Lifelong community activist and president of the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council, Victor Papa, talks about growing up in Two Bridges, how the neighborhood changed over time, and the work of the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council to preserve the community’s history and sense of place in the face of gentrification.
Two Bridges, the neighborhood in Manhattan nestled between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, was a vibrant Italian and Irish working-class community when Victor Papa was born into it in May 1945. In this interview, Papa, a lifelong community activist, describes growing up in Two Bridges when life centered on one’s block and church parish. He recalls the tensions that arose when buildings were razed in the 1950s for public housing and Puerto Rican, and some African American, families moved into the area. He remembers the founding of the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council to help long-time residents and newcomers get to know one another and forge relationships. A member of the Council’s board since the 1970s and its president since 1996, Papa talks about the Council’s work with the Settlement Housing Fund to redevelop the Two Bridges Urban Renewal Area (located between the Manhattan Bridge and Corlear’s Hook) and with that the construction of 1,500 units of affordable housing. Papa also talks about the Council’s historic preservation work, which has resulted in the Two Bridges Historic District, the Chinatown and Little Italy Historic District, the Bowery Historic District, and an expansion of the Lower East Side Historic District all being placed on the National Registry of Historic Places. Papa concludes with his thoughts on advancing affordable housing and preserving the community’s history in the face of gentrification.
Victor Papa, Session 1
Q: Okay, this is Leyla Vural and it is Monday, August 14, 2017 and I’m in the office of Victor Papa, president and director of the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council and I’m here to interview him for the New York Preservation Archive Project Saving Preservation Stories. So hello and thank you.
Papa: Thank you.
Q: Oral history interviews always start at the beginning of a person’s life. So, if you can tell me where and when you were born and something about how you grew up.
Papa: Well, I was born seventy-two years ago on a little street called James Street in the Chatham Square/Bowery area—still intact. The two-story building I was born in is still there, but the quintessential florist is gone. St. James Church across the street, where my siblings and I were baptized is still there. St. James School where we all attended and the school yard down the block are still there. And so too, the tenements, storefronts of the old candy store, the undertaker and the basement TV repair shop are still there. It was a village main street. All important to say because it was a play street and a universe that I lived and hung out on in my early impressionable years. It’s where I formed all my closest friendships, many of which survive to this day. Your first friends, though some are now gone, which you shared your first sorrows and joys and with whom you went through the phases of growing up, are relationships that endure throughout the years.
And the street where you lived and played identified you. It could have been a street around the corner called Catherine Street and the people, kids from that street would identify with Catherine Street. We identified with James Street and with St. James Church.
And I guess the early years; the ’50s and ’60s were what Hollywood cinema would categorize as the Pat [William Joseph Patrick] O’Brien films of Catholic experience. We had Irish priests and Italian nuns, Italian American nuns. They understood us better than the Irish priests. But it was a wonderful, wholesome experience.
I come from a family of four brothers and four sisters. My grandparents arrived here in 1902 and 1912. My father was born in Italy, in Abruzzo arrived after them in 1924. My mother was born here. In fact, she went to P.S. 1 on Oliver Street. I was, I guess, the eighth child of ten. One did not survive. We all grew up here in what’s now called the “Port Colony Neighborhood.” That is, Chatham Square and the East River—a very different, more heterogeneous neighborhood than, for example, Little Italy or Chinatown, just blocks away. We were a close family, and somewhat typical of Italian immigrants at the time, had parents who were somewhat skeptical of American values and institutions. In spite of that, I might have emulated Davy Crockett in the ’50s and my oldest brother, generations ahead, might have emulated Frank [Francis A.] Sinatra. So, there was a generational difference in what we were influenced by.
But all I can remember about that was that it was a real inner-city, immigrant New York experience spent with an extended family of cousins, aunts, uncles, and a grandmother who all lived nearby. So, it was crowded, chaotic, stifling, but also wholesome and I can only remember good things about it.
Q: So you’re from Two Bridges?
Papa: Well, I don’t remember ever hearing the designation of my neighborhood as Two Bridges. It was then just a Lower East Side neighborhood among others on the Lower East Side. I believe the term came into usage upon the founding of the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council in 1954. And that name derived because of the fact that it’s mission was to serve the geographical neighborhood between the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges. It’s first office was located and in the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge on Madison Street. It eventually moved to the waterfront neighborhood here on Cherry Street, right above the Manhattan Bridge to undertake sponsorship of the Two Bridges Urban Renewal Area. That was it’s new mission in the ’70s to the ’90s; the sponsorship of building 1,500 units of affordable housing in a former blighted area in what is now formally mapped as the Two Bridges Neighborhood.
Q: Right. So we’ll get to that but the neighborhood that you—when you were growing up, did you think of yourself as being from Two Bridges?
Q: You thought of yourself as being from James Street?
Papa: Yes, yes, that was really very strong and you indentified with the street and the parish. That’s true of every New York City Catholic at the time. The parish is how you identify yourself and we were proud of the fact that Governor Alfred E. Smith attended our school and received his only formal education in our school. And we were fierce rivals of St. Joseph School, which was two blocks away.
Snowball fights became fierce during the winter between both schools. I even remember one nun—an unintended victim—getting hit by a snowball by one of the St. Joseph kids and she—so un-nun-like—prompting us, “To go get them.” So, that’s how we identified ourselves.
Q: What was the apartment like that you grew up in?
Papa: It was a three-bedroom apartment in a two-story building with a florist on the ground floor—the one and only neighborhood florist. Think of Christmas, Easter Sunday, weddings, funerals, Mother’s Day. On those occasions the building was prolifically fragranced with evergreen trees at Christmas, Easter lilies, roses, etc. and the wonderful donuts that the wife of the florist baked, always a tray for the Papa family upstairs. Eventually, we moved out, I think, in 1950 to Catherine Street. I lived on James, Catherine, Madison, Monroe [Street] and now I live on Beekman Street. What was it like? It was like any neighborhood building with unlocked doors.
Q: So what kind of kid were you? How do you remember yourself?
Papa: I was friendly with everyone. They were friendly with me. I was a good skater, a good hockey player. But the bigger kids did the bigger things, like football and those things. And I wasn’t part of that. I was in and out of the tough world. I observed it and got tough sometimes but it wasn’t something that satisfied me. What appealed to me most was the arts, music, spiritual life, social justice. Social justice was but a germ, a seed in the ’60s and it developed over time to a wider and more comprehensive perspective based on some essential principles.
Q: Where do you think that seed came from?
Papa: Well, I think that immigrants are—or children of immigrants—are living in two worlds. One where they’re totally accepted by their parents with reserve, because then there’s the American influence that they’d object to, then in the outside world there’s the stereotypical image projected on us as Italian Americans—the wider society, one that seemed to consider us predestined to a particular way of life.
