Place of the Month
Located between the ramps of the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges at the nexus of Manhattan’s historic Lower East Side and Chinatown districts, Knickerbocker Village was New York City’s first federally-subsidized housing development. Designed for middle-income families, the complex was conceived and completed in the early 1930s, an era when city and regional planners endorsed urban renewal and wholesale slum clearance as the optimal solutions to the problems of the inner city working-class “ghetto.” For eighty years, residents have fought hard to maintain the development's affordability, as well as that of the neighborhood.
Knickerbocker Village experienced sustained systemic shutdown in the wake of 2012’s Superstorm Sandy. Located in the basement, the Depression-era services and wiring were completely flooded. The buildings’ boilers and pushbotton elevators were knocked out, and residents lived without heat, electricity, and in some cases viable egress, for nearly three weeks after Sandy made landfall in New York.
Although the federal government was instrumental in shaping the Lower East Side, state intervention minimally impacted the neighborhood during and directly after Hurricane Sandy. Elderly citizens were trapped in cold, dark apartments. Many kept sane with spontaneous mah jong tournaments, and they made do thanks to generous assistance from outsiders. Two Bridges Neighborhood Council Associate Director Kerri Culhane says, “From what I understand, it was an occasion where neighbors who have lived next door to each other forever but never talked to each other were finally working together towards mutual goals.” She notes that volunteers from outside of the community made a significant difference as well. “They really mobilized people to bring food, and really cared about the situation on a person to person basis.”
For a year after Sandy, the Knickerbocker Village Tenants' Association petitioned the federal government to compensate residents for individual losses, and to restore the development's damaged infrastructure. In March 2013, local officials lobbied FEMA to pay the Knickerbocker residents who were denied hotel fee reimbursements. Knickerbocker’s management has since replaced the antiquated boiler, and on October 30 2013, city elected officials announced that Knickerbocker would be awarded almost one and a half million dollars of federal hurricane recovery monies through the "NYC Build It Back" program. Rehabilitation of the twelve elevator banks is at the top of the agenda. The management now has the opportunity to turn the buildings’ age to advantage. The complex is included in the Two Bridges Historic District, and as such, the owners are eligible to apply for New York State Historic Tax credits toward additional replacements. Happily, State tax credits do not require the burden of investment associated with Federal historic tax credits. Building owners in other flood-prone historic districts, including the Chinatown/Little Italy Historic District, the Bowery Historic District, and the Lower East Side Historic District, are likewise eligible for historic tax credits toward retrofitting their buildings to align with the city’s post-Sandy building codes.