Lenin toppled, Red Square

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Lenin statue removed, Red Square, September 19th, 2016. Photo by Stacie Joy
'Red Square' is a 13-story apartment building located at 250 East Houston Street in New York City. Opened in 1989, the building was, at the time, the first substantial new private development in the East Village in many years.[1] From its opening, Red Square was understood as a significant moment in the gentrification of the neighborhood,[2] offering relatively luxurious apartments at significantly higher monthly rental rates than were then current for equivalent square footage in the area.[3]

The building's owners controversially employed the 'danger' of the East Village neighborhood as part of a marketing campaign for the building aimed at attracting young tenants, projecting an 'edgy' image in its naming, the extensive use of art throughout the building, and with the 1994 addition of a statue of Vladimir Lenin on the rooftop.

On the evening of September 19th, 2016, the Lenin statue, by then a familiar landmark on Houston Street, was quietly removed in a two-hour operation, heralding the building’s sale and the beginning of a new era for Red Square.

Background and opening[edit]

Red Square, Houston Street
Red Square was designed by the architectural firm of Schuman Lichtenstein, Claman & Efron for ‘Sundered Ground’, a company owned by developers Michael Rosen and Michael Shaoul.[4] The building was constructed on a triangular plot of land on Houston Street between Avenues A and B that had been in the hands of Michael Rosen’s family since the early 1960s, and had been occupied by a gas station for over 25 years.

Constructed in red brick with green metal window frames and south facing balconies, the development also included an adjacent 23,000 square foot ground-floor retail block, the rooftop of which doubled as a private plaza for residential tenants.[5]

The building’s 130 apartments offered opening monthly rental rates of $975 for a studio, $1,350 for a one-bedroom, and $1,900 for a two-bedroom. At the time, Rosen shrugged off criticism that the rates were higher than normal for the neighborhood, predicting that the building would find its target market of young professionals and college students sharing apartments.[6]

From the start, the building was seen as a new beachhead in the gentrification of the neighborhood. The East Village, traditionally a first port of call for waves of immigrants arriving in New York over the previous 100-plus years, had suffered a dramatic downturn during the fiscal crisis that crippled the city in the 1970s. Many of the area's tenement buildings were abandoned by landlords who could not attract tenants and pay building taxes. Conversely, the availability of cheap rentals attracted artists and alternative nightlife to the area, beginning a revival throughout the 1980s, and an eventual upturn in the area's real-estate values.[7]

At the time of Red Square's opening in 1989, the East Village was still considered a dangerous neighborhood, with drug dealing and violent crime part of the daily life of many blocks. As such, the creation of a new luxury apartment building in this context has been seen as a 'vanguard' moment by real-estate watchers, an instance of where "developers have gone out on a figurative limb and built projects in areas that are not ‘hot,’ and, indeed, may well be on the fringe of conventionally considered ‘safe’ development, or beyond."[8]

Design and marketing campaign[edit]

Entrance lobby artwork by Julie Dermansky
Red Square developer Michael Rosen brought in graphic designer Tibor Kalman, of design firm M&Company, to create a brand identity for the new building, which included coming up with the name Red Square, commissioning permanent artworks for the interior and exterior, as well as creating a marketing campaign to attract new renters.[9]

As Frederique Krupa noted in an early critique of the development, the marketing campaign was based on “the creation of an image in architecture”, one that hinged on selling the ‘edginess’ of the building’s location as part of a package to possible tenants who might not otherwise have considered the neighborhood as a place to live in.[10]

On the naming of the building, Kalman explained, "We thought a dangerous neighborhood deserved a dangerous name".[11] The building’s co-developer Michael Shaoul elaborated, somewhat vaguely, that it was "related to changes in Eastern Europe", and "suited a red, squarish building".[12] His business partner Rosen was more explicit in explaining the name, linking the symbolic center of the Soviet state with the neighborhood’s own history of progressive socialism: "I wanted to do something creative, fun, an homage to the history of the Lower East Side, which had been a hotbed of political thought."[13]

Annexing the East Village's vital alternative art and gallery scene during the 1980's, Rosen and Kalman brought in local artists Johnny Swing, James Cullinae, and Julie Dermansky to create permanent works for the façade, sidewalk and lobby, respectively,[14] while the building's clock tower featured the Askew clock design by M&Company, with randomized placement of the hour numbers around the clock face.[15]

