This New York Times article examines how the neighborhood from which Avenue Q is derived has completely changed in recent years, making it almost unrecognizable for those who identify it as the run-down, bohemian icon that was spoofed in Jeff Marx’s and Robert Lopez’s musical:
NOT too long ago, the name Alphabet City evoked images of burned-out buildings, rubbish-strewn lots, squatters and drug dealers. These days, the marketers of the high-priced condominiums and luxury rentals that are sprouting everywhere in the neighborhood are more likely to refer to it as the East Village, of which it is only a part, or to sweep it into the even-broader domain of the Lower East Side.
But whatever its title, it has been clear for some time, as prices soar and crime rates tumble, that the area encompassing Avenues A, B, C and D from 14th Street to Houston Street has acquired a patina of affluence and stylishness even as it remains a bastion of middle class dwellings and subsidized housing.
”In the last year and a half, I would guess 1,000 new units of housing have been built here,” said Harvey Epstein, a Legal Aid Society lawyer and chairman of the housing committee for Community Board 3, which has jurisdiction over Alphabet City. ”When rents skyrocked throughout Manhattan a few years ago, landlords in this neighborhood realized what an opportunity they had to make a real profit, so from Avenues A to D, there is construction of new housing on every space available. There is also a lot of rehabilitation of existing housing to get more market rate tenants into buildings.”
Indeed, it is impossible to take a stroll around the avenues and their connecting blocks without encountering concrete being poured, foundations for new structures being sunk, and old town houses and tenements undergoing facelifts.
What’s more, the kind of buildings rising now would probably have been unthinkable even five years ago.
Andrew J. Gerringer, executive vice president of Douglas Elliman, the real estate services firm, said: ”We convinced a developer who was building a rental at 217 East Seventh Street to make it a condo instead. We thought it was time. There were enough high-end rental people coming in and paying $2,000 a month for studios.” That judgment paid off. All but one of the 16 units in the building were either sold or spoken for within two months. Developed by BFC Partners, the six-story brick structure has amenities like a rooftop satellite, Internet access and stainless steel kitchens. Asked who had been drawn to pay prices ranging from $185,000 for a studio to $545,000 for a two bedroom apartment, Linda Rubin, a vice president at Douglas Elliman and the broker for the property, said, ”Mostly people in their 30’s, who are single or married but don’t yet have children and are not planning to stay there forever. They’re first-time buyers.”
Brian Becker, the director of trading operations for MarketXT, an electronic brokerage firm, who lives on the Upper East Side, made an offer on a two-bedroom apartment there the day the building went on the market. He had been searching for a condo for about a year, he said, concentrating mainly on Chelsea, SoHo and the Flatiron and Union Square districts.
”I think I was the first person to see it and the first to commit,” he said. ”It was exactly what I was looking for. I have always been a fan of new space, and this was exactly what I was looking for.”
The price? A bargain, he said, at $525,000. ”There is nothing like that anywhere else,” he said. ”I had also put a bid in on a loft on 12th Street and Broadway. There they were looking for $600,000. That needed a new kitchen and bathroom.”
Besides, said Mr. Becker, who is emigrating from York Avenue uptown: ”I will spend a lot less time and money in cabs. Whenever I go out to do something, it’s generally down there.”
Indeed, it was the astonishing proliferation of restaurants, bars and clubs, art galleries, fashion boutiques and furniture shops on Avenues A and B in the last few years and now increasingly on the less discovered Avenue C that sparked the real estate boom. And it, in turn, served to lure even more upscale enterprises.
Matthew Haly had a certain sophistication about the real estate market when he decided to open the Furniture Joint, an antiques and upholstery shop on Avenue B between 11th and 12th Streets, with his fiancee, Laura Swain. He only recently left a job as a salesman with Benjamin James Associates, a real estate brokerage firm.
”Four new buildings have gone up in a four block radius of here, and there are a lot of young professionals moving in,” he said, as he finished scraping the baseboards of the shop, which he renovated himself.
That, he figured, would offer him a ready-made pool of buyers for his wares, a far cry from the patrons of a former establishment on the premises, a bodega known to be a front for drug dealers.
