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After the building's collapse, the two cats, Pounce and Stripey, received more attention than the 66 displaced residents.

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Lower East Side Story

by Kelly Cogswell

JULY 28, 2000. The south wall of the Irreplaceable Artifacts building owned by Evan Blum at the corner of Second Avenue and Houston Street, in Manhattan's rapidly gentrifying Lower East Side, collapsed on July 13 as workers were punching large arches in it.

The arches incongruously evoked a Roman aqueduct, but turned out to have none of their engineering precision. They were to be entrances to an outdoor cafe that Mr. Blum was planning in a sliver of a park owned by the City of New York, adjacent to his architectural salvaging business. Construction allegedly had proceeded even after the City ordered it halted.

Soon after the arched wall collapsed, the City demolished Mr. Blum's antique-filled building against his wishes, claiming that it was unsafe.

Media Puffs
Media coverage focused on the miraculous escape of the nine Irreplaceable Artifacts workers, and the one-of-a-kind gargoyles, frescoes, Tiffany windows, marble mantelpieces, chandeliers, and the like, buried in the rubble. Much was made of the ironic fact that Mr. Blum had salvaged some of those items precisely from the rubble of other fallen buildings.

The fate of the two cats, Pounce and Stripey, believed trapped inside the building, received more attention than the 66 residents that were evacuated from the structurally damaged adjacent building at 16 Second Avenue. The Cube Building, as it is called, is a unique cooperative comprised of 22 formerly homeless families. Renovation, sponsored by the Cooper Square Committee, a not-for-profit housing agency, was completed in 1988.

Freed Attacks
At a press conference held against the dramatic background of the Irreplaceable Artifacts rubble, on July 20, New York City Council Member Katherine Freed, who represents the area, decried the media's callousness and accused Mr. Blum of making the Cube Building residents homeless once again.

Residents could not return to their homes unless their building, which had developed a crack, was shored up, she said. However, this was being prevented by an injunction against the City clearing rubble from his site secured by Mr. Blum. It appeared that Mr. Blum wanted to sift through his rubble himself, hoping to salvage some of his treasures.

Ms. Freed said that Mr. Blum refused to negotiate, or even establish a time frame for his sifting activities. She was going to court to ask that his injunction be lifted. Each day the Cube Building remained unsupported increased the likelihood of further damage, even collapse, which would not just delay the residents' return, but prohibit it entirely, she warned.

While answering a reporter's questions and keeping her gaze directly into his TV camera, Ms. Freed repeatedly shushed the loquacious Cube Building residents behind her, irritated at their attempts to offer comments of their own. The occasion had been billed a joint press conference by Ms. Freed and the residents to bring attention to the latter's plight.

She did report, however, residents' complaints that while Mr. Blum and his workers were freely given access to the rubble, they had been allowed into their homes for only a few minutes each to retrieve essentials.

"Priority must be given to the residents of the Cube Building, not the profits of Mr. Blum," Ms. Freed said in a press release distributed prior to her press conference. In it, she also said that, in 1988, the Cube Building residents "took occupancy, over the strenuous objections of Mr. Blum."

Blum Fights Back
rubble"All of that is false," Evan Blum told THE GULLY on July 25 when asked to comment on Council Member Freed's charges against him. He had gotten an injunction against the City only "to preserve the foundations and what is left of my building," particularly merchandise stored in the basement. "It's never been my position to stop the work next door. I never wanted to stop the shoring up" of the Cube Building, he said.

The demolition of the Irreplaceable Artifacts building by the City had been "pointless and reckless," Mr. Blum said. "The building could have been shored up. There was no reason why it should come down. I could have saved the building and saved the City all the money that has been spent demolishing it, but I was denied access," he added. That was the "general consensus" of "very reliable, knowledgeable people" he had consulted, whose names he could not divulge for legal reasons.

Mr. Blum said that he had nothing against the Cube Building residents. "My objection [in 1988] was that it was a misuse of tax payer's money to fix that building, to spend in renovation two or three times what it would have cost to build new housing," he said. "The City could have gotten real money for this property," he added, offering that he himself wanted to buy the building to expand his business and put up artists' housing.

As to the alleged disparity of access, Mr. Blum claimed he was never allowed to go into his building, and that only once was he allowed to enter "the periphery" of the site. "Their anger is misdirected at me," he said of his Cube Building neighbors, "when it should be directed against the City."

Disparity or not, the restrictions placed by the City on resident access to the Cube Building were not unusual. Residents evacuated several months ago from a cracked building on Stanton Street, for example, were not allowed to go in even for a minute to retrieve personal possessions or pets before the building was demolished. A suit by those Stanton Street residents is pending against the City.

Victory for All?
Shortly after Ms. Freed's press conference in front of the rubble, a Manhattan judge who had been petitioned to lift Mr. Blum's injunction called the parties to her chambers. When they emerged, the City was allowed to brace the Cube Building, but only if it took care not to damage the Irreplaceable Artifacts basement and foundation. Both sides claimed victory.

A few days later, after their building was provisionally braced, all residents of the Cube Building were back in their now dusty apartments. More than half could be displaced again later this year, this time for several months, while permanent repairs are done to the significantly damaged structure of their building, and to apartment interiors.

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