In a further gesture toward radicalism, as the building units started to fill up, the banners that had been hung from the façade advertising rentals were replaced with a series of banners featuring political slogans commissioned by Kalman from design firm Bureau. Aggressively pro-choice messages for women's rights were "not warmly received by the traditionally Catholic Hispanic community" that makes up a large percentage of the neighborhood, however, and the project was swiftly curtailed.[16]

Early criticism[edit]

The transparency of Rosen and Kalman's marketing of Red Square was recognized from the outset.[17] Although the New York Times had commented, either ironically or misguidedly that, until the building opened, the "left-wing politics and protest" of the East Village "had never had an appropriately named locus for its intellectual foment",[18] the building was nevertheless criticized for not including any provision for low-income housing (as had been recommended by the local Community Board 3), and for invoking progressive social ideals to market a luxury building for the upper-middle classes.[19]

Frederique Krupa, in her extended 1992 examination of the building's marketing, noted how a 1989 brochure advertising rentals in the building (complete with Constructivist-inspired graphics) had been keen to highlight the hip and edgy credentials of the building's East Village location - alongside an emphasis on the building's security features: doorman, steel clad apartment doors, and an up to date video intercom system for screening visitors. "The tenant can go out in this dangerous neighborhood and return to their safe, clean, private haven."[20] The brochure baldly plotted the trajectory of demographic change in the East Village in a movie script-style historical thumbnail:

"A seamstress and a presser, shy as villagers falling in love over the accompaniment of whirring sewing machines and sweet tea...
[fade to...] The lint of sweat shops swept out by raucous Spanish accents...
[fade to...] Long haired poets silk-screening posters for the revolution...
Today it's an after hours club. Or is it the apartment where the incredible Dutch model with one name lives with Mr. Wallstreet?"[21]

Writing three years after the opening of the building, Krupa noted the gulf between the building's tenants - "mostly white and either single or in couples with two incomes and no children", and the largely low-income demographic of the immediate neighborhood. The latter, she pointed out, were more accurately reflected in the Red Square development's adjacent retail spaces, which included fast food restaurants, a billiard hall and a Western Union check cashing facility. "Michael Rosen used designers and artists to alter the way we judge Red Square. The problem is not simply that Red Square is luxury housing in a tenement neighborhood, it [is that it] tries to appear as something that it isn't".[22]

1994 addition of Lenin statue[edit]

Statue of Lenin on top of "Red Square" on East Houston. - panoramio
In a final pitch at underlining the building's progressive credentials, in 1994, Red Square's developers added an 18ft bronze statue of Vladimir Lenin to the southwest corner of the building rooftop, visible from street level. The statue, which had been Michael Rosen's idea,[23] was by Soviet sculptor Yuri Gerasimov, and had originally been commissioned by the Soviet Union before the collapse of the state in the early 1990's. An associate of Michael Shaoul's had apparently sourced it "in the backyard of a dacha outside Moscow".[24]

Rosen, who had taught 'radical sociology' at New York University in the 'Power and Politics' course,[25] was keen to emphasize that the intention with the statue was to have Lenin facing south toward Wall Street, gesturing in admonishment from the politically progressive Lower East Side. The developers had a postcard produced reading "Greetings from Red Square", depicting the statue with right arm held aloft over the downtown skyline.[26]

Rosen later visited Vietnam in an attempt to source a companion statue of Ho Chi Minh to add to the Red Square rooftop. His intention was to have that statue face north toward Harlem, "where legend has it that Ho Chi Minh worked as a short-order cook and perhaps studied a bit at Columbia..."[27] The idea was never realized, however, and Rosen has since acknowledged the contradictions of the whole Red Square enterprise, even apologizing for its role in accelerating the gentrification of the East Village over the following twenty years.[28]

Regardless of the cynicism of the developers' intentions in installing the Lenin statue, the piece became an iconic rooftop presence on Houston Street. Arthur Nersesian, writing for Hyperallergic in 2016, confessed that he took the statue at face value in its iconoclasm: "it was a clear sign that the East Village, with all its political and artistic ramifications, had fully arrived."[29] Even those who saw through its contradictions were able to appropriate it for their own purposes; Joe Sims, a member of the Communist Party of the USA's national board, included it as a stop in his walking tours of the Lower East Side.[30]

