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Selling the Lower East Side

Culture, Real Estate, and Resistance in New York City

2000
Author:

Christopher Mele

Selling the Lower East Side

Tracks the shifting views of the Lower East Side from ghetto to desirable urban niche.

In this sweeping account, Christopher Mele analyzes the political and cultural forces that have influenced the development of a distinctive urban neighborhood. Selling the Lower East Side is a visionary look at how political and economic actions transform neighborhoods and at what happens when a neighborhood is what is being “consumed.”

Mele makes a considerable contribution to the study of urban restructuring and its relationship to culture. Mele artfully explains the ideological and practical differences that prevented ethnically, economically, racially, and culturally diverse groups of the Lower East Side to forge alliances and fight for common causes.

Urban Affairs Review

The Lower East Side of Manhattan is rich in stories-of poor immigrants who flocked there in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; of beatniks, hippies, and artists who peopled it mid-century; and of the real estate developers and politicians who have always shaped what is now termed the "East Village." Today, the musical Rent plays on Broadway to a mostly white and suburban audience, MTV exploits the neighborhood’s newly trendy squalor in a film promotion, and on the Internet a cyber soap opera and travel-related Web pages lure members of the middle class to enjoy a commodified and sanitized version of the neighborhood.

In this sweeping account, Christopher Mele analyzes the political and cultural forces that have influenced the development of this distinctive community. He describes late nineteenth-century notions of the Lower East Side as a place of entrenched poverty, ethnic plurality, political activism, and "low" culture that elicited feelings of revulsion and fear among the city’s elite and middle classes. The resulting-and ongoing-struggle between government and residents over affordable and decent housing has in turn affected real estate practices and urban development policies. Selling the Lower East Side recounts the resistance tactics used by community residents, as well as the impulse on the part of some to perpetuate the image of the neighborhood as dangerous, romantic, and bohemian, clinging to the marginality that has been central to the identity of the East Village and subverting attempts to portray it as "new and improved."

Ironically, this very image of urban grittiness has been appropriated by a cultural marketplace hungry for new fodder. Mele explores the ways that developers, media executives, and others have coopted the area’s characteristics-analyzing the East Village as a "style provider" where what is being marketed is "difference." The result is a visionary look at how political and economic actions transform neighborhoods and at what happens when a neighborhood is what is being "consumed."

A comprehensive web site for Selling the Lower East Side can be found at www.upress.umn.edu/sles.

Selling the Lower East Side

Christopher Mele is assistant professor of sociology at the University at Buffalo, SUNY.

Selling the Lower East Side

Mele makes a considerable contribution to the study of urban restructuring and its relationship to culture. Mele artfully explains the ideological and practical differences that prevented ethnically, economically, racially, and culturally diverse groups of the Lower East Side to forge alliances and fight for common causes.

Urban Affairs Review

The sociologist Christopher Mele analyzed the political and cultural components that have constructed this geographical area. Summarizing one hundred years of transition, Mele describes what the Lower East Side has meant over time-from a place of immigrant poverty to a locus of hip urban plurality-and how developers and media moguls now sell this thematic history to buyers as ‘style.’

DoubleTake

Mele traces prevailing stereotypes of the East Village as an ethnic haven or bastion of working-class dissent and countercultural rebellion that have been ‘reworked as place themes’ by real estate players seeking to capitalize on the area’s ‘alternative allure.’ Mele compiles an impressive wealth of archival data and historical surveys along with his own field research to illustrate how cultural representations have helped shape the political and economic development of the Lower East Side since the 19th century.

Village Voice

Examines a century of changes in the Lower East Side neighborhoods of New York City, drawing on the research of the new urban sociology school to demonstrate how cultural perceptions of this distinctive area are essential to the confluence of political/economic land usage and the resistance of residents against neighborhood transformation. He demonstrates how redevelopers symbolically include the ambiance of the bohemian, avant-garde, and dangerous aspects of the Lower East Side while working toward their displacement. Mele provides a comprehensive analysis of the neighborhood’s transformation, complete with useful maps, photographs, and an extensive bibliography.

Library Journal

In his book about the economic vicissitudes of the Lower East Side over the past century and a half Christopher Mele combined contemporary social and political criticism with original historical research to create a forceful and often insightful narrative.

American Jewish History

An exciting read. Focusing on the area north of Houston Street, popularly called the East Village and known as Loisaida by Puerto Ricans, Christopher Mele dissects with well-researched precision the reasons for the present condition of outrageous rent prices and rampant commercialism in the area.

City Limits Magazine