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    « BACK to Amy Zimmer's portfolio

    Posted 03.31.03
    Bargain District Wars: Preserving Tenements and Selling History

    Lou Holtzman stands on his stoop at 99 Orchard Street, inhaling the pickle-perfumed air, talking about his love of horseradish, reminiscing about his family's handkerchief shop and the days when Orchard Street teemed with shoppers. It's the Sunday before Passover, and a line stretches from 97 Orchard next door, where Guss' Pickles has temporarily relocated to the ground floor of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, around the corner onto Broome Street.

    Holtzman eyes the huddled mass and laments the good publicity Guss' move has brought the Museum. Holtzman's theory is that giving space to the displaced 90-year-old pickle business was a calculated maneuver to bolster the Museum's community image—an image which has been under attack ever since it announced plans to acquire 99 Orchard through eminent domain for the "greater good of the public" and force Holtzman out. The Tenement Museum wants to install an elevator in order to meet federal requirements of the American Disabilities Act, and according to the Museum, 99 Orchard is its only option.

    Holtzman points to the pickle barrels, "You think she'd let him stay here?"

    The "she" Holtzman is referring to is Ruth J. Abram, founder and president of the Tenement Museum. In a city where few things are more serious than real estate, the Museum's bid to take over 99 Orchard has degenerated into an ugly he-said/she-said row pitting Abram against Holtzman. In one corner she has Frank Sanchis of the Municipal Art Society who lauds the Museum, claiming its "uniqueness" lies in its "authenticity and integrity of its fabric, which merits, in fact demands the highest degree of protection." In the other stand State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, the Lower East Side Business Improvement District, and Community Board 3—all of whom defend the inviolability of 99 Orchard's rights. While the battle on Orchard Street is on one level a struggle between a property owner's rights and the communal benefits brought by a cultural institution, it is also a debate about history itself: what is it, who owns it, how one preserves and pays it proper respect.

    When Abram discovered 97 Orchard in 1988, she knew she unearthed a jewel of urban history. The boarded up Old-Law tenement housed 7,000 immigrants from 20 countries between 1863 and 1935, and the Museum has recreated the texture and stories of some of these dwellers -- the Confinos, the Rogarshevskys, the Baldizzis, the Gumpertz family. But what about the Holtzmans?

    99 Orchard has been in Lou's family for four generations. One of his grandfathers owned a dairy restaurant on Delancey Street; the other a handkerchief store in 99 Orchard that remained open until the 1980s. Lou's father was a local cantor. This summer Lou and his partner Peter Liang completed a gut renovation of the building -- new steel, new stairs, new floors, new fixtures, a refurbished fašade. Holtzman believes 99 Orchard is a model for the area's rebirth (and proof that a local boy can make good); a building on a blighted block now commanding market-rate rents of $1600 from 14 new tenants. As part of the renovation, Liang expanded his Chinese restaurant, Congee Village, into 99 Orchard's ground floor, where it has become a neighborhood fixture. All these developments, Holtzman believes, are evidence that, in the words of Community Board 3 member Harvey Wieder, "the Lower East Side is a living, breathing organism. It is not a mausoleum."

    To Holtzman, Abram is nothing more than an interloper manipulating the neighborhood for her benefit. Understandably, Abram sees things differently. From her perspective it is the new tenants of 99 Orchard who are ruining the historic fabric of the Lower East Side. "They're paying more than most of our neighbors make in a year, much more for 325-square-foot apartments," she says of the 99 Orchard tenants. "These tenants don't have deep roots," Abram explains.

    "We are the anchor," Abram testifies. She sees the Museum playing a unique role in preserving the stories of successive waves of immigrants who have made New York great. And many agree with her perception. "The Tenement Museum has invented innovative approaches to interpreting the history of these particularly kinds of domestic spaces," says Kenneth Jackson, New-York Historical Society president and Columbia historian. For instance, the Museum's recently opened tour, "Piecing it Together: Immigrants in the Garment Industry," displays the Levine family's early 20th Century apartment, complete with an in-house sweatshop. In addition, the exhibit has an audio installation with accounts by current garment workers. In its ongoing effort to represent a greater variety of historical perspectives, the Museum wants to add to its current display of Jewish and Italian apartments, replica apartments of Cuban and Puerto Rican families during the Civil War, Free African families from the 1820s, and apartments representing families from China, Mexico and Bangladesh.

    The Museum's meticulously restored National Historic Landmark tenement currently gets over 90,000 visitors a year. Its guided tours are at capacity and must turn people away. For Abram, expansion is the next logical step, and this is where 99 Orchard comes in. Also, Abram's plan is for the Museum to join a National Parks Service partnership, alongside the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. This would likely increase the number of visitors from 90,000 to 250,000, which she believes is required to ensure the Museum's future. The fly in the ointment, however, is that in order to receive federal funding, the Museum must comply with ADA regulations. And the only way to do that, says Abram, is to take over the property next door, 99 Orchard, since the two buildings share a party wall and floor levels. Both built in 1863 to house poor immigrants, the buildings are "twins." And this has become an intractable "family" feud.

