People’s City Report Card

Most New Yorkers recognize—and even the tourists know—that the heart of New York is not at the Met or Lincoln Center, but in the hustle and bustle, the cacophonous mix of ethnic groups, social classes, and the arts that makes this city great. Increasingly, we are aware of the pressures that are forcing new immigrants, artists, and working people out of the city and making it more difficult for them to express their traditions, culture, and art. With passionate interest in what’s distinctive about New York, we have issued, for the third year, the People’s City Report Card 2013. Your support makes it possible for us to take on this cultural watchdog role. Please click here to include us in your end-of-year tax deductible contributions. Here is some of what’s been happening to the city’s grassroots cultural life this year:



Neighborhood Plazas. 

The Bloomberg administration has helped create and foster public plazas, closing off streets for pedestrian traffic, giving New Yorkers a place to sit and enjoy the city free of charge and beautifying public space.  Most visible are the plazas in Times Square, Herald Square, Madison Square and the Meatpacking District, but the city is building the same public amenities across the five boroughs. The city’s goal is that every NYC resident should live no more than 10 minutes from public space, and new plazas are now functioning in Diversity Plaza, Jackson Heights; New Lots, Brooklyn; Washington Heights; and at The Hub in the Bronx.  Particularly commendable is the new program, Neighborhood Plaza Partnership, led by Laura Hansen and based at THE HORT.  The plazas’ operating funds do not come from the city, so they depend on public/private partnerships. They run on sweat equity, volunteer efforts and contributions from local businesses. The Manhattan plazas like Times Square have far more opportunities for raising funds, and the Neighborhood Plaza Partnership is seeking to find creative ways to support these open spaces in low income neighborhoods.

Bicycle City. 

During the Bloomberg years, New York City has become a biking town, with bike paths running through many parts of Manhattan. The new, fairly ubiquitous Citibikes contribute to a liveable, healthy and attractive city. They are commendable because they enable those who live in the outer boroughs, who don’t have the time to bike in, to take public transportation and still take advantage of the bikes. 


Community Gardens. 

Overall, Aziz Dehkah, the first Executive Director of the NYC Community Gardens Coalition, is optimistic. The number of gardens and gardeners in New York is increasing.  More than 400 gardeners attended the Mayoral Forum on April 28th at Cooper Union, where Pete Seeger sang and the candidates spoke.  Ironically, the upturn in the city’s economy poses challenges. As developers started building again, gardens in Coney Island and NYU are threatened. Aziz and the coalition are hoping that Mayor DeBlasio will eventually make the gardens permanent. 

Places That Matter.

The whitewashing of 5Pointz, the great outdoor graffiti museum in Long IslandCity whose glorious colors elevated riders on the 7 train for many years, is a travesty for NYC’s folk culture. It was done under the cover of darkness, similar to the way the House Under the Roller Coaster in Coney Island was destroyed by the Giuliani administration a decade ago.

Equally troubling is the Howard Hughes Corporation’s plans for redevelopment of the South Street Seaport area. It calls for the destruction of the NewMarketBuilding of the old Fulton Fish Market. Additionally, they plan to move the historic TinBuilding to make room for a 50-story hotel and condo tower. Needless to say, the loss of the historic NewMarketBuilding and addition of a glass skyscraper will ruin the integrity of the historic district, and visitors will not be able to experience a link to the city’s maritime past. An opportunity to revitalize the NewMarketBuilding will be lost.

In 2013, Place Matters participated in the successful campaign to landmark the Lower East Side’s BialystokerCenter and Home for the Aged. Although the structure no longer serves its original purpose, the building represents nearly a century of Jewish American history on the Lower East Side. Furthermore, as the Friends of the Bialystoker Home have noted, the home is one of only two extant structures on the north side of East Broadway that remain from the neighborhood’s earlier days.  The Jewish American past has already suffered significant diminution in the Lower East Side. Protecting and preserving the Bialystoker Home prevents further erosion of this important historical narrative.

Last year the New York Public Library published a $300 million renovation plan for the Stephen A. Schwartzman building, guarded by the two lions Patience and Fortitude. The renovation included the demolition of Rose Main Reading Room’s historic seven-level book stacks. Massive public outcry has compelled the NYPL to revise its plans to include preservation of portions of the stacks, but designs will not be released until next year. 

Recovery From Hurricane Sandy.

