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Historic District Skews Story of Lower East Side
By Max Page, The Daily News

Thursday, April 26, 2001 - - The lower East Side is hot these days. Tenement apartments that immigrants labored desperately to escape are now selling for a million dollars. The locus of the hip has moved south and east from SoHo and the East Village to Rivington, Ludlow, and even Orchard and Hester Sts. And now, the whole neighborhood has been honored as truly "historic" by the National Park Service, which has placed the district on the National Register of Historic Places.

Actually, not the whole neighborhood. Just a carefully carved section. It looks more like a gerrymandered voting district than a coherent neighborhood. It has one narrow slice running from Essex to Allen Sts., and Division to E. Houston Sts. has been given a tail, which runs along East Broadway and down and back along Henry St.

This hardly resembles the image of the lower East Side in the minds of current residents or those who lived there a century ago. It is a map-making fiction that says only a little about history and a lot more about cultural politics and the practice of historic preservation today.

For many, this is a victory of history over architectural elitism. While there are significant buildings in the area, proponents of listing the district have focused on the cultural importance of the district: its role as the home for countless immigrants who arrived after 1880 and continue to arrive. But to have the district accepted onto the revered list, advocates had to jump through the anachronistic hoops of the national register and focus on the quality of the architecture and reassure officials that there were enough "contributing" buildings (i.e., buildings that were close enough to their "original" appearance) to make the district feel historic.

The result was the inclusion of buildings that helped the case and the exclusion of many others of equal significance. The map lassos in the old Forward Building on East Broadway, the Educational Alliance Building, the Henry Street Settlement, as well as the Lower East Side Tenement Museum building. A little bump on the west side of the district is designed to incorporate the 1886 Eldridge Street Synagogue. At the same time, buildings to the east, including St. Mary's Church, an anchor of the once strong Irish community here, or Beit Hamedrash Hagadol on Norfolk St., once a black Baptist church and now an Orthodox Jewish synagogue, could not be incorporated because they are surrounded by modern buildings and thus can't "contribute" to the "feel" of a historic district.

Furthermore, the district lines will lead visitors to the ludicrous notion that only the blocks of Grand St. or Delancey St. between Allen and Essex Sts. were "historic." These narrow lines have been chosen because of the national register's narrow ideas and rules of preserving the past. The result is really a Jewish lower East Side historic district — and an incomplete one at that — as a stand-in for the history of the whole neighborhood. It is ironic that just as the 2000 census is revealing that the United States, and New York City, is more diverse than ever, we are creating a landmark district based almost wholly on the history of one group in the neighborhood best defined as a crucible of multiple cultures.

What was always so striking to me when I gave tours of the lower East Side was how visitors could see the places inhabited by a succession of immigrant groups, living one on top of each other, and more often than not at peace.

Of course, it may be that the greatest beneficiaries of the new district will not be those interested in lower East Side history, but property owners. If well-meaning advocates of history have achieved something less than an inclusive lower East Side district, they have secured for property owners of this gerrymandered district the one tangible benefit of membership on the national register: generous tax incentives for historic rehabilitations.

The noble goal of preservationists has been to expand the range of places we seek to preserve. But in our country the honors (and profits) of being "historic" flow very directly into the pockets of those who own.

Page is a Yale history professor. email:


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