“A renewal effort has to be conceived as a process of building on the inherent social and economic values of the community. Neglecting these values through programs of massive clearance and redevelopment can disrupt an entire community.”
These words could easily have been written by South Bronx activist Yolanda Garcia. In the early 1990s, she founded an organization known as We Stay/Nos Quedamos, and led a movement of residents who wanted to remain in their neighborhood despite the City’s plan to redevelop it with low-density, mixed-income housing. They created an alternative plan for affordable housing development at Melrose Commons that is still being implemented today.
However, the words above are actually the opening statement of the Cooper Square Alternate Plan, written in 1961 by a group of activists from the Lower East Side, including Frances Goldin. Known as the Cooper Square Committee, they opposed Robert Moses’ urban renewal plan to demolish and redevelop more than 2,500 housing units in their neighborhood.
On July 13, the Municipal Art Society celebrates the kindred spirits of these two community activists by presenting the annual Yolanda Garcia Community Planner (YGCP) Award to Ms. Goldin. MAS created the YGCP award in 2006 to honor the memory of Ms. Garcia, who passed away in 2005. Selected from an open nomination process by a panel of judges consisting of former honorees and leaders in the community planning field, the awardee must have no formal training in planning, and must have demonstrated his or her ability to overcome the many obstacles to grassroots planning and bring neighborhood need and vision into New York City’s planning process.
Ms. Goldin came to the Lower East Side from Queens in 1944 as a newlywed of 20. Shortly after her arrival, she went to a local group known as the 1st Ave. Tenant and Consumer Council to research her rent history because she thought her $75/month rent was too high. She became active with this group, and thus began a lifetime as a community organizer.
In 1959, Robert Moses proposed a massive urban renewal plan for the Lower East Side that would have displaced 2,400 tenants, 450 single-room occupants, 4000 homeless beds, and over 500 businesses. He intended to create 2,900 units of middle-income housing, which would have been out of financial reach of 93 percent of residents.
The Cooper Square Committee formed in response to this plan, and organized to create their own vision for the neighborhood’s future. “It was very easy to organize the group because people were directly affected,” said Goldin, who added that they coordinated over 100 community meetings in a year. The resulting Cooper Square Alternate Plan included public housing, Mitchell-Lama co-ops, other cooperative housing, resettlement and rehabilitation facilities, and artist housing. The group based the proposal on two main principles: 1) the people who live on the site should be the beneficiaries, not the victims, of the plan; and 2) no tenant should be relocated outside the community. The City approved a modified version of it in 1970.
In his book New York for Sale, Tom Angotti writes, “The Cooper Square Alternate Plan would have died an early death if it weren’t for the radical and often militant organizing behind it.” Goldin was heavily involved in the actions opposing rent hikes and supporting an affordable and diverse Lower East Side. For example, at one point the group erected teepees on Houston Street and slept outside to protest rising rents. “You have to have the professional and the media, but unless you have the troops, you have nothing,” she said.
Delays plagued implementation of the Cooper Square Alternate Plan initially, but in the 1970s and 80s, the Committee was active in maintaining and creating affordable housing. Some of their early projects included renovation of over 320 apartment units, construction of the 146-unit low-income Thelma Burdick Houses, and renovation of the Cube Building to house formerly homeless families. Today, the Cooper Square Committee owns 23 buildings, and maintains their affordability in perpetuity in the rapidly gentrifying Lower East Side through the Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association.
The Cooper Square Alternate Plan is widely considered to be the first community-based plan created in New York City. Goldin and her “comrades in struggle” (as she refers to her neighbors) set an example that has influenced countless activists and advocacy planners who followed. Though she recently celebrated her 85th birthday, age has not dampened her activist spirit. She continues to work with the Cooper Square Committee, and to manage Frances Goldin Literary Agency, which represents authors of literary fiction and political non-fiction, including Barbara Kingsolver, Adrienne Rich, and Mumia Abu Jamal. Her agency’s website states that Goldin, “considers herself very lucky to have no dichotomy between her radical politics and her working life.” Most importantly, she continues to inspire other activists, and encourages others to become, “the spark that lights the flame.”
Ms. Goldin will accept the $1,500 award at the Municipal Art Society’s annual meeting on July 13. For more information on the Cooper Square Alternate Plan, visit Planning for All New Yorkers, an Atlas of Community-based Plans.
Photos courtesy Joyce Ravitz and Sally Goldin.