Wednesday, September 14, 2011

An Open Letter to Cooper Union

Dear Cooper Union:

Today you are meeting with the owners of the St. Mark's Bookshop to discuss a rent reduction that would keep this invaluable business afloat. So far, the owners say, you have not been "particularly sympathetic" to the situation.

You weren't particularly sympathetic in 1994 when you leased a gas station to the Bowery Bar, helping to set in motion a tsunami of hyper-gentrification. Bowery Bar's neighbor (gone now) put a lighted sign in his window saying, "Cooper Union: How could you do this to us?" More protesters responded, "Don't Party on the Poor." But the party raged on.

You weren't particularly sympathetic in 2000 when you leased the Astor Place parking lot for a luxury hotel that turned into a luxury condo tower--one that opened the door for more massive development in the East Village. One of your own faculty members at the time told the Observer, "[Peter Cooper] would die again if he knew what was going on. For him to find out what his legacy turned out to be, he would be appalled. He was never one for pure mercenary gain. It’s all about money, money, money."

You weren't particularly sympathetic in 2001 when you tried to demap Taras Shevchenko Place and the Ukrainians of the East Village fought back.

You weren't particularly sympathetic in 2004 when you painted over a popular 9/11 mural to make space for advertising on 35 Cooper Square. That little building was later sold to developers and demolished against more protests.

You aren't being particularly sympathetic now in your current plans to turn Astor Place into a corporate office park. The neighborhood has been fighting those plans for the past decade to no avail.

Even though, as we understand it, you make a mint on the Chrysler Building, which stands on your property and reportedly costs the city $8 million every year, you keep finding ways to make more money from the East Village. As New York Magazine put it, you have "helped to corporatize a once raffish and still artistically fertile area." People are angry. We have lost too much. We cannot lose one of the best bookstores in the city--a place that fuels the soul in an increasingly soulless neighborhood.

As of this writing, more than 24,000 people have signed the petition to save St. Mark's Bookshop. Will you be sympathetic to that enormous outcry? I hope you will surprise us and grant their request, but your track record does not inspire optimism.

A few years ago, I was inspired by a story in the documentary film Twilight Becomes Night. A group of Upper West Siders saved their local pharmacy from eviction by calling the bank that planned to move into the space, and telling them, "We will not use your services." The bank backed off. Suba Pharmacy still stands. So here's an idea: If St. Mark's Books is forced to close due to unyielding rent, whatever business moves into their space at 31 Third Avenue will be boycotted and protested.

I'm sorry, but I can't be more sympathetic.

Vanishing New York


Anonymous said...

Great letter! Thank you.

Mykola ( Mick) Dementiuk said...

Hope that any place will stay vacant forever. St Marks Bookshop must stay!

EV Grieve said...


Sarah said...

YES! Rock on!

The Ancient said...

A great letter. Somewhere, Peter Cooper is beaming.

Shawn Chittle said...

Fantastic letter. Probably one of the best and most heartfelt I've read to a... landlord.

Shame shame on Cooper Union.

All 24,000 signers need to buy one book a month. That's how you save the bookstore! I just bought Michael Moore's new book "Here Comes Trouble" from them!

Long live St. Marks Bookstore!

JAZ said...

Great letter. I really hope Cooper Union surprises me and actually shows that is gives a shit about NYC. This is one time where I would really love to be wrong.

If St. Marks Bookshop is forced out, there's not a chance that myself, any of my coworkers, or anyone else I know will ever spend one single cent on anything moving into that space.

Caleo said...

Excellent letter.
By the way, how is it that a so called non profit can be bringing in multiple millions a year on commercial properties and still be a non profit.
Someone is profiting from this. Non profit my ass.

Katrink said...

Indeed. That whirring sound you hear is Peter Cooper spinning madly in his grave. He should haunt the bastards responsible for this!

esquared said...


callmekc said...

I'm right across the street from St. Marks Bookshop and I hope it stays!! Great letter

Marty Wombacher said...

Great letter and sentiments. Any business that moves in there will get a boycott notice on my blog for sure.

Goggla said...

Thank you, JM. I bought three books this week.

Kurt said...

Good work!

