URBAN RENEWAL PLAN
During the post-war years, New York City sought to use its urban renewal powers to clear areas with low-income residents and replace them with new, more expensive housing. This process, known as slum clearance, aimed to remove existing residents, demolish their housing, and give the land to developers at a reduced cost. The New York City's Slum Clearance Plan paved the way for many new housing projects in low-income communities but only a small number of existing residents benefited from the new housing units. The rest, the vulnerable workforce, were forcefully evicted.
The Cooper Square story started in 1959 when the city and development czar Robert Moses released an urban renewal plan for an area dubbed Cooper Square due to its proximity to Cooper Union, an historic small college. The area included a cluster of tenements and small businesses in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Furious at the city's disregard for its low-income renters, neighborhood activists were quick to organize to stop the Cooper Square Urban Renewal Plan, which also included the construction of an expressway that would had split the community in two.
Cooper Square in 1957. Photo: Edward Meneeley Archives.
COOPER SQUARE COMMITTEE IS FORMED
A group of community activists, residents, business owners, and artists formed the Cooper Square Committee to fight the Moses plan. They included Thelma Burdick from the Church of All Nations Settlement House, Esther Rand from Met Council on Housing, Helen DeMott, Marvin Carpenter, Frances Goldin, Walter Thabit, Charles Kaswan, Margaret Richie, Stoughton Lynn, and Morris Moskovitz.
THE ALTERNATE PLAN
Unwilling to accept the urban renewal plan, the Cooper Square Committee members built local coalitions, organized tenants, and developed a community-based plan, the first in the city. The Alternate Plan, completed after over 100 community meetings under the leadership of Walter Thabit, was made public in 1961. It sought to minimize demolitions, carry on development in stages, prevent displacement, and give site tenants priority for the new housing. It proposed that the blocks with the best tenement housing remain in place and created innovative solutions to meet the needs of seniors, artists, and homeless men on the Bowery.
Alternate Plan's Visualizations. Photo: Tom Angotti
LOWER EAST SIDE GETS DEVASTATED BY FISCAL CRISIS
The anti-displacement efforts of the Cooper Square Committee, and many other groups across the city, brought to light the damage of slum clearance. They rejected the planned relocations and displacement and forced the city to put the Cooper Square Urban Renewal plan and the site clearance on hold. Energized, the committee continued working on The Alternate Plan in collaboration with community members and experts. The plan was officially adopted by the city in 1970, but it was not developed as originally conceived due to a moratorium on funds for low-income housing development declared by President Nixon in 1969. The withdrawal of federal funds was followed by the city’s fiscal crisis of the 1970s, which further devastated the Lower East Side and many other neighborhoods.
Photo taken from East 6th Street to East 5th Street and Avenue C in 1986. Photo: Marlis Momber
1980s - 1990s
COOPER SQUARE CLT IS BORN OUT OF
THE REVISED PLAN
By the 1980s, the original plan seemed unfeasible. Without funding for new housing, the Cooper Square Committee shifted its focus from new housing to rehabilitation for the existing housing. This resulted in a revised plan, which focused on multiple city-owned buildings in deplorable conditions occupied by families and small local businesses.
In the early 1990s, a series of binding legal agreements with the city secured the transfer of the first buildings to the Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association (MHA), officially formed in 1991, and the land under those buildings to Cooper Square Community Land Trust (CLT), incorporated in 1994. Since then, Cooper Square CLT stewards the land under the Cooper Square MHA buildings on behalf of the residents.
In the following decade, some of the original 400 apartments in the urban renewal area were combined into larger units to accommodate families, resulting in 328 renovated housing units in 21 buildings.
Cooper Square MHA II. Photo: Gabriela Rendón.
COOPER SQUARE MHA IS
In 2012, the Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association was recognized by the Attorney General of the State of New York as a limited-equity cooperative in keeping with the original agreement made with the city. Residents bought shares in the cooperative at very modest prices. Community leader Frances Goldin who fought fiercely over a period of almost 50 years to implement the community’s vision, personally handed the deeds to residents and celebrated with the Cooper Square community the victory of a long and strenuous battle.
2000 - 2010s
COOPER SQUARE CLT TODAY
Over the last 30 years, our organizing efforts have involved maintaining the affordability and livability of the buildings that reside on the land we own and steward through oversight of the resident governance and management of the buildings. In recent years, we have sought to expand our organizing efforts to nearby buildings to shield low-income tenants in our community who are at risk of losing their homes to foreclosure or real estate speculation. We are currently organizing the tenants of two rent-stabilized buildings that we rescued from tax foreclosure. We are on track for a moderate renovation of these two buildings and seek to expand this work to other local buildings.
Today, as we celebrate our decades-long history of successful activism, we are eager to find new ways to engage new residents and re-energize long-time community members through organizing, popular education, and leadership building. As our organization and residents age, it is crucial to organize the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th generation residents so that we continue to be community-led and power remains with the people and the families who have come before us in the fight against displacement dating back to Robert Moses.