And life on James Street and in the whole neighborhood was lived alongside the old-time Irish aristocracy, their locus of power on Oliver Street, where Al Smith and his family lived. The brownstone building is still there, an historic landmark building, and so too the extension on the building he had built for the menagerie of animal pets he allowed his children to have. The Irish, whether priests of the parish or the politicians, ran the neighborhood and the local political landscape at that time, though skeptical of us and knowing that we were fast-rising and made decisions for ourselves.
As Italian Americans, we were a little aloof to joining any political movement unless it was ours, ours to manage our lives. And of course stemming from that was the legendary Duke [Paul] Viggiano who emerges as one of New York’s most powerful politician, reigning supreme in his club on Market Street. When I was eighteen and allowed to vote, my father introduced me to him in the club and told me I was to vote for him for district leader.
Of course, we lived with the stigma of the Mafia and all of that. It’s not something I would deny. It’s something that was real and it’s something that we came in contact with every day. So every day, you were beset with a choice, to do that or to do whatever.
I chose to enter a seminary in the ’60s and left in the ’70s and married a beautiful, local Puerto Rican lady who lived in Alfred E. Smith projects across the street. And we ended up living on Beekman Street, the new Southbridge Towers and adopting two children, although we would have preferred to remain in the old neighborhood. There were no apartments available at that time anywhere, except nearby, in the new development right below the Brooklyn Bridge called Southbridge Towers, where we both started our life and adopted two children.
Q: I’m an adoptive parent as well.
Papa: Not easy.
Papa: Well, we‘ve been paired.
I might add that the neighborhood was abuzz with curiosity of an Italian-Puerto Rican union, and many neighborhood people flocked to the church to witness the wedding. That was in 1971. But as a kid growing up there among my Italian American peers, all that we could identify with as such were the kinds of strong, insidious profiles that were presented by Hollywood, or on television. But, many of us were indifferent to it, because we knew who our heroes were. We had role models—the heroes; Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin and Perry [Pierino R.] Como and Tony Bennett [Anthony D. Benedetto] who, also affected by the stereotypical imagery, quite independently achieved the American dream on their own. They all received infinite adulation and affirmation especially from us second generation Italian Americans. They determined for themselves what kind of future they would have, quite independent of Hollywood moguls and things like that.
The Hollywood film of The Godfather is an extremely realistic rendering of what we experienced. [Francis Ford] Coppola captured everything, every detail of it and in that film, you could sense by the reaction, especially the hearing in the [United States] Senate, the disdainful manner in which the senator referred to those “Iiitalians” in Las Vegas the way he did, which was an example of why we adopted a sense of apartness. So there was that.
Then there was the church itself, which was a very strong influence on all of us. I was an altar boy and we did everything socially through the church, the parish. Parish was the anchor of the community and that’s where you socialized with all your friends. It might have been somewhat segregated from the rest of the tenement community, but that is not something unusual for immigrant groups in the city. But eventually the community changed. As I lived on James Street until I was about five years old, I do recall looking out the window and seeing the total destruction of the community across the street, which was comprised of a majority of Italian Americans, but other ethnic southern European groups. That area and all the tenement buildings within it were condemned to make way for the Alfred E. Smith NYCHA [New York City Housing Authority] housing.
I remember when they condemned the buildings, knocked down the buildings, displaced all those, including family members, and that in and of itself was where resentment really began to grow. That’s when the influx of Puerto Rican and black families began to move into the community. That wasn’t pleasant. There was a lot of resentment, as there would be today. But it couldn’t really happen today. It wouldn’t be misunderstood today but it was misunderstood as unreasonable then. It was foisted upon the community. There were no community boards. There was no sense of that. The old political order was disappearing. Robert Moses was making big decisions that were affecting all of us in the community.
So, there was racial tension in the community as a result of this. I do recall the very founding of the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council then and its raison e’être. There was alarm. There was great alarm at the gang wars that were surfacing and the hostility that was surfacing among the ethnic groups. Interfaith ministers and priests and other community leaders, of all ethnic backgrounds and religions came together. To their credit, they formed the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council as a response to that social crisis. What was so unique about the founding was that it was kind of funky in that you wouldn’t do anything like that except in the suburbs, i.e. civic organizations. But this thing, this Two Bridges Neighborhood Council was unique in that it took some of those suburban organizational purposes, and treating our neighborhood like a little village, began dialogues and a discourse and drew up a plan of action to address the profound issues that were facing the community.
Remember this was the time of West Side Story, and our community is probably the community that it was based on, at least according to Jerome Robbins. And that leadership that formed Two Bridges was very creative and it worked. It was effective.
They actually published a folksy newspaper and the reason for the newspaper was because new families were moving in and it was a way to introduce new families, by profiling them in the newspaper. They created this giant Little League from various entities and churches, even political clubs. The Democratic and Republican clubs had teams, every church had one. Little League. It was a great way of breaking down the barriers and stereotypes. And that work eventually evolved a broader agenda, taking up other issues—more challenging issues like education, the quality of education. So there was an education committee.
It was a development that was contiguous with the changing attitudes of what was happening in the city as a whole in terms of community control and empowerment—free from the stifling control of the local political clubs. For example, people were more conscious of the failure of public education in their community and needed to address it. We got involved in that. In fact, Two Bridges received its first foundation grant from the Ford Foundation, given to study our fledgling community school boards. I was a kid then but yet I remember it and I was following it and I was also a member of Hamilton-Madison House, that’s a local settlement house. I and all my friends were members.
And the interesting thing about that experience was that—and I’m on the board of Hamilton-Madison House—so I am not trying to be disparaging of it, but critical of it nonetheless. It was the social workers we encountered at the time and how they would engage us, my peers, we of Irish and Italian descent. In retrospect, I find it was disconcerting. They would invite us to become active in the settlement house and so to blend in with Hispanic and black kids. Voila problem solved! If anything, that was naïve. Integration is really effective if it’s through one on one encounter, not from some planned social experiment based on the latest social science theories upon which the social workers were trained at the time. We felt like puppets on a string. And we were also made to feel that our attitudes were the problem and the minority kids were the victims. That was a big mistake and it alienated us even more.
And I would also add that they didn’t celebrate, but seemed more intent on sublimating what were the best characteristic of our own culture to create racial harmony. Instead, a lot of what they believed was what would be termed today as deterministic. None of us would yield to it. We were never strong in that membership, but strong in our cultural values. We joined because it was another outlet to gather but our pride and values were too strong to be persuaded otherwise. We too had grievances. We too had social principle. And we too had several approaches on how to handle interracial relations.
Q: So, you remember as a kid consciously rejecting the values that they were trying to put on you and your friends?
Papa: Very much. By the way, it was also at the time of the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg affair, which got much of our attention because they lived on Monroe Street, in Knickerbocker Village. They were fascinating to us and they were somehow identified with Hamilton-Madison House. So there was this stigma that we all developed because of the Communist scare and Joseph [R.] McCarthy and all of that and [Dwight D.] Eisenhower, Russia, the Cold War, the satellite, the atomic bomb. All of that made us fiercely rightist in whatever that means today, it’s crazy, but it was part of the patriotic mania at the time. So we adopted that position and it was rare for any of us to have adopted a progressive position otherwise.
