As Twinkies Return, Unions Fight For Life

They’re saccharine, cheap, mass-produced and well-preserved. What could be more American than the Twinkie? What could signify bitter economic times better than the sugary treat’s demise?

Sentiments like these echoed nationwide last November, when Hostess announced it would take Twinkies — as well as Sno Balls, Ding Dongs, CupCakes, Wonder bread and Donettes — off market shelves. And on Monday, when a newly structured Hostess reintroduced the cream-filled snack, many Americans regained some optimism about their nation’s chances of fiscal recovery. Others are just happy to savor a national favorite once again.

But the return of Twinkies hardly seems sweet for America’s labor supporters. The baked goods manufacturer — which equity firms C. Dean Metropoulos & Co. and Apollo Global Management purchased in February for $410 million — has left its Irving headquarters for Kansas City, closed seven of its 11 factories, outsourced product distribution and cut ties with unions. And following the sale of Wonder bread to Flowers Foods and that of Drake’s to McKee Foods, the Hostess product line has shrunk, thus further slicing the need for workers.

These changes now leave Hostess with less than the 2,500 employees it housed immediately before its sale. The company has noted plans to hire 1,800 people in the coming months, but snack industry guru Natalie Everett overestimates the manufacturer’s announced statistic. She believes Hostess will only meet 20 to 25 percent of its prior employee count, she said this week.

Tensions between Hostess workers and executives have risen since last January, when the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Management blamed the company’s money troubles on the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union, who pushed for more comprehensive pensions and healthcare policies. Union members rebutted that a boardroom of rotating leadership stifled company innovation. Six different CEOs have helmed Hostess in the past decade. Current head Greg Rayburn added $100 million to employee pension funds last year in exchange for a widespread eight percent pay cut, all while retaining his $1.5 million salary. The company’s nosedive in union representation — from 79 percent of Hostess employees in November to zero percent today — comes as no surprise to labor experts.

“Today’s unions need to figure out where they fit in today’s market,” Lisa Dupnock, a labor relations professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, said in a phone interview. “Sure, they have a long tradition of fighting, but members must negotiate their needs better.”

Hostess symbolizes the nation’s ever-declining rapport with unions. Only about 11 percent of working Americans — or 14.3 million of the nation’s workers — belong to such groups, compared to the mid-1950s, when membership reached 35 percent. Private sector unions have lost particular clout, with 7 percent representation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“The business world is too fast today, and businesses need to make fast decisions and can’t wait for unions to make up their minds,” Cleveland-based labor lawyer Marc Bloch told NBC News earlier this year. “Unions have to convince their membership that a deal is good or not, and that takes too much time these days.”

The labor movement’s wane is partially an offshoot of right-to-work laws, which now ban mandatory dues at unionized workplaces in 24 states, including Texas. The provision was first enacted in 1947 and has recently gained traction. Two states have added the law over the past two years. Before Michigan and Indiana banned union security agreements last year, no state had adopted such laws since Oklahoma in 2001. More states will likely follow in subsequent years.

In addition, a lack of union presence within ever-globalizing industries like fashion and technology have further weakened many Americans’ collective bargaining abilities. Once-powerful unions like the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America and the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union have disbanded. Organizations like these were once large enough to threaten employee walkouts and influence executive decisionmaking even at non-unionized companies.

But none of this is to say that union support is dead. Unions still influence, however subtly, worker welfare. Americans who belong to unions earn roughly 20 percent more than those who do not. And union members are more likely to receive pensions, health insurance and paid vacation time than non-union members, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

If there is hope in the private-sector labor movement, it currently lives in Chicago’s and New York’s storefronts, where employees at some McDonald’s, Dunkin Donuts, Sears and Macy’s locations have begun efforts to unionize this past year.

As for Hostess, financial turmoil has recently quieted talks on union issues. But now that the company has regained some footing, perhaps the team behind Twinkies will give collective bargaining another taste.

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Why Oxford Will Never Name College After Thatcher

To Margaret Thatcher, the University of Oxford was like a helicopter parent. Britain’s late former prime minister spent adulthood distancing herself from her alma mater’s base of academic dissenters. It only made sense that, once Thatcher’s quest to commodify education gelled into national circles, the university would deny her its most reflective rite, an honorary doctorate.

