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August 27th, 2008

INTERVIEW: ANDREW BERMAN.

by Joelle Panisch

Mr. Berman’s office is on the second floor of a quite remarkable building. Ernest Flagg designed the Beaux-Arts style structure in 1901. It now stands with a rustic white facade and burnt-red door, and when you walk in an elegant staircase regally welcomes you. It once housed the Rector for St. Marks Church but now is home to the Neighborhood Preservation Center, as well as Andrew Berman.

It’s an appropriate space for Berman, Executive Director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation since 2002 and the foremost leader of neighborhood preservation crusades. He, like the building, is rich with New York history. Raised in the Bronx, Mr. Berman explored the city from a young age with his father, a traveling hardware salesman. He grew entranced with New York’s charismatic architecture and the personality it evoked, seeing the city as a living entity that jokes, hustles, and weeps with its inhabitants as much as it houses them. He fell in love.

In college Andrew nurtured this affection by majoring in in art history. He found he had an affinity for something else as well: activism. According to Mr. Berman, he spent more time “rabble-rousing” than studying. That proved to be okay.

As the head of the GVSHP he has successfully advocated landmark status for the Gansevoort Market and the Weehawken Street Historic District–the first extension of the Greenwich Village Historic District since 1969. He has led battles to better regulate over-development of neighborhoods and enforced city laws against illegal billboards. Mr. Berman has even taken on the ferocious Donald Trump in an attempt to stop Trump Soho and “condo-hotels” like it from rising in manufacturing zones.

In addition, his resume boasts advocacy for tenants’ rights, affordable housing, and zoning issues. He is the Vice President of the Board of the NY State Tenants and Neighbors Coalition; a founding member of the West Side Neighborhood Alliance and Save Chelsea’s Historic District; and member of the Chelsea Reform Democratic Club, the Stonewall Democratic Club, Community Board #3’s Rezoning Task Force and Community Board #4’s Affordable Housing Task Force. Whew. This is all in his spare time, if he has any.

There is a tireless quality about Mr. Berman, so much so that even if you knew nothing of his principled reputation you would still trust him to get the job done. Thus, it’s no surprise that rumors of his running for office have emerged. After all, he is what the people say they want–an idealist with a fighting spirit. And given the alarmist atmosphere downtown from residents fearing unwanted change, Berman’s preservationist background may serve him well. But will he run?

Like the Flagg building, Andrew is steadfast in the face of surrounding pressures. He’s a hard worker and wants to do what is right.Will he run? Only time will tell.

SoHo Journal: Tell me a bit about your parents and how you grew up.

Andrew Berman: I grew up in Co-op City, which is this enormous housing development in the northeast section of the Bronx and it was sort of built basically all at once in the late ’60’s and early 1970’s, so when my parents moved in we were the first people to occupy the apartment– so there wasn’t really any history to it, at least not what was apparent. My parents had moved there from the Grand Concourse in the South Bronx, which is sort of this street of largely art deco, interwar apartment buildings that from the ’30’s to just after the post war era was a place where folks from the Bronx aspired to live, lots of doctors and lawyers. By the time my parents lived there in the late ’60’s it was sort of lower middle class. But it still had a certain patina, a certain desirability to it. The funny thing was my parents moved to Co-op city with almost everyone who lived in that neighborhood when it was built because Co-op city was cheaper, bigger apartments, bigger closets, better schools and things like that. They sort of always lamented what they left behind. I think I sort of absorbed that in a way. I had this curiosity about what this other place was like and what other places were like because it seemed so different from where we were. You know, like I said, everything was built at once. It was very utilitarian…

SJ: Did they talk about it a lot?

AB: Yeah, they did quite a bit. And it’s funny because I don’t think my parents in any way would consider themselves preservationists or whatever but on a gut level they had a real feeling of loss about what they left behind. Even though if they had the same decision to make all over again they would have done the same. With them, ultimately, sentiment did not win the day.

SJ: What did your father do?

