Urban Squatters Stake a Short-Lived Claim to Empty Lot in FiDi
The wood fence at 111 Washington Street, into which unknown persons cut a series of elegant arches over Labor Day weekend.
A Financial District lot with a turbulent history that has sat empty for nearly two decades briefly become the venue for an insurgent (although anonymous) effort to open the space for public use, while also making quixotic political point. The parcel in question is 111 Washington Street, at the corner of Carlisle Street.
Once home to a parking garage that was demolished (in anticipation of a more lucrative use) during the era of fevered real estate speculation that followed the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the 11,000-square-foot site has remained desolate and forlorn since the mid-2000s, surrounded by an unsightly green plywood fence.
Over the weekend of September 5, one or more public-spirited citizens (or perhaps wily anarchists, depending on your point of view) covered the wall with tarps and then used power saws to cut more than a dozen elegant arches into the wooden rampart. It took the three days of Labor Day weekend to complete this work, which transformed a drab barricade into an inviting portal, with a view of the wild urban forest that had sprouted up within during the lot’s years of disuse. “Then they had an opening party on Monday night,” recalls Esther Regelson, who has lived next door on Washington Street since the 1980s. “It was very strange. A bunch of guys went on the site and ‘opened’ it up to the public. I ran into a lawyer from the owners who said that these guys did it illegally, It’s a very weird situation to say the least.”
When a passerby remarked that the shredded facade looked like an attempt to create a community garden in the manner that has become common in vacant lots on the Lower East Side, Ms. Regelson said, “I wish. I have been throwing seed bombs over the fence but can’t get flowers to take root in the gravelly, shallow soil. I actually went and got bulbs to plant, while the property was open, to try to get flowers for next spring. But I’m afraid I may be too late to plant them before the Gestapo closes up shop again.”
The sign that the pranksters left behind, which is a reference to the 19th-century economist Henry George, who believed that vacant land should be taxed, in order to discourage real estate speculation
The mischief-makers who cut through the fence also left behind a sign that read, “Everybody Works But the Vacant Lot.” This is a phrase associated with 19th-century political economist Henry George. Although his name is unfamiliar to contemporary ears, George was (and arguably still is) the most famous and popular economist ever produced by the United States. His best-known work, “Progress and Poverty” (published in 1879), is believed to have sold more copies worldwide than any other previous book by an American author. It focuses on themes with 21st-century resonance: rising inequality and poverty during an era of fabled economic and technological progress. In particular, George was transfixed by the potential of taxing land values as a way of remedying social ills, while eliminating most other taxes (such as those on sales and income).
The phrase emblazoned on the sign at 111 Washington is a rhetorical talisman of progressive intellectuals, and refers to a billboard erected in Rockford, Illinois, in 1914, during the worst American financial crisis prior to the Great Depression. (For perspective, this panic caused the New York Stock Exchange to shut down for more than four months.) The billboard read, “Everybody works but the vacant lot — I paid $3600 for this lot and will hold till I get $6000. The profit is unearned increment made possible by the presence of this community and enterprise of its people. I take the profit without earning it. For the remedy, read Henry George.”
The vacant lot at 111 Washington Street has for decades been the focus of development schemes that have failed to take root. It is being shopped for sale with an asking price of $260 million. The owners, father-and-son team Fred and Richard Ohebshalom, bought the site during foreclosure in 2011, for $57.5 million, then spent millions more assembling air rights from nearby properties on Washington and Greenwich Streets, which added more than 200,000 square feet to the parcel’s potential build-out, bringing its total zoned potential to 360,000 square feet.
The Ohebshaloms quickly announced plans for a 30-floor luxury residential tower, which was to be completed by the end of 2014. When work never began on that project, they announced a grander plan, for 51-story apartment building, containing 429 apartments.
Within days, workmen employed by the lot’s owner had erected new plywood fencing, sealing the property once again.