2016 removal of Lenin statue[edit]

Statue removal, September 19th, 2016. Photo by Stacie Joy
Rumors of the sale of the Red Square building began circulating in the summer of 2015. The EV Grieve website had noted that none of the vacant shop units in the development's retail strip were listed for rent at the time.[31] The New York Post subsequently reported that the development was in contract to be sold for roughly $100 million to the Dermot Company,[32] a management company that has a litany of complaints for neglectful management of their buildings.[33]

On the evening of September 19th, 2016, the Lenin statue was removed without warning in a two-hour operation.[34] Initially brought to a storage yard in Queens overnight, the statue was, the next day, hoisted to a rooftop at 178 Norfolk Street, just a block away from Red Square on the other side of Houston Street.[35] 178 Norfolk Street is co-owned by original Red Square developers Michael Rosen and Michael Shaoul, and Shaoul promised The New York Times that the statue would be on display at a new location within about a month.[36]

Residents of the neighborhood were reported to be disappointed at the local landmark's removal. Rosen, who, by 2016, had only a non-voting shareholder role in the building, had arranged for its removal on learning of the sale of the building.[37] Commenting from Vietnam, where he has been based for the past number of years, Rosen described the 1994 installation of the statue as "as a sort of experiment with symbols", and confessed that he was "a little sad" at its removal: "I live in a largely Buddhist country now,” he said. “But I’m not doing a good job accepting the impermanence of things.[38]

The future of 'Red Square'[edit]

On October 20th, 2016 a news release was issued to the residents of the building that confirmed that, "the residential condominium at 250 East Houston Street is now owned by 250 Houston Investors, LP and is managed by Dermot Realty Management Co. LP."[39] Curbed New York confirmed that the new owners were ditching the 'Red Square' name, and that the building would henceforth be referred to as '250 East Houston Street'. A current resident was quoted as reporting that staff salaries at the building had immediately been cut by 30%: "The doormen were making around $16/hour, now cut to $11. They were given ONE DAY to accept or leave. Not being union employees, they had little choice."[40]

The letter to tenants promises upgrades to the fabric and services of the building, however, it was reported that a freeze on the renewal of leases had been instituted by the previous owners prior to the sale, so residents may have to brace themselves for rent hikes.[41] Monthly rental rates prior to the sale were listed as $2,500 for a studio apartment, $3,000 for a 1-bedroom, and $5,275 for a 2-bedroom apartment.[42] Tenants might look ahead with trepidation: Dermot Co has a 1 star rating on Yelp, with comments including "negligent, incompetent, and completely unresponsive" and "one of the worst realty companies in New York City."[43]

The symbolism of the removal of the Lenin statue and the dropping of the Red Square name has been noted.[44] If the building was a 'red wedge' in the early gentrification of the East Village in 1989, it can perhaps be said to have done it's job, as demographic changes accelerated the transformation of the neighborhood over the proceeding twenty-seven years. In retrospect, Lenin's raised arm may have been less of an admonishment toward Wall Street, as Michael Rosen had it, and more of a 'come hither'. Or, as Arthur Nersesian writes, "when Michael Rosen [...] hoisted the Lenin statue up over the area, he inadvertently found an appropriate representative - a man who tried creating a utopia and wound up making a monster."[45]

As for Rosen, he appears to have been acting out a contrition for Red Square almost from the time it first opened, focusing, since, on the development of low-income housing, half-way houses, and shelters for victims of domestic abuse.[46] He has been at the forefront of numerous campaigns to protect the character of the East Village, and he and his family were instrumental in the successful campaign to save St. Brigid's on Avenue B.[47]

Meanwhile, his former business partner Michael Shaoul, the long-term property manager of Red Square before its sale, also acknowledged how much he would miss the building and its Lenin statue. "My favorite view of him was walking up Essex Street ... from that angle he looked like an old man feeding pigeons."[48]

References[edit]