The snub, which dates back to 1985, became a mutual discord with time. After 5,000 Oxford students and over 700 academics declined to reward her with the degree, Thatcher’s spokesman said, “If they do not wish to confer the honor, the prime minister is the last person to wish to receive it.”

But London Mayor Boris Johnson refuses to accept the impasse. Not only does he want Oxford to apologetically grant her an honorary doctorate, he also wants the university to name a college after her. Continue reading Why Oxford Will Never Name College After Thatcher

Shear Greatness at Astor Place

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When it opened 66 years ago, five barbers worked at Astor Place Hairstylists. Three generations and a basement move later, the shop boasts a staff of 75 barbers and stylists (Henry Miller)

Enrico Vezza opened Astor Place Hairstylists in 1947 with a motto: no matter a customer’s style, language or economic background, everyone needs a haircut.

Three generations later, what started as the East Village’s five-barber favorite now houses a fleet of 75 hairstylists. Now with help from the founder’s son, Enrico Jr., and grandsons Paul, 54, and John, 50, the shop’s mission remains the same.

While many places charge almost $100 for their business, the shop, which is located in the basement of 2 Astor Pl., offers a shave and a haircut for $15. The low price attracts varied clientele—some famous. Among Astor Place’s celebrity customers are pseudo-newsman Stephen Colbert, New York mayoral candidate Bill DeBlasio, actor Alec Baldwin and actress Hilary Swank. But John Vezza hopes to make his family business as inclusive as possible.

“Young, old, blue-collar, hedge fund—people get a total mix here,” Vezza said. “That’s what people come for.”

The shop’s all-encompassing attitude offers room for customers to show their personalities. Some of them dress in T-shirts and sit stoically while others don suits and give their stylists a firm clap of a handshake.

As for the stylists, each one has its own station featuring a chair and counter. Each stylist also has its own mirror, which is usually personally decorated with their names, faded magazine clippings and, in many cases, photographs of clients.

The shop permeates with different languages. Whether its English, Russian, Italian or German, people at Astor Place love to talk. Many stylists take pride in the conversations they have.

Valentino Gogu, a stylist who came to New York from Bucharest, Romania, in 1984, considered himself, in some ways, a therapist.

“We talk sports, politics, work, love, everything,” Gogu said in a thick accent.

But for Gogu, chit-chat is just one part of his job. What really keeps customers returning, he believes, is the haircut.

“They come back because I’m good,” he said. Then he laughed and turned to his client, Eric Daigle, asking him, “I’m good, right?”

When customers finish their haircuts, they walk to the register. That’s where Frank Ribecca counts change, punches holes into receipts and says goodbye to the patrons. Business hasn’t changed much for Ribecca, 33, since he started working at Astor Place Hairstylists in 1997. He does note, however, that many of his co-workers have become wealthy through their work.

“People have worked here, starting with nothing and now have two, three houses,” Ribecca said. “One guy ran off to Vegas, bought a mansion and never left.”

Despite only advertising by the customers’ word of mouth, or perhaps because of it, Enrico Vezza’s simple motto “a shave and a haircut for all” remains. And after all the haircuts done here throughout the years, nobody has snipped the shop’s local charm.

Queens of the World

Borough Growth Not Gentrification as Usual

The shine of glass-windowed high-rises and big retail has yet to distract most Queens residents from neighborhood storefronts. In Astoria, a Greek butcher shares a laugh with a customer as he hangs a pig carcass in his shop window.  In Corona, two Russian mechanics, hands covered in motor oil, argue over the costs of used leather bucket seats. In Flushing, four Chinese immigrants shoot hoops beside the elevated 7 train. The borough has not lost its ethnic flair.

Such is also the case in Queens’ Long Island City section, where a Mexican bakery, an Irish pub, an Ecuadorian restaurant and a Chinese beauty parlor each sit on the same block of Jackson Avenue. Along its streets, salsa music blasts from car stereos and drivers honk, not angrily, but warmly — greeting neighbors.

Now, as always, Queens remains the borough of diversity. It is home to nearly 2.3 million people who speak close to 150 languages. According to 2011 U.S. Census data, roughly 28 percent of Queens residents are “non-Hispanic white,” 28 percent are of Hispanic or Latino origin, 24 percent are Asian and 21 percent are black. No other city borough features such a cultural mix.