That goes on today. That’s one of the biggest problems of the Democratic Party today. They don’t accept our values or they don’t allow us to speak or to have anything to say in terms of formation of campaign platforms, things like that—because it wouldn’t conform to their agenda.
Q: So tell me what are the values that you’re referring to? What were the values that you—
Papa: Well, an example would be my mother having ten children—she relayed to me that she was one day approached by Margaret [H.] Sanger and they talked about birth control. The very concept! I’m not sure that they could understand how my mother relayed to us what her reaction was then about the very idea of birth control. Her retelling was that she was appalled. Translated, that to us meant that when she was thinking of what she was being told, she had to think of each one of her ten children and say to all of them, some of them or one of them, whatever, you are unwelcomed, kind of like that. But hers was a willful, loving pursuit of life. Family was nothing that she thought was a hardship. But, I will admit it had to be—though she never complained. You only realize it today raising two kids. Imagine raising ten.
My father was very strict and somewhat suspicious of anything in American society, education, for example. Also inner-city life wasn’t so safe. We also lived next to the Bowery and the Bowery was another experience that we took in, of the homeless and hopeless people who occasionally walked down our street if we didn’t encounter them on the Bowery. Once in a while, you got to know them. You got to speak to them. You got to empathize with them. I remember the police being really rough on them. When they slept in a doorway for example, they would use their nightsticks and hit the bottom of their shoes to chase them away. I remember we objecting to it as kids. We objected to it and we embarrassed the cops when we challenged them on it. So we were—in some sense, identifying ourselves as underdogs as well.
Q: How do you remember thinking about the new kids who were coming into the neighborhood, the Puerto Rican kids?
Papa: Sure. Well, if you were serious about your parish life, then you had to understand the inherent Christian principle of brothers and sisters. So, that was often what we were reminded of and socialization with white ethnic groups and Hispanics and blacks occurred more viscerally on the parish level. That’s where it was most successful, not at the settlement houses, or otherwise. It was most successful there because there was a sharing of worship and a spirituality that we all had in common. I even learned Spanish by having so many Hispanic friends and associations during that time.
Chinese immigration was not as strong as it occurred in the ’70s and ’80s. Its center emanated from Mott Street, a remote place for use where we learned to eat Chinese food at 16 Mott Street. Mott Street was a block away, but it was a visit to a strange land.
So we developed relationships with the new arrivals through mitigating all those differences in the church atmosphere and by progressive priests who—I don’t know if you know of Father Louis Gigante?
Q: I don’t.
Papa: Father Gigante is the guy who saved the South Bronx and built enormous amounts of affordable housing and is still at it. But he was assigned to St. James as a newly ordained priest in 1959 and he instituted the most unorthodox, unheard of concept, which was a Spanish mass. St. James or any other neighboring parish experienced mass in the particular vernacular of the worshippers. It had been all Latin liturgy until the changes, then to English.
Italian immigrants, we were always reminded, were asked to worship in the basements under the churches, because we had different ways of worshipping, whatever the reason. That’s why national immigrant groups formed national parishes, i.e. St. Joseph Church on Monroe Street. But because of Father Gigante, the Hispanics were invited to have ten a.m. mass on Sundays. Huge numbers of Hispanics attended. So through that innovative change, and not without much resistance, Puerto Ricans became equal members of the parish. They had their own cultural and spiritual sense of life. It was good that they had their own special liturgy. It preserved their form of spirituality. Some people talk about integrating. But the Hispanics would have felt unwelcome in an atmosphere where they could not even understand the language. And they would have easily resented it. They would have lost their souls and their sense of devotion and worship, as much as we would have lost ours. I’m thinking especially of how we had to adapt to the Irish form of liturgy which was a little more rigid. The contrast, for example, that the Italians had a kind of devotion to Mother Cabrini in contrast to St. Patrick, whose life was drilled into us. But we all had about as equal devotion to the Virgin, be you Irish, Italian, or Puerto Rican. A common mother, if you will.
Q: How did the African-American neighbors fit in?
Papa: Well, there weren’t that many. They were probably around ten percent of the population. They were considered the enemy. They were the enemy as much as they considered the white ethnic groups their enemy. Why? I don’t know. But it was pretty ugly. They for the most part worshipped at Mariners’ Temple Baptist church, which is a beautiful experience and spiritual center for them. That should be recalled. All of that should be recalled, but they actually were a minority.
But one of the incidents that occurred that was, I should say a milestone in how things changed was that the Italian community at St. Joseph Church sponsored every year St. Rocco Festival or Feast, which involved a huge procession and eventually ending up on Monroe Street where there was a feast, Italian-style. And one year, a gang of black kids—it was a news story—invaded it and threatened to riot if the event continued. Why is that important? It’s important because it left us with a question, do we fight back or do we acquiesce to a changed neighborhood where even the feast could be seen as a symbol of racism against other people?
Q: What year was that approximately?
Papa: I would say the late ’50s, early ’60s.
Q: So how do you remember thinking about—like how do you remember the choices that you made and your family made at that time?
Papa: It wasn’t a matter of choice. We morphed. There was a natural evolution, as in any human community, to get to know those who you don’t know and vice versa, either the hard way or the easy way.
Fortunately, there was always more of an attempt to dialogue than there was not. Whoever wanted to dialogue, they would get a following. Otherwise, in the absence of a positive response to an ugly incident, it was the young guys who started all the trouble.
Q: So, did that festival continue?
Papa: No. The annual tradition of the feast on Monroe Street ended. But the annual celebration of the feast day, the procession is still in force. It was also an incident that caused the reconciling of the Italian Americans to a new pluralistic reality.
Q: Do you remember—at that point, you were a young teenager, do you remember how you were kind of setting your own aspirations and how your family fit into that?
Papa: Well, the family was very traditional. Aspiring for the priesthood was one of the ideals that were important to them. It was considered profound. A lot of Italian American and Irish American families had children who became priests—at least one of them did. So the family was very supportive of my decision, but it did not alter the family traditions. I was second generation, so the ways of our immigrant parents were somewhat altered as we grew older which influenced them by a low formation of our own more American traditions. And I always think of the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song, Teach Your Child Well. The code being, “As parents should teach their children well, their father’s hell did slowly go by, so too children should teach their parents well, their children’s hell will slowly go by. Don’t you ever ask them why, if they told you, you would cry, so just look at them and sigh and know they love you.”
But the main values of our ethnic traditions—family, Sunday family gatherings, children, baptism—remained very strong in us, to this day.
Q: So, I want to ask you a little more about the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council because I watched the film that you had made for the sixtieth anniversary, where people talk about how important the Little League was. Was that something you were a part of?
