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Rabble Rousers: Frances Goldin and the Fight for Cooper Square.

Robert Moses was New York City’s “Master Builder”, a force of nature that transformed the built environment and the lives of millions of New Yorkers. When Moses came to the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1959, he intended to level the area known as “Cooper Square” in the name of urban renewal. Little did Moses know that he would meet his match in the Cooper Square Committee (CSC) and in Frances Goldin, the committee’s tenacious co-founder.

The CSC and its multi-ethnic motley crew of radicals, shopkeepers, artists and housewives were different than other organizations that had fought urban renewal. Using an innovative mix of community organizing and urban planning, the Committee not only opposed the Moses plan but emerged with it’s own: The Alternate Plan for Cooper Square. The guiding principle of the plan was that urban renewal should benefit, not displace, existing residents of Cooper Square.

Cooper Square: New York, NYC.

Cooper Square is an area on the western perimeter of the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The area gets it’s name from Cooper Union, as well as the street and small park adjacent to the university’s main building.

In 1959, Robert Moses, chairman of New York City’s Slum Clearance Committee, announced an urban renewal plan for Cooper Square. The plan would level nearly every residential building from 9th Street to Delancey Street and from 2nd Avenue to the Bowery, displacing an estimated 2,400 families and thousands of men living in single room hotels. Moses’ Cooper Square Plan, developed in conjunction with the United Housing Foundation, would build over 2,000 middle-income co-op apartments in place of the tenements it razed.

In the 1950s, Frances Goldin was part of two unsuccessful efforts to stop urban renewal plans designed by Robert Moses: Lincoln Center and Seward Park. Experience in these campaigns would prove prescient in 1959 when an urban renewal plan was announced for the Cooper Square area, just blocks from Goldin’s apartment. In opposition to the Moses plan, Goldin and her neighbors formed the Cooper Square Committee (CSC) and launched a campaign to save their neighborhood.

An initial survey by the CSC determined that 93% of the existing residents displaced by the Moses plan would not be able to afford the planned co-op units. In 1961, the Cooper Square Committee released The Alternate Plan For Cooper Square, an innovative mix of urban planning and direct democracy and the product of over 100 community meetings. The guiding principle of the Alternate Plan was that urban renewal should benefit, not displace, the existing residents of Cooper Square. The Alternate Plan called for “phased development”: building housing on vacant sites and then moving area tenants into those apartments while new housing was constructed on the tenement blocks. Then moving another group of tenement tenants into the new tenement block housing and so on. In this way, the plan assured that no existing resident of Cooper Square would be displaced.

In 2013, The Alternate Plan for Cooper Square was completed. Today it stands as one of the few tangible examples of progressive, community-based planning in New York City. Rabble Rousers: Frances Goldin and the Fight for Cooper Square documents the five decades of struggle it took the CSC’s vision to prevail.