When Gwen LeMoine Sabahi, a hairdresser and makeup artist, opened Parlor, a salon on Avenue B between Sixth and Seventh Streets, a year and a half ago, she recalled: ”People would say, ‘What, you’re going to charge $50 a haircut? Do you know where you are?’ Now I charge $80.”
Ms. Sabahi said she had intended to employ only one other hairdresser, mainly to keep her company. Instead, she now has a staff of six.
That the shop is up to the moment is demonstrated by a new service being offered there: makeup parties with Kevin Posey, a makeup artist who has signed on for ”Sex and the City” next season.
”This is a pattern we see in a lot of emerging neighborhoods where people want to live,” Mr. Gerringer of Douglas Elliman said. ”Once a retail presence is established — a 24-hour community, lights and activity — then people see it is safe and come in and rent.”
Lisa Ramaci, who is doing graduate work in American decorative arts at Sotheby’s, was a first-hand witness to the decline of Alphabet City that took place in the 1980’s and the revival that began in the mid-1990s.
In 1980, along with five other people, she homesteaded an abandoned six-story tenement at 11th Street and Avenue B that lacked water, electricity, windows and plumbing. ”We took showers in the fire hydrants,” she said.
She bought two of the apartments from the city in 1988 for $500 and rebuilt them using a manual published by Reader’s Digest. ”I remember the first Saturday night I spent there in June 1980,” she said. ”I walked over to Avenue A because I wanted to orient myself to my new neighborhood. I looked north and south, and there was not a car, not a truck, certainly not a cab. The only people I saw was the occasional forlorn junkie.”
Now, she said, not exactly happily, ”Saturday night on Avenue A looks like Times Square on New Year’s Eve.” As for prices, she went on: ”In 1980 a guy rehabbed a building on 11th Street and Avenue A, and he charged $325 for a one-bedroom. We were outraged. That was extortion, and we didn’t believe anyone would pay it. Today, you can’t get a parking space for $325 a month. Studios rent for $2,200, and new co-ops in a building at 10th Street and First Avenue are starting at $400,000.”
Jack Bick, owner of S. Charatan Realty, said he was often astounded by the levels rents were reaching. Citing a range of $1,300 to $1,400 for studios, $1,700 to $1,800 for one bedrooms and as much as $3,000 for two and three bedrooms, he said, ”I think landlords are getting moreper square foot down here because they divide the apartments up,” carving up already small rooms.
SION MISRAHI, president of Misrahi Realty, a brokerage firm specializing in small buildings on the Lower East Side, agreed that rents were skyrocketing. It took him only three months earlier this year to fill 24 apartments after a gut rehab at 629 East Fifth Street, between Avenues B and C, where one bedrooms rent for $2,000 and three bedrooms for $3,400. ”The renters are either young upwardly mobile professionals or are being subsidized by their parents,” he said. ”In fact, their parents could buy the building.”
With New York University increasingly spilling into the Lower East Side, many of the rental apartments are being taken by students, who band together to split the rents. The presence of so many lounges and clubs gives them a wide choice of hangouts.
”Students, being what they are, don’t want to live in dorms for four years of college,” said Susan Vaughn, chairwoman of Community Board 3 from 1995 until last May. ”There is nothing affordable in the West Village. Landlords have found them to be exceptionally willing tenants, and that has had a great effect on the housing market. The population has become younger, wealthier, probably better educated.”
Landlords are partial to students because their tenancies are finite: when they graduate, they move out, and that provides opportunities to raise the rents for the next class.
However, the consensus is that no matter how high prices rise nor how common signals of affluence like limos and nannies become, Alphabet City will always rank economically a notch or two below Chelsea, SoHo and other downtown neighborhoods.
According to data kept by the Real Estate Board of New York, the average sales price for condominiums in Alphabet City in the first three quarters of this year was $432 per square foot. In Chelsea it was $501, in SoHo, $536, and in Tribeca, $503.