AB: My father was a traveling hardware salesman who went around the five boroughs and out on Long Island to different hardware stores making sales; which, actually, with the age of computer, no one does anymore. But he was probably one of the last people that did it. Every once in a while I would travel with him, to work, around the city. And that was always very interesting and eye opening. My father always had very interesting and personal stories about the city. I definitely met a lot of characters and got a windshield view of the different parts of the city. And more, because we’d go into the stores and stuff like that. I think all of that gave me this kind of curiosity about the world outside of the one I knew, at least in New York. Then when I went to high school at Bronx High, which is a citywide high school, it sort of gave me an opportunity to have friends from all over the city. So, that really expanded my horizons. It gave me much more of an opportunity to explore different neighborhoods with different character and history than what I was familiar with.

SJ: Did it make you fall in love with New York?

AB:
Yeah, it really did.

SJ: Who was your childhood hero?

AB: Not quite in childhood but I’ll say in adolescence I read a book by Paul Goldberger called City Observer [technically called The City Observer New York]. He was at the time the architecture critic for the New York Times and then went on to be the critic for the New Yorker and the Parsons School of Design. That book really affected me. Even today it is a great read because it was written in 1979 and it’s such an interesting snapshot of the city at that time, which is so different than it is now. It was such a colorful and provocative description of different neighborhoods, different buildings and different streets. I think it stimulated and opened my mind to be really interested in that stuff.

SJ: You went to Wesleyan and majored in Art History. Clearly you are very intelligent, but I’m curious, where did your fight come from?

AB: Well in college, I have to be honest, I was not that diligent of a student. I spent much more of my time as a campus rabble-rouser. In some ways I got more of an education in organizing and politics than I did in the classroom. It was my own fault that I was not paying as much attention in class as I should have. [He laughs.] When I left school I didn’t know what I wanted to do but I knew I wanted to do something that dealt with either activism or the arts or both. And in some ways what I’m doing now is a great combination of the two.

SJ: What did you do after you graduated?

AB: I worked for CBS news for 14 months, which is pretty much the only real job I ever had in the private sector. I learned a lot about election stuff because I was in the Election Research Bureau. It was an interesting experience; it certainly made me not want to work in corporate America. Although it was far from the most corporate job you can have. But this was the early nineties and I was just out of college and it was really hard to find jobs—so when this one came around I was like, ‘I’ll take it! I’ll have a paycheck.’

SJ:
I think people today can relate…

AB: I did learn a lot from it. It gave me more of an “on the ground” understanding of politics. I saw how in the real world electoral politics work. Voting, voting patterns–how that played out. But I was happy to move on from that when it was over.

SJ: Then you went to work for Tom Duane?

AB: Yes. For eight years. It was a long time; I worked four different jobs for him. I guess that is part of what made being there for eight years make sense. I started out as his Greenwich Village community liaison. I eventually became his Chief of Staff in the City Council. Then when he moved to the State Senate I was his Chief of Staff there. So it was a lot of different spots.

SJ: Do you feel good about your time there?

AB: I got a lot out of it, I really enjoyed it. When I started working for Tom he was about a year in office and his election had been very groundbreaking. He was a grass roots community activist, which was a fairly unusual approach for an elected official. Well, at least in a lot of ways that was the model that he followed. I guess he’s been in office for 17 years now so I guess he’s a little bit less of that kind of bursting-through-the barricades situation. But that’s what it was like when he started off.

SJ: Tell me how you got started at GVSHP?

AB: Well, certainly working for Tom I was aware of GVSHP and when it was time for me to move on I was looking at a few different things. I heard that the Executive Director position was open here and so I applied. It was a time when the organization was going through a transition and looking to take on a more activist role. It had previously been more focused exclusively on education alerts and they had just started to take up the cause of pushing for landmark status for the Meatpacking District. And they really wanted to, and needed to, amp up that effort. So it felt like a really good fit for me. I sent them my resume just before September 11th, and of course then everybody’s lives were on hold for a good month or two, but by the end of 2001 I met with the board and they offered me the position. I started January 2nd, 2002. SJ: Have you ever been arrested?

