WHEN Thelma Burdick and her neighbors went to City Hall to protest a land grab of their neighborhood, their chances seemed slim at best. The year was 1959, Americans were still flocking to the suburbs, and the prevailing response to the problems of the inner city was to bulldoze them away.
Robert Moses, New York's highway and housing czar, was proposing to level Ms. Burdick's neighborhood, a 12-block swath of lower Manhattan, and replace it with housing most people in the area couldn't afford. When Burdick's group, the Cooper Square Committee, suggested low-income housing instead, built in stages so displaced tenants could move into new quarters, a city housing official told them that such ``piecemeal construction was impractical today,'' the New York Times reported.
Now, 30 years later, the Thelma Burdick Apartments, a building for low-income people, is a monument to a neighborhood group that wouldn't take ``no'' for an answer. ``Each one of them came in thinking, `We are going to get rid of this crummy bunch of tenants on the Lower East Side,''' says Frances Goldin, a literary agent and local resident, speaking of a long succession of housing officials. ``They finally came to the realization that we weren't going to go away.''
The Burdick Apartments stand testimony to a view decidedly out of favor in Washington today. Recent Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) scandals notwithstanding, the project shows that subsidized housing can work, when the people behind it really believe in it. The key here was not market forces but community forces.
``Burdick was a labor of love,'' says Rueben Glick of the Glick Organization, developer of the project and a big fan of the Cooper Square Committee. ``They are almost ministers to the community,'' he says.
THE Lower East Side may have looked run-down to the ``slum clearance'' brigades of the late '50s. But it was a multiethnic refuge for artists and others not disposed to being pushed around. (It was here, at the Catholic Worker newspaper, that Michael Harrington wrote ``The Other America,'' the book that inspired the war on poverty.) The Cooper Square Committee, which today calls itself the ``nation's first antidisplacement organization,'' promptly drafted an alternative plan.
``It was met with stunned silence,'' recalls Walter Thabit, a local planner who drafted it. Officials ``thought it would be dangerous to give the community the idea that people displaced from a site should have any say in what happens to the site.''
Political backing came slowly. John Lindsay, then a mayoral candidate, expressed support in his campaign. But once in office, in the wake of racial uprisings, he decided to target all housing money to Harlem and other black neighborhoods. The committee's protests showed a theatrical flair befitting the neighborhood. At one point they went ``on the warpath'' by donning Indian dress and building teepees on a vacant plot.
Finally, in 1970, the city's Board of Estimate relented. After the meeting, the New Yorker magazine reported, ``[M]embers of the audience - gray-haired ladies in tweed suits, tall black men, Chinese mothers with children pulling at their fringed blue-jeans, and long-haired young people of all races - cheered, shouted, flung their arms around each other, and, in some cases, cried.''
There followed another 10-year ordeal, however, as one funding source after another dried up. President Richard Nixon declared a moratorium on HUD grants. New York City went broke, as did New York State's funding agency.
As money became tighter, Cooper Square kept scaling back its plan. It wasn't until 1981 that the group finally secured funding for a single building under HUD's much-maligned Section 8 program - and that, just as the Reagan administration was about to kill the program.
THE Thelma Burdick building does not look like a low-income project, still less like the drug-infested slums often described on the evening news. It has a single arched entry, with stylish doors, rather than the usual multiple entries that are invitations to crime. All tenants and visitors pass a 24-hour security desk, just like residents at the ritzy apartments uptown. The mailboxes are behind the desk, so that Social Security checks are safe. ``Crime is minimal,'' says Val Orselli, Cooper Square's director.
The flophouses on New York's Bowery are right outside. But there is no graffiti on Burdick's brick fa,cade. The halls are clean. Children play in safety in its tree-shaded rear.
The years of battle seem to have produced a feeling of sweat equity among the residents, most of whom are from the neighborhood (45 percent Hispanic, 40 percent Oriental, and the rest reflecting the local balance of blacks and whites). ``They were involved in the struggle so they take a proprietary interest in the building,'' Mr. Orselli says.
Blanca Martinelli, vice president of the building's tenant association, has been a Cooper Square member for 13 years. She is a vivacious woman who brings a high-spirited flair to the effort to keep the hallways clean and the children under control. Tenants ``don't get angry because we do it as a joke,'' she says of the association's gentle admonishments. The Cooper Square Committee has a social worker in the building to help with personal and financial problems.
Developers often regard tenants' associations and groups like Cooper Square as a nuisance. Mr. Glick, on the other hand, says that this kind of community cohesion makes the project work. ``We approach it from the point of view that it's a people building, not just boxes,'' he says. Glick has reason to take a special interest in the Burdick Apartments. He was born on East 4th Street, where the Cooper Square office is located.
In HUD parlance, the Cooper Square Committee was ``local sponsor'' for the project, which means it chose the architect and developer and worked closely with them. Roger Cumming, the architect, says this kind of community involvement is ideal. ``[It's] the next best thing to having the families you actually design for,'' he says.
The result was touches that low-income projects don't often include. The laundry room, for example, looks out on an enclosed play area, so parents can watch the kids while they do the wash. There are garden plots for residents out back.
There is even original artwork by local artists: stained-glass windows on each floor, a mural in the lobby, a wood sculpture for kids to play on out back. The committee raised $100,000 to finance these grace notes. ``Cooper Square has always believed in bread and roses,'' Ms. Goldin says. ``Not just a roof over people's heads, but something people would cherish.''
One point of contention was parking. Spaces rent for $20 a month, an extraordinary bargain in an area where $300 a month is the going commercial rate. ``It's just crazy,'' says Mr. Cumming, who was overruled by Cooper Square advocates arguing that some tenants needed to drive to jobs in New Jersey.
THE Burdick project complete, the Cooper Square Committee is now fighting an incursion from another quarter: gentrifiers and condo developers. (``Speculators Keep Away'' reads a large banner across East 4th Street.)
In keeping with the era, the group has evolved from protest to production. It has rehabbed a building on Second Avenue into co-op units for homeless people. It has $15 million in city money to build or rehab more units for low- and middle-income tenants.
The scale doesn't match its original plans. But the effort is helping preserve diversity in a richly historic neighborhood. It is also providing what New Yorkers most covet - a decent, affordable place to live. A maintenance man named Alex at the Burdick Apartments puts it simply, ``They have to be happy to live in a place like that.''