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Manhattan: The Suburb

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Then there's the matter of Freed's occasionally migraine-inducing manner. "Well, we're all so hidebound in this city," she says, "you almost have to blow up to get people to move."

Another of Freed's confrères is SoHo Alliance leader Sean Sweeney, whose group hired Jack Lester to oppose two high-rise residential developments open to non-artists and planned for the south side of Houston Street. The Alliance wants the developer to obey current zoning laws for the district and build a five- or six-story building with loft spaces rentable only to artists in this strip of land stretching from Wooster to Greene to Mercer Streets. So far, the campaign has cost the Alliance $30,000.

Twenty years ago, Sweeney worked in one of SoHo's original discos, the Loft, which Kathryn Freed and her group -- then known as the Artists' Association -- tried to have shut down. He was the manager. "It was a different time and place back then," says Sweeney. "We were all age 25."

Sweeney always had an activist streak. He was at the first Human Be-In in 1967 at Kennedy airport. He was at Abbie Hoffman's Grand Central Station Be-In when the police charged in and began beating up the crowd. (Sweeney escaped. "I wasn't a hero," he says.) Later that year, he was Maced by police in Chicago's Lincoln Park, where he was protesting the Vietnam War at the Democratic National Convention. In the seventies, in support of the Irish republican movement, he helped organize a daily picket outside the British Embassy that lasted for ten years. He eventually became a partner at the Loft, but only after it moved to the Lower East Side. He sold out his share in 1988. "I was in my forties, and I was tired of partying," he says.

Then, in 1990, Sweeney was living on the top floor of a Greene Street building that he owned with three other people. A Pritzker-family-owned company was planning to build a hotel in a parking lot on West Broadway between Prince and Houston -- right in his backyard. "It was going to be a thirteen-story building blocking my nice westward view," says Sweeney. "I heard the SoHo Alliance was fighting it, so I got involved." Finally, because of the community protests and because the real-estate market collapsed, the hotel was shelved.

After that fracas, Sweeney became a stalwart supporter of Freed's, campaigning for her in 1991 and every election since then. Now 53, he leads the Alliance, is a member of Community Board Two (a Freed appointee), and is president of the politically powerful Downtown Independent Democrats, a group indispensable to anyone seeking election to public office in the area. "And all because I didn't want a hotel going up," he says. Activism has become Sweeney's full-time job, and politicians have come to realize that Sweeney is a force to be reckoned with. "Right now, I have a call in to the borough president," he says. "I'm not going to say 'I helped you get elected, Virginia Fields.' But I was the downtown coordinator in '97 for her election campaign."

These local activist organizations and boards are the new Democratic machines. State Senator Tom Duane and City Council members Kathryn Freed, Margarita Lopez, and Ronnie Eldridge are just a few who ran for higher office after serving on community boards -- their work whetting their appetites for public service, and, perhaps, the spotlight. Jennifer Raab, chairman of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, is also a board alumna. Even the city's Planning Commission chair, Joseph Rose, was chair of Community Board Five from 1985 to 1988, spending much of his time fighting the Koch administration's plans for the development of Columbus Circle.


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