But all was not well in the House of Ohebshalom. In March, 2017, the son sued his father for trying to sell the property for $148 million, a price that the aggrieved young man described in court documents as “woefully deficient.” (This would have represented a 43 percent discount from the original asking price of $260 million.) The suit also alleged that the father had threatened to sell 111 Washington Street at the reduced price, “in a bad-faith effort to extract concessions,” from his son. A week later, the younger Ohebshalom filed a second suit, accusing his father of having defrauded him by draining millions of dollars from trust funds controlled by the elder Ohebshalom, but theoretically set up for the benefit of his son.
In August, the Ohebshaloms settled their years-long legal battle, with the son, Richard, taking possession of the lot at 111 Washington—and just as quickly taking out loans of $87 million against it. (Richard Ohebshalom’s firm, Pink Stone Capital, did not respond to a request for comment.)
In the meantime, true to Ms. Regelson’s prediction, workmen arrived at the site a few days after the arches became visible, and finished installing a new plywood fence before the following weekend.
And the site remains empty. The only activity at 111 Washington Street for several years appears to have been its use as a storage facility for portable toilets that the Port Authority needed for construction workers on the nearby World Trade Center site, along with other equipment. “There were stacked trailers,” Ms. Regelson recalls, “about eight of them. We called it the ‘trailer park.’”
photos Esther Regelson
TODAY IN HISTORY
Terror in a Horse-Drawn Cart
On September 11, family members and others gathered at Ground Zero to honor those killed nineteen years earlier when commercial airliners were repurposed into deadly missiles, striking a blow at the very symbol of capitalism by targeting prominent buildings in New York’s Financial District.
Today, many walk down Wall Street unaware that one hundred years ago New York City’s deadliest terror attack until 2001 took place right there. Though no plaque marks the spot, the scars are still visible if you know where to look.
As the noon hour approached on a fall Thursday morning in 1920 a horse-drawn wagon slowly made its way west down Wall Street toward “the Corner,” the high-powered intersection of Wall and Broad. Its driver came to a gentle stop in front of the Assay Office, where stockpiles of gold and silver were stored and tested for purity. But theft was not his motive.
Next door was the U.S. Sub-Treasury with its own cache of precious metals, including the heroic bronze of George Washington kick-starting a nation out on the front steps. And in view just across Broad Street stood the iconic façade of the New York Stock Exchange. Talk about a target-rich environment!
But it was the building directly across narrow Wall Street that seems to have held the driver’s interest. J. P. Morgan & Company was the nation’s most powerful bank. Known as “the House of Morgan,” or simply “the House,” 23 Wall Street was the most important address in American finance. Its headquarters distinguished itself by its lack of ornamentation.
As other companies proclaimed greatness with buildings that scraped the sky, the House modestly rose four unadorned floors. Unconspicuous consumption at its finest. Of course, it announced its presence even louder by playing it so cool, and everyone—bankers, wagon drivers, and terrorists alike—knew whose house it was.
Few recalled the old wagon or its driver, who suddenly dropped the reins and hurried off. Some recalled Trinity’s bells begin to announce the noon hour. Everyone recalled the sudden flash of light and the explosion.
Just before the peal ended, one hundred pounds of dynamite exploded, vaporizing both wagon and horse and hurling five hundred pounds of white-hot metal through streets crowded with bank clerks, secretaries, and messenger boys out for lunch.
An eerie silence followed, broken by the sound of crashing glass and the cries of four hundred injured. Thirty-eight men, women, and children—and one horse, whose hooves were found two blocks away in front of Trinity Church—were killed. Those closest to the wagon were consumed by flames or cut to pieces by metal shrapnel. A hundred fifty lay badly wounded.
Within a minute of the explosion the Stock Exchange closed. Within an hour, two thousand police officers, Red Cross nurses, and soldiers stationed on Governor’s Island were at the scene caring for the wounded and protecting the precious metals stored in the suddenly breached Assay Office.
