Other than three weeks in Brooklyn, I have lived on the Lower East Side. This was a time when every block in New York City was different. You turn a corner the world changed. Our first residence was at 325 Broome St., from there we moved to 99 Bowery.
The Bowery was unique in that it divided the L.E.S. from Little Italy and had its own special character and individual style. The main commercial businesses were restaurant supplies and lighting-fixture stores. For the most part the proprietors were either Italians or Jews. The Bowery still had numerous flophouses that provided housing for the down-on-his-luck alcoholic, the loner, the antisocial, those wanting to be lost or hidden from whoever. Then there were the artists living in commercial lofts that they converted into working and living spaces.
What made Downtown special and attractive to creative individuals was the main ingredients that fueled the creativity and genius N.Y.C. was known for. First, you needed cheap rent, and then inexpensive food, then affordable materials to work with. This was a time of the 99-cent breakfast, the endless cups of coffee, the $4 lunches, the 75-cent slice of pizza, the $2.50 two-fisted hero sandwich. No matter what your choice in fashion, whether high-end designer fashion, casual or clubland hipster, if you knew the lay of the land you could find what you desired at a price you could afford.
N.Y.C. used to be about having game. By using your wits you could just survive, or if you were ambitious you felt that anything was possible and you could work on following your dream. Small-time capitalism was alive and well. You could barter for a better price on almost anything. You could trade goods for services.
Crossing Bowery was Canal St. Canal St. was a creative bargain hunter’s paradise, jam-packed shoulder to shoulder with stationery stores, below-market-price film, video, camera and TV outlets, job-lot businesses, metal merchants who sold a variety of metallic flotsam and jetsam, industrial plastic emporiums that sold anything from sheets of plexiglass to every kind of plastic trinket imaginable, including large-scale Statue of Liberties, and it was possible to order your own designed custom-made plastic item. Pearl Paint was a creative person’s paradise overstuffed with just about every conceivable art or craft material made, and at that time the prices were probably the lowest in the country.
I knew a number of creative types who were able to survive or at least supplement their income with craft or art they made and sold from Canal St. pickings. It was on Canal St. where Keith Haring purchased his fiberglass Venus de Milo, Statues of Liberty, King Tut’s sarcophagus.
I was able to create the Clayton Cap, because I discovered a baseball cap maker on Avenue A. I went in and ordered a cap with the colors I specified. Wow, I thought, this is cool. Later I realized that this guy embroidered the jacket backs for the Savage Skull Nomads in the Bronx. Again — Wow, he can draw images with his machine. I put 2 and 2 together and soon came up with the Clayton Cap.
The first baseball cap to brand a baseball cap with a signature on the outside; the first to move the image from just the front panel to images going all around the cap; the first to do individual custom caps to fit a customer’s specifications. We changed the history of the baseball cap, as well as becoming a small independent manufacturer.
Just about every N.Y.C. person who made some kind of contribution to American culture did so because it was affordable to live in N.Y.C. The list is endless: Jackson Pollock, Rothko, Houdini, Margarita Lopez, Sheldon Silver, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, etc.
From my perspective, things on the L.E.S. really started to change under President Reagan. I remember watching on TV a couple of women from Maine pleading with Congress to stop the importing of all the inexpensive footwear because it was killing off their business.
To me, the largest game changer, in terms of the beginning of L.E.S. gentrification, was the influx of Chinese money. The common drumbeat is it was the artist that caused gentrification to happen. Truth is the L.E.S. has always had a creative community connected to the population that lived there. And, really, it is not who rents the property, it’s who owns the property. Then we have the economy. For example, commercial rent tax in the 1980s killed off many commercial businesses.
In the early 1980s one of the ways I paid my rent was to work as the manager for my landlord. My landlord owned a number of properties on the Bowery, as well as 325 Broome St. Because I worked for him, and because the space I was living in on the Bowery was still commercial, I had an insider’s view of how this tsunami of new money, mostly from Hong Kong and Taiwan, was effecting property values. The money rush crossed Canal St., bought up much of Little Italy, then spread north to Houston St., crossed the Bowery, east to Essex St., and took in a generous portion of tenements on the L.E.S.
For decades one of the main moneymaking businesses in the minority areas of the L.E.S. was the illegal drug trade. As the Mollen Commission pointed out, even the Ninth Precinct was involved in the underground commerce. The combination of rent increases, family members going to jail and a few changes in the laws created an exodus of minorities from the community. AIDS also decimated both the minority and the creative community.
Once it became obvious that this land was now marketable, numerous other forces joined in on the game. Soon cheap rent started to become a thing of the past. Rents went up, eventually the 99-cent breakfast becomes the $9 brunch, the endless cups of coffee refills became a single $4 latte.
As the rent goes up many creative people can no longer afford to create and live here and they move out. The children of families that grew up in the neighborhood cannot afford to live here. The businesses that service a community soon start to disappear: the butcher, the baker, the shoemaker, the dry cleaner, the corner coffee shop, the bookstores, the bodega, the cap maker and so on.
Once the community has been “cleaned up,” in move the big-boy sharks: N.Y.U. develops an insatiable appetite for more and more land, the luxury apartments and hotels wipe out landmark buildings and blocks of businesses — some which were here for 100 years. Zoning laws change, allowing for high-rises. Liquor laws are ignored, allowing in hundreds of bars, and my area gets designated as an entertainment zone. In come the cookie-cutter international corporations, like Starbucks, McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts. Out go the mom-and-pop stores, the individual small-time entrepreneurs, the obscure, the unique establishments that made N.Y.C. special.
If I was young I could never afford to live here. Nor could the hundreds of others who made N.Y.C. the greatest city in the world. It is slowly becoming just another place in the world for the rich and powerful. Just as the muse left Paris, it has disappeared from N.Y.C., too. Where is the muse now? My guess is China. I mean, really — even the new statue of Martin Luther King placed on one of the most sacred strips of land in America was made in China. Like there is no African-American sculptor who could have made that sculpture? I can see the Chinese influence in this sculpture — it looks like Chairman Mao.
This is only a part of my rant. Yes, those O.W.S. protestors are right. The voices are unified. And yes, their message is as different as every person there. Some can’t pay for tuition. Some can’t afford to move out of home. Others have lost their homes. There are very few jobs. The American dream is over — dead and has moved to China.
One more point: It’s easy to see where thousands of jobs have gone. Go to the Internet and look up recalls from China — sheetrock, dog food, toothpaste, children’s toys, furniture and on and on. We can’t make dog food in America? Talk to someone at your bank — good chance they are in India. Americans cannot answer questions on the phone? And so on.
When Bloomberg says O.W.S. is bad for “our” business, the “our” is the 1 percent group that O.W.S. is protesting. Yes, his salary is only $1 a year. Meanwhile, he has more than doubled his wealth since he has been in office — from $7.5 billion to more than $15 billion. I am not one of his “our” people. He is not speaking for me. He is talking against me. Yes to O.W.S.>