Papa: Yes. I wasn’t part of Two Bridges then but I do remember my friends being in the Little League in the late ’50s and ’60s. It was a very lively, dynamic time in the community. It crossed barriers and formed bonds among the kids. Teams were integrated and had competitive pride. Racial difference disappeared on the field. It should go on today. It would be as valuable today as it was then. There are attempts at it, but everybody’s concerned about crazy things that they don’t think of kids and the needs that kids have. Yes, I remember it very well.
I also remember Two Bridges in their other efforts, and those efforts were more attractive to me. They were concerned about integration, justice, education. So I was attracted to Two Bridges in that sense, got to know the social workers. At that time, there was a new breed of social workers who were thinkers; they seemed more experiential, not necessarily rigid social theorists. They immersed themselves. They let the community change them. They soaked in the values that different people had thereby becoming more like friends and associates to me and kids like me and other kids, and which naturally brought us together and formed bonds.
Some of them, of course, were so idealistic, as to wanting to wipe out the Mob. We were not naïve. That was impossible. But they didn’t think so. So, we always saw them as naïve. They understood why we said we weren’t convinced, but they couldn’t believe that they couldn’t change some basic things like that in the community. They couldn’t believe that. I don’t know what universities teach social workers about social attitudes naturally evolving through human, grassroots interactions, but I sense it was because they had little appreciation about strong cultural traditions and codes, or if they did, that they had to challenge them.
So we got involved. And the great thing about growing up were also the colossal changes that were occurring in the US—the atmosphere was changing, the ecumenical spirit was emerging. And this was ’60s. We were very much affected by that decade, believe or not, we were also prompted to what the universal church was affected by, which was the Ecumenical Council [Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican] and what came of that, in terms of a change in thinking and attitudes. Everything broke down in terms of our orthodox way of thinking.
At this time, Father Gigante persuaded me to join the community’s first youth forum and I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to break my—I thought it was breaking my attachments, but he convinced me that we now have to be involved in ecumenical ways with the rest of the community. I learned that at about seventeen years old, and that’s the best time to teach young people things. It leaves an impression. It makes them think. It makes them do it. That’s how formation began with me as a leader and how I became involved with Two Bridges. I got older, got married and then was invited to the board, then this whole issue of Two Bridges Urban Renewal emerged. And I didn’t know what the hell that was all about. I just listened in and observed my seniors.
Q: So, before we talk about that because I definitely want to ask you about that, did you leave the neighborhood for a while to go to seminary?
Q: And then made the—obviously the conscious decision to return—
Papa: Yes, because that was—this change I’m speaking about, even the priesthood was thought of differently. So I got married in 1971.
Q: And were back.
Papa: Puerto Rican-Italian wedding, which was very rare. If it’s not too profane, the curiosity about it was infectious. People were taking bets that she was not going to come to the church. She was late, about one hour. So that fed that frenzy outside and inside the church. And her father was very proud, Puerto Rican. He was not impressed with an Italian American marrying his daughter. He warned me—and whatever he knew about the Italian Americans in the neighborhood, he warned me to respect, honor and cherish her, and I respected him very much for that.
But I remember my family waiting with anxiety for the bride in the church. She’s not coming! After all, she lived across the street, right across the street. All she had to do was get in the car, a limousine. For whatever reason, she was late and I learned her Puerto Rican family was notoriously late for everything. After that I learned—we have to take a break.
Q: Okay, we’re back.
Papa: She arrived an hour late. But she arrived and we had a wonderful nuptial mass. And one of the priests there—this was unheard of as well—who was witnessing, told the congregation to applaud and it was a scandal. No one ever applauded in church. No one ever up to that time applauded in church. Now it’s every day, they do it. But at that time, my father was appalled by it. But we weren’t. That great, charismatic priest, Father Jack Rossi was fun-loving and he loved the whole idea of this wedding. He’s the one who introduced us. I met her at an event I helped to organize called Summer in the City. Do you remember those?
Q: I don’t.
Papa: Look up Summer in the City. It was a phenomenal movement started in the ’60s into the ’70s and ’80s and it celebrated—well, what it actually did was it encouraged people to come down from their apartments on a particular summer day, sit on the sidewalk, sit on the stoop, bring your food, share your food, have games, close the street. Another name for it was a Happening. Today you need a Supreme Court ruling to close the streets. We used to close the streets at whim. And that’s how I met her. Well, I knew her before that but she was playing volleyball and she hurt her finger and I took her to the hospital and that’s how that began.
Q: And you’ve been married forty-six years?
Q: Lovely. And did you stay in the church?
Papa: Oh, sure. Oh, sure, that was never a question. Of course, I did. Like everybody else, I went through all these changes and I began to focus more on the social doctrines, of which the most important principle was that everything we do, we do for an individual—the human person, and another being that, whatever the community can do for itself, it should be allowed to do without undue centralized government interference. Government, though very important, exists to support community, not the other way around. That’s what I learned and that’s how I still think. That in some ways caused my adversarial stance toward city administrators and government officials. It’s not that it wasn’t innate from growing up, but it became sharper and it became more intellectually based and focused. We got better responses when it was approached on that level.
Q: And what kind of work were you doing as a young man?
Papa: I was then, became chairman of Lower East Side Catholic Area Conference, which was an association of the twenty-one parishes from, I guess roughly the Brooklyn Bridge to Fourteenth Street, and it was a very powerful organization. It was very progressive in its social advocacy. We advocated for affordable housing. We even took over abandoned buildings during the ’80s. The Lower East Side was really a scandal in terms of abandoned buildings being burned down, landlords abandoning the buildings, forcing people out. And there was a great homeless crisis in the city.
You had to look at an abandoned building on an abandoned street and say families are homeless, that building is vacant and available, and it’s owned by the city. Let’s get these families matched and united with other families. Let’s do homesteading. Let’s take over that building. And we hardly got pushback. The commissioner of HPD [Department of Housing Preservation and Development], who I love dearly today—we honored her just months ago—Felice [L.] Michetti, never wanted me to visit her office and hear, over and over again, our rather outlandish, moral demands. Never. She was always ready to throw us out with most expressive expletives as I can recall. But she’s a wonderful woman who gave us everything we asked for.
But what we would do is we’d see a building, we’d match that to a set of pre-interviewed homeless families and match them with others as to their capacity to do sweat equity in the building. And on any particular Saturday morning, we’d get the local priest as a sanction of our activity. It was bold and illegal, but we would paint the main entrance door red, put a big black cross on it, the priest would bless the endeavor, have a press conference and declare that this building now belongs to these homeless families.
We managed about sixteen of those buildings to do that. [Edward I.] Koch was the mayor and [David] Dinkins and they weren’t about to challenge the mass of people we could have assembled to back us up. They didn’t even make an issue of it. They just gave us the buildings, and those buildings survive today.
So, I was part of that and I also got involved in immigration issues. I got involved in the Golden Venture issue, only because of the proximity to Chinatown and the fact that they were detained in a federal facility on Varick Street under harsh conditions; no sunlight, no adequate meals. I visited the facility with Congressman Jerrold Nadler and we improved some of the conditions. That was also in unison with other churches from Pennsylvania, an ecumenical group that eventually managed to sponsor some of the refugees and settled them in families in Pennsylvania.
