

Author David Alman, 93, who grew up in a tenement on Rivington St., moved into KV in 1941, noting “It dwarfed anything we had ever seen before.” It struck him, he said, as a kind of working-class paradise. Some seven decades later, in 2009, he published a book with his late wife Emily Arrnow on an episode in KV history. It was called, “Exoneration: the Trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and Morton Sobell.“

The Rosenbergs, who were convicted for conspiring to pass atom bomb secrets to Russia, and executed at Sing Sing prison in 1953, remain Knickerbocker Village’s most notorious former tenants. Both were communists who had been living with their two young sons in a modestly priced apartment. Read more…

East Eighth Street Tenants Fight Back

Janette BrownRachel OhmJanette Brown holds a copy of the letter she and six other residents sent to the state Attorney General in an effort to fight against the purchase of 390 East Eighth Street, a low-income housing building, by Tower Brokerage.
Carlos BaezCarlos Baez has been a resident of 390 East Eighth Street for over 30 years. Rachel Ohm

For 36 years Carlos Baez, 63, has called 390 East Eighth Street home. The two bedroom apartment that he shares with his niece on the first floor of the building holds his large collection of VCR tapes, which includes every Whoopi Goldberg and Charles Bronson movie ever made. Because he used to be the super of the building, Baez’s apartment is bigger than most and is conveniently located on the first floor, the perfect spot because his 14-year-old dog, Little, has arthritis and can barely walk up stairs.

And yet he’s thinking of moving.

On Feb. 25, 390 East Eighth Street, a dedicated low-income housing building, was sold to Tower Brokerage, an East Village real estate developer with plans to put in market-rate apartments.

The HDFC, the tenant-owned and operated corporation that currently owns the building, finally conceded to the sale seeing no way out from a financial debt that accumulated during the years the building was being run by a non-profit called Interfaith Adopt-a-Building.

The building “owes the city about $1.2 million in water bills and taxes,” said Robert Perl, president of Tower Brokerage. “This sale is the only way to pay the city funds.”
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Plan Would Add Low Income Housing

9-17 Second AvenueStephanie Butnick The buildings at 9, and 11-17 Second Avenue, which will be renovated as part a new development featuring low-income apartments that would be available for as little as $1.

Developers are expected to seek Community Board approval Wednesday for a plan to renovate a row of properties along Second Avenue, and sell some of the apartments to low-income families for as little as $1.

The mostly low-income families who currently live in the two buildings at 9 and 11-17 Second Avenue are guaranteed units in the proposed development, which would combine the two structures into one larger building.

The project, run by development firm BFC Partners, is operating under the Department of City Planning’s 2009 amendment to the inclusionary housing program, which creates permanently affordable housing, now with the option to buy. According to Juan Barahona of the development firm, tenants will be able to buy the new apartments for between $1 and $10.

The project will also take advantage of new zoning laws that allow developers to build more square footage on a lot, provided they allocate 20 percent of the building’s total area to affordable housing.

In this case, the 12-story, 4,000 sq. ft. building will house approximately 12 low-income units (available to those making 80 percent or less of the area’s median income ̶ approximately $63,000), dispersed throughout the complex, and about 48 market rate units. The development’s market-rate units, which make up the majority of the building, will offset costs.
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