The Wall Street bombing remains unsolved a century later, though Italian anarchists—responsible for a wave of similar bombings across America the previous year—are the main suspects. In a successful effort to open the Stock Exchange the following morning and appear unfazed by the event, bodies and debris—including evidence that might have helped identify the perpetrators—were cleared away before the sun came up.
In that same spirit of defiance (though some argue it was more a cost-saving move), J. P. Morgan & Company quickly announced that it would not repair the damaged stones. Though the wooden wall that gave the street its name is long gone, a stone wall on the Corner tells a Wall Street tale worth remembering. Please share it with others the next time you’re there.
John M. Simko
307 – Emperor Severus II is captured and imprisoned at Tres Tabernae.
1620 – Pilgrims set sail from England on the Mayflower.
1776 – American Revolutionary War: The Battle of Harlem Heights is fought.
1893 – Settlers make a land run for prime land in the Cherokee Strip in Oklahoma.
1908 – The General Motors Corporation is founded.
1920 – The Wall Street bombing: A bomb in a horse wagon explodes in front of the J. P. Morgan building in New York City killing 38 and injuring 400.
1945 – World War II: The Japanese occupation of Hong Kong comes to an end.
1955 – A Zulu-class submarine becomes the first to launch a ballistic missile.
1959 – The first successful photocopier, the Xerox 914, is introduced in a demonstration on live television from New York City.
1963 – Malaysia is formed from the Federation of Malaya, Singapore, North Borneo (Sabah) and Sarawak. However, Singapore soon leaves this new country.
1979 – Eight people escaped from East Germany to the west in a homemade hot air balloon.
1987 – The Montreal Protocol is signed to protect the ozone layer from depletion.
1992 – The trial of the deposed Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega ends in the United States with a 40-year sentence for drug trafficking and money laundering.
2007 – Security guards working for Blackwater Worldwide shoot and kill 17 Iraqis in Nisour Square, Baghdad
2013 – A gunman kills twelve people at the Washington Navy Yard.
1557 – Jacques Mauduit, French composer (d. 1627)
1615 – Heinrich Bach, German organist and composer (d. 1692)
1651 – Engelbert Kaempfer, German physician and botanist (d. 1716)
1666 – Antoine Parent, French mathematician and theorist (d. 1716)
1725 – Nicolas Desmarest, French geologist, zoologist, and author (d. 1815)
1777 – Nathan Mayer Rothschild, German-English banker (d. 1836)
1875 – James Cash Penney, American businessman and philanthropist, founded J. C. Penney (d. 1971)
1886 – Jean Arp, Alsatian sculptor and painter (d. 1966)
1888 – W. O. Bentley, English race car driver and engineer, founded Bentley Motors Limited (d. 1971
1898 – H. A. Rey, American author and illustrator, co-created Curious George (d. 1977)
1914 – Allen Funt, American director, producer, and screenwriter (d. 1999)
1924 – Lauren Bacall, American actress (d. 2014)
1925 – Charlie Byrd, American singer and guitarist (d. 1999)
1925 – B.B. King, American singer-songwriter, guitarist, and producer (d. 2015)
1360 – William de Bohun, 1st Earl of Northampton (b. 1319)
1996 – McGeorge Bundy, American intelligence officer and diplomat, 6th United States National Security Advisor (b. 1919)
2009 – Mary Travers, American singer-songwriter (b. 1936)
2016 – Edward Albee, American director and playwright (b. 1928)
What’s Next for the Store of the Future?
As Century 21 Shutdown Looms, Opportunity Arises to Ponder New Uses for a Storied Temple of Commerce
With local shoppers still mourning the impending demise of Century 21, the renowned fashion discounter, the family that owns the soon-to-be-defunct retailer may be crying all the way to the bank.