I did that job for about ten years and the community began to change. Gentrification, this new phenomenon was creeping in and it had its eyes on the Lower East Side and plethora of abandoned buildings. So we organized with the absolute principle that the city could not, should not sell any of them unless you give us fifty percent for low-income families. That was negotiated through the [Lower East Side] Joint Planning Council, the JPC, which was an organizing group comprised of a lot of leaders from local CBOs [Community Based Organizations], of which we were one of the organizations. And it wasn’t moving, Koch wasn’t moving, Dinkins wasn’t moving. Assemblyman [Sheldon] Silver wasn’t moving, especially.
So, the buildings remained abandoned, except the ones we were rehabbing. [Rudolph] Giuliani came in and I would say that he resolved the issue. A fifty-fifty split was agreed upon and we would only agree if the fifty percent was first built and then they could have it. Then the only issue that remained was the Seward Park, which was resolved about five years ago. That was intractable. Sheldon Silver was not going to change that. I’m talking about Delancey [Street] and Broome [Street] and we fought and fought. We could not move him on that. So that remained shut and fallow. There was nothing there, until there was a resolution by the community board five years ago. Somebody smart said, “We’re not getting anywhere. Let’s do it.” And they did it.
Q: So that means that any construction in that area—
Papa: It’s fifty-fifty, yes.
Q: It has to be permanently affordable.
Q: Because I read one of the reports that came out of here that talked about—looked at the Lower East Side and Two Bridges, Chinatown—I forget the fourth area—and looked at gentrification, talked about how this area had been kind of—
Papa: Was least affected.
Papa: That’s true. That’s true, because there wasn’t anything here that was available or abandoned. The housing that was here was with government subsidies that we built. But the buildings that we built—this one [indicating the building in which the interview is occurring], that one, the one next door, the one after it [pointing to neighboring buildings]—we don’t own but we sponsored their construction. The regulations phased out after about forty years which made the buildings vulnerable to private ownership, which is what it is now. Although L&M [Development Partners] owns this building and that and they’ve kept it affordable, except the one next door. We own the Senior Building [Two Bridges Senior Apartments] and part owners of the 82 Rutgers Slip with Settlement Housing Fund and we are committed to remaining and keeping those permanently affordable.
Q: So, I have many things I want to ask you. I’m wondering does it make sense to ask you now about the Two Bridges Renewal Area?
Papa: Yes, because simultaneous to all of that, this community, Two Bridges, what is now called Two Bridges neighborhood, was an area that was very blighted. There were abandoned buildings here. No one came here. No one came here. The docks were still active. The Banana Pier was still active. Walking along the waterfront was almost forbidden, dangerous. Nobody was here. This was ripe for rehab.
We undertook, all of us—actually novices on the Two Bridges board with the technical help of Settlement Housing Fund who had the planning and financing expertise. We planned this community and we learned. We didn’t know what the hell we were doing, but we learned. We learned and we got very sophisticated and we still are. We built fifteen hundred units of affordable housing plus the famous Pathmark supermarket, which is now displaced by the Extell Tower [One Manhattan Square], the ubiquitous Extell Tower. You can see it anywhere now. There’s a follow-up to that story.
Q: But let me ask you just to clarify for the recording, so we’re talking now about the area that’s between roughly Montgomery Street, Pike Slip between Cherry Street and South Street.
Papa: Pike Slip, yes.
Q: And Corlears Hook [Park], you might say, or like the Williamsburg Bridge.
Papa: Or Montgomery Street.
Q: Okay. So this is the area that in 1972—
Papa: Cherry [Street] and South [Street], yes.
Q: —in ’72, that was defined as the Two Bridges Urban Renewal Area, distinct from, which we’ll talk about next, the Historic District, which is south of the bridge.
Papa: That’s a whole other—
Q: Right, so we’re going to get to that. This was this blighted area and at that point, you were with the Catholic organization in the ’70s—
Papa: Also on the board of Two Bridges.
Q: I see, okay, okay.
Papa: Somehow I ended up on that board. I was the kid. There were all these older people. I loved them dearly. I truly loved them. But we were all amateurs. We were making decisions, thank God, they were the right decisions. The only thing that I regret is that the buildings we put up—oh God, I would hate for the architect to hear this—I thought are bland. These are kind of bland. These are not buildings that—but I was always told you couldn’t have more than that—because it was too expensive and it wouldn’t be then affordable.
Q: Well, they also reflect that era.
Papa: Yes, an architect-friend I met says the same thing. He says that’s what they built with the limited financing that was available. But the remarkable thing is that we were able to build on the waterfront, which is most sought out today as a place to build towers. So we built the senior residence, the affordable residence, these buildings—Lands End I and II—affordable for forty years. That’s over. We even sponsored a NYCHA project on South Street, 286 South Street and one on the corner of Hester and Allen. The commercial space was Pathmark, plus a slew of stores in a little commercial building that’s still there.
Having done that, we then had to realize, what’s the future here? What’s going to happen? How do you keep the housing affordable? How do you keep the neighborhood maintained? How do you keep the administration attentive to it? So we realized that the waterfront was not developed and it required a lot of attention. We got involved in addressing the waterfront and it was at a propitious time because the city was beginning to think—developers, as an example and elected officials after had their eyes on the value of the waterfront market and/or housing.
We got involved and had really begun a dynamic process which was only interrupted by 9/11 [September 11 attacks], when we abandoned all talk during the recovery period after it because this area was then, became a staging area for clean-up after a very horrible event. So we didn’t touch it.
Then the formation of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation [LMDC] began to address the waterfront and then we got involved with the architect who was assigned to design the East River Promenade; SHoP Architects. We even had resident workshops in here for that. We still await the development of Pier 35 across the street. All proving my theory that low-income neighborhoods get least attention. If you walk near the South Street Seaport or on the West Side, you would see the LMDC plan completed, whatever they had to do there. Here it’s still going on. So I must say lately it’s been picking up a lot.
Q: Well, Extell will change that, probably.
Papa: That may be one of the reasons. I remember a workshop here with the architect one night. A resident raised his hand, wanted to be recognized. He thought he was being silly but I considered it a very serious question. He said—it wasn’t a question, it was a statement. “Don’t do anything.” We asked him, “Why wouldn’t we do something?” “Don’t do anything on the waterfront.” “Why?” “Because the minute you do that, the neighborhood’s going to be gentrified.”
Now, gentrification is a process no one could stop so easily. Protest and demonstrations aren’t as effective as in the old days of militant demonstrations. They don’t work anymore. There are groups today who try to emulate that style. But they seemingly get nowhere because the real estate market, short of any laws to regulate it, the free unregulated market economy takes over.
