Lower East Side of New York gains historic status

Area is known for tenements that housed waves of immigrants

April 23, 2001|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - The Lower East Side, known for densely packed tenements that housed successive waves of Irish, Italian, German, Eastern European and Chinese immigrants rather than for monumental buildings, has been added to the National Register of Historic Places.

The Lower East Side Business Improvement District and the Lower East Side Conservancy, which co-sponsored the application, recently announced the awarding of the designation. While it does not restrict what owners can do with their property, the designation offers substantial tax credits to those who meet preservation guidelines.

`Real cultural reasons'

It is representative of a growing movement to expand preservation to include places that are important to ordinary people.

"It may not be significant in the traditional architectural sense that most historic districts use," said Renee Epps, a vice president at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. "It's designated for real cultural reasons. These drab little tenements, which many New Yorkers still live in, have shaped our lives."

Bernadette Castro, the state parks commissioner, said the district was important because of the large number of buildings in their original context.

"It instantly takes you back in time," Castro said. "You don't have to really read about it. You're there."

The L-shaped historic district extends from Allen to Essex streets and from East Houston to Division, an area that at the turn of the century was one of the most densely populated places on Earth.

At that time, reformers exposed the tenements as unsanitary firetraps, and a series of laws outlawed dark hallways, poor ventilation and outhouses. The expense of the changes led some landlords to evict tenants and board up the buildings.

History of reform

"Architecture is not insignificant here, but it's not architecture for the aesthetics," said Andrew Dolkart, the author of "The Guide to New York City Landmarks," who was hired to write the Lower East Side's nomination to the register, which was quietly approved last fall. "It's the history of housing reform."

The district is drawn to include several Jewish landmarks, including the Eldridge Street Synagogue on the southwest corner and a leg of East Broadway containing a block of small synagogues, and a building that once housed the Jewish Forward newspaper.

Although the Lower East Side has been a portal for immigrants of many ethnicities, said Holly Kaye, the executive director of the Lower East Side Conservancy, it seemed important to emphasize a once-thriving Eastern European Jewish community that is recovering from a decline.

"What we have discovered is that there is this impression that there's no Jewish life down here, and that is not the case at all," Kaye said.

The bulk of the more than 500 buildings are tenements and street-level shops, like Lolita Bras and Ben Freedman Gentlemen's Furnishings, that have drawn bargain shoppers for generations.

Soaring rents

The designation comes at a time when soaring rents make renovation of boarded-up floors practical. Andrew Flamm, the executive director of the business improvement district, said the tax incentives could be a deciding factor for families that have long owned the buildings. "These are not your typical real estate moguls," he said.

Nonprofit groups that own buildings on the register can receive matching grants for capital improvements.

So far, a few owners plan to take advantage of the credit. Mark Russ Federman, the owner of a third-generation family business, Russ & Daughters on East Houston, said that he expected to get a $150,000 tax credit for renovating the building's facade and apartments.

Restoring the historically significant aspects of the building, cost $60,000 to $70,000, he said. "We have a vested interest in preserving the neighborhood," he added, "without seeing it turn to faux marble and ultrachic."

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