Lower East Side: cultural stew in N.Y. melting pot

Near Tompkins Square Park on Manhattan's Lower East Side, long-established Eastern European restaurants like Leshko's and the Odessa are vying with an artsy sushi bar and a sidewalk cafe that specializes in quiche and expensive hamburgers.

Such diversity, however, only hints at the daily clash of cultures on the Lower East Side.

Occasionally the mixing and melding of traditions and new ideas produce tension, as happened when a recent walking tour from a New York museum was met by residents who didn't like the term ''East Village.''

''What's this 'East Village'?'' asked one woman. ''This is the Lower East Side.''

Often though, the diversity seems to lead to a friendly blending, like the mixed crowds that cram into the booths at the Odessa for inexpensive meals.

On Avenue D and Seventh Street, parents walk with their children in tow on the broad sidewalks, and men pull up chairs outside stores and chat in Spanish. The sidewalks and streets are in disrepair, but they are swept clean.

On First Avenue between St. Mark's Place and Ninth Street, there is the persistent whisper of ''smoke'' from young drug peddlers. A few blocks away is the New York City home of the Hell's Angels, the latest New York art gallery, and a crowded Ukrainian restaurant.

Historically the home of immigrants and working poor, the Lower East Side is now home for a growing number of artists, students, and young professionals, too. The poor, whose homes deteriorated and were often abandoned in the 1970s, now face an increase in investment that is bringing higher rents and displacement through gentrification.

Longtime residents stick with the historical boundaries - 14th Street to the north, down the East River almost to the Brooklyn Bridge, through Chinatown and bounded on the west by Bowery Street and Third Avenue.

Hispanics speak of ''Loisaida'' between 14th and Houston Streets, and the East River and Avenue A. The East Village is defined by some as between Third Avenue and Avenue A, and 14th Street and Houston.

However boundaries are defined, Hugh Ellis, a clothing cutter and father of two, says the neighborhood's identity is definitely shifting.

Most noticeable, he says, has been the recent intensive efforts to clean up the area's problem of illicit drugs sold openly on the streets. A police program called Operation Pressure Point has resulted in some 8,400 arrests since it began earlier this year.

''They (the drug pushers) are still there, but it is not as bad as it was. I couldn't walk the streets with my family.''

But along with the drug cleanup, Mr. Ellis has also seen an increasing gentrification of the area.

''There is a different element coming in. Rents are $500, $600, $800 a month on Avenue C. How can poor people stay?''

Some people champion the changes going on. They say the influx of new residents brings much needed business and increases stability in the area.

''I care about where I live,'' says an actor who lives here because of the inexpensive rents. ''I buy my groceries at the corner stores. ... I think I am a good person to have in this neighborhood.''

Mabelene Santiago, a pretty Hispanic high school student who wants to be a singer or a model, lives in the housing projects in Loisaida.

''There are a lot of buildings that need to be fixed. I think this is a good idea,'' she says, having watched former President Jimmy Carter help rehabilitate an abandoned building for lower-income residents.

In that same area are empty lots and decrepit buildings with squatters who carry water into their homes from the fire hydrants on the street.

But just around the corner on Seventh Street, a one-bedroom cooperative was recently advertised for $68,000, considered inexpensive by New York standards, but far beyond the reach of most of the neighborhood residents.

The paradox of prices and housing quality typifies a major dilemma confronting the Lower East Side - how to maintain a balance between its lower-income residents and a community that attracts investment, businesses, and a middle-class constituency.

''We want to maintain the identity of the Lower East Side,'' says Fred Marston, chairman of community board No. 3, which mostly covers the Lower East Side.

Mr. Marston says he hopes the community can save as much housing as possible before it all goes into the category of one bedroom for $700 a month.

The population in the area - just under 155,000 in the 1980 census - is about 37 percent Hispanic, 30 percent white, 22 percent Asian, and 9 percent black.

Almost 90 percent of the year-round housing units are renter occupied. The median rent in the area is a low $151 a month, partly due to the large percentage of publicly assisted housing, some 48 percent, according to the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). Many area apartments are under rent control or rent stabilization regulations.

Rob DeRocker of Habitat for Humanity, the group that President Carter helped, says that although displacement is a problem for the poor, high unemployment is also a major factor in abandonment.

According to an HPD spokesman, there are more than 400 vacant lots and abandoned buildings in the area. Tenants who live in marginal housing speak of harassment from landlords.

But some building owners claim the city and tenant organizations do their best to thwart small landlords. One owner claims that tenant groups have vandalized buildings in order to create code violations and that the city has so many impossible regulations that makes it difficult for honest landlords to stay in business.

Nearly everyone agrees that something must happen soon because families near the still abandoned buildings are worried that drug pushers will eventually return.

The city has recently proposed a ''cross subsidy'' plan that would enable the city to sell the abandoned buildings and lots it has taken over to private developers using proceeds to improve existing city-owned property.

Some residents oppose that program, fearing the city will sell most of the buildings to speculators who would not provide housing for the poor.

''The developer will weigh what he can get in the marketplace,'' says Carol Watson of the Lower East Side Catholic Area Conference.

Still, others in the community support the idea.

''(Everyone) wants safe streets, good schools, places to buy food,'' says Doug Balin, executive director of the United Jewish Council. With the money generated from the cross-subsidy sales, Mr. Balin said he would like to see health clinics, economic development plans, job training programs, and light industry.

The local community board has forwarded some proposals that endorse the protection of low-income residents, commercial revitalization and economic development, strict enforcements of building codes, and increased use of city-owned property to generate low- and medium-income housing.

Nonprofit groups here have helped organize tenants in homesteading projects, tenant cooperatives, and sweat equity rehabilitation. Many of the groups have decided that building ownership is crucial to the future of the lower-income families already in the area.

The apartments that Habitat is renovating will be sold to local residents at

''If you walk through the community, you will find people who say it is lost, '' says Ms. Watson. ''But by and large what we have is worth the fight.''

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