The market has turned the Lower East Side into a gentrified community. I maintain that we’re not gentrifying that we are gentrified. I don’t think there’s any available space anymore for affordable housing to be built, which then led to the Two Bridges’ conclusion that we would sell the air rights of 82 Rutgers, the commercial site and the Senior Building to a developer and he would build a tower that would cantilever over the Senior Building and give us twenty-five percent affordable units. We determined that there was no other way to build more affordable housing, which is part and parcel of our mission.
Q: I’ve read about that, that’s obviously—
Papa: A controversy.
Q: —a controversial issue and may be in litigation at the moment, I’m not sure. So, can you talk to me some more about what your thinking is about why that’s the choice to make and how that’s playing itself out in terms of the conversation in the neighborhood?
Papa: The choice was easy to make because the accrued assets would otherwise remain dormant. Locked up! Selling the air rights will allow us to apply the assets toward the purposes of preserving or making more affordable housing available; even if to maintain what we already built. The asset value is more than adequate to do that, plus other things we can do that can enhance the community—programs, youth programs, music programs, art programs. And because not-for-profits must always search for the means to secure their future. So in the end, we share the proceeds with our trusted partners, Settlement Housing Fund, which has a city-wide housing mandate, and do what is necessary to secure our future.
Q: And also that the way to get more affordable housing is to have it packaged with market rate housing.
Papa: Sure, Settlement Housing Fund, which is not a neighborhood-based organization, with the assets they get, they’ll go all over the city with it and build affordable housing in areas where it can be built more affordably.
We’re doing something that I maintain, many people support but won’t say it, and many people I know personally support it, but out there, condemn it. I understand it. That’s the political reality of community organizing. I understand it. If I wasn’t party to this transaction, I would have questions and misgivings as well.
But the arguments that are against it are sometimes silly. I mean, why are you against it? “Oh, it’s too high. It’s too high.” Or more insidious, “It blocks my view”. Some of these are people who live in towers that we built for them. And my answer to them has always been, “Did you know that your building was once a tower that was so high it blocked the views of the building adjacent to it and now you’re claiming that you’re losing your views? And would you deny people who need affordable housing the same privilege that you got in receiving it, the way you got it?” That sounds like a spiteful retort, but it’s true. It’s true. But it’s not heard. The media’s not going to print that point of view. People are not going to hear it. The progressives don’t want to hear it. I don’t know what the rationale is or why they’re holding onto shallow arguments.
I might add that the call for restrictive zoning along the waterfront was once a topic that could have been explored by the community board when they rezoned the East Village. In spite of all of our efforts to address the zoning questions to include the Lowe East Side below Delancey Street, they adamantly left it out—in essence leaving the area south of Delancey vulnerable to almost any kind of development. Why are some of these people now complaining?
The great admission today is to admit that the Lower East Side is gentrified, and all we can do now is to preserve what’s left of the housing stock, the rent-controlled and regulated units, mostly located in the old tenements, from the early immigrant period, the tenement period, which is why we got involved in sponsoring the Two Bridges Historic District. The distinction being, the Two Bridges—you’re right, it’s really wider than what I’m specifically referring to, in terms of the rehab area. And Knickerbocker Village being a very important structure in the history of housing, St. Augustine’s [Episcopal] Church, left out by the group that formed the [East Village]/Lower East Side Historic District, left out St. Augustine’s, which is egregious to us, so we took it in—the Bowery, Chinatown, Little Italy.
The Chinatown/Little Italy story is—we’re very involved in Chinatown and Little Italy. The Chinatown/Little Italy experience in the past one hundred years is essential Lower East Side history, ignored, for the most part by the Tenement Museum. I often complain to them about it. I don’t know what their thing is about promoting that community as the tenement community when thousands and thousands of Asian and Italian immigrants co-existed on Mulberry [Street] and Mott [Street] and the surrounding area harmoniously for over one hundred years. So we thought, that’s definite. Nobody’s addressing Little Italy and Chinatown. How could we not?
Q: So just to clarify, so you started with the Two Bridges Historic District, which is the area between Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridge.
Papa: Where I grew up.
Q: Where you grew up, which includes the Knickerbocker Village, which itself was created by razing an entire square block—
Papa: Interstate. We’ll talk about the Lung Block because we’re involved in that, too. May I say it now?
Q: Oh, please do, please do.
Papa: We’re involved in trying to mount an exhibition at the New York City Museum [Museum of the City of New York] or whoever will have us because there’s some that are expressing interest. We have two curators who are documenting the history of the Lung Block. Do you know about the Lung Block?
Q: I do. That was Knickerbocker Village.
Papa: Knickerbocker Village. You read the accounts—by the way, the story of the Lung Block came to my attention through the astute observation of a student [Stefano Morello] in Turin, Italy who wrote a dissertation at the University of Naples [Frederico II], looking for his grandmother. That’s what started him off. They couldn’t trace his grandmother’s immigration to the United States on the Lower East Side. He knew that she was somewhere in that neighborhood and he deduces that she might have been one of the victims.
They never found out where she went, where she ended up. Mr. Morello was inspired to write this story based on his personal driven curiosity to learn the fate of his great-grandmother who emigrated there from Militello in Val di Catania in 1913, and the fact that his family, since they never heard from her. Quite unintended, that curiosity let to a scholarly study by which we learn the fate of the immigrant colony and to a story that must not be added to the annals of American immigrant history. It is one not too kind to progressive reformers at the time and perhaps evidence of the long lineage of anti-immigrant attitudes even of today.
My own inspiration in this story is that, not only did I live in the enclave of Knickerbocker Village on Monroe Street, the Lung Block, as I was growing up, but I was the offspring of both maternal and paternal grandparents who, from Chieti, Abruzzo settled on streets not too far form Monroe Street in the early 1900s. But he then began to examine the social expressions about Knickerbocker Village. What were the reformers saying then about Knickerbocker Village or about the Lung Block and the Italian Americans that were living there? The food that they cooked causes tuberculosis. That could be the reason; the way they live, a lot of kids. All of that are contributing causes to the disease.
What was happening simultaneous to that was this intention to build housing ,which eventually became Knickerbocker Village. But thousands of people were displaced there, as well as the people were displaced across the street in NYCHA housing, because of this scare that reformers at the time were not responsibly reporting—even Jacob [A.] Riis—was not telling the truth about. They were not lying, but they were failing to see the more intricate complexity of the situation.
The only person who connected the intention of developers, if you call them that, and the issue was the pastor. The Irish pastor at St. James Church in 1901, 1902, expressed it in the newspapers. He was astute enough to observe that. And no Irish priest spoke for Italians but this guy did. He saw it. He called it, but he was ignored. So we’re mounting an exhibition about this, which we hope will take place in the fall of 2018.
Q: That’s great, that’s great.
Papa: Kerri Culhane is the chief curator.
Q: I wanted to ask you about her because I saw that she wrote at least two of the reports that led to—
Papa: She’s a genius. Nobody knows New York better than her, nobody.
Q: Well, those reports are beautiful. I assumed she wrote them as well.
Papa: I never got along with her, but I love her like a daughter. But it’s hard to get along with her. She’s astute. She’s sophisticated. She’s insulting, but I love her.
