Jesuits adapt to Lower East Side gentrification by moving; will lofts follow?

2 things dear to my heart
I missed this piece in yesterday’s NY Times (h/t The Real Deal): Lower East Side Has Less to Offer Jesuits Who Teach the Poor. Manhattan Loft Guy is Jesuit educated, I am in close contact with some Jesuits, and I remain interested in (and impressed by) so many things that the Jebs do that are "… for others", so this story would have been interesting to me, regardless. But from the perspective of this blog, the story resonates on a nothing-in-New-York-stays-the-same basis, involving Good News and Bad News.

Everyone has a story about how different Manhattan is now from The Olde Days, particularly people with long memories about how Gentrification came to formerly desolate-but-non-residential areas like Tribeca and Soho and to formerly crowded-but-economically-challenged areas like the Lower East Side and Hell’s Kitchen. Jesuit priest and educator Jack Podsiadlo tells the story in the Times of how the changes in the micro-neighborhood around 204 Forsyth Street are putting him out of business there, setting him off to find a more suitable location for his work.

In broad strokes, the same changes that caused the Tribeca butter-and-egg guys to flee the short people (March 12, Quote For The Day, 2000 edition) are causing Father Podsiadlo to flee the condo people.

That Forsyth Street block just below Houston Street used to feature the staples of the old Lower East Side (hookers, syringes, slums), but now there are boutiques, hotels, construction cranes, and fewer poor families whose middle school children have been educated there for nearly 40 years.

one block, one mission, different times
Here’s the timeline from the NY Times article:

When the Jesuits bought the building in the 1940s, the area was becoming a destination for thousands of Puerto Ricans in a huge postwar migration. Men found work as janitors, women as sewing machine operators, settling with their extended families into tenements that had previously housed Jewish and Italian immigrants.

A small group of nuns were running a nursery school in the building, which had become a settlement house of sorts. ***

By the 1960s, the Rev. Walter Janer, a Puerto Rican-born Jesuit, was reaching out to local youngsters, setting up study halls and recreation, and opening a summer camp upstate. ***

The school opened in 1971 with a simple model. Relying on priests, volunteers and young teachers, it welcomed youngsters whose parents could not afford parochial school tuition. ***

This year, after years of dwindling enrollment from the neighborhood and under financial pressures that could have closed the school, its board voted to move.


not enough poor people
Maybe the school would have stayed where it was if it were in gentrifying Chelsea, near the New York City Housing Authority buildings along 9th Avenue. There might have been enough Latino poor kids to fill out the school. But the accident of geography and the trend of gentrification in the Greater Whole Foods micro-nabe thinned out the potential client families too much for the school to persist on Forsyth Street.

So it appears that the school is headed to Mott Haven in the Bronx, with its relevant resources of poor Latino kids, subways, and public housing. My South Bronx geography is not very good, but the potential for gentrification (and conversion into residential lofts) is everywhere. Here’s an old piece from The Real Deal (September 2, 2008; immediately pre-Lehman, so the slope of the trend line may certainly have changed):

The Bronx Bricks lofts ["the first privately financed condominium ever built in Mott Haven, a five-story converted print shop of 11 loft spaces"] were put on the market at the end of July 2007, and all of the units have been sold except for one. Prices — from $395,000 for a second-floor, roughly 1,200-square-foot loft to $795,000 for a top-floor loft nearly twice the size — were previously inconceivable in the neighborhood.

The Bronx Bricks success story has prompted other investors to follow suit.

yet another New Soho
From the Department of Eerie Parallels, when you read these excerpts from a July 29, 2009 article from The Mott Haven Herald replace "Soho" every time "Mott Haven" is mentioned:


This year they hoped the art alone would be the center of attention, but in a place like Mott Haven, the conversation inevitably turns to the neighborhood itself.

Calderon … used to have a studio of her own in Mott Haven. She had to move to Norwood when the rents shot up.

“Artists come here for a year or two and have to leave,” she laments. “There is a history that is totally gone, but those of us who remember hold the torch.”

Despite the rising cost of space in the area, Mott Haven remains an attractive place for artists to work, as evidenced by the many studios open during the May 2nd tour put together by the Bronx Council on the Arts. The Bronx Culture Trolley ferried visitors to more than 15 studios and galleries. ***

The South Bronx art community, he says, has “been here a while, but it hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves.”

He acknowledges the double-edged sword of getting that attention however, noting, “It’s gonna displace people.”

“It’s the beginning of the end,” Nieves agrees. “Gentrification is coming.”

Good luck to Father Podsiadlo and the Nativity Mission Center. Watch out for the artists and the yuppies.


© Sandy Mattingly 2010


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