”People are willing to pay money to live there but not as much as elsewhere,” said Steven Reisman, an associate broker with Halstead Properties, who has a 2,000-square-foot loft at 95 Avenue B at Seventh Street listed for $599,000. ”That is a very good value. In the West Village, that would get $1.2 million.”
The differences are attributed, in part at least, to Alphabet City’s out-of-the-way location, a 15-minute walk from the nearest subway. With its low-rise profile devoid of glitzy towers and its persistent young-artist aura, it simply does not lend itself to white-glove luxury. That is all to the good, say local denizens who fear the threat of gentrification.
”It is good to have a mixture and to have the new,” said City Councilwoman Margarita Lopez, who represents most of Alphabet City. ”But at this point I feel the construction of privately owned buildings is beyond the reach of regular New Yorkers. With rents over $2,500 for studios, who is moving in?”
She does not believe displacement of longtime residents has yet occurred to any significant degree, but she fears that it could. ”I don’t know who can afford the new housing, and that worries me,” she said.
Like others, she also laments the disappearance of merchants catering to basic needs: hardware stores, shoe stores, children’s clothing shops and bodegas, whose owners are driven out by escalating rents. ”The only banking facility here now,” she said, is the Lower East Side People’s Federal Credit Union on Third Street and Avenue B.
With almost no vacant land available, there is little room for grandiose construction. ”Developers won’t put in something big unless the cost to construct can be justified in terms of sales prices or rentals,” said Deborah Beck, executive vice president of the Real Estate Board of New York, adding, ”For a building of six stories, it only pays if you get the land for next to nothing.”
For the time being at least, it does not seem likely that the working-class, struggling-artist image of Alphabet City will be erased in a tide of gentrification, its skyline altered by high-rise towers, its longtime residents driven out. Though the neighborhood is seen as a magnet for the young, there are several homes for the aged, with at least two more on the drawing boards. And, even with its new image of affluence, there still remain squatters here and there.
There are simply too many rent-regulated apartments scattered throughout the area to permit mass displacements or demolitions. In addition, a number of moderate-income and low-income buildings have been put up recently, are under construction or are in the planning stages.
For example, the first 18 tenants moved in earlier this month at a new low-income building at 535-541 East Fifth Street between Avenues A and B, an attractive red brick structure with cut stone trim, porticos and lintels and an oak and glass door.
Developed by the Lower East Side People’s Mutual Housing Association, ”it is geared to people earning 40 percent of the median income,” said Mary Spink, executive director of the organization, which builds low- and moderate-income housing in the Community Board 3 area. ”With the median income for a family of four at $56,200,” she said, ”40 percent would be $22,480, and for one person it would be $15,740.”
She received 8,000 applications for the 30 apartments, half of them one bedroom (rent: $325 a month), half two bedroom ($455 a month).
THE association acquired the land from the city for $1 but received no other government subsidies. It will make up the shortfall by renting the ground floor of the building to Cabrini Medical Center for an adult day care program.
”The headline writers who talk about this as the land of caviar are wrong,” said Carol Abrams, the spokeswoman for the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. ”This is a neighborhood that will have a permanent economic mix because low-income housing there has been preserved as well as augmented.”
Much of that, she continued, has been done under the auspices of her agency. ”From 1994 to the present, during the Giuliani years, we have completed 1,166 units of either rental or home ownership in 152 buildings from Houston to 14th Street on the letter avenues,” she said, ”and we plan another 326 units in seven buildings.”
Another barrier to large-scale gentrification is the sheer number of city-financed housing projects that occupy virtually the entire eastern side of Avenue D, including the 15-building Jacob Riis complex and the 16-building Lillian Wald complex, and that are scattered throughout the rest of the area. The Riis houses are undergoing repairs, and major renovation is scheduled for the Wald houses next year.
Noting that the last new Housing Authority project went up in 1996, Howard Marder, the spokesman for the agency, said: ”Unfortunately, all the scaffolding you see now is for renovation. We would be thrilled to put up more public housing throughout the whole city.”
The term ”affordable” has become something of a mantra among civic organizers, housing advocates and politicians in the area, but what it means depends on who is using it.
To Councilwoman Lopez, who gives higher priority to low-income housing than she does to moderate-income facilities, it means an ample supply of apartments renting for less than $800 a month.