Last year, City Lore gathered a list of cultural organizations and sites impacted by Hurricane Sandy. Among them was the Coney Island History Project, completely devastated by the storm. FEMA told them that to qualify for assistance, the organization would have to apply and be denied a bank loan. This seemed like a daunting amount of futile paper work and red tape, so CIHP declined to apply. Happily their exhibition center is up and running again thanks generous donations from long-time supporters and its co-founder, Carol Albert. We visited CIHP in first week of this October, serendipitously on the same day as the reopening of the reconstructed Steeplechase Pier. 

Street Vendors.

Everyone on a budget in New York knows that, in many parts of the city, street vendors are the only place to get a reasonably priced meal. The Street Vendor Project reports that, in September, the City Council passed legislation reducing the fines for street vendors who set up in the wrong spots from $1,000 to $500.  Overall, however, the enforcement imposed on street vendors during the Bloomberg years has been extremely severe.  In addition, street vendors are also concerned with the privatization of public space in Business Improvement Districts and plazas. They worry that the local businesses, now more organized, will work to oust vendors from neighborhood centers to avoid competition. 


Street Performers.

Street performers are increasingly challenged in New York City. City Lore has received more calls this year from performers who have been issued summonses than ever before.  Performers often report that the police are unfamiliar with free speech laws and MTA regulations and are often unwilling to read the rules when presented with them.  Part of the problem is the privatization of public space. Although the new plazas, Business Improvement Districts and park conservancies serve important functions, they often make street performance difficult. By setting themselves up as private rather than public property, they often hire their own security forces and no longer abide by the rules of free speech because performers are now on “private property.”  

Artist Housing.

In 2010, the Center for an Urban Future published the report, Time to be Creative.  The report argued that New York’s creative edge arguably is more at risk today than ever before. It is undeniable that many artists have given up on New York, reluctantly, for cheaper locales such as Philadelphia and Berlin. The report suggested that the economic downturn in the city posed possibilities—but the downturn is now over.  Research Director David Giles notes that the City’s median income is declining while the median rents are increasing, pushing out artists and new immigrants, and increasingly threatening the creativity and tradition that is the city’s life blood. 

Arts in the Schools.

For many low- and middle-income New Yorkers, access to the arts begins in public schools. Since 2007, when the Mayor Bloomberg eliminated Project Arts, the dedicated funding line for arts instruction, art in the schools has been cut. This, along with increased emphasis on math and language arts instruction to the exclusion of other subjects and more budget cuts, has decimated arts education in New York City’s public schools. Arts Connection Director, Steve Tennen, is hopeful that Mayor DeBlasio’s commitment to reducing reliance on testing and emphasizing public schools rather than charter schools, and a commitment to Pre-K and after school programs will help bring the arts back to the schools. 

Loss of Knishes.

As you may have heard, a small fire broke out at the end of September at the Long Island factory, Gabila’s, that produces most of the city’s fried knishes, and created THE GREAT NEW YORK CITY KNISH SHORTAGE! The New York Times dubbed it a FAMINE.  Delis like Katz’s which purchase Gabila’s knishes are suffering, while others, like Yonah Schimmel’s which bake their own knishes, are benefiting.  If your tummy can’t stand the pain, you can find a recipe for a Gabila’s style knish online—and cook your own!





Free Expression – Occupy NY. New Yorkers should be proud that the now worldwide Occupy movement began here in New York. The City remains the financial capital of the world and change needs to start right here. The grassroots creativity of young people collectively reinvented protests for a new age, with New York at its epicenter. Never offering simple demands that could be easily dismissed, they have riveted media attention for months. May they continue to be just as ingenious as they map a future for the movement.

Street Vendors. A conversation with Mathew Shapiro, attorney for the Street Vendors project, revealed that a few years ago the city increased fines for vendors operating in the wrong places from $250 to $1,000, a crippling penalty. The good news is that a new bill has been introduced at the City Council with 32 cosponsors reducing the fines to a maximum of $250 for certain violations. A public hearing is taking place in the next few months. The Street Vendors project set up an online donation system where people from around the world could order food from the vendors around Zuccotti Park to feed the protestors, partly to help the vendors recoup the business they lost at the park.