  1. Carter Horsley, "Red Square, 250 East Houston Street", Cityrealty, retrieved January 10, 2017.
  2. Lincoln Anderson, "Lenin has left the building! There goes the neighborhood", The Villager, September 22, 2016, retrieved January 10, 2017.
  3. Richard D. Lyons, "POSTINGS: Turn Left at the Village; Red Square", New York Times, April 9, 1989, retrieved January 10, 2017.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Frederique Krupa, "Red Square, New York", Simple Is Beautiful, March 10, 1992, retrieved January 10, 2017.
  8. Horsley, "Red Square, 250 East Houston Street".
  9. Krupa, "Red Square, New York".
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Martin Stolz, "F.Y.I. - Lenin and a Crazy Clock", New York Times, July 27, 1997, retrieved January 10, 2017.
  13. Colin Moynihan, "With Statue's Removal, Lenin Is Momentarily Toppled on the Lower East Side", New York Times, September 26, 2016, retrieved January 10, 2017.
  14. Krupa, "Red Square, New York".
  15. Stolz, "F.Y.I. - Lenin and a Crazy Clock". A design that is included in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in its original watch form.
  16. Krupa, "Red Square, New York".
  17. Moynihan, "With Statue's Removal, Lenin Is Momentarily Toppled on the Lower East Side".
  18. Lyons, "POSTINGS: Turn Left at the Village; Red Square".
  19. Krupa, "Red Square, New York".
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Anderson, "Lenin has left the building! There goes the neighborhood".
  24. Stolz, "F.Y.I. - Lenin and a Crazy Clock".
  25. Krupa, "Red Square, New York".
  26. Stolz, "F.Y.I. - Lenin and a Crazy Clock".
  27. Anderson, "Lenin has left the building! There goes the neighborhood".
  28. "Rumors: Red Square has been sold", EV Grieve, June 1, 2015, retrieved January 10, 2017.
  29. Arthur Nersesian, "The Rise and Fall of the East Village Lenin Statue", Hyperallergic, September 26, 2016, retrieved January 10, 2017.
  30. Moynihan, "With Statue's Removal, Lenin Is Momentarily Toppled on the Lower East Side".
  31. "Rumors: Red Square has been sold", EV Grieve.
  32. Lois Weiss, "Quirky East Village doorman building sold for $100M", New York Post, August 9, 2016, retrieved January 10, 2017.
  33. Sarah Kaufman, "Notorious Management Company Buys 'Red Square' in East Village: Report", East Village Patch, August 10, 2016, retrieved January 10, 2017.
  34. "The fall of Lenin: Iconic statue removed from Red Square on East Houston Street", EV Grieve, September 20, 2016, retrieved January 10, 2017.
  35. Elie, Red Square’s Lenin Statue Finds New Home on Norfolk Street, Bowery Boogie, September 21, 2016, retrieved January 10, 2017.
  36. Moynihan, "With Statue's Removal, Lenin Is Momentarily Toppled on the Lower East Side".
  37. Anderson, "Lenin has left the building! There goes the neighborhood".
  38. Moynihan, "With Statue's Removal, Lenin Is Momentarily Toppled on the Lower East Side".
  39. "New ownership makes it official at the former Red Square on East Houston", EV Grieve, October 25, 2016, retrieved January 10, 2017.
  40. Rachel Sugar, "East Village's Red Square rental braces for major changes", Curbed New York, October 25, 2016, retrieved January 10, 2017.
  41. "The fall of Lenin: Iconic statue removed from Red Square on East Houston Street", EV Grieve, September 20, 2016, retrieved January 10, 2017.
  42. "Building: 250 East Houston Street", StreetEasy, retrieved January 10, 2017.
  43. "The Dermot Realty Management Company", Yelp, retrieved January 10, 2017. It not being possible to leave zero stars on Yelp, one out of five is very bad.
  44. Anderson, "Lenin has left the building! There goes the neighborhood".
  45. Nersesian, "The Rise and Fall of the East Village Lenin Statue".
  46. Krupa, "Red Square, New York".
  47. "Looking back: Red Square and gentrification", EV Grieve, June 27, 2008, retrieved January 10, 2017.
  48. Moynihan, "With Statue's Removal, Lenin Is Momentarily Toppled on the Lower East Side".