New Upper Middle-Class Residents of East Chelsea Protest to Keep Homeless Out

New York Press
June 8, 2010

George Nashak has been trying to keep the peace with his sympathetic smile. Since the meeting began at 6:30 p.m., Nashak, who is the Deputy Commissioner of Adult Services for New York City’s Department of Homeless Services, along with Christopher King, an attorney for the city, have been the most visible of the five city officials facing irate neighbors to discuss the proposal concerning a 12-story, 328-bed homeless facility scheduled to open this month at 127 W. 25th St. in Chelsea.

The meeting is tense on both sides. When King is told by one community member that the DHS’ 33-page “Fair Share Analysis” is “fi lled with lies and distortions,” King replies, with derision in his voice, “Put it in a letter to the DHS.”

Sensing the hostility in the crowd, Nashak smiles and says, “I’ll look at it.”

It’s May 10, and around 70 area residents have shown up for this public airing of grievances. With the exception ofone Asian woman, they’re all white: stay-at-home-moms with toddlers in tow, bankers, lawyers, real-estate types and a handful of artists. Egged on by a few loudmouths, the cohort steadily works itself into a fury.

A Latino man in an expensive-looking pinstriped suit is curious to know if “these people” could be barred from Whole Foods after 9:30 at night. When someone claims that the homeless shelter is the result of a political fi x, he belts out in a thick accent: “That’s why we should smash the building!”

Nashak has been absorbing the crowd’s hostility for an hour now and the warmth is starting to wane.

A woman in a stylishly cut trench coat says she isn’t worried about the homeless per se—just “certain types” of them. “Do the people in the ‘chemical program’ have total access to walking the streets?” she wants to know. “I have a 13-year-old daughter.”

Nashak manages an empathetic nod, but he looks perplexed. The woman’s fear is obviously genuine—you can hear it in her voice—but the question seems implausible from this educated crowd. “We don’t keep our residents on lockdown, ma’am,” he says, fi nally. “It’s not a prison.”

A few feet from Nashak, a tanned, thin woman—fi fty-something, in a lightweight scarf and sunglasses—sits in the front row next to an equally thin and tan man. “That’s the problem!” the woman thunders.

The implication is clear: Many of those present would like the homeless locked up. If Nashak smiles again after that, I don’t notice it.

This is the latest chance for area residents to express their unwillingness to allow this homeless shelter to take root in their gentrifying section of Chelsea. Despite setbacks, The Chelsea Flatiron Coalition, a group that has organized to stop the shelter, is moving forward with a lawsuit against the DHS and the BRC, claiming the new shelter is illegally zoned.

The next speaker introduces himself as Jeff Lew. He wears a perfectly pressed blue blazer, a light blue dress shirt and khakis. Lew politely thanks the commissioners for their time, and then he introduces his 9-year-old daughter. Putting his arm around her, he raises a rolled-up flyer in the direction of the panel and tells them she’s grown up her whole life in Chelsea, it’s the only world she’s ever known, soon she’ll be 11 and wanting to walk to school alone. “What will I tell her?” Lew asks.

Hunched over now, King glares at Lew. “Sir, do you have a question?” he asks.

Lew continues: “If one of your residents—or however you want to characterize these people—hurts, injures, kills or attacks one of our residents, what happens? How much money is in your budget to pay for their family to re-locate?”

“Sir, sir, with all due respect,” King responds. “That’s not a question I’m going to allow as it relates to pending litigation.”

The crowd erupts with catcalls, hisses, boos and cries of “Bought and sold!” A psychiatrist in the audience brings up the safety of his patients. He’s going to have tomove his practice; he knows what “these people” can do, he explains.

A 6-foot-8 mountain of a Yuppie, muscles bulging through his Armani suit jacket, makes his way from the back of the room. After lecturing King on the nature of respect, he’s eventually ordered to sit down by a burly Hispanic community board member. “You’re out of order, you show some respect,” he rails, as another board member restrains him.