Q: She used to be on staff here, but now she’s a consultant.
Papa: Yes, yes, and I used to tell her, “Go home.” This is an anecdote. It has nothing to do with this, but she really likes where she lives. Her husband and she live in Fort Miller, New York, which is way up near the Adirondacks. And I could always tell by her mood that she had her mind up there and she had to come to work here and live down here. She’s a horticulturist among other things. Finally, I said, “Will you just be a consultant? Stay home.” And she’s now contracting with us for curating this exhibit.
Q: Are there still people who you could do interviews—who have memories of—obviously it wouldn’t be from the early Twentieth Century, but I thought the housing was built in the ’30s?
Papa: They were claiming that they needed to put a park there. That eventually led to this idea of Knickerbocker Village. Who’s to say that they weren’t intending to do that and claim to have a park, that’s the innuendo we’re beginning to understand.
Q: That’s really interesting. So tell me more about your thinking about the value of creating historic districts. Why do that and what does it take to do it?
Papa: It first takes convincing the state of New York to agree, they did not agree with Little Italy and Chinatown, nor did they agree with the Bowery. It astounded us to learn that—you’re telling us that these are not worthy of designation? What convinced them was visiting down here, walking and touring those streets. But they almost had to be—I don’t know—subtly suggesting that Italian and Chinese history, during a great American immigration period, is something that you don’t recognize as important. The buildings, some of the historic structures on Mulberry Street, you don’t think are worthy? The Chinese architecture of some of the buildings on Mott Street in Chinatown, you don’t think is—
They had to be awakened to that because maybe we’re not so inspired by ethnic-based historic districts. I don’t think there were any before that. There’s Prospect Park and all these others, but none like Little Italy and Chinatown and the Bowery—and the Two Bridges area, Two Bridges neighborhood.
So, it was hard to convince them. They eventually did it. We raised the money to do the research. Kerri did it adequately well, even got an award for it. And it inspired—Little Italy and Chinatown inspired us to sponsor the Marco Polo Festival, which we do every year now for nine years.
That’s a special occasion because if you form a historic district, you’ve got to do something with it or it’s—what should I say? Passive. It’s got to be active. It’s got to recall that great history and Americans are not so hot on preserving history. We just eliminate it, and I must say it’s what we did here. We should have preserved some of the buildings here in this urban renewal area, but people say that’s naïve. But I do regret it. I do regret that we did not preserve some of the buildings here and incorporate into them affordable housing units, in ways that can be very creative, but we didn’t. We knocked everything down.
That’s the attitude and we noticed that after 9/11, the real estate values on the Lower East Side got very, very expensive. Speculators were looking at buildings, some of the buildings as commodities that could be just destroyed and we’ll put up these glass structures like you see on the Bowery. That alarmed us enough to say that the very least we could do is do something that conveys a moral message about the preservation of history and that is the least we can do is have these neighborhoods designated and it may inspire people to understand their value.
Q: Are you finding that property owners are taking advantage of the tax breaks and the loans—?
Papa: Not as much as we would like. In fact, we need to address that. We need to go and do seminars. Chinatown is difficult.
Q: What makes that particularly difficult?
Papa: They don’t trust landmarks. Any word, anything that has that connotation is thought of as something you’re doing permanently. You cannot alter it. You cannot sell it as easily as—that’s why. It’s a very big misunderstanding. Little Italy is different because Little Italy is a shell. It’s not really Little Italy and those buildings are owned by some corporations. What do they care about history? If there wasn’t a restriction on height in Little Italy, they’d be torn down in a second.
Q: So let me ask you, since you started with the neighborhood you were born in and raised in, what did it mean for you personally when—because that was also the first historic district. How did it feel when you accomplished getting it identified?
Papa: Yes, that’s a good question. I felt wonderful because the neighborhood was indistinct at that point. There was a Chinatown, there was a Little Italy, and there was what they call the Lower East Side and this little neighborhood, Two Bridges, nobody was paying attention to. It was very special and it’s very special because there are places in that neighborhood that are extremely historic. The cemetery, the Jewish cemetery on St. James Place [First Shearith Israel Graveyard]; St. James Church, where the Catholic school system was first discussed and one of two parishes founded by Father Felix Varela, considered the George Washington of Cuba. Roosevelt Street, at the church, St. Joachim Chuch on Roosevelt Street, where Mother [Frances Xavier] Cabrini—when she came to America, that was her first mission, which we lost to the Chatham Green building, in spite of the gallant efforts of a loyal son of the parish, Jimmy Durante.
These places are vulnerable and many others, Mariners’ Temple, and what buildings they destroyed when they built NYCHA housing. There was a Greek community that lived there. I remember living among Spanish and Basque people. I loved the girls. That’s probably why I got attracted to the Spanish, a wonderful culture. There were not many but they lived on Madison Street. All of that was important to me. The live chicken market under the Manhattan Bridge where my grandmother took me to buy chickens slaughtered right in front of us, which was a horrible experience for our generation, but she did it. Nobody was recognizing that.
Q: And that is an area that has withheld the effects of gentrification more than others.
Papa: Changing rapidly. I see restaurants, go in bars, I would never conceive that they would be on Madison Street. We were exempt from it. No more. That’s over.
Q: So, tell me about the Extell building and the losing of the Pathmark.
Papa: We did our best to try to save Pathmark, but they went bankrupt. We had a big rally expressing the need for affordable supermarkets in this community, the only one, trying to convince Extell to replace it with an affordable supermarket, which I think, is highly unlikely, but you never know. I don’t think Gary Barnett is an evil person. I think he appreciates the Lower East Side. I think that the media profiles people with profiles that even the person themselves cannot escape.
But he’s from the Lower East Side. His family lived here. He has to know that there’s a need for affordable housing as much as there is a need for access to local affordable food. It can’t be all for his tenants. I don’t believe that. I would rather not believe it. But in the development projects we’re doing, along with the other developers, there will be affordable grocery stores. We’re doing our best too, in many ways. The staff outside is working on forming relationships with local bodegas to get people to, encourage people to go to those stores and promote that business, which is much more important than promoting a corporation like Pathmark, which just leaves.
Q: I want to make sure I ask you my questions. So, I saw one of the things you did was a strategic plan in 2011. I wanted to ask you about what your thinking was when you developed that plan and how you see it going. I think it was in that plan you talked about climate change and—actually that wouldn’t be because it was before Hurricane Sandy. But I’ve read that some of the work you’re doing is kind of thinking about protecting the neighborhood from other ways in which the world is changing, climate change and the water, being one of them. Can you tell me about that?
Papa: To the extent that we can financially, and have staff that can address those very technical questions: the climate change question and the waterfront are very important to us. We were devastated. Our buildings were devastated. This office was flooded. That’s why we have a new floor here. You wouldn’t believe that the water came in here. But we were addressing that long before.
