Tuesday night I attended the monthly meeting of Community Board 7, which covers the Upper West Side. The reason I was there was to speak to oppose the demolition of Dorothy Parker’s childhood home at 214 West 72nd Street. As a previous post explained, the building was damaged by construction of a giant building on the corner of 72nd and Broadway. Since Parker lived there as a young child, we spoke up about it being knocked down. The story was first reported by the neighborhood news site DNAinfo, which led to stories in the New York Times and the Village Voice.
On Tuesday, I first spoke to the Preservation Committee. There were six members in attendance. What was being proposed, and I’ll post the full document, was this:
214 West 72nd Street (Broadway.) Request to exclude existing building from the proposed West End Avenue Historic District and proposal to develop a new 12-story residential building with ground floor commercial use. The proposal would include demolition of an existing building with significant structural damage.
I’ll get back to that statement above. In the entire 1 ½ page document, Dorothy Parker’s name was not included. I found out why.
When the demolition matter came to my attention in October, from reporter Leslie Albrecht, I was concerned enough to start a letter-writing campaign. Surely, I thought, with the 4,155 people who get the monthly e-newsletter (and 15,000 a week who visit dorothyparker.com) we could generate a deluge. I was wrong. In the six weeks of the letter-writing campaign, I was copied on about 15 emails. At the committee meeting, I asked the co-chair, Gabrielle Palitz, how many letters they got. She told me “three.” I was stunned, because I knew more were sent. A woman from the board office spoke up, and said the actual number was nine. Nine. I then found out that the Preservation Committee and the Community Board didn’t even bother to read them.
To the Preservation Committee, I made a few points. I was the only person to speak to save the building. I said that as a fellow Upper West Side resident in an equally old building, all buildings have cracks in the walls. If we went and demolished every old building with cracks the Upper West Side would be empty. I then explained the importance of preserving an old home of an author, even if she lived there briefly. Parker is one of the Upper West Side’s most important former residents, and is a member of the National Academy of Arts and Letters and the New York State Writer’s Hall of Fame.
I was only asked one question, directly: “What does the Dorothy Parker Society do?” with a kind of smirk by Jay Adolph of the committee. I then explained our mission.
The building is owned by the Ma family. They were represented by Richard S. Lobel, of the firm Sheldon Lobel. He had a stack of engineering studies, photos, drawings, and reports. I glanced at them but didn’t get to view them. He then spoke of the Dorothy Parker connection, briefly, along the lines of her being a former resident but also a tenant of numerous other apartments on the Upper West Side. His main point was to bring up additional engineering studies and how the demolition of the building wouldn’t harm the building next to it, No. 216. The engineer’s report shows extensive damage was done to 214 W. 72nd Street. Last month the Preservation Committee had asked him to provide more information about what would happen to the neighboring property.
I had a faint glimmer of hope. A representative for Linda B. Rosenthal, Assemblymember for District 67 of the New York State Assembly, spoke on her behalf. Ms. Rosenthal opposes the demolition and said it was a “slippery slope” to enter into, because the building was being carved out of the proposed historic district. The remarks were heard by the Preservation Committee, but not the full Community Board.
By now, I could see that Dorothy Parker was taking it on the chin. I am no stranger to proceedings like this. I attended a two-week federal court case and have the marks to show for it. But this was more disheartening. Here is why.
It was only after I spoke that Ms. Palitz gave me the proposal they were voting on, which they voted 4-1 to approve. This meant they would approve, to the full Community Board later that evening, that the building be exempted from the proposed historic district and that a 12-story building be allowed in its place.
I was disheartened because the Dorothy Parker Society did not do more. Come on, I was in the New York Times talking about this matter. I asked for letters to be written, in two consecutive email appeals, and less than 12 bothered to write something. If the building is demolished, and it looks like it will be, the society’s inaction is party to it. Just clicking “Like” on a Facebook post is not enough to save a New York City building, people.
I was disheartened, truly, by the attitude of the Preservation Committee who gave no thought, at all, to the building being preserved. Parker’s name was not included in any of the discussion, and in fact, the only place that Parker was included was in the paperwork prepared by the Ma family.
It was during this point in the meeting that the idea of a plaque or memorial was raised. This was the only friendly response from the Preservation Committee of the whole evening. The Ma family would support a plaque or memorial to Parker on the new building. It was talked about back and forth, and the board liked the idea. Of course the Dorothy Parker Society loves plaques. We’ll revisit this proposal with the Ma family in the future.
