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Sheldon Silver's Biggest Sin Was What He Did to His Own Neighborhood

Yana Paskova / Getty Images

So they hauled Sheldon Silver away in handcuffs last month. The longtime Democratic Speaker of the New York State Assembly, quietly one of the most powerful men in one of the country’s most powerful states, has been charged with crimes that were stunning even in the standing sewer of corruption that is the legislature he presided over.  

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara froze some $4 million in assets belonging to Silver—but that still left Shelly, who Aaron Naparstek, the liberal political advocate (and recently unmasked author of the Fake Sheldon Silver Twitter parody feed) called “a walking human filibuster,” with another $3.4 million in leftover campaign money with which to defend himself. The indictments exposed a dizzying network of connections and schemes through which Silver and his confederates had enriched themselves. He stands accused of looting charities, suborning a Columbia University medical researcher into referring asbestos victims to Silver’s law firm in exchange for state grants, and secretly selling out New Yorkers to developers on issues that included rent laws, mass transit, and more. Suffice it to say that, thanks to Speaker Silver, New Yorkers today pay higher subway fares.

Yet none of it—not the plundered charities or the subway fare hike, or even the hoodwinked asbestos patients—is as bad as a handful of vacant lots in Silver’s district on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and what they represent.  

Silver, in his subtle, phlegmatic way, has always made much of what he is and where he comes from. It’s an appealing image. An observant, Orthodox Jew, he has never strayed far from the neighborhood. He was raised in a tenement on Henry Street, where his father owned a hardware store, and went to Rabbi Jacob Joseph High School, just down the street, where he was captain of the basketball team. (For years, he continued to play pick-up ball on neighborhood courts, where locals remember him as a notorious chucker.) He went to college at Manhattan’s Yeshiva University and then Brooklyn Law School, before winning his first race for the state assembly in 1976. He and his wife moved into a cooperative apartment on Grand Street just a few blocks from his childhood home, where they raised a family, and where he lives to this day. The coops were some of the twelve apartment towers known collectively as Cooperative Village, which were built over 60 years ago by the garment workers’ unions. Along with several other city projects in the area, they make up some of the finest public housing ever constructed in this country, splendidly well-built and maintained.

Others were not so fortunate. In 1967, New York City tore down 20 acres of dilapidated apartment buildings along the south side of Delancey Street, part of one of the ill-conceived, “slum clearance” projects that did so much to gut inner cities in the postwar years. Displaced were some 1,800, mostly poor, mostly Puerto Rican families, who were promised a chance to move in to the new public housing that would be built on the site. 

They never did—thanks mostly to Silver and his confederates at the United Jewish Council (UJC), a leading neighborhood power. As Russ Buettner reported in The New York Times last year, Silver worked tirelessly for almost 40 years to see that no new housing ever got built there. His efforts were often surreptitious, Buettner wrote, at the behest “of Grand Street’s Jewish leaders,” who believed that “any development with affordable housing that replaced the cleared tenements would tilt the balance of the entire neighborhood.” 

Considering how carelessly so much New York public housing was being thrown up at the time, how crime rates kept escalating, and how fraught race relations in the city were, it’s understandable that the Lower East Side’s shrinking Jewish community would have been cautious about what got built there. But unlike, say, a young Mario Cuomo, whose rise to power started when he worked out a compromise on public housing in Forest Hills at about the same time, Silver opposed any housing at the Delancey Street site. He even blocked a plan to build 150 units for senior citizens from Chinatown. 

“They would rather have the vacant lots and rats than have minority people there,” Francis Goldin, a member of the Lower East Side Joint Planning Council, told the Times about Silver and his friends.

It’s difficult to adequately describe what a betrayal of America’s promise—of Silver’s heritage—this is. The Lower East Side is sacred ground in the history of immigrant America. It’s a unique place where, for some 175 years, waves of Irish and Germans, Italians and Eastern Europeans, Jews and Asians and Latin Americans, arrived one on top of the other, unwanted and despised. For a long time, the only people to welcome them were representatives of Tammany Hall, New York’s notorious political machine. A hundred years ago, the ward boss was another powerful state legislator, the legendary “Big Tim” Sullivan, who prided himself on helping individuals of all backgrounds to assimilate, and bragged about bringing what he called “my smart Jewboys” into the organization. (Among Sullivan’s “smart Jewboys”: the gangster Arnold Rothstein.)

This is not to romanticize the old political machines, which operated on the most elemental level of democracy, trading food, clothing, citizenship papers, and maybe a low-level job in return for votes. They did truly evil things and were inherently invested in keeping most of their constituents poor and dependent. Ultimately, the machine was challenged by the new immigrants, who in New York were led primarily by idealistic Jewish men and women in the labor movement, demanding rights, not favors. 

Sullivan, and his protégés Al Smith and Robert Wagner, who ran the New York State legislature at the time, had enough foresight and enough compassion for the toiling peoples they represented to know things would have to change. After the terrible death of 146 people, most of them young women and girls, in the Triangle Factory Fire of 1911, they swung their support to the garment workers and the social reformers. Their actions set in motion the slow suicide of the machines—and the birth of modern America.

They made possible those union-built co-ops where Shelly Silver raised his family; made possible all the brilliant opportunities they would have. And Silver paid this inheritance forward by ensuring that, while he enriched himself, no Puerto Rican family or Chinese senior citizen would ever live on those empty lots. 

Now, much of the Jewish Lower East Side that he was supposedly fighting to preserve has inexorably faded anyway. Residents of Cooperative Village are selling their apartments for prices approaching $1 million, and the neighborhood looks shiny and new, filled with young people out at night in its swank new bars and restaurants.

The blocks along Delancey that Silver kept vacant for so long are about to be filled with a massive new development of condos and shops, restaurants and offices, and “cultural space.” A collection of glassy, nondescript new buildings, slapped with the typically hip-sounding, typically meaningless developer’s moniker, “Essex Crossing”—one more part of the ongoing campaign to make New York look like everywhere else. 

It’s quite a legacy.