The Yuppie’s friend throws down his black messenger bag with a derisive laugh and shouts: “You’re out of order! This whole fucking trial is out of order.” He’s obviously been waiting to quote Pacino all night.

His lecture on civics finished, the Yuppie has one last issue to raise. “I’m the president of Chelsea Atelier, luxury condos right on the corner of Seventh Avenue, and we have three apartments available,” he says, licking his lips for the kill. “So if any of you would like to take a look.”

Nashak answers coolly: “I can’t afford it.”

Ironically, Muzzy Rosenblatt, the man community members most wanted a piece of, was not at this particular public meeting. Rosenblatt is chairman of the Bowery Residents’ Committee (BRC), the non-profit agency that operates homeless programs throughout the city. The West 25th Street shelter is set to be its largest facility.

That the DHS was speaking on behalf of BRC, its client, is evidence of what Rosenblatt himself deems the “complicated” relationship that nonprofit homeless service providers have with the city. Rosenblatt was one of a select few who shaped city policy toward the homeless, beginning during the Koch administration and lasting until he left the DHS in 1999.

Strangely enough, this makes him one of the architects of what is now the biggest impediment to opening the West 25th Street shelter: a Giuliani-era law against shelters consisting of over 200 beds.

Community members see something much more sinister in the arrangement; a tell-tale sign that the DHS awards contracts on the basis of cronyism, and more specifically, that the Bloomberg administration is running cover for a private operation run for the benefit of Rosenblatt, one of their own. Lew, a 46-year-old “real estate professional,”explains: “The city is breaking its own laws, and I find it reprehensible.”

What is, on the face of it, a local battle over the placement of one large shelter in one Manhattan neighborhood is actually symptomatic of a growing citywide problem. Vocal groups in neighborhoods as diverse as Chelsea, Greenpoint and Crown Heights are protesting homeless shelters on the grounds that their turf is “recently developed” (read: gentrified) and home to a baby boom that started about a decade ago, when the streets in their areas were cleaned up in earnest. (Rosenblatt is involved in at least two of these turf wars, as opposition has also been raised over a proposed BRC shelter in Greenpoint.)

Some might remember Rosenblatt as the notorious figure who shuttered the gate permanently on CBGBs in 2005 for nonpayment of back rent. “I will not subsidize CBGBs at the expense of the homeless,” he told the papers at the time. Rosenblatt is quick to offer up endorsements by a flurry of super-rich corporations—including NYU and Extel Development—to the tune that the BRC has not hurt their development schemes on the ever-burgeoning Bowery one iota. Rosenblatt pushes his case a step further in material prepared for CB4, implying that the BRC has—since its arrival in 1992 on what was then still very much skid-row—actually encouraged “an increase in luxury housing, high-end boutiques and surging property values.” When Nashak relayed this possibility to the crowd at the Red Cross building, they hissed in disbelief.

Perhaps Bloomberg’s gentrification policies have just been too successful for his own good. Time and again, Chelsea residents I spoke with brought up just how many children live in their neighborhood compared to a decade ago, when Chelsea was still “filled with porn stores and vacant lots.”

To illustrate his point, Lew tells me that there was just one kid under the age of 10 in his building when he bought his apartment in 1997. “Now there are 25,” he says.

Lila Nordstrom, 27, lives with her parents in a West 25th Street apartment that’s near the proposed shelter. The family has lived there since Lila was 10 when, according to her, it was “one of the only residential buildings” in a “no-man’s zone of empty parking lots.” Since then, they’ve seen the surrounding blocks— which Nordstrom nicknames “Flatironish”— gradually morph into the stroller mecca it is today. “It’s like a kid explosion,” Nordstrom says.

