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Manhattan: The Suburb


Two years ago, in December 1996, NIMBYism scored a major victory in Lester's own Upper East Side neighborhood. Toys 'R' Us tried to open a large corner store at 80th Street and Third Avenue, and Lester went up against his old firm Fischbein Badillo, arguing that the warehouse on the proposed site was supposed to revert to residential usage because no commercial activity had occurred there for a consecutive two-year period.

Fischbein Badillo argued that the warehouse had never been deserted. He produced work logs kept by the warehouse's owner, even though it was hard to believe the warehouse had been up and running -- the electricity had been turned off, and there were pigeons nesting inside the building.

Richard Fischbein also argued that the locals were being racist: They opposed Toys 'R' Us because it would attract large numbers of residents from north of 96th Street to shop in their district. "People did not want blacks and Puerto Ricans coming into the neighborhood," says Fischbein, who also lives in the area. "You see it. You smell it. You know it. I was a legal-services attorney representing the Black Panther Party. I'm the administrator of the Tupac Shakur estate. You don't have to be a chicken to tell a rotten egg."

In the fall of 1996, after a two-year struggle in which Toys 'R' Us had won two rounds in the lower courts, Lester was fired by Neighbors 'R' Us, the local group that had engaged him; members felt he was too in love with the limelight. And that December, the New York State Court of Appeals finally agreed with Neighbors 'R' Us and their new lawyer, zoning expert Norman Marcus.

The locals have since changed their minds about having a commercial enterprise on the site. Eli Zabar has opened an upscale gourmet-food market there -- fava-bean salad being preferable to Beanie Babies, evidently.

Community law came of age in the early nineties, as activists on the Upper West Side were rising up against the SROs, rehab clinics, and homeless shelters the city was insistently dumping in the area. It was then that NIMBYism started looking respectable -- perhaps because the agitated residents were ultimately successful in keeping similar new facilities out: While the majority of those operations existing at the time of the rebellion remained in place, monitored by community-advice boards (CABs), only a handful have been placed on the Upper West Side since 1994. Says one member of Community Board Seven, "There's less money for that now with Giuliani in office. But also, providers don't want to come into a neighborhood where they're not wanted." She reflects for a moment and then continues: "Our bigger concern right now is with jazz clubs and cigar bars." Call it a sign of the times.

The battle on the Upper West Side "was a turning point," says SoHo councilwoman Kathryn Freed. "Very liberal communities who honestly felt they should bear their burden suddenly woke up."

Freed, perhaps the most visible neighborhood activist in the city, has been known to kick back with a cocktail in hand at trendy nightspots in her district like Balthazar -- owner Keith McNally took great pains to befriend her, say other local bar owners. But officially, she opposes the influx of more tourists and late-night bars in SoHo.

Freed was lobbying from the cradle, and in scarier times. She handed out flyers at Pennsylvania's York County Shopping Center with her mom in 1960. Senator John F. Kennedy was going to be speaking at Pennsylvania's state fair in her hometown, and York County was overwhelmingly Republican. "People sicced their dogs on us," she remembers.

Freed moved to New York the same week the Woodstock festival was raging upstate. A self-confessed hippie who lived in jeans and allowed her long red curly hair to reach her waist, Freed says she took her degree in political science and came to New York to be with a boyfriend who was attending NYU. At the time, downtown was fighting the Lower Manhattan Expressway, and Freed decided to get involved, working the phones to drum up opposition. As a McGovern supporter, she worked with the Downtown Independent Democrats. Freed took a job writing contracts for Equitable Life Assurance and then had a stint as a cabdriver, but mostly, she says, she was working on community issues in her cramped Thompson Street tenement.

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