As the LPC Approves Demolition of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, We Should Get Creative with Preservation [OP-ED]

Posted on: July 12th, 2017 at 9:39 am by

Since its tragic fire, the future of the Beth Hamedrash Hagadol synagogue has been a topic of much debate. Yesterday, the Landmarks Preservation Commission approved Rabbi Mendel Greenbaum’s push for demolition of heavily damaged portions of the 167-year-old structure. There had been preliminary plans with the Chinese-American Planning Council to erect a new development pre-fire.

Prior to yesterday’s hearing, an anonymous concerned citizen sent us their thoughts, which we publish here as an op-ed.

My family and I live across the street from Beth Hamedrash Hagadol and I ride a Citi Bike almost every day from the dock facing it. I witnessed the fire with family and friends from our apartment firsthand.

In the week following the fire, I spoke with a rabbi outside the broken-down building, and he was excited about meeting with people from the city, to talk about preservation. Putting aside controversy over how the fire got started and how the building was allowed to fall into such poor condition, I want instead to discuss opportunity. Not opportunity to build another glass condo that has no cultural relevance or place in history, but opportunity to revive New York City as a champion of historic preservation.

NYC was one of the earliest adopters of historic preservation. This was an outgrowth of the demolition of the original Penn Station, seen as one of the greatest architectural losses of the previous century, a victim of greed and politics. In its aftermath, this historic preservation movement began, led by Jackie Kennedy and the Municipal Art Society, whose efforts saved Grand Central Terminal.

Over the course of the past decade, we have seen a drastic change in the physical structures and cultural landmarks. Cities change. Change is a constant, but we must at least try to take control over some of that change so it does not erase all of our past. Our past is what grounds us, teaches us, and instills a sense of place for future generations.

I have been fortunate enough to travel the world, and have seen amazing culturally significant buildings transformed into parks, galleries, municipal buildings and other structures. We as a community, if we think creatively, can do that with the space and structure that is salvageable at Beth Hamedrash.

Spoiler alert: it will mean that some people will not get rich in the short term. But it will absolutely help to preserve what’s left of our Lower East Side history. Many people will say that the space is too valuable to put, say, a park there. By that logic, we might not have Central Park, Prospect Park, or Seward Park.

Something to note that I am sure everyone in the comments will bring up: the fact that, although this is a synagogue, it is a private building. Clearly, the congregation has not been using the space over the years, but if having a dedicated space for them is part of the plan forward, then let us consider that as part of the creative criteria.

In a post-fire FDNY memo, they stated that the basement of the structure was not affected, so we can consider that space as usable for the congregation, community space, a public park, and artist studios, to name a few.

Photo: Landmarks Conservancy

Notice that I used the word “creative” earlier. Let’s get creative with the way we think about this space. Let’s get creative with the way we deal with the city and the congregation. The question needn’t be as cut-and-dried as “to tear down” or “not to tear down.”

We have inspiration and precedence: an unfinished church in Bermuda, the “Hardcore Heritage” projects of the firm RAAAF Design in the Netherlands, a former coal mine in Germany which was transformed into a public park and, here in New York, the creative reuse of Governor’s Island, the High Line, and the proposed Lowline.

So where do we go from here?

Photo: Save BHH

Let’s find a way to work together as a community and reclaim this space. Perhaps we hold a design competition to create something great that we can be proud of for generations to come. This has nothing to do with faith or religion or even how we got to this place in our city. I am sure by the time you read this article, we will lose another amazing NYC building to developers, but as a Lower East Side community, we have an opportunity to make a small difference in a neighborhood that has seen too much change in a small amount of time.

We have the possibility to retain some green space and local character, and a chance to be known in the world not just for massive gentrification, but for a sense of history as well.

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