Walk a block in either direction of the BRC site and you’ll pass plenty of evidence that merchants have responded to the increase in families. To the east “indoor playground.” A walk toward the corner of Seventh Avenue brings you to the door of Buy Buy Baby. Even the Chelsea Mercantile Building—a storied super luxury condominium that rents its massive first floor to Whole Foods—has installed a kid’s playroom along with other amenities, such as a concierge and gym.

A week after the Community Board ruckus, Chelsea Moms—an ad-hoc coalition dedicated to deep-sixing the shelter—protested in front of Speaker Christine Quinn’s Chelsea office. It was the second time the group had hit the streets in two weeks, and Maggie Gallagher-Lilly, an attractive 43-year-old stay-at-home mother of three daughters, leads around two-dozen middle-aged moms in a chant: “Moms want the facts!” Maggie, and her husband Jacques, a banker, signed a mortgage for a West 25th Street loft space last May. In June, the Wall Street Journal broke the story that the shelter was opening next door.

While protesters have criticized Quinn for having “checked out” of the process, it is Rosenblatt who is once again the main target for abuse. Time and again the name “Muzzy” is used by angry citizens in the area like an invective. One placard sums up the angry sentiment: “Muzzy, move your shelter to Forest Hills. Let your neighbors get mugged at night,” it reads. Of course, Midtown is the center for New York’s street homeless, not Forest Hills.

At the meeting, Gallagher-Lilly asked DHS representatives whether they were in fact covering for Rosenblatt to enrich himself through the shelter system. Told the BRC is a non-profit charity, Gallagher-Lilly shot back that they were getting rich and she had seen their proof. “They’re sending orchids to neighbors to woo them, and yet you say the BRC doesn’t make a profit,” she scoffed.

Like many of the other family’s represented at the protest, the Gallagher-Lilly household has coughed up $750 per bedroom to the Chelsea Flatiron Coalition to keep the lawsuit against the BRC shelter afloat.

“Unfortunately, there are a lot of falsehoods being circulated by anonymous organizations,” Rosenblatt explains. “I’ve been transparent and invited people to been transparent and invited people to come by our programs.”

Asked if she’s ever met with Rosenblatt personally, Gallagher-Lilly replies icily: “I don’t want to talk to this person, he’s a liar.” Her husband agrees: “Just flagrantlylies to us and smiles.”

When asked if they think there are larger political realities to the placement of the shelter than just the BRC getting a good lease, Jacques Gallagher-Lilly hands his 9-month-old daughter to his wife while he considers the question. After a brief moment, he nods thoughtfully and says: “I heard a rumor that [the move] is because Muzzy owns an apartment on the Bowery, and he wants his property values to go up.”

Residents pass around rumors and innuendos regarding Rosenblatt—and the real motive behind the BRC move—with great pride. There’s the one about the new site being closer to the R Train, which he uses to commute from Forest Hills. Lila Nordstrom’s 66-year-old mother, Carla—an energetic retired teacher who frequents anti-war rallies and boasts of “never” having voted for Bloomberg—has an even more straightforward take on the chairman’s motives. “He’s doing it to make money, maybe individual money,” she says, assuredly. “I assume that at some point we’re going to see him walking out in handcuffs!”

While citing rumors of his alleged financial shenanigans leaves Rosenblatt cold, the idea that Chelsea residents might be genuinely afraid of BRC residents seems to shake him. He says: “I really think it’s ignorance.” I ask him whether one of his residents has ever assaulted someone who lives on the Bowery. “No, never,” he replies gravely. “At least in the 10 years I’ve been aboard.”

Of course, East Chelsea’s vocal community members remain unconvinced and now they have a new ally in the fight, the landlord of 127 W. 25th St., which says it was snookered into letting the BRC sign a lease. They’ve joined the CFC’s lawsuit.

One protester, a self-proclaimed “progressive” named Andy Barbaro, 62, admits to feeling ambivalent toward gentrification. When asked whether it’s possible that some of his fellow protesters just don’t like the homeless, he replies: “I think they definitely might be worried about their property values.”