Thursday, March 12, 2009

Tearing down historic Jerusalem: Urban removal hits the Holy Land too

Photos are of Bill Tatum, my tenement on the Lower East Side ca 1965, me seven months pregnant in front of St Patrick's cathedral, scenes from Jerusalem and lots and lots of Israeli bulldozers.

My friend Bill Tatum died two weeks ago. Bill was the man who was personally responsible for saving New York City's Lower East Side from destruction. Without him, all the delightfulness, diversity and all-around wonderfulness of that area would no longer exist. There would be no Second Avenue clothing boutiques, no interesting shops to poke around in, no small off-off Broadway theaters, no artists' lofts linking the L.E.S. with SoHo and Tribeca, no colorful Ukrainian community, no primo Jewish delicatessens, no famous B&H rice pudding and no St. Mark's Place. There'd just be long boring rows of wall-to-wall sterile unaffordable condos everywhere you look. The historical Lower East Side of Manhattan woulda been toast. New Yorkers owe Bill Tatum a lot.

When I was six months pregnant with baby Lorraine back in 1965, I was desperate -- and so I took a train from San Francisco to New York, with only a loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter, a jar of jam, a ball of yarn and two cardboard boxes. By the time I got off the train at Penn Station, I had knitted a sweater but had nowhere to go. "Rents are cheap on the Lower East Side," someone had told me and so I headed down there.

After a few days, I ran into Bill on Second Avenue and he found me a place to live -- a two-room rent-controlled walk-up with a toilet in the hallway and a bathtub in the "kitchen". I paid $28 a month. The same place rents today for over $3,000 a month. I will forever be grateful to Bill Tatum for finding me that home.

But wait. There's more. Bill and his rag-tag little group of Second Avenue survivors then took on City Hall. At that time, Robert Moses' NYC Slum Clearance program was in full swing and it was Moses' most cherished ambition to tear down my little tenement hidey-hole on the Lower East Side and replace it all with swank condominiums, thus leaving me pregnant and homeless in the middle of winter. But Bill was determined to stop that from happening and save the Lower East Side (and, of course, me and baby Lorraine too).

Bill and his wife Susan assembled an unlikely crew consisting of some Swedish tourist who had adopted our cause, a med student from Detroit named Tolbert, the head of a church that fed down-and-out types on the Bowery, a victim of the 1950s HUAC witch hunts for communists, a Chock-Full-a-Nuts waitress and her sister, an artist who was poor as dirt and a recovering alcoholic, his ex-wife, his current wife -- and me. We manned the mimeograph machines, alerted the neighbors, organized demonstrations, spoke at City Council meetings and picketed City Hall.

And somehow, miraculously, thanks to Bill, we won.

A small handful of ragamuffins and our fierce Captain Bill saved the Lower East Side from destruction. And aren't you glad that we did?

Now, in 2009, there is another Lower East Side that needs saving -- East Jerusalem. Gigantic bulldozers are operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week to destroy this historic neighborhood, home to Arabic and Christian Palestinians since the time of Christ. The race is on. Soon historic East Jerusalem will be toast too -- and won't the entire world regret it when this legendary area where Christ Himself walked and taught is replaced with row upon row of sterile condominiums.

According to Press TV, "Israel plans to evacuate and demolish at least 1,700 Arab-owned homes in East Jerusalem" -- unless we also step up to the plate and save Jerusalem's Lower East Side too.