Century 21 was founded in 1961, by Al Gindi and his cousin, Samuel (“Sonny”) Gindi, who set up shop in the palatial former home of the East River Savings Bank at the corner and Church and Cortlandt Streets, and took their new venture’s name from the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, which styled itself the “Century 21 Exposition.” That event focused on the theme of how Americans would live come the millennium, but its predictions did not include an epochal pandemic, or the death of retail driven by online shopping.
Trump Supporters, Critics Make Their Cases in Battery Park City
In a gesture that was apparently intended to provoke and offend residents of Lower Manhattan, an armada of yachts and powerboats festooned with signs proclaiming support for the reelection of Donald Trump converged on North Cove Marina in Battery Park City on Friday, coinciding with the 19th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. One vessel carried the name “Team Deplorable,” while another, called “Frivolous,” hosted a professional Donald Trump imitator, who began lip synching as recorded speeches by the President were played over an amplifier. When the passengers disembarked, they unfurled a banner that read, “Trump 2020: Fuck Your Feelings.”
When Justine Cuccia, a co-founder of Democracy for Battery Park City, walked along the Esplanade and displayed a sign emblazoned with the words, “Trump Is Not America,” to the occupants of one of these boats, she was answered with raised middle fingers and calls of, “fuck you, entitled liberal bitch!” The irony of hurling accusations of “entitlement” from the deck of a yacht was apparently unintentional.
Just to recap: A woman who just climbed out of a yacht just screamed that someone else was an “entitled bitch.”
Ah, Trumpers. They’ll never change.
The Forgetting Curve
Navigating the Waters of the River Lethe
In the recent controversy over whether the National September 11 Memorial & Museum ought to carry on this year with the annual traditions of reading the names of people who died during the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the Tribute in Light, both sides were certain in their assumptions. Those who favored cancelling the events felt it was an urgent matter of public safety, in the wake of the greatest heath crisis in a century. Critics were sure that those who resolved to call off the observances were trying to save cash, while cynically hiding behind lofty pronouncements about the common good.
But what if both sides are wrong? What if this was, instead, a half-conscious, instinctive attempt at gently, incrementally stepping away from horror and sadness? What if the decision was a form of forgetting on the installment plan?
1) Hudson River Park Trust – Update by Rashi Puri, Assistant Vice President, Real Estate and Planning & Carrie Roble, Vice President, River Project
Tribeca Habitat Enhancement Plan
Pier 26 Estuarium Design Concept
Estuarine Sanctuary Management Plan (ESMP) Update
River Project Programs
2) 250 Water Street Brownfield Cleanup Program – Update by Lawra Dodge, President, Excel Environmental Resources, Inc.
3) Seaport/Financial District Interim Flood Protection Measures – Update by Yokarina Duarte, Director, Intergovernmental Affairs, Suzan Rosen, Mitigation Program Manager & Brian Fargnoli, Deputy Director for Legislative Affairs, NYC Office of Emergency Management
4) North Battery Park City Resiliency – Resolution
5 Capital and Expense Budget Items for FY 2022 – Discussion
Let There Be Light
On-Again, Off-Again Decision about Tribute in Light Revives Calls for National Parks to Manage September 11 Memorial
The recent controversy over the planned cancellation of the Tribute in Light (the twin beams of illumination that rise skyward from Lower Manhattan on the anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001) has led to renewed calls by community leaders for the National September 11 Memorial & Museum to be taken over by the federal government, and operated by the National Park Service (NPS).
The most recent dispute arose in August, when the Memorial announced that it was cancelling both the Tribute in Light and the annual reading of names that commemorates each life lost during the attacks. Both of these moves were characterized as public-safety measures, in the response to the ongoing pandemic coronavirus. To read more…
Photo: Robert Simko
Recently Reopened Businesses Downtown
Get Out on the Water
from North Cove
Need a safe and breezy break from your apartment? Several cruise operators have reopened in North Cove and are offering opportunities to get out on the water, including Tribeca Sailing, Ventura, and Classic Harbor Line. All cruise operators are adhering to social distancing guidelines; check individual websites for details.