Sad that Cooper Union keeps demonstrating how happy it is to serve the filthy rich.

Anonymous said...

I love your blog and totally respect (and for the most part agree with) your views. However, when I read about the East Village I always want to point out that before the Bowery was full of flop houses and the East Village was full of tenements the area (at least around Astor Place) was THE chicest place to live in all of New York, and the phenomenally rich of their day all had homes there (some of which still exist in the Colonnade). Couldn't it be argued that the area is returning to it's rightful roots through the current waves of gentrification? I often think that preservation gets caught in the trap of subjective opinion (my own included I have to admit). I wonder if preservationists always take the longest possible view on what should be in a city.

I'm not trying to start a war or anything in the comments. I'm still debating the idea on my own head, and it's legitimately something I'd like to get some views on. Anyone have a comment yay or nay?

Eric Brasure said...

Oh no! Boycott notices on blogs!

I'm sure that threat will really fill Cooper Union with fear.

Mykola ( Mick) Dementiuk said...

Yes, but I have to ask will the 'neighborly' support of a bookstore in their midst make it thrive? I must admit that my own book, "100 Whores," is now carried by the St Marks Bookshop but once the hoopla dies down will life go back to what it once was, chasing after the almighty dollar where once again books become meaningless and forgotten? If they stay as a bookshop how much of life will change with it, will we see a new readership or just the same, going after the empty knowledge of reading trivial ebooks and making Cooper Union and NYU proud. I don't know we can only wait and see.

esquared said...

oh, and should cooper union do not budge (and most likely they won't -- hope i'm wrong), they will probably turn that space into a study hall or lounge for the c u students, faculty, and staff. if they know that the neighborhood will boycott whatever business moves there, anything to be spiteful and stick it to the neighborhood.

(copied and pasted the letter, btw,)

Bowery Boogie said...

still finding it ironic that an institution of higher learning is even engaged in such a situation. this should be a no-brainer. let the bookshop stay.

Anonymous said...

Go Jeremiah. I have to echo your sentiments to say that if St. Mark's Books closes it means war. Not only will I and everyone I know not patronize whatever goes up in its place, we will do our best to make the owners feel very UNWELCOMED.

Dane Vannatter said...


glamma said...

to get as much bad press for cooper union as possible - that's the idea. that is what they will respond to.
i bought three books last week (including mick's!)and to lose this bookstore will break my heart.
these money grubbing monsters need to be stopped!!!

Anonymous said...

If each of those 24,000 petition signers actually spent money at SMB, there wouldn't be any rent problems in the first place. Put your money where your mouth is.

Jeremiah Moss said...

i know that i and many of the people here do spend money at St. Mark's. unfortunately, thanks to the rent hikes all over the East Village (thanks in part to organizations like Cooper Union), and the oceanic shift to a stupider, less book-centric population, there are fewer of us than there used to be.

but you're right--THROW AWAY YOUR KINDLES PLEASE (you know who you are) AND GO BUY SOME REAL BOOKS.

Eric Brasure said...

I would go to buy a book at St. Mark's Bookshop, but I'm never in the area anymore and it seems like an empty gesture to go there and make a token purchase. Besides, there's a bookstore in my neighborhood that I want to support, and I'm not a millionaire.

What they need is regular customers, and lots of them. At average price $15 they'd need to sell about 43 books a day to pay the rent. Doesn't seem that ridiculous.

If everyone that signed that petition bought a book they could pay their rent for the next 18 months.

Anonymous said...

What ever happen to the legacy of Avant Garde art and architecture that gave Cooper its legacy and fame.
Why are not the alumni and great minds of Cooper enhancing the city and the east side instead of this developing monstrosity?
St. Marks bookstore is a vital vein in the east side. A refuge, a place of encounters, to wonder and browse.
Save St. Marks.

Anonymous said...

Good grief. Cooper provides tuition-free education to some of the smartest and most talented college students in the world, and the income from its real estate holdings is one of the revenues streams that allows it to do this. It is one of the only schools in America that does this. And now a for-profit business signed a lease that it can't afford, and wants to change the terms of that lease 2 years in, and somehow Cooper is the bad guy?