For young, upper class Americans — many of whom spent their childhoods watching urban-centric sitcoms like “Seinfeld,” “Friends” and reruns of “All in the Family” — Queens is a less expensive venue for their metropolitan dreams. Area merchants worry about how long their borough can stay diverse, especially as new residents and chain retailers flock there.

Milan Uherik and his wife, Jaroslava, run the Slovak-Czech Varieties imports shop on Jackson Avenue. Since Milan moved to Long Island City from the former Czechoslovakia some two dozen years ago, the neighborhood has changed drastically. The 50-story Citicorp Building, New York City’s tallest structure outside Manhattan, rose in 1990. Chain stores like 7-Eleven and numerous 24-hour pharmacies have arrived and brought competition to long-standing, local businesses.

High-end offices and residences have arrived as well. Just last April, JetBlue relocated its corporate headquarters to 1 Court Sq.  CUNY Law School moved next door, to 2 Court Sq., this past October. And with the demolition of graffiti refuge 5Pointz looming — in favor of luxury condominiums — Uherik fears that rising costs will chase away his longtime neighbors.

“So many new people,” said Jaroslava, as she approached the store register. “Being unique is tougher here these days.”

One recent morning, Uherik paused from counting his inventory — a collection of wooden toy bulldozers, Princezky biscuits and Czech translations of Dean Koontz novels — and described Queens’ new arrivals. “Rich,” he said tersely.

Recent housing price jumps have brought affluence to the borough. Its median household income is $55,120, just above the citywide average, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And as of 2009, the value of the average house or condominium in the borough is $475,600, a jump from $206,200 in 2000. The average house value citywide is considerably less, at $306,000.

For those hoping to lease a Queens home, rent has spiked as well. In the final fiscal quarter of 2012, average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment was $1,600 in Astoria and $2,400 in Long Island City, according to real estate brokerage firm Modern Spaces.

“With every signed lease contract, Queens catches up more and more,” Mae Liew, senior sales associate at Modern Spaces’ Long Island City office, said. “Everyone from city people to longtime suburbanites wants to be here.”

For the rest of Queens, gentrification is hitting slowly and in piecemeal. Areas like Astoria and Ridgewood have received waves of it, mainly because of their proximity to Manhattan and Brooklyn. Flushing, a neighborhood in the borough’s northeastern slice, is also seeing the beginnings of gentrification. The 400,000-square-foot Skyview Center mall opened in 2010 and has introduced Chinese immigrants to businesses like Target, Best Buy and Chuck E. Cheese’s.

“Big business do good here,” Frankie Zeng, a Syosset, Long Island resident who frequents Flushing’s Main Street, said outside a Roosevelt Avenue health food store. “People buy Dunkin Donuts coffee. They wear Target clothes, cheaper than other stores.”

But despite the arrival of big chains, Flushing has risen among the city’s largest Asian immigrant enclaves. The neighborhood has twice as many Chinese settlers today than it did in 1990, according to the U.S. Census. Language and cuisine have expanded as well. Mandarin, Shanghainese, Cantonese and Taiwanese are all heard on Flushing’s streets. And even with fast-food joints like McDonald’s and Popeyes nearby, neighborhood food favorites still include potato-eggplant salad from northeastern China and grilled lamb from the nation’s western end.

Gentrification may seem inevitable in Queens. But unlike Manhattan and Brooklyn, which feature tighter concentrations of people, the borough’s broad geography has slowed down its rate of change. And its size, the largest of the five boroughs, has let local shops and big-box retailers coexist.

Economic diversity has also hindered Queens gentrification. The borough is not just racially and ethnically mixed. It is an assortment of neighborhoods, with nearly as many occupational divides. With evenly distributed jobs in retail, construction, finance, health care and media, no one sector dominates Queens’ economy.

“Queens is huge,” Matthew Lasner, an assistant professor at Hunter College’s Department of Urban Affairs and Planning, said. “No other borough has a more varied stock of residents. Because of that, it will stay home to vast immigrant groups.”

But many of Queens’ longtime residents, clinging to local traditions, wonder how long they can delay gentrification. Others, like the Uheriks, plan to ride the change with smiles.

“You don’t want to see grumpy people,” Milan said. “You see enough of that at work.”