AB: I have been arrested actually: for trespassing at my own apartment building. This was very odd. It actually was my parents’ apartment building in Co-op City. It was in 1997 and I lived in Hell’s Kitchen but my parents still lived there and I had somebody visiting me from England and I wanted to take him to Co-op City where I grew up. And the building (they) lived in was a high rise and I often would hang out on the roof with the most spectacular views of the city. So we went up there and we were taking a look at the view. We were up there for more than 15 or 20 minutes and all of a sudden these two cops bust through the door to the roof with guns drawn and were like, “what are you doing up here? You are under arrest.” It was really really crazy and I don’t drive, I don’t have a driver’s license, so I didn’t have photo ID on me. I had credit cards, a library card, but since I didn’t have a photo ID what they were going to do was issue me a ticket but I said, “look, my parents live here–here’s the key to the apartment. I can go down and let you in.” It was during the day so my parents weren’t home and (the police) were like, “if you don’t have photo ID to prove that you live here we have to arrest you and if you don’t have proof that you live here and that your family lives here we have to issue you a ticket.” They ended up arresting both of us—my friend from England didn’t have photo ID on him either. It was an awful experience; we had to go to court and the judge threw it out. This is ridiculous—it was such an ordeal. It was in the late 90’s, the Giuliani era, the cops had to give a certain number of tickets and the environment with the police was, you know, just looking for opportunities to bust people.

SJ: So none based on demonstrations?

AB: I’ve certainly participated in tons of demonstrations, including ones that involved civil disobedience, but I actually never did such or was arrested for it. In almost any civil disobedience protest you have some people who don’t do the arresting part so they can do the other stuff. I’ve always done the other stuff. It’s not that I’m not willing to get arrested for a cause but you know, if you have the choice between the two I’ll take not getting arrested.

SJ: Why do you think it’s so hard to rally support?

AB: We certainly have hundreds of people that turn out for a lot of the things we do. But I think new Yorkers lead incredibly busy lives. They are doing a million different things at once, to some degree. And a lot of folks have become almost numb to the degree of change around them, even if they don’t like it. But I have to say that I have been deeply gratified by the number of people that have been involved and have turned out for the stuff that we do. We always wish there could be more, because the other side, while they may not have the people, they certainly have the money. What we have to counter that is people. You know, look, there are only so many hours in the day. I wish that I could participate in all the things I want to do. You know there are a lot of things that I’m sure people say ‘how come Andrew didn’t come to this?’ Usually it’s just because I’m doing something else.

SJ: Was there ever an effort that you didn’t support or thought was a lost cause?

AB: It’s easier for me to think of ones that we knew were lost causes and we did anyway because we thought they were important. But sure, you have to prioritize, and sometimes you decide nothing particularly helpful will come out of fighting that fight. So you save your resources for something else. Sometimes you have to say in the context of what’s going on that maybe its not what you want but you got some changes. The big type of situation when you have to turn down a request to get involved is when something is outside of the area that we typically cover.We get these really good requests to help fight for a neighborhood. Sometimes its just a few blocks outside of what we consider our area, and I would love to but given our limited recourses and how much is going on in the area we are our charter obligated to do our work in—we can’t. A lot of the times I have to say to folks, “it’s a really good cause but I can’t do anything other than give you advice.” We do get involved in issues outside what we consider our…area sometimes, but it is really the exception. It’s only if we think there is a clear precedent that it will set or a clear impact on rules and regulations that will directly affect us.

SJ: You once said one of your biggest defeats was the Tunnel Garage. Do you take that personally?

AB: I do in a lot of ways. First of all, I thought the building was so great and wonderful, so many people felt really personal about it. You can’t help but take it a little personally, you know. You rally the troops and make the most persuasive argument you can and submit the stuff to the Preservation Commission and that’s work. But you do feel a certain personal investment in it. It’s like losing a little piece of yourself and it’s tough. And almost always when people ask me what’s one that you lost, that you really hated to lose, I say the Tunnel Garage, just because it felt very personal. It takes so much effort and it takes so long that it feels like we never get to the end point of it. It can definitely be frustrating. There are other times when we have had great successes. You know, no matter what happens you have to keep in mind that there are going to be losses with the victories and if you can’t accept that mix then you can’t do this. I hope that there will never be all losses but maybe one day it will be all victories, but right now I’ve learned to accept that there is going to be some of each.