Guess what, folks -- St. Mark's hasn't occupied that space since it initially opened in 1977. (The building at 31 Third Avenue didn't exist in 1977.) It used to be in a different location, and then it moved to 31 Third Avenue. If Cooper doesn't reduce the rent, then OH THE HUMANITY THE STORE WILL HAVE TO MOVE TO ANOTHER LOCATION ... AGAIN. This is a travesty how?

Cooper Union has been there for 150 years, and will be there for at least 150 more, through whatever upturns and downturns the neighborhood experiences. Frankly, it owes it to its future students and to Peter Cooper to maximize its endowment, so that it can honor Cooper's vision and commitment to providing tuition-free college education.

John M said...

Somewhere Don Quixote is smiling.

Jeremiah Moss said...

hey, you gotta have a dream.

Anonymous said...

I went to The Cooper Union in the early 90's, lived in the East Village for many, many years, patronized its stores and eateries, bought many a book at St. Mark's Bookshop and I do share a sense of panic when I hear that a venerable institution such as St. Mark's Bookshop is under threat of extinction.

However ... really Jeremiah, your sentiments and allegations at large encapsulate what I think it completely wrong-headed with New Yorkers who find their cherished ideals of what their neighborhoods should be slipping away. That is, critical thinking tends to get diminished somewhere in all the emotion, and it sometimes devolves into simplistic David v Goliath drivel.

The Cooper Union is an institution, and has been way longer than many of the current cherished institutions in the hood. It is an educational institution whose whole purpose, using *your* words, is to fuel the soul - its Great Hall has hosted the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Bill Clinton, Salman Rushdie, Ralph Nader, and The New York City Rent Control Board. It also offers *free* Saturday art classes to New York public high school students. It is not just an educational institution, it is a cultural one.

*No* student at Cooper Union pays tuition. That's right. So, if you compared it to an institution such as NYU, whose average yearly tuition is $41K, and which practically owns half of Manhattan, you might see that Cooper Union's need to raise funds is that much harder.

Again, what I see in this protest is the staggering lack of a basic understanding of how markets work. As you point out, rent hikes are a trend. Rent is subject to market forces just as books, cupcakes and kitten rentals are. The recession (and I'm sure the hurricane) has hit small businesses, governments, and landlords like Cooper Union where it hurts. In this extraordinarily difficult climate, Cooper Union will do everything in its power to keep the school tuition free. If that means it has to raise rent in order to educate the next generation of architects, artists and engineers to improve and save this planet without giving them the undue burden of student debt for the rest of their lives, believe me it will. Having St. Marks Bookshop move to another location might be a wee small price to pay, don't you think?

I submit to you: Wouldn't it be a better set of resources and energy to help fund the bookstore and find it a new home instead of trying to blindly tearing into a non-profit, a member of a group of venerable New York-to-the-core institutions that that you, yourself purport to defend?

Better yet, why not have everyone in the neighborhood band together and folllow a prescription from "The Death and Life of Great American Cities?" Jane Jacobs describes a neighborhood that pools their resources together, buys up property and rents it out to businesses at the neighborhood's discretion? You know, empower yourselves and turn capitalism on its head? I mean, sheesh, if you're going to sit there and wholesale vilify the Goliaths of the world, why not cut them out of the picture altogether? A neighborhood collective would do a tremendously better job of preserving its own character than say, the Wal Marts, Lefraks or Vornados of the world, wouldn't you say?

It's either this, or maybe get wise about market forces and stop grumbling about it ... or save your venom for a Goliath that actually deserves it. You rail against the Kindle - futilely (it's clear that some part of you recognizes the inevitable decline of actual books - a sadness which I share), but I would bet good money that the same people who have signed the petition are proud Kindle owners who have unwittingly helped St. Mark's Bookshop's demise.

Anonymous said...

I just came across your blog. Unfortunately, the people that you claim will be boycotting a new establishment in the bookstore space, have already been, in effect, boycotting the bookstore.

If they supported the bookstore by buying books instead of signing petitions it would go a long way.

The bookstore was granted a one year rent reduction. If the community doesn't put their money where their pens are, the bookstore will have to close or move to another more affordable location.