After the vote was taken by the Preservation Committee, we all waited an interminable amount of time for the Community Board to get through their other business on the agenda before the vote came to them on the building.
Gabrielle Palitz then gave a recap to the full 35-member board and the few community members left in the room. This was 3 ½ hours later, after we sat through a raucous debate about a restaurant liquor license and outlawing motorized bikes. Her recap was a 5-minute support for knocking the building down. It leans 2-inches to the east, there are serious cracks in the wall, the new building next door punched holes in the foundation, and staircases are coming loose. A term used a few times to refer to it was “integrity in question” about the safety of the building.
I then got up to be the only speaker. I was given a chance to state my case, so I made three points.
1. The Preservation Committee didn’t include in its one and half page document mention that it was the home of Dorothy Parker. I explained who she was and why she is important.
2. The Preservation Committee received almost ten letters and emails in support from the community opposing the demolition, and these were not read.
3. I asked the community to remember all authors and artists who lived in the neighborhood are important and should not be forgotten. It’s what makes the Upper West Side great.
Then attorney Lobel stood up and quoted from my book. I loved this; I just wished the whole board had bought a copy of it. He quoted from the passages that said Parker was under five when she lived there, and that the Rothschilds moved around a lot. Again, this speaks to their argument that because an author was a child in a residence it’s not important, or that because she lived in a bunch of places, then we can knock down one because there’s more to still see. I’ve said it before: you would not do this to the childhood home of any important person, no matter the circumstances. The childhood home influences the writer or artist; years later as an adult “creating” work, the childhood memories will influence the adult work. Second, because there is another neighborhood apartment nearby, let’s knock down this one, is a weak argument. If you were going to knock down a church or temple, would you say, oh, there’s another one across the street to see?
The board didn’t have much to say by now. It was already a four-hour meeting and they wanted to get out of there before midnight. The chairman moved, for the first time of the evening, to vote unanimously to approve the proposal as written. It was seconded. And then every hand on the board shot up. I was stunned. The vote came down to 36-0-2-0. Wow. So much for history.
So what happens now? These are the next steps.
A Community Board does not control what happens in New York City, it only makes recommendations and passes along community support, reaction, and opinions. The real power lies with the City. And the Community Board’s recommendation now goes to the Landmarks Preservation Commission. If you know anything about the NYC LPC, they are not to be trifled with. It is the LPC that is currently debating creating the West End Historic District. They will take the board’s recommendation under review, but they will make their own decision. It will be the LPC that the Ma family faces next, sometime in early 2012.
After the meeting, I chatted with Lobel and Tiffany Ma. They showed me an architectural drawing of the proposed building. I’m to be sent a copy of it. We briefly talked about next steps and a plaque or something like a gallery.
Here is where I sit, two days after the board voted. I can continue to tilt at a windmill and try and voice a concern to the LPC that the house is historically significant and should be saved. However, the DPS has already showed it is ineffective and can’t be bothered to send emails or letters, so a letter-writing campaign is out of the question. It would come down to me attending a LPC hearing and speaking up for saving the house. But is it going to help?
I have not read the engineering report or looked at the photos of the damages. But from the tenor of all parties, the house is going to come down for safety reasons. The Ma family bought the house as an investment. They have a couple of retail businesses in the two bottom floors, and residential apartments above them. It was not their fault that an unscrupulous developer next door erected a 20-story building over them and compromised the common wall separating them. 214 West 72nd Street is not going to fall down this week, but someday it might. The family does not have the means to repair it, and the developer next door hasn’t compensated them for the damages. The reason for a 12-story height is two-fold. First, to make it financially sound, the added 7 floors will generate the revenue needed to pay for the construction. Second, the height difference from a 20-story neighbor, down to 12-story, down to five next to it, is not unreasonable.
I did what I could. I wrote about the house, I gave interviews about it. I went to a board meeting and stood up, literally, for saving the house. In the end all I could do was make the community aware that a house where a neighbor once lived as a girl, who grew up to be a world-famous author, is in their midst and is about to be demolished.
Here is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. I have to support the Ma family in letting the building come down. It is going to fall down. I am going to ask, in writing, for a plaque, a significant marker or memorial to Dorothy Parker. By supporting this development, we could get a nice plaque, on a busy street corner that will attract eyeballs walking by. After the meeting, a man in the audience thanked the DPS for the plaque on 310 West 80th, that he passes by all the time (a plaque paid for and erected not by the DPS, but by the owner of 310 West 80th). So, who knows? In two or three years we could have a new bronze plaque on the Upper West Side.
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