New G.V.S.H.P. lieutenant has always loved Village

Harry Bubbins has been helping lead the G.V.S.H.P. two-pronged effort on the contentious St. John’s Partners development plan slated for the site across from Pier 40.
Harry Bubbins has been helping lead the G.V.S.H.P. two-pronged effort on the contentious St. John’s Partners development plan slated for the site across from Pier 40.

BY YANNIC RACK | Harry Bubbins was no stranger to the East Village and the Lower East Side when he was young.

As a teenager and in his twenties growing up in the South Bronx, he spent his time practicing yoga at the Sixth Street Community Center, going to shows at ABC No Rio on Rivington St., and taking classes at CHARAS / El Bohio, the Puerto Rican cultural and community center formerly housed in the old P.S. 64 building on E. Ninth St.

He even worked as a bar-back at the Palladium concert hall and disco when it still stood on E. 14th St., and volunteered at Blackout Books, the seminal anarchist bookstore on Avenue B.

It is fitting then that Bubbins, now in his forties, just took a job at the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, which is still trying to preserve as much as possible of the area’s rich history and diverse culture.

“As a born-and-bred New Yorker, I was, like many, drawn to the allure of the Downtown scene,” he said. “I was inspired by the homesteader / squatter / community garden scene, and worked to replicate and build upon those unique successes here in my home borough, the Bronx. So, I’ve had a long connection and inspiration with the communities down here.”

In February, Bubbins was named G.V.S.H.P.’s new East Village and special projects director. He now oversees the organization’s small business initiative, analyzes development proposals and how they impact local communities, and monitors applications before the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals.

He recently organized an event in Tompkins Square Park to highlight the anniversary of the General Slocum tragedy. More than 1,000 New Yorkers perished in June 1904 when the steamboat — packed with passengers on a church outing from the East Village’s Little Germany — burst into flames on the East River. Bubbins also helped Jim Power, the “Mosaic Man,” connect with the Sixth Street Community Center, so that Power now has a local spot to restore his famous Astor Place poles.

Before Bubbins stepped into public service, he got a degree in urban and regional studies from the College of Architecture, Art and Planning at Cornell University. After college, he went home to teach at his old junior high school.

He then got involved in open space and affordable housing advocacy, and eventually founded the Friends of Brook Park, a leading environmental and community advocacy organization based in the South Bronx’s Mott Haven neighborhood.

Through the group, he has had a direct hand in helping to preserve affordable housing, jumpstarting a number of green spaces, and helping to spearhead successful grassroots campaigns to preserve public open space in the area.

He also got involved in more wide-ranging issues, such as citywide rezoning and the larger conversation about preservation as a tool to maintain affordable communities. These are all areas in which G.V.S.H.P. has been leading the charge, as he pointed out, making his new job a perfect fit.

“The Friends were at a point of stability and success, so I had been on the lookout for a few years for another opportunity in line with my vision,” Bubbins said. “I didn’t just pounce on any opportunity. When I saw this, I was very pleased and excited to see something in perfect alignment with my interests,” he said of his his new post with the society.

And even though the tony Village can seem like a long way from the Bronx, Bubbins said that southern Manhattan — where development is rapidly changing established neighborhoods — has more in common with the northernmost borough than one might think.

“The diverse array of residents and cultures is similar to the South Bronx,” he said. “The dedicated long-term residents of the Village and the East Village are no different than the people who have stuck it out in the South Bronx through decades of benign neglect. “Those development, real estate and gentrification pressures that were — and still are — so pronounced are unfortunately the same everywhere.”

Another big issue Bubbins is now focusing on for G.V.S.H.P. is the high-rise housing project proposed for the St. John’s Center site across the West Side Highway from Pier 40. The development is particularly contentious because the developer is planning to use 200,000 square feet of air rights from the ailing pier to build the “gargantuan” project, as Bubbins called it.

“We’ve been hearing from our members about this,” he said. “And we feel the importance of ensuring that this process — which would set a precedent on transferring air rights from Hudson River Park into our unique part of the city — has two main things included, if this deal goes through”

The preservation group, first, wants to make sure the deal includes clear restrictions on any future air rights transfer deals involving Pier 40. Second, G.V.S.H.P. wants to achieve a rezoning of parts of the South Village before any deal goes through, to put in place height limits and other protections for the adjacent communities.

“This would only be the tip of the iceberg of gargantuan towers and out-of-context development that would continue to creep from the waterfront deeper and deeper into the Village,” Bubbins warned of what would happen without rezoning.

“Our community has had this rezoning on the table for years, and yet other top-down rezoning efforts have been passed since then,” he added. “So we’re hopeful, and very confident that those major points will be included if there is a final approval.”

Bubbins generally maintains a strikingly positive tone when discussing the fight against overdevelopment. It’s always possible — understandable even — for activists to become bitter after years of focusing on battles fought and, all too often, lost.

“At some point,” Bubbins said, “one can become a curmudgeon who says, ‘Oh, I remember how this was 20 years ago.’ Or one can say, ‘I remember how this was 20 years ago, but it’s still wonderful and I’m still working to maintain its uniqueness and make it even better.’ ”

A case in point: During the General Slocum event he organized, the program included a walking tour of the area with author and historian Ed O’Donnell. The tour highlighted existing neighborhood spots that have been spared the wrecking ball, thanks to preservation efforts.

“My eye goes to see the wonderful resources that still exist,” Bubbins explained. “And certainly there’s lots of change. But this neighborhood still has the unique qualities that make it such a wonderful place.”