Monday, November 17, 2008

::96-year-old Grandma Redefines Squatter's Rights::

It warms the heart to see the elderly get grimy for what they believe in. Providing that their convictions are morally sound, that is. And such is the case of 96-year-old New Yorker Editta Sherman.

Since 1949, she has resided in one of the many studios located in the towers directly above New York's venerable concert venue Carnegie Hall. She raised her 5 children there and made quite the name for herself as an esteemed photographer. Her lengthly portfolio reads like a who's who of high society, pop culture and all in between: Andy Worhol, June Carter Cash, Henry Fonda, Elvis Presley, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr. More striking is the fact that most of her subjects were photographed right in the very studio she has called home for the past 59 years.

So the f*ck what, you say? The what is the fact that Sherman resides in one of the final six rent-controlled studios in the Carnegie Towers, and they want her OUT! Is she a loud and unruly tenant? NO! Does she throw raucous parties in her apartment steeped in debauchery and crunk shenanigans? NO! Does she outright refuse to separate the recyclables from her garbage? NO!! Her only crime is standing in the way of Carnegie's $150 million dollar big money scheme of revamping the studios above the hall into arts education facilities. The underlying story is that Sherman only pays a mind-boggling $530 rent on a breathtaking, high-ceiling 800 square foot studio...PER MONTH!!! She definitely hit the jackpot by both living directly above a NYC landmark and smack dab in the middle of prime real estate central. But she refuses to budge. She stated, part in jest, that she would be willing to move if Carnegie gave her $10 million. Let the face-off begin.

Dubbed the Dutchess of Carnegie Hall, Sherman has become the face of the fight to secure the Carnegie studios as rent-controlled spaces for those who have been loyal tenants for decades. Unfortunately, Carnegie won a lawsuit last spring which effectively evicted 30 tenants from the towers who were fighting essentially for the same right to remain. Though the future looks grim for the final 6, they refuse to go without a fervent fight. They've even gotten support from celebrities such as Robert DeNiro, Susan Sarandon, and John Turturro.

It appears that the sun is truly setting on New York City's Artist-In-Residence program. The true intention of the program was to buttress the city's thriving artist community by designating lofts and studios in certain city zones as living/ working spaces. The program also served to revitalize certain areas deemed deplorable, such as the pre-mid 1980's SoHo. Could it be that this was the first throes of gentrification? Maybe. But it's clear that today's interpretation and utilization of the phrase Artist-In-Residence is a 180-degree about face from its original intent: it's typically seen as a short run of one specific artist at a singular venue, be it art gallery or concert hall. Definitely a shift from literal to theoretical. And although the city of New York has owned the venue since 1960, philanthropist Andrew Carnegie built the towers above the venue specifically for working/ living spaces for artists. Taking the Carnegie situation into consideration, there's more irony than you can shake a stick at here.

As of late, many people across the city's 5 boroughs are fighting Sherman's fight. Wealthy land developers are moving into neighborhoods under false pretenses, yanking the rug beneath the feet of the working class in communities like Harlem, East Village, Lower East Side, Fort Green, and South Bronx. Affordable housing is probably on the top of the list of gripes of the average New Yorker, native or transplant. And with new rezoning laws on the table at city hall, many communities are biting their nails praying that they don't come home to an eviction notice after a hard day's work.

Now is the time to take to the streets and get involved with local grassroots organizations, particularly those with a focus on anti-gentrification, championing the right of citizens to be protected from such greedy real estate ventures seeking to redevelop areas at their expense. But this scenario is not specific to NYC. Many metropolitan areas across the country are also feeling the pangs: Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and San Francisco. Though the Carnegie situation is somewhat of an anomaly, ground zero for gentrification is typically public housing. Sounds like neo-liberalism strikes again. Here's one link to get you up to speed.

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