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Manhattan: The Suburb


"I grew up in a rental house in Laurelton, Queens," says Lester, sitting in jeans and a gray T-shirt in his paper-crammed office overlooking Third Avenue. "When I was 10, my parents went on rent strike because there was no hot water or heat in the middle of the winter. I became a lawyer to represent people like my parents." Lester's mother, a bookkeeper, was a supporter of Henry Wallace's Progressive Party; she'd discuss politics at the dinner table with his dad, a jewelry-supplies salesman. Lester's grandfather was a textiles-union organizer on the Lower East Side. "He'd come home, and his head would be bloodied," the attorney says proudly.

Lester, 45, became politicized in the sixties, attending New York Law School as a classmate of Kathryn Freed in the late seventies. "We've been on the same side of the barricades ever since," he says in his gravelly voice.

He began his career in the office of the Queens district attorney, serving three years in the anti-bias unit. But Lester's real interest lay in landlord-tenant law. In 1989, he was hired as an associate at the law firm Fischbein Badillo. Richard Fischbein had made a name for himself successfully representing Central Park South tenants who were resisting Donald Trump's efforts to evict them. Trump wanted them out so he could refurbish their aging building as a high-priced co-op. Fischbein had a reputation for taking on the big guys. But he found himself spending more and more of his time representing the corporations that paid better, and Lester grew disillusioned. ("Community groups are very time-consuming," Fischbein says. "If you have three different factions, you spend your time wearing a striped shirt and playing referee.")

The firm assigned Lester a number of cases; in all of them, he was representing the landlord. One client was the owner of a loft building on lower Broadway. "He sent me over there to inspect it," Lester recalls, "and I felt more sympathetic to the tenants than I did toward my client. At that point, I realized I had to leave."

Lester quit and hung out his own shingle. Although five or six other lawyers work a considerable number of community cases in the city, Lester is tops in the field, with up to 50 cases going on at once. He likes to trumpet himself as the protector of the bourgeoisie: "Middle-class neighborhoods should not be destabilized by the city's attempts to bring in tax dollars," he says. In his time, Lester has represented local groups fighting bars, superstores, movie complexes, street fairs, heliports, and the red neon Travelers umbrella logo that hangs high above the streets of TriBeCa. Thanks in large part to Lester's efforts, there is no 42nd Street trolley and no multiplex cinema near the Holland Tunnel exit. And Riverside South, Donald Trump's high-rise project now taking shape on the West Side, could still be foiled. "Trump promised a park to the community in exchange for zoning changes and special permits," Lester says. "Now he's building it in such a way that the community won't have the park he promised," he adds indignantly.

"That's an absolute lie," says Trump's lawyer Jeffrey Braun. Trump wants to give them their waterfront park, explains Braun, but the Department of Transportation wouldn't move the piece of highway required. They'll get their park, but much of it will be below the overpass.

Lester is a brash man, respected by many but loathed by an equal number, including some former clients. "He's tried several times to run for office," says one community activist. "Does he do it because he believes in these causes? No. He loves to get his name in the papers."

With a slightly bittersweet laugh, Lester responds that if he'd wanted that, he would have stayed with the D.A., trying rape and murder cases. He does admit he'd be interested if a State Assembly seat opened in his district -- in 1990, he ran unsuccessfully for State Senate. "But the bottom line," he says earnestly, "is that being involved in these cases gives me an influence on public policy."

Are there cases where residents are being too thin-skinned? "I was once asked by a community group to bring a lawsuit against outdoor cafés," Lester remembers. He turned it down. "I like outdoor cafés. They give the city a European feel. That's where I part company with my brother and sister activists."

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