Although few places in the world are better positioned to repel gentrification, those who know Queens best concede that major retail and housing will not disappear. But they remain confident that the borough’s many ethnic strongholds — its delis, clothiers and salons — will weather the change with them.

The Big Apple Thinks Small

Dorm-like microapartments could become the city’s future

Since Nicole Chu moved into her 200-square-foot, $1,675-a-month West Village studio in August, small spaces have forced her to get creative. She uses a Pilate’s mat as her dining area. She places a ceramic water bowl atop her radiator, in lieu of a humidifier. And between the ceiling and an iron staircase—which leads to a lofted storage area—she hangs her wardrobe.

Nicole Chu, 20, hangs her wardrobe over her loft staircase. Her 200 square foot West Village micro-apartment requires her to walk through her makeshift closet in order to use the bathroom. (Henry Miller)
Nicole Chu, 20, hangs her wardrobe over her loft staircase. Her 200 square foot West Village micro-apartment requires her to walk through her makeshift closet in order to use the bathroom. (Henry Miller)

But no matter how inventive Chu gets with her studio, she still wishes her building offered more amenities—she welcomes a cafeteria or common areas, for instance—to compensate for the cramped size.

“They could be like dorms, but maybe cheaper,” Chu, a 20-year-old sophomore at Lang, from Taipei, Taiwan, told the Free Press. “It would attract many young people who go to class nearby and don’t need much space.”

******

If Mayor Bloomberg and a group of New York developers get their way, the city’s housing market will soon feature apartments that are small—“micro-small”—but can squeeze more paying residents in its landscape.

By September 2015, what is now a city-owned parking lot at 335 E. 27th St., near First Avenue, will be a 55-unit micro-apartment complex. Brooklyn-based firm nArchitects drafted the proposed building’s blueprint. The suites will range from a mere 250 to 375 square feet. Amenities will include lounges, laundry rooms and fitness centers.

“Home is not bound to an apartment,” nArchitects firm partner Mimi Hoang told the Free Press. “Hopefully our design will set the precedent.”

Many of the communal spaces offered in the design often exist in most university dorms.

“It is sort of like a glorified dorm,” Joel Towers, Parsons dean and founding partner of Manhattan-based firm SR+T Architects, said of the upcoming E. 27th Street micro-apartment complex. “It is critical in urban environments that we experiment with projects like this.”

The least expensive units—11 of the complex’s 55 suites—will likely cost between $11,000 and $22,000 a year, according to the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development. They will market to those making less than 80 percent of Kips Bay’s median income. The average area resident earns just over $87,000, according to 2009 statistics from City-Data.com.

At The New School, most students fall below that income line and, in turn, may qualify to live in these spaces. But annual costs at the East Side complex will seldom differ from those in university housing. The average New School student living in a two-person dormitory pays just under $15,000 a year, according to Assistant Vice President for Housing and Residence Life Rob Lutomski.

“There are some major differences between university student [housing] and independent apartments,” said Lutomski. “Student residences provide a close-knit, student-based community that can’t be replicated by an apartment.”

Current zoning code does not permit micro-apartment projects. Any residential structure built after 1987 must exceed a mean unit size of 400 square feet. Until city planners state otherwise—which would not happen until at least 2016—the Kips Bay complex will be the rule’s lone exception.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants the city to update its current square-footage minimums, which he has called outdated.

“New York’s ability to adapt with changing times is what made us the world’s greatest city,” Bloomberg said in a January 22 press statement. “And it’s going to be what keeps us strong in the 21st century.”

Hoping to make room for residents amidst housing shortages, Boston, Chicago and Seattle developers have begun their own micro-apartment pilot programs. And in San Francisco this past November, planners amended their city’s zoning codes, allowing developers to make 220-square-foot studios. The decision has piqued the ire of tenant rights advocates, many of whom do not consider smaller apartments effective—or even inhabitable—solutions for city housing shortages.

“If we made cages, we can house more people as well,” said Tommi Avicolli-Mecca, the director of counseling at the San Francisco-based Housing Rights Committee. “I don’t care how many windows or rooftop gardens these units have. Nothing substitutes real space.”

Some critics also feel that if micro-apartment development is inevitable then planners should at least cater more units to lower-income residents.

“Making Room,” an exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, contains a sample 325 square foot micro-apartment. Until September 15, visitors can walk inside the replica and play with its furniture.

