By Sabina Mollot
It was in 2008 when the Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village Tenants Association, realizing the vulnerability of the community as its new owner set to work at deregulating as many apartments as possible, decided to push for its preservation via landmarking.
Seven years later, that application for a landmark designation has still not been completed. However, this is only because the effort has shifted towards the creation of a documentary about the complex aimed at arguing its significance both architecturally and socially, to the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
At this time, according to its two producers, William Kelly and Marie Beirne, the project is around 75 percent finished.
It was over the past three years that Kelly has been doing research that’s included interviews with numerous community leaders of Stuy Town’s past and present.
“The biggest coup,” he shared in an interview with Town & Village last week, “is Lee Lorch. It was the last interview he did.” Lorch, who was the leader in the fight to desegregate Stuyvesant Town in its early years, died last year. The interview was conducted at the former activist and professor’s home in Toronto. Other people interviewed include local elected officials such as Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney and Council Member Dan Garodnick, New York Times reporter Charles Bagli, who wrote a book about the catastrophic sale of the property to Tishman Speyer called Other People’s Money, civil rights expert Maria Biondi, architects weighing on the property’s structural issues and various tenants.
The film has been given the title, “Burden of Eden,” with some information about its production currently online at burdenofeden.com.
Since beginning work on the documentary, Kelly said it evolved from being a short piece aimed solely at making the case for landmarking to a full-length film that chronicles the history of ST/PCV.
“As we did more and more research and more and more interviews, it was like peeling an onion and finding one layer after another,” he said. “There’s the social history, the racial history, the design aspects of it. You could do a series on it.”
In October, there will be a crowd-funding campaign aimed at raising the cash needed for rights to historic photos and footage of the community for the film.
Beirne, who’s the project manager of what’s been dubbed the “oral history project” aimed at landmarking the complex, called the film “the tool we need” to lobby for landmarking.
“It turned from what was going to be small interviews with returning (World War II) vets into a full movie theater documentary on the history of Stuyvesant Town,” she said, “which is more complicated that most people even know.”
Some of the history of the community’s desegregation fight is detailed on the documentary’s website, like the risks tenants were willing to take (eviction from their affordable homes) to stand up for black would-be neighbors.
This included tenants’ inviting a black family to stay in their apartment. As the site notes, “Met Life retaliated with eviction notices. The tenants barricaded themselves in their apartments and got food lifted up to their windows. Burly teamsters were brought in to protect them from physical eviction, while mothers with their babies in carriages picketed at the Met Life building. It was a true David and Goliath story that not only resulted in historic legislation but set a precedent for collective action.”
Beirne, a self-described neighborhood historic preservationist, has been involved with numerous oral history projects for other projects before and it was she who tracked down Lorch for the interview.
She has also served as a member on a number of neighborhood nonprofit organizations. They include the Lenox Hill Neighborhood Association; Community Board 8; the East 79th Street Neighborhood Association; the ST-PCV Tenants Association; The Bowery Alliance of Neighbors; Historic District Council; The Lower East Side Tenement Museum; The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and the Lower East Side Preservation Initiative, where she currently serves on the board of directors.
Kelly, who like Beirne is a longtime Stuyvesant Town resident, oversees media production at LaGuardia Community College. He’s also worked in the film world for years, in 2000 receiving The Spirit of Independents Award at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival for his first feature film, “Comeback.” He also edited the feature film, “Broken Sole Trilogy” (2007) and created a short work called “Man’s Best Friend” for the Humane Society.