Kerri Culhane is an aggressive thinker, a foresighted thinker. I don’t always agree with her about the predictions. I was a little skeptical about it but she knew enough of what the big guys knew. She was very valuable to us in that sense. She knew how to talk to them and cajole them. She even insulted some of them to get them to recognize this community. She got us started off on thinking not only about the rehabilitation of the esplanade, but these bigger questions about—long before Sandy, long before Sandy was an issue, we were discussing this.
The Sandy incident changed the dialogue, changed the number of people in it, the personalities in it and we participate in the Lower East Side Ready! Group [LES Ready]. And we work with Settlement Housing Fund in addressing some of the more—some of the technical issues involved in environmental issues. Much of it is too technical for this capacity. We don’t have that capacity and there weren’t many opportunities for us to get involved in it. There’s no money.
But we did—we were very influential in starting what we call the South Street East River Community Development Corporation. We started that and it’s an organization that intends to convince—persuade people from organizations below the Brooklyn Bridge all the way up to Corlears Hook Park, to think in terms of one issue, for the whole strip, instead of this divisive, psychological barrier, which is the Brooklyn Bridge—that’s your community, that’s our community, that’s CB1 [Manhattan Community Board 1], this is CB3 [Manhattan Community Board 3].
We’re trying to meld those communities to think in terms of one vision because when the waterfront esplanade is developed, there will be opportunities to institute businesses, small enterprises for people and artistic and theatrical projects. I’ve been getting involved in Pier 35—2018, we’re going to inaugurate the pier with a big festival, in collaboration with the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council.
I don’t know how that answers your question, but the CDC [Community Development Corporation], house owners, property owners, tenant association leaders and some private stores coming together and doing what it is—most of all convincing EDC [New York City Economic Development Corporation] that there’s a new kid on the block. We want to be part of what you’re doing and we want to know more about—we want to work with you.
Q: Great. So, I want to ask you, sort of before we finish, how are you involved with or are you involved with other parts of the city and other traditionally working-class neighborhoods that are trying to protect and defend themselves?
Papa: There are other neighborhoods?
Frankly, I’ll tell you, I’m not very much involved. I’m on the board of Carroll Gardens Association, which is affordable housing. That’s private. It’s an affordable housing organization and I’m on the board of SEBCO [South East Bronx Community Organization].
Q: Tell me what that is.
Papa: South Bronx Development Corporation, Father Gigante’s group, all affordable housing. A miracle in terms of what—rehabbed that whole South Bronx. Jimmy [James E.] Carter was there, Ronald [W.] Reagan was there, not much to do about anything. Community! That’s why the community work is the work. It’s not what comes down from the government and we are passive. It’s what we ask the government to do as we are proactive.
So, to that degree, from a personal point of view, that’s how I’m involved with other communities. But we do come close to others, like we’re doing a MAPSCorps project, which is collecting data about local businesses that kids do during the summer in our summer youth employment program. It’s a new innovative tool for community folk to use, and communities will adapt to very soon. People can look up MAPSCorps and find a doctor, a grocery store, whatever.
To that degree, we’re involved with other communities that are doing the same and often we meet with them and talk about it and how to make it better. But I really must tell you that I don’t have the inclination to do anything above Fourteenth Street. That requires an oxygen tank for me, because we have enough to do here. I’m exaggerating but we have enough to do. Only when it’s a joint effort, something like affordable food markets, we’ve been involved with other communities on that because that is something that’s happening rapidly in low-income communities. They’re losing affordable grocery stores as we are. People are shopping online. It closes down the bodega. I don’t know what we’re going to do. So that’s the answer to that.
Q: So let me ask you a couple more questions. You’ve talked about this a little bit with respect to the response to selling the air rights. What kind of relationship do you have, or do you have one, to groups that—with the protestors?
Papa: They’re mad at us.
Q: Yes, they’re mad at you.
Papa: They’re mad at us and they’re mad at me, because that’s something they would never, ever expect for me to do, just by the history I have over the past forty years as an activist. I understand it. I tell people do what you have to do. Say what you have to say. It’s no insult to me. I don’t have any personal feelings about it.
When you’re a seasoned community activist for over forty years, seasoned means hardly any naiveté left. Seasoned means you understand where people have to go with a particular issue and don’t take it too personal. I regret that there is no consensus on it, and I understand that opposition can sometimes serve to leverage some benefits, always knowing and always concealing that you will not win the total issue. It’s a creative tension.
It keeps us honest in terms of us holding the developer to his promises. I often tell the developer, we’re friends. We sit down and talk and make demands. He understands it. Don’t ever betray us. I’ll be the first to bolt. But you can’t bolt because you’re engaged now in a collaborative project and you have to sit down and be constructive. Everything we’ve asked for, the developer has conceded to. The principal at JDS [Development Group] is Michael Stern. He’s unique. He’s a very young, dynamic developer. He understates himself. He’s quiet, unassuming, a wonderful man, understands the plight of low-income communities. Maybe takes advantage of it, it can be seen that way, but also he’s willing to do things here that were never heard of before—the subway system, the F-train stop that he’s willing to have equipped with an elevator or an escalator. Always cooperated in discussions about the waterfront and what needs to be done there, the transportation needs that this community will need.
Even the grocery issue is something that he—he’s been very responsive to all those things. He’s modern, he’s contemporary. He understands it and he understands the opposition. You got to understand the opposition. If you didn’t, I would walk away.
It will pass. There will be a time when all the groups will realize, as they’re beginning to now, I think, we need to come together and plan this community because it’s going to change significantly. Once they accept that, it will happen. I’ve come to his aid to write up the litigation and all of that.
Q: So, I want to ask you before we finish up, what are your hopes and your concerns for what you see coming to Two Bridges?
Papa: Believe it or not, it’s a good question because at seventy-two, I didn’t think that I could be—and I’m bragging—progressive enough to say, “We’re going to have a new community. We need to sit down and we need to plan the needs for this new community. Everyone is invited to the table. When you’re all finished getting hysterical, we’ll be ready.” What I’m trying to say is that at my age, after all these years, I’m very excited about going into a new chapter, maybe the last. Let’s admit it, this will be the last one but it’s refreshing. It’s sitting down again and planning the community that will be final for the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council’s rehab efforts. It will be final and it will be something we’ve helped to develop. We have had a personal touch in it. So I’m very excited about it.
Q: That’s great. Is there anything you want to tell me that we haven’t gotten to talk about, that I didn’t ask about the work you’ve done, about the work to preserve the history and the sense of place—?
Papa: The only thing I would add is that the work that I do on the Lower East Side comes out of a love for the Lower East Side. One must understand that. It’s truly a love affair. I could have left this community years ago, like all my family did. I’m the only one left. I stayed here because I got to know every institution. I know every institution on the Lower East Side. I know who they are, what they are. I’ve grown to love the people who are leaders in them. I do this as a labor of love and that’s why I’m still doing it because I still love this community and I feel I have much more to give. That’s it.
Q: Thank you.
Papa: Now get out of my office.
[END OF INTERVIEW]