“These units are priced out of range for people who need them most,” Avicolli-Mecca said. “Anyone who thinks the working class can afford moving into these, is living in fairy tales.”

Uptown, the Museum of the City of New York takes another look at micro-apartment design. Visitors to “Making Room: New Models for Housing New Yorkers”—an exhibit that opened on January 23 and runs until September 15—can experience a real-life sense of micro-apartment life. Museum goers can walk inside a 325-square-foot sample unit and experiment with furniture items like Murphy beds, fold-down tables and stackable chairs. The mock-up also features a bar and a sliding television.

“There is a mismatch between who is living in New York now and what city real estate currently offers,” said exhibit co-curator Donald Albrecht. “Micro-apartments can show how architecture and interior design can accommodate social change.”

*****

After spending six months in a micro-apartment, Chu says she would rather live in a larger space. She hopes to find a larger, less expensive flat in one of the outer boroughs. But life in a small apartment has taught her some lessons that she hopes to apply at her future residences.

“I have learned how to manage space and money better,” said Chu. “I think twice about buying things I don’t need.”

And while she cannot see herself living in another micro-apartment, she knows plenty of people who would enjoy moving into one.

“More of today’s New Yorkers are independent, work-driven and on the go,” Chu added. “There’s definitely a market for tiny spaces.”

But if micro-apartment complexes gain citywide traction, there would be no guarantee of dorm-like perks in all the buildings. The influence of the E. 27th Street building could either inspire a new wave of city housing projects or wither once the hype ends.

Lights Out: The New School’s Response to Hurricane Sandy

At 1 p.m. on Tuesday, October 30, Parsons student and William Street resident Courtney Boyer heard a knock on her door. It was her residence advisor; Hurricane Sandy, which had already cut off the building’s power, was flooding the basement. Facilities personnel had tried removing the water with diesel-fueled pumps, but doing so caused the building to reek of fumes. New School housing authorities feared more extensive damage, the R.A. told Boyer. All residents of the dorm, which accommodates New School students as well as several dozen Pace University students, had to evacuate by the end of the afternoon. That same R.A. returned fifteen minutes later; it turned out Boyer and her fellow residents had only 60 minutes to leave the building.

Boyer was one of thousands of New School students forced to cope with the impact of Hurricane Sandy in New York City. As the university shut down for over a week, students, faculty and staff scrambled in the wake of The New School’s largest crisis since September 11, 2001.

Continue reading Lights Out: The New School’s Response to Hurricane Sandy

In Sandy’s Wake, Arnhold Hall Lights Up

The scene on Wednesday on Fulton St., just a few blocks away from the Williams Street Residence in Lower Manhattan. (Charlotte Woods)

Three days have passed since Hurricane Sandy knocked out electricity in all of The New School’s student dorms, and most of their academic buildings. In that time, President David Van Zandt has cancelled the rest of the week’s classes; William Street dorm tenants have evacuated their residences; and over 100 of the university’s students have trekked to Arnhold Hall for food, heat, electricity, Internet access and shelter.

The building – located at 55 W. 13th St., between Fifth and Sixth Avenues – remained open since Monday afternoon, just before nearly 25 percent of Consolidated Edison’s New York City customers lost power. Students brought blankets and pillows, as well as electrical items like laptops and chargers. New School facilities director Thomas Whalen said Wednesday that the building is conserving enough generator electricity to maintain power until ConEd restores it.

Continue reading In Sandy’s Wake, Arnhold Hall Lights Up

Bracing for Sandy, The New School Cancels Classes Through Tuesday

 The New School announced in a statement early Monday afternoon that all university offices and academic buildings would remain closed through Tuesday, in response to “serious storm conditions” affecting New York City brought on by Hurricane Sandy. The statement requested students, faculty, and staff to “please make your safety a priority.”

Consolidated Edison trucks line Union Square as New York City braces for Hurricane Sandy’s arrival (Rey Mashayekhi)

University-sponsored public events initially scheduled for Monday and Tuesday, including “Vera List’s Legacy: The Democracy of the Print,” have also been postponed. New School spokesman Sam Biederman wrote in a statement that the university “will be in touch with information about program rescheduling.”

As New York City and much of the East Coast braced itself for the arrival of Hurricane Sandy, The New School announced that all classes are cancelled and the university will not be open on Monday —  with the possibility for further cancellations on Tuesday.