To Donald Capoccia, managing principal of BFC Partners and a founder and vice president of the New York State Association for Affordable Housing, who has on occasion tangled with Ms. Lopez, ”affordable” has a far higher ceiling.
”As dire as it sounds, a $250,000 apartment in a new building south of 96th Street has somehow become affordable housing,” he said.
Mr. Capoccia estimates that since 1982 he has put up 450 housing units in Alphabet City, some of which are market rate. He is the developer of the condominium at 217 East Seventh Street and has another 22 condominiums under construction at 416 East 11th Street between First Avenue and Avenue A.
He is also doing a 10-unit condominium building at 619 East 11th Street between Avenues B and C in cooperation with the New York City Housing Partnership’s new homes program for households earning between $30,000 and $72,000 a year.
On a larger scale, he is building an 80-unit rental project in conjunction with the New York State Housing Finance Agency that will also house the Gethsemane Garden Baptist Church, which had owned part of the land, and have 6,000 feet of commercial space. Of the apartments, 80 percent will be offered at market rates, with the rest reserved for low-income tenants. The building will stand between East Seventh and Eighth Streets on Avenue C.
Mr. Capoccia recently completed 100 moderate-income town house duplexes with rear yards and roof decks in nine buildings on six sites on East 11th and East 13th Streets called Del Este Village.
”The average price for a three-bedroom 1,300-square-foot unit is $131,000, and the income can’t exceed $73,000,” he said. The duplexes have a small cottagelike ambience, rear yards and roof decks, two or three bedrooms and separate individual laundry rooms in each apartment.
Beatrice and William Romanello were among the families whose names were drawn in a lottery for the duplexes, and not a moment too soon, Mrs. Romanello said, explaining: ”We were living in a loft at 19th Street and paying $1,400 rent. The landlord wanted to raise it to $3,000. We would have had to leave the city.”
The Romanellos, parents of six grown children, including a disabled daughter who lives with them, were able to buy their three-bedroom duplex for $140,000 with a monthly maintenance fee of $400. Mr. Romanello is a retired electrician.
Though she speculated that she is oldest person in her small complex, Mrs. Romanello revels in the youth-oriented surroundings. ”It’s so exciting around here,” she said. And when the crowds become excessive, ”I live in my house, not on the street.”
Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, a photographer and filmmaker whose studio and home are in the onetime rectory of a Roman Catholic church at Second Street and Avenue A that was razed in 1959, has been witness to the tides of change that had brought drugs and crime to the area in some years, artistic expression and community energy in others.
”I don’t think this will ever be taken over by affluence,” he said. ”Giant Upper West Side apartments simply don’t exist here, and you can’t gut the tenements because people won’t move out. But you are seeing more and more families with young children, and it has become a wonderful place to grow up.”
”The thing to understand is that neighborhoods change,” he continued. ”It is important to preserve buildings and keep an eye on architecture and history, but stores and people and businesses come and go, and there is not much you can do about it.”
Photos: The playground at Tompkins Square Park.; A Friday night on Avenue A, between Sixth Street and Seventh Street.; The transformation of Lisa Ramaci’s apartment in Alphabet City, which she first occupied as a squatter, parallels changes in the neighborhood. (pg. 1); INCOME MIX: Subsidized and market-rate housing blend in Alphabet City. At 535-541 East Fifth Street, left, a family of four with an income no higher than $22,480 qualified for a two-bedroom apartment renting for $435 a month. At 511 East 11th Street, above, part of Del Este Village, families earning $28,000 to $70,950 bought three-bedroom condominiums for $149,000 to $159,000. At 217 East Seventh Street, right, condominiums have sold for prices ranging from $165,000 for a studio to $545,000 for a two-bedroom.; At the Furniture Joint, an antiques and upholstery shop on Avenue B, Jacqueline Hettman, far left, a customer, talks with Laura Swain, an owner, and Theresa Hagen talks with Matthew Haly, the other owner. (pg. 6)(Frances Roberts for The New York Times) Map showing the location of Alphabet City. (pg. 6)