Recap: Discussing Delancey Underground at Tenement Museum

Posted on: February 17th, 2012 at 6:45 am by

Perhaps it’s in our genes. New Yorkers have a knack for visualizing spaces that others would ignore, or pass right by. It could be the extra closet that you have recurring dreams about, or a ginormous underground space the size of Gramercy Park.

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Dan Barasch, James Ramsey, David Bolotsky and Stuart Blumin

A few months back, we reported on the proposal for Delancey Underground, a “low line” version of the High Line. The space is currently a long-abandoned trolley terminal hidden below Delancey Street (behind the J train platform).

Last night’s Tenement Talk at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum explored the history, current state, and potential future of the space. Museum President Morris Vogel introduced the speakers, describing Delancey Underground co-founders Dan Barasch and James Ramsey as visionaries.

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Stuart Blumin

Cornell Urban History Professor Emeritus Stuart Blumin spoke first. As the organizers warned him that he was running long, he joked that five minutes was too short a time to speak about the history of the Lower East Side, and the appreciative audience encouraged him on.

“We’re used to the idea that NY has more of everything,” said Blumin. “This is the one thing that NY doesn’t have: public space.” He then illustrated the point with Jacob Riis’ historic photographs of the neighborhood. Through his photos, Riis lamented that the only areas for children to play were in the street, in alleyways, and behind their buildings amidst the laundry lines and privies.

David Bolotsky, who spearheaded the restoration of the nearby Friends of Gulick Park, talked a bit about public spaces before introducing Barasch and Ramsey. Bolotsky elaborated on the rewards – and pitfalls – of trying to make improvements in a complex community like the Lower East Side, where, of course, everybody has an opinion. “The LES is a very contentious neighborhood,” said Bolotsky. “Even planting a tree is controversial.”

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James Ramsey, discussing "sixty years of schmutz"

Ramsey next showed slides of the current condition of the derelict trolley terminal. “What you are seeing, is sixty-some-odd years of schmutz.” While the space is not publicly accessible, Ramsey pointed out that if one stands on the Brooklyn side of the platform at the J/M/Z train, you can see some of the abandoned space. Aside from needing to be cleaned up, the area needs to have natural light introduced. Ramsey created a system which would gather sunlight and direct it down to the lower level, much in the way that a skylight allows light in from above.

“What we are proposing is nothing less than building a landmark for the LES,” said Ramsey.

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Dan Barasch

Taking over the mic, Barasch discussed the lack of green space in the city. Pointing out that SPURA is involved with the entire location along Delancey, he noted, “There’s an economic plan, but not a lot of green places” in the SPURA site. Barasch then showed slides indicating potential uses including a farmer’s market, pop up shops, and even hosting Tenement Talks.

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One of the big unknowns in all of this, is what the owner, the MTA, has in mind for the untapped area. All of the new attention – following a sixty year period of inactivity – has re-engaged the MTA, which rapidly posted a video called “The Essex Street Trolley Terminal.” The four minute tour discusses revenue-producing opportunities for the future.

Next steps involve plans to build a full scale demo in the Old Essex Street Market, as well as a Kickstarter campaign next week.

Writeup and photos by Lori Greenberg

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