The New School is far from the only institution in the city taking such precautions in response to Sandy. Most universities, as well as all city public schools, have cancelled classes and will remain closed on Monday, in large part due to a Metropolitan Transportation Authority shutdown of all mass transit services. The New School also closed all university-wide campus facilities at 3 p.m. Sunday afternoon.

“The school is doing everything it can at the moment to keep its facilities secure,” President David Van Zandt told the Free Press. “Every precaution we can take, we are taking it.”

Continue reading Bracing for Sandy, The New School Cancels Classes Through Tuesday

Is 65 Fifth Avenue Sinking the Block?

Village patrons have visited Joe Coffee since its location at 9 E. 13th St. opened seven years ago. The chain’s owner, Jon Rubinstein, spends most workdays at his desk, located on the coffee shop’s mezzanine. In the past two years, as The New School began construction of its 16-story, $353 million University Center at 65 Fifth Ave. — just two addresses away from the coffeeshop — Rubinstein said he has seen his shop’s walls crack, its entrance warp, and its building sink at least four inches. What’s more, many of his once-frequent customers have stopped coming by.

9 E. 13th St. is one of at least four addresses near the University Center that has allegedly sustained structural damage over the last two years. Other structures on the block affected by the massive project include 5 E. 13th St., 10 E. 14th St. and 12 E. 14th St.. Rubinstein has tried fixing his shop’s damages, which he estimated exceeds $20,000. But whenever repairmen paint over the wall cracks or tighten the door hinges, he said, new hints of deterioration appear. He has complained to the university, leaving messages on various department answering machines. Nobody has replied to him, he said.

“The New School has refused to take any responsibility thus far, nor will they communicate with us directly,” said Rubinstein.

Rubinstein said he has no plans of suing The New School, nor other parties responsible for the University Center’s construction. But other residents and merchants in the surrounding area have filed suit. Michael and Glorimar O’Hara, residents of 5 E. 13th St., are currently suing the university and its building development team — Langan Engineering; architecture firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill; and construction firms Durst and Tishman — for $17 million. And shoe retailer David Z., along with business partner Avido Ltd., are taking similar action for an undisclosed sum of money.

Attempts to contact numerous New School personnel – including Vice President for Design, Construction and Facilities Management Lia Gartner; Vice President for Legal Affairs Roy Moskowitz; Senior Vice President for Finance and Business Frank Barletta; and neighbor liaison Jane Crotty – were directed to university spokesman Sam Biederman, who declined to comment “due to pending litigation.” He said that The New School has reached out to its neighbors, from the project’s inception to its construction, and has adhered to local input.

“Since planning this building, the university has worked in concert with the community,” said Biederman. “In terms of being a good neighbor, our focus is on Greenwich Village and Union Square. It is our home, too.”

On February 4, 2011, the New York City Department of Buildings issued a violation against The New School for “fail[ing] to take adequate measures to prevent the vertical or lateral displacement” at an adjoining building at 10 E. 14th St. The violation, which the buildings department said has yet to be resolved as of October 20, states that the building has endured cracks half-an-inch wide on its basement and ground levels.

Biederman declined to comment on the violation. None of the other parties responsible for the University Center responded to the Free Press’ telephone inquiries.

In the O’Hara family’s $17 million lawsuit against The New School and its 65 Fifth Ave. associates, the family claims that walls have separated from the floors, the metal frames around their building’s emergency exit doors have jammed and soil has eroded from below their building. The O’Haras – represented by attorneys Michael Rogers and Douglas Lutz from law firm Wasserman, Grubin and Rogers – allege that the ongoing construction is responsible for these damages.

David Z. opened its 12 E. 14th St. location in September 2011, on the building’s ground level and cellar. Plaintiff attorney Jack L. Lester filed a complaint on May 3, noting that since his clients opened shop near the University Center site, the space’s walls have cracked and its flooring has separated from the subflooring. A settlement has not yet been reached. David Z. management did not respond to Free Press inquiries, while Lester declined to comment.

Legal representatives for The New School, Langan, Durst, Tishman and Skidmore, Owings and Merrill all declined comment on either of the suits. Biederman would not comment on damage-related claims from either case, nor would he remark on accusations of The New School’s negligence.