Community Gardens. “Urban agriculture is on everyone’s lips,” Karen Washington, President of the New York Community Gardens Coalition, told us. Last year the Spitzer Agreement between the City and the gardens expired. The coalition has worked tirelessly and successfully to get the City to issue a set of what she calls “rules and regulations” to preserve and protect the gardens. “But,” Karen notes, these rules are only as good as the current administration. The Coalition is now in conversation with City Council, the Parks Department, and the Mayor for ways to making community gardens permanent within the law.”

Grassroots Arts in New York. This year, close to 250 NYC cultural centers including a wide variety of small and midsize, diverse arts groups (including City Lore) received funding from The Bloomberg Family Foundation, the private family foundation established by New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2006, awarding approximately $32 million in grants to preserve NYC’s role as a world center for the arts.

Drumming Circles and Ethnic Celebrations in the Parks. Last year, as a result of a brawl in the park unrelated to the drumming, the wonderful weekly Haitian drumming circle on Sundays in Prospect Park was shut down by the police. We are pleased that the Haitian circle, Gran Bwa, and the drumming circle in Drummer’s Grove in the Southeast area of the park are going strong.


Arts in the Schools. For many low- and middle-income New Yorkers, access to the arts begins in the schools. Since 2007, when the Mayor Bloomberg eliminated Project Arts, the dedicated funding line for arts instruction, and replaced it with the ArtsCount Initiative, there has been a 36% decrease in funding for partnerships with cultural institutions as well as a decrease in funds for school arts specialists, according to a report by The Center for Arts Education. This, along with increased emphasis on math and language arts instruction to the exclusion of other subjects and more budget cuts, has decimated arts education in New York City’s public schools.

Street Performers. City Lore, together with the Street Performers Advocacy Project’s Co-Founder, author and activist Susie Tanenbaum, continue to monitor the situation in the parks and streets. They also have established a strong line of communication with Chief Ray Diaz at the NYPD Transit Bureau. Nonetheless, the situation for New York’s street performers is deteriorating. A large part of the problem is the movement to privatize public space. By declaring business improvement districts and other means, parks and public spaces are able to hire their own security forces and no longer seem bound to abide by the rules of free speech because performers are now on “private property.” As performer Theo Eastwind reports, “I have noticed new tactics by the police that I have never seen before, most alarming they use the words ‘private property’ a lot! There are less and less of us. Many street performers have been leaving town in fact. Back to Bulgaria, back to New Orleans, back to Boston.” Even more distressing is a recent law put into effect to our knowledge without any public hearings stating that performers cannot collect donations within 50 feet of a landmark or monument. They face a $250 fine for the first offense, but the fine can rise to $1,000 in subsequent summonses.


Tolerance – Zuccotti Park. For three months, Mayor Bloomberg showed remarkable tolerance of the protests, touting New York’s historical commitment to peaceful protests and free expression. Zuccotti Park is a privately owned public space, and the building’s corporate owners and the City showed considerable restraint for the tent city that occupied it. Nonetheless, of great concern are the continuous use of force on protesters by the NYPD and the “media blackout” where the city reportedly detained journalists and closed off airspace over Zuccotti Park to prevent news helicopters from documenting and reporting as the park was being cleared. When asked what was happening at Zuccotti since the eviction, a protestor quipped, “The police force is occupying the park. They have not, however, come up with any coherent demands.”

Open Markets. According to foodways consultant Makalé Faber Cullen, there’s lots of good news: Hot Bread Kitchen, the “social venture” non-profit organization that has been helping NYC’s immigrant and minority low-income women become financially independent bakers and entrepreneurs, has launched an incubator in Harlem. The 2,300 square foot shared-use commercial kitchen supports start-up food entrepreneurs in launching scalable food businesses. In addition, the revival of the Essex Street Market has drawn in new food entrepreneurs who have added to the market’s long standing role as a robust wholesale distribution center for dozens of neighborhood retailers. And, New Amsterdam Market just received a $250k award from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation to further develop the market in the new East River Market District. Offsetting these gains is the paltry treatment bordering on harassment at the Forsythe Market, Chinatown’s largest vegetable market, perhaps because it is in a disadvantaged area.