SJ: Why is preservation so important?

AB: Well, preservation is so important because it really is what helps keep New York feeling different than the rest of the country and the rest of the world. It helps give it its distinct character. Obviously we work in a very competitive global marketplace and New York is never going to be a better Dubai than Dubai. It’s never going to be a better Hong Kong than Hong Kong. I think where New York will always prevail is in its incredibly dynamic and unique sense of character. And we’ve got to hold on to that. If New York becomes just another Xerox copy of another American city then why would you bother to live here? Other cities are cheaper, cleaner, more convenient, have better weather. If we really try to be like every place else we are just going to lose. It’s by holding on to that sense of distinctiveness and unique appeal that we’ll hold on to the businesses or artists or residents. Now to be clear, preservation doesn’t mean that nothing changes, that you hold on to everything. It doesn’t mean that every thing is worth preserving.

SJ: Where do you draw the line?

AB: It’s somewhat subjective, obviously, but I think I try to draw the line at the places you can say are distinctive. These are the things that are unique; these are the things that contribute to our sense of place and our history. These are the things that help really define us as a city. Obviously everyone is going to look at that differently, and I think that we have to accept the different interpretations. But I think honest interpretations of it will always come back to the same themes. It’s very easy to look at a certain part of the city and say, “wow this is really distinctive.” And if you look at some of the neighborhoods that have been preserved, whether through landmark preservation or other things, these are some of the most vital, successful, and economically active neighborhoods in the city—SoHo, Tribeca, the Upper West Side, Greenwich Village, Brooklyn Heights, Park Slope. There sometimes seems to be this myth that you landmark a neighborhood and then it withers on the vine. Experience shows exactly the opposite. So, in fact, if anything preservation can be a really great tool for economic development while holding on to the best of what you want to keep.

SJ: What is your political philosophy?

AB: I am certainly a Progressive and I see New York as a very progressive place. It’s a very just place (in many ways), a place that embraces a whole range of people and a very dynamic place. That’s one of the things that I really value about it. I feel like we have a responsibility to work to make the world a better place, even if it sounds cliched. In all the work that I’ve done that’s always sort of been my overriding goal in one form or another. I just feel like that’s all of our responsibilities.Why are you here if that’s not what you are doing? New York is an incredible place because there are 8 million people living on top of one another and it brings out some really powerful issues… in terms of the influence of the real estate lobby and what makes neighborhoods unique.

SJ: You are obviously tremendously busy. Is it hard to be in a relationship?

AB:
I’m in a relationship. My partner and I have been together for eight and a half years and he works very hard as well. He runs a bridge to college program up in the South Bronx and actually works about 10 blocks away from where my parents once lived. He works for CUNY, for a program that is geared for getting kids in public high schools into college. So it gets them acclimated to college while they are still in high school. He’s a very hard worker as well, so it’s definitely a challenge for the both of us. Like everything it’s a challenge. It’s something we all constantly work on and learn. I guess you have to try and strike the right balance.

SJ:
Are you going to run for office?

AB: I’ll say this: I have been encouraged to do so by a lot of people. It’s certainly something I think about because the kind of work I’m interested in doing, which has to do with trying to make a difference and hopefully making my community and the world I live in a better place, obviously elected office can be a very powerful way of achieving that. Right now I am, to say the least, up to my ears with all the work I am doing here at the GVSHP. So while it’s definitely something I’m thinking a lot about and maybe coming to a decision on very soon, right now my number one priority is the very substantial amount of work we have to do here and getting it done.

SJ: Do you ever sleep?

AB: Not as much as I should. I actually am an insomniac so the advantage of that is that it gives me a few more hours in the day than most people. I’ve gotten used to it. [Smiles.]

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