    Buying 99 Orchard has become Abram's obsession, some say; her grail, others suspect. The Abram-Holtzman courtship has been riddled with miscues and misunderstandings. After two years of negotiations, Holtzman finally offered to sell his building for $6 million. Abram balked, claiming that comparable housing in the area was going for $700,000. But when Lou spouted that price, he and Liang had already put in steel for the renovation, they knew they'd be getting a rent roll and didn't want to sell.

    But the haggling on Orchard Street never ends. Abram argues that Museum expansion would bring more people to the area. Holtzman counters that the increase in tour buses will pollute the neighborhood. Abram insists the plan will enrich neighborhood business and create more jobs. Holtzman replies that the crowds will cause congestion, and points out that jobs will be lost if Congee Village is forced to close.

    Generally people in the neighborhood like the Museum. Even Community Board 3 members defended the Museum's mission and agree that it needs to expand, but what many of them object to is the way it wants to expand.

    Today, Lou and his wife Mimi (a red-haired self-proclaimed "fossil from the 60s") stand on the steps of 99 Orchard watching a steady stream of tourists enter the Museum. "Ruth carries on as though she invented immigrants and tenement dwellers and tenements -- like their images and memories belong to her to profit from. It's a non-profit organization, but those executives are making themselves a nice tidy salary," says Mimi.

    Perhaps because he still hopes the two buildings will peaceably coexist, Lou offers a slightly less vitriolic perspective. "No, it's a great museum. They offer wonderful tours, but the Museum should leave my building alone... She's a carpetbagger from down South in Georgia. She's not even a New Yorker."

    Although Abram doesn't hail from New York, it is not too dramatic to say that the Tenement Museum is surely "the house that Ruth built." The daughter of civil rights lawyer Morris Abram, Ruth grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, where her grandfather ran a dry goods store, much like those that once lined Orchard Street.

    Abram's southern lilt is barely audible -- perhaps erased by her many years of northeastern schooling: a BA from Sarah Lawrence, an MSW from Brandeis, and a MA in History from NYU. Well-heeled with a professional air -- short brown hair, simple suit -- her quiet, forceful business demeanor doesn't mesh with the kibitzers on Orchard Street.

    In 1988, when Abram opened the museum, the area was on the way down -- declining commerce, rising junkies. During the Museum's inaugural year, when a busload of women was dropped off on Orchard for a tour, they were almost afraid to get off. As Ruth recounts, "One lady got off the bus and she said, 'Oh, this is such a good idea, but why did they have to do it here?'"

    Orchard Street is no longer the derelict hangout it was in the 80s. Trendy new bars and boutiques are opening next to some of the remaining old Jewish stores. New immigrants continue to move into tenements that still have bathtubs in kitchens and toilets in hallways, while young professionals move into gut renovated buildings with marble stairwells. As the neighborhood transforms rapidly, Abram hopes to preserve the memory of the past. Finding a way to allow more to experience this history and encourage more to think how this history relates to the present is of paramount importance. "We have a mission which is to promote tolerance and that includes tolerance for people who can't walk upstairs or downstairs or are blind or are deaf," Abram says.

    She also wants to ensure that her carefully restored tenement survives. In fact, her building's structural integrity was a key factor in wanting control of 99 Orchard, she explains. Because she feared that 99 Orchard's renovation was causing damage to her building, she repeatedly tried to halt the construction. Finally, the Empire State Development Corporation responded to her complaints and initiated the eminent domain proceedings -- though ESDC based their case on proposed public benefit.

    The Holtzman's have hired lobbyists in Albany to argue on their behalf. A slew of eminent domain cases where the state is condemning private property for other private businesses have recently come to the fore -- the New York Times in Times Square, Home Depot in East Harlem, the New York Stock Exchange. Traditionally, eminent domain has been used for public schools or highways, but Michael Rikon, a lawyer specializing in condemnation law explains that the interpretation of "public use" has grown fairly elastic. The 1981 Poletown v. Detroit case, where an entire neighborhood was condemned for a General Motors plant under the rubric of "revitalization" has allowed for a liberal application of eminent domain Rikon explains. As with most New York disputes, the lawyers will probably be the final arbiters.

    Every Sunday Holtzman stands on his steps fielding questions about the signs—"Don't let the Museum take my building!!!" and "Fight eminent domain abuse" --posted in the first floor apartment window where he lives with his wife Mimi. A protest had been scheduled for today, but a few days ago Holtzman sent an e-mail to his listserv postponing the event "due to my neighbors, the police department, my lobbyists and lawyers and every other complaint on and off Orchard Street." Lou signed off, "Seems I am the pariah of the block and everyone wants the sacred Orchard Street Sunday to be left alone."

    The Holtzmans plan to reschedule the rally on a Saturday when they can get a permit to close off the block. Lou and Mimi desperately want to prove their good neighbor policy, and moving the protest to a Saturday will surely appease the merchants, most of who close on Saturdays. "We're gonna do it up right. Have a little band shell, bring musicians, serve some food. Ruth's got her cronies from the cultural institutions. Well," Lou declares, "I'm gonna bring down the real people who live and eat and pay money in the shops and restaurants." Lou glances at Mimi forlornly staring at the tenement-lined block. Then he smiles wryly and says, "Maybe we'll just go to Aruba."