Places that Matter. 2011 was a tense year for Places that Matter. In August, Coney Island Bialys and Bagels announced that they would be closing after ninety-one years of delectable service. But two Muslim gentlemen, Zafaryab Ali and Peerada Shah, both former cab drivers and also former CIBB employees, bought the business in November, vowing to keep it alive and kosher for the next ninety-one years. In September, the City Council voted to overturn Federal-style 135 Bowery’s designation as an NYC landmark, and 35 Cooper Square, the oldest building on the square, was demolished in May. But the Bowery was named to the State Register of Historic Places in late October. Perhaps the City’s most storied thoroughfare, the Bowery has had an enormous impact on New York City’s history and culture. Likewise, St. Marks Bookshop experienced a harrowing summer and fall while negotiating its rent with landlord Cooper Union. But thanks to a 44,128-signature online petition, Cooper Union reduced the rent by $2,500 per month for the next year, and the bookstore celebrated its 34th anniversary on December 1. In other good news, two iconic boardwalk establishments, Gregory and Paul’s hot dog stand and Ruby’s bar and restaurant in Coney Island, much in jeopardy through much of the year, just signed new 8 year leases!





Religious Tolerance and Respect. We applaud Mayor Bloomberg for taking a courageous stand on the Islamic Center at Ground ZeroThis year, the New York City Council also passed a resolution adding Eid Ul-Adha, marking the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, and Eid Ul-Fitr, the end of Ramadan, as official school holidays, along with the Christian and Jewish celebrations.

Open Markets. According to foodways consultant Makale Faber, GrowNYC, a city agency, has done commendable work opening new markets and expanding existing ones. She mentioned that many more of the city’s markets are doing well according to the “protein factor,” which suggests that markets are stable when meat, fish, and cheese are sold in them.


Arts in the Schools. For many low- and middle-income New Yorkers, access to the arts begins in the schools. Reorganization of the Department of Education eliminated Project Arts, and has decimated arts education in the schools.

Drumming Circles and Ethnic Celebrations in the Parks. As a result of a brawl in the park unrelated to the drumming, the wonderful weekly Haitian drumming circle on Sundays in Prospect Park has been shut down indefinitely by the police.


Community Gardens. On October 13, the Dept. of Parks issued new rules for many of the city’s community gardens.  The rules happily suggest that existing Parks’ community gardens will remain so, but also states that their status can be summarily overturned if they are found to be in “default” by the Commissioner. New York City Community Gardens coalition is working to assure that a transparent process is in place to make that determination.

Street Performers. My fellow advocate Susie Tanenbaum and I were pleased that the new Chief of Transit Ray Diaz allowed us to address the transit police commanders, and Captain Carrasco to meet with the NYPD.  The officials lent us their ears, and seem sympathetic to street performers’ rights. However, we are still receiving regular calls from performers who have been thrown out of Union Square and Times Square, partly as a result of private security forces now being hired by the Business Improvement Districts in those areas.

Street Vendors. A conversation with Sean Basinski, director of the Street Vendor Project run by the Urban Justice Center, revealed that a few years ago the city increased fines for vendors operating in the wrong places from $250 to $1,000. A new report released by the NYC Budget Office suggests that there is no evidence that vendors don’t pay their taxes, and the city wastes a log of money chasing and ticketing vendors – including $5.9 million a year from the infamous “Peddler Squad.” On the other hand, the city is now offering permits allowing fresh produce to be sold in a number of additional neighborhoods.

Street Parades. Robert De Vito, who outfits most of the city’s parade floats at Bond Parade Floats in Clifton, New Jersey, said that parades are still thriving in New York, though with fewer floats, as a result of the economy. But as Andy Newman wrote in the Times, “Everyone may love a parade, but . . . the department notified parade organizers throughout the city . . . that starting April 1, their processions must cover 25 percent less distance and may no longer exceed five hours in duration.”

Places that Matter. Coney is such an important release valve for New York City that it deserves special mention. This year, the New York’s State Historic Preservation Office has declared Coney Island’s amusement district eligible for listing in the State and National Registers of Historic Places. In addition, Zamperla’s new Luna Park, on land the City bought back from Thor Equities, was a wonderful addition to Coney this summer. Yet, Zamperla has not renewed the leases for a number of the historic boardwalk establishments including the legendary and beloved Ruby’s Bar.  The bar has been a part of Coney Island for more than 70 years and has been owned by the family of Ruby Jacobs since the 1970s.  Thor also appears to have begun demolition work on Coney Island’s’s historic Henderson Music Hall on Surf Avenue, one of the few remnants of historic Coney.

Ethnic Social Clubs. No news is good news.


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