The Pop Up Activist of the Lower East Side

Written by John Leland for the New York Times on November 8, 2013.

Eric Ho watches the boom on the Lower East Side, the torrent of new restaurants and boutiques opening, and sees something different. He sees Detroit. Specifically, walking the neighborhood last spring, he saw vacant storefronts — more than 200 of them in the area east of the Bowery and south of 14th Street.

How was it possible, he thought, that in a neighborhood where space was at such a premium, so much of it was sitting idle? Mr. Ho, 32, is an architect who once intended to design housing for disaster zones. Counting the empty properties, he thought: What could be done with them?

“There’s all these people who want space,” he said. “And there’s all this space. There must be some way to bring them together.”

He quit his job and started thinking. “The question for me,” he said, “is, what can we do in the space that benefits the community?”

Last week, he began a preliminary answer: a series of seven pop-ups in seven weeks in a storefront on Delancey Street.

Instead of the usual pop-up store from retailers looking for buzz, Mr. Ho’s pop-ups will house organizations that might not be able to afford permanent retail space in the neighborhood — a mix of nonprofits and for-profits, none with big budgets. Tenants will range from a syringe-exchange program for homeless transients to an online community of knitters.

In conversations over the last couple of weeks, Mr. Ho variously likened his venture, called Made in the Lower East Side, or MiLES, to the home-sharing website Airbnb, which puts idle resources to use, and to a community garden, which turns neighborhood blight into something useful to residents.

“This way of collaboration and sharing is ripe,” he said during a recent walk past some of the vacant storefronts. “People are sharing cars; people are sharing work space. Because of technology we’re able to start doing that more. I want everyone to have a chance at the space — not just the bars or big brands, but also the community groups, also the designers, also the struggling artists.”

For Mr. Ho, the seven-week project is also a showcase for his prototype “storefront transformer”: a six-foot wooden cube on wheels that contains the components for tables, seats, a screen, display cases, a stage, lighting, Wi-Fi and a P.A. system — an instant pop-up in a rolling box.

In a city where change often involves immense sums of money, the financing for Mr. Ho’s project feels almost vaporous, like loose nutrients harvested out of the air.

Mr. Ho is living on his savings. Money to rent the storefront and build the transformer — $33,991 in total — was raised through the crowdfunding website Kickstarter, with the biggest contributors paying $1,000 or $1,500 in exchange for small promotional displays.

Karen Wong, deputy director of the New Museum, which featured Mr. Ho at its Ideas City Festival this year, likened him to other young architects who were pursuing socially conscious goals, including the designers of the Plus Pool, which is supposed to someday float in the East River while filtering the water, and the Lowline, a proposed underground park below Delancey Street. “I see MiLES as really community activism 2.0, using a public and private equation,” Ms. Wong said.

As landlords hold out for tenants who can pay higher rents, Mr. Ho offered a way to serve both developers and the residents with whom they are often at odds, without bringing more bars into a neighborhood many consider already oversaturated, Ms. Wong said. “If they’re successful,” she said, “there’ll no longer be 200 vacant storefronts in the Lower East Side, which bring the neighborhood down. It’s not an endgame, but a chapter into, how do you remake a city from the bottom up?”

A week before opening day, Mr. Ho was swimming in stress. The company he’d hired to build the storefront transformer wouldn’t have it ready until Week 2. The original space’s landlord found a long-term tenant, forcing Mr. Ho to scramble for a new site, which he found in an architect’s office by the Williamsburg Bridge — a little small and away from the neighborhood’s foot traffic, but it would do, he said.

Then there were the organizations themselves. Many still hadn’t decided how they were going to use their time, and the architect was pressing Mr. Ho about potential disruption to his business. Week 7 belonged to Ghetto Gastro, a catering and events company run by Bronx chefs; were they planning to have late-night parties? Week 3 paired two potentially dissonant projects: Kollabora, an online community for knitters and other low-tech crafts, and the Makery, known for its high-tech workshops in electronics and 3-D printing; how would the two work together?

And what if no one paid attention, or the tenants flaked, or the clients of the Space at Tompkins, the group that serves homeless transients — “the anarchists,” as the head of the architecture office, Gordon Kipping, described them — clashed with the architects?

“It’s just so fast. We know that it’s coming, but now it’s here,” Mr. Ho said.

Finally, Nov. 4 arrived — opening day — with a pop-up museum dedicated to the comic book artist Jack Kirby, who was a creator of Captain America, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four and other popular characters. The opening was scheduled for 7 p.m. By 6:30 p.m. the space was filled, mostly with middle-aged men — a testimony to the power of Mr. Kirby and social media.

“I see this as a prototype alpha — a test to see what we could possibly do in a storefront,” said Randolph Hoppe, the museum’s treasurer, adding that he hoped to parlay the exposure into grants or corporate funding for a three-month pop-up.

Mr. Ho stood apart from the “Kirbynistas” but said he chose the museum because of Mr. Kirby’s story: a self-taught Lower East Side urchin who was overshadowed by Stan Lee, his onetime collaborator.

“It’s not like a big brand coming in,” Mr. Ho said. “It’s people bringing in what’s really important to them. They’re really passionate. They sweat. I’m ignorant about Jack Kirby, but he was an unsung hero, and that story is what appealed to me.”

And Mr. Kipping was getting money for unused space. “It takes a bite out of my rent,” he said, even as he eyed the visitors warily.

The organizations hope the pop-ups’ impact will be substantial.

Four days before opening, Andréa Stella, who runs the Space at Tompkins, and is scheduled to spend Thanksgiving week in the storefront, was handing out peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and clean syringes in Tompkins Square Park.

Despite its name, the organization has no space. If they had a permanent venue, she said, they could bring in acupuncture and H.I.V. testing — even a warm place for people to change their socks.

“Just being inside, it’d be some kind of safety hangout,” said a tattooed man named Raz, 42, who credited Ms. Stella with helping him stop drinking and saving his life. He showed off the dentures she helped him get.

“There’s no one else like them,” he said.

On the pop-up museum’s second day, 36 high school juniors from Old Tappan, N.J., crowded inside, fresh from a field trip to the nearby Tenement Museum and Katz’s Delicatessen.

The students had their own take on Jack Kirby and Mr. Ho’s project. Haley Beubis, 16, pulled out her smartphone and started giving instructions to other students. “Hashtag ‘cool,’ ” she said. “Hashtag ‘awesome.’ ”

Phones appeared, fingers danced, physical space seemed to lose its primacy. With no signal from their teacher, the students herded back out onto the sidewalk. Their bellies were full, their minds on other things. If they ever return to the neighborhood, what stories they’ll have about what once happened here.