The February 4 buildings violation described 10 E. 14th St. as one of the structures most affected by the University Center construction. Peter and Linda Salzer purchased a $1.48 million ground-level suite at that address in July 2010. In March, less than two years later, the Salzers sold the property to The New School for over $1.54 million, according to a deed from the New York City Department of Finance. The family declined to share their reason for the sale, nor did they comment on whether the apartment had sustained any of the damages described.

Biederman said that The New School hopes to sell the apartment property for additional revenue once the University Center is completed in Fall 2013. He projected that the block’s property values will have increased by that point.

“The real estate market is a market, and it will get better,” added Biederman. “This is a safe investment.”

Biederman would not discuss why the university would invest in a potentially damaged property, only noting that the Salzers already wanted to sell their apartment and needed no convincing to follow through with the sale.

Robert Kittine, a real estate broker at The Corcoran Group, which markets properties in Manhattan and Brooklyn, said that the amount The New School paid the Salzers is consistent with property values in the area.

“Once this elaborate complex is finished [at 65 Fifth Ave.], values will move up higher,” Kittine said. “It could bring more funds to the university.”

Andrew Berman, executive director for the Greenwich Village Society of Historic Preservation, said that The New School has a good overall rapport with its Village community. Berman also said, however, that the university’s ambitions to expand its presence in the area “creates a potential for some conflict.” But if the school listens to the concerns of locals, he added, they “could retain the largely harmonious relationship it has had with the surrounding community for many decades.”

Kaya Oner, a 16-year-old high school junior at NYC Lab School, said she hopes that The New School maintains a strong connection with her neighborhood as well. But above all, she just wants her building well-maintained. Oner lives at 9 E. 13th St. with her mother, Daniella van Gennep. In June, Oner spent nearly an hour stuck inside her building’s elevator after its pulley got stuck.

“It happened twice that week,” Oner said. “The people who finally got us out from the top floor said that screwy building maintenance was to blame. I think they were right.”

Oner said the building is still in need of repair today. Many of its doors do not close fully; in some cases, residents can only open their apartment entrance about 18 inches until it scrapes the floor and stops moving.

“Plenty of work still needs to be done here,” added Oner. “Re-painting cracks and covering up the damages can only help for so long.”

The Nom Wah Dynasty

Morning is hardly a rush on Doyers Street. Cars are rare on the narrow Chinatown backstreet; shirtless octogenarians do calisthenic stretches on the sidewalk; a barber takes a 45-minute cigarette break; and neighborhood mainstays play cards and sip cups of hot oolong tea at Nom Wah, New York City’s oldest tea parlor.

Nom Wah has been on Doyers Street since 1920. At first glance, the restaurant seems unchanged since then. A faded red sign with yellow script still covers its awning. Yellow walls and red, vinyl-padded booths continue to line the walls. Patrons hang their jackets, blazers, and trenchcoats atop the same tableside racks. A rusty metal fan still blows wall-to-wall air on hot summer days, just as it did nearly 50 years ago.

But the restaurant has changed over the years. Today’s average lunch-hour consists of more non-Asian guests than Chinese ones. While most who sit down at the restaurant know how to use chopsticks, a growing number are either tourists or new to the area. And they have yet to learn. One of the headwaiters, between taking orders, cleaning tables and working the register, gives ad-hoc lessons to patrons struggling to use chopsticks.

Nom Wah is, in many ways, the face of a changing Chinatown. Just down the road, on Hester Street and Bowery, one of the area’s last Chinese-language movie houses is now a Wyndham Hotel. And not long after a 2009 fire destroyed Pike Street’s Hong Kong Supermarket, Hotel 91 took its place. As gentrification passes through New York, worries about the future of the city’s legendary ethnic enclave are rising.

“Chinatown is teetering,” said Wellington Chen, executive director of the Chinatown Partnership local development corporation. “We need to take action and provide medicine that will keep our community in the game.”

Nom Wah has had three proprietors since opening its doors almost 93 years ago. Wally Tang started working there in 1950, at age 16, eventually buying the place in 1974. He retired last February, but sold the restaurant to his nephew Wilson Tang, who remains determined to move into the future without forgetting the past.

