Essex Crossing Is a Megadevelopment That Knows Its Tenement Neighbors

By Justin Davidson

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Arguments over gentrification are almost always starker than the thing itself. That new coffee place on the corner? It’s a state-sponsored hate crime, wiping out history and clearing out poor people, just to gratify developers and their undeserving, overpaying clientele. Or else it’s a welcome sign of brightness where for decades residents have done without a basic pleasure of urban life and have had few incentives just to walk down the street. In real life, you get the GrandLo Café, a suspiciously bright, generically appealing coffee den on Broome Street that takes no cash, only cards, and serves concoctions whose names were never heard on the Lower East Side in my great-grandmother’s day: latte, avocado toast—salad, even! You would never know that it’s a non-profit operation run by the century-old Grand St. Settlement, or that, under cover of caffeine, it’s really a job-training center for at-risk youth.

The Lower East Side contains a storehouse of vanished memories: Streit’s matzoh factory, the synagogue on Norfolk Street, a slew of schmatte emporia, the street gang Satan’s Sinners Nomads, a whole canto in the tale of Puerto Rico. Diasporas recongregated in these jammed blocks, then gratefully scattered again, so that a vast web of family and lore extends from here to the Pacific Ocean and beyond. New construction always feels like an erasure of sorts, and Essex Crossing is big enough to wipe out a whole library’s worth of forgotten tales. But that deletion began with the urban pillaging known as slum clearance in the late 1950s, leaving a hole that the new development begins to heal.

Half a century ago, the city razed thousands of tenements and designated the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA), turning a once-jammed swath along Delancey Street into 20-acre wasteland. Sheldon Silver, the felonious speaker of the state assembly, managed to block construction for decades, trying to preserve his ebbing Jewish constituency, and the vacant lots stayed vacant. Finally, life is flowing back in. GrandLo Cafe is just one small piece of the mammoth Essex Crossing, a $1.5-billion, multi-building megaproject launched during the Bloomberg era, master-planned by SHoP Architects, developed by Delancey Street Associates, and designed by a fistful of different firms. It’s been a long time coming.