This stretch of the Lower East Side used to be called the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area. During the 1950s, the city’s powerful planning czar, Robert Moses, decided to bulldoze dozens of old tenements. These were buildings where, years before, Jewish and Italian immigrants settled, replaced by African-Americans and Latinos. Through the early 1970s, the demolitions displaced some 1,800 poor and working-class families, most of them Puerto Rican, turning homes into vacant lots.
The city promised to replace the lots with new low-income dwellings. But for years Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, in cahoots with William E. Rapfogel, who ran the taxpayer-financed Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, conspired to thwart redevelopment proposals floated by local housing advocates because they threatened to undo Mr. Silver’s Jewish voting base.
Mayor after mayor failed to make headway. Ultimately, Mr. Silver was convicted on corruption charges, Mr. Rapfogel went to prison for a kickback scheme and a path cleared for Essex Crossing, which finally makes good on the city’s half-century-old promise. Among its provisions: The project sets aside subsidized apartments for tenants evicted all those years ago who now want to return. Most have moved away or no longer qualify for aid or have died. But nearly 30 former residents have come back.
In all, Essex Crossing creates 1,079 new apartments, more than half permanently designated for low- and middle-income tenants, a percentage much higher than the city’s inclusionary zoning rules require. Apartments selling for millions now mix with ones for families of two earning as little as $15,000 a year, and some for those earning zero.
To mollify skeptics, developers front-loaded community benefits like a new senior center, new quarters for the Chinese-American Planning Council, which offers early childhood education programs, and for the Lower East Side’s Henry Street Settlement to do work force development. A stylish new cafe called the GrandLo opened last year, operated by the century-old Grand Street Settlement as a nonprofit job training site for local at-risk youth.