‘We won’: Original SPURA tenant finally back home

Linda Acevedo and her husband, Cheo Acevedo, in their new apartment at The Rollins. They adopted their dog, Auggie, a few months ago after Jet Blue flew in rescue animals from the California wildfires. Photos by Sydney Pereira

BY SYDNEY PEREIRA | When Linda Acevedo looks out her window on the seventh floor of her one-bedroom apartment at Broome and Clinton Sts., a flood of memories washes over her. Her north-facing window overlooks a massive construction site for a 25-story tower. On that spot was where she grew up as a child home more than 50 years ago.

“This is where I started, and this is where I’ll finish,” Acevedo reflected at a new nearby cafe — GrandLo Cafe — and community center situated beneath affordable senior housing operated by the Grand St. Settlement.

The Rollins, which Acevedo moved into in April, is a part of the multiblock Essex Crossing development. The sprawling site, formerly known as the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area, or SPURA, was leveled in 1967. But its redevelopment stalled, and for decades it was used as parking lots.

Acevedo was just 15 years old when her family was displaced from their tenement building slated for demolition on the site across from her new home. Her family was one of the few who stayed in the Lower East Side, moving to various apartments in the neighborhood. For the last 35 years, Acevedo and her family have lived in the Vladeck Houses, at Madison and Gouverneur Sts.

A formal plan for SPURA — which would go on to be redubbed Essex Crossing — was voted on in 2012. Half of the apartments throughout the new residential buildings will be affordable housing for low-, moderate- and middle-income households. Since the plan’s approval, Acevedo and other former site tenants have been fighting to get priority access to the affordable housing units in the new buildings. It was a long struggle, she said, but when applications for the affodable housing were finally released, there was a tiny “Check Here” box for former site tenants.

“That was the biggest thing ever,” she said. “We won.”

The uphill battle of returning to her childhood corner, however, was far from over. A key factor for Acevedo in securing a spot for herself and her husband, Cheo, was proving that she had once lived in the tenements on the former site.

“That was the big ‘Yes’ or ‘No,’” she said. “You had to prove you were here.”

Her birth certificate — which had her home address on it — was not enough, since she was born more than a decade before tenants were evicted from the tenement housing. Seward Park High School didn’t have records dating back to when she was a student there. So, Acevedo tried reaching out to the U.S. Social Security Administration, which she hoped would have records of her first work application at 14 years old. After paying a $25 fee, she received records from the administration proving that she lived at the former multiblock site, opening the door for her to get interviews for an affordable apartment in the building, she said. Three interviews and several months later, she was offered a $1,000-a-month one-bedroom apartment.

“It was so exciting. I just love everything,” she said of her new place. “It’s so new. What’s not to love?

“I just really lucked out,” she added. “We feel blessed — so, so blessed.”

Linda Acevedo overlooking the construction site at the new Essex Crossing mega-project, where she lived with her family in a tenement building decades ago. The tenements were all leveled for so-called “urban redevelopment.”

Meanwhile, outside her window, construction on the rest of Essex Crossing surges ahead. At times, she feels melancholy while watching the work because she can remember playing “Red Light / Green Light” on the streets while her mother and friends would sit on milk crates after dinnertime. As a child, she could hardly walk down four flights of stairs without her mother requesting that she ask every neighbor if they need their trash taken out.

She can visualize her old bedroom and each and every store in the neighborhood — the Puerto Rican bodegas, a bakery, a movie theater she went to with friends on the weekends, and a store where candies sold for a penny.

All three of her sons — 29, 30 and 43 years old — still live in the neighborhood, the fourth generation of “Lower East Side lifers” that began when Acevedo’s grandparents immigrated here from Romania and Russia.

“I knew I wasn’t leaving the Lower East Side,” she said. “If that meant staying in the projects [at the Vladeck Houses], that’s probably where I would have died.”

The Lower East Side may have changed, but in some ways, it’s for the better, she said. Despite the rampant gentrification and construction and turnover of stores, restaurants and bars, Acevedo said she could “go blindfolded walking around the Lower East Side” and still always know where she was.

The neighborhood is safer today yet remains a unique part of the city. Young people flock to the area now, whereas before they steered clear. Acevedo looks forward to grocery shopping at Trader Joe’s, which is expected to be housed in the retail space of The Rollins alongside Target later this year.

“Now people fight to live in the Lower East Side,” she said. “I never imagined that happening — that’s for sure.”

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