Despite largely maintaining the restaurant’s old appearance, Tang, 33, has renovated much of Nom Wah’s interior. Modern, more sanitary tools have replaced the half-century-old kitchen equipment. Revised menus are written in both Chinese and English, and they feature more food and beverage choices. Customers can now eat newly added dishes like roast pork buns, fried sesame balls and sweet and sour spare ribs. The drink selection has also widened to include Westernized teas, like Earl Grey. On a recent afternoon, some patrons are greeted with a fist bump from Tang as Adele’s “Rumour Has It” played on the kitchen stereo.

“My uncle made this place a family business for chatting, card-playing and family,” said the younger Tang. “I want to make this place clean and updated while keeping that old-school charm. Chinatown is current, although it is not Disneyland.”

Tang may not want to see Chinatown become a Disneyland version of itself. But if real estate developers wanted to build an 80-foot-tall replica of the Sleeping Beauty Castle across the street from him, few regulations would stop them. This example may be extreme, but the danger of real estate moguls running amok is real. The City Council has addressed the issue in neighborhoods like the Lower East Side, where the heights of buildings built after 2008 must not exceed 80 feet. Chinatown has no such standards.

City Councilwoman Margaret Chin, whose district represents Chinatown, hopes that her neighborhood’s lack of building height caps will not chase away its tradition.

“As new residents move in, it is important that they respect the long history and struggles Chinatown has weathered,” Chin told the Free Press. “Old-timers are the ones who built this neighborhood, and we must ensure that [they] can stay and prosper in this community. Without them, you lose what gives a community character.”

Chin has spent most of her life in Chinatown. She arrived from Hong Kong in 1963, when she was nine years old. As a member of the City Council, she has expressed support for Business Improvement Districts, which provide public sanitation, safety, and tourism funding to select city neighborhoods. Chinatown became one such community last September, following unanimous support from the City Council. Despite luxury high-rise developers turning their eyes southward, she hopes the district designation will keep her community’s revenue flowing without abandoning local business.

“This is not a community where we begrudge anyone’s success,” Chin added. “But when you lose long-term residents, you lose the anchor of the community.”

Hubert Liang, a 17-year Chinatown resident, hopes this legislation will protect residents. After spending 15 years in a third-floor walkup apartment on Mott Street, Liang, 43, stepped into his bathroom last November and turned his sink’s hot water knob, only to find the water ice cold. Liang believes his landlord deliberately shut off the hot water to chase him out of the building and redevelop the property into higher-priced units.

Once his pipes finally froze over and burst, Liang packed his bags. But he was determined to find another apartment nearby. His friend soon told him about a vacancy on Worth Street. He stepped inside and signed the lease.

“They couldn’t kick me out of this neighborhood that easily,” he said.

Chin worries that not everyone will be as resilient as Liang. For every frozen pipe, leaky faucet or wall crack, a Chinatown resident’s monthly rent skyrockets.

“Entire families are living tripled and quadrupled-up in incredibly dangerous living situations because rents are increasing,” said Chin. “Real estate speculation and the driving up of rents do not help anyone – old or new residents.”

One year into Chinatown’s transfomation into a Business Improvement District, Tang’s views on its impact still fluctuate. He is paying hundreds of dollars more in taxes this year, primarily as a result of the project. But he admits that graffiti and trash are less of a problem than they were a few months ago.

Cleaning up graffiti was hardly a priority for Doyers Street – or the rest of Chinatown – during Nom Wah’s early years. The 200-yard lane held such a violent reputation back at the turn of last century, locals deemed it “the Bloody Angle.” Hatchet-toting gang members would cut across from Pell Street or Chatham Square and hide inside the lane’s curves, pouncing whenever their rivals passed by. Opium dens lined the tenements. Author Herbert Asbury wrote in a 1926 edition of The American Mercury that “there has never been an excuse” for Doyers to exist. Former New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia once predicted that a crime-ridden Chinatown would never see the 20th Century’s end.

A lunch hour concluded one recent afternoon at Nom Wah. Tang’s wife stopped by the restaurant with their three-month-old son, asleep in his stroller. Tang strode across the dining area, kissed his wife and adjusted his son’s blanket. While he was appointed to Community Board 3, Chinatown’s mediation council, in April, he carries no political inspirations. He simply calls himself a family businessman, focused on modernizing while maintaining character in his community.

“I just want my kids to play and grow up here,” he said, standing behind his sleeping son.