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The East Village, (Em)Powered: Part One

This special two-part post explores the legacy of the energy pioneers who constructed solar collectors and a windmill at 519 East Eleventh Street. In the first installment we will explore the origins of the East Village’s renewable energy fixtures and the activists who had the gall to imagine them. Next week we will dive into the resulting legal battle between these environmental warriors and the mighty ConEd, and their legislative legacy.

The East Village of the 1970s was radically different from the neighborhood we know today. Abandoned tenements lined the streets peppered with stripped cars, and the air was filled with the smoke of buildings burned by their own landlords. But if one turned their attention to the sky for a moment they would see a shiny windmill towering above it all. Built in 1976 by a group of radical visionary architects and community members, the windmill at 519 East Eleventh Street was a physical manifestation of the community’s determination to support one another and dream of a brighter, more sustainable future.

Roof of 519 East Eleventh Street with windmill and solar panels. Date unknown.

In 1974, a group purchased 519 East 19th Street from the city for $1600, $100 per unit. The landlord had previously set fire to the 1910 tenement building and it had burned a total of 13 times. Yet the group resolved to completely rebuild the charred husk themselves. As part of a pioneering “sweat equity” program funded by the city, those who toiled to renovate the property could eventually earn the right to live there. Thus with assistance from the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, the group received a $177,000 low-interest loan from the city to aid with repairs, and they set to work.

The group of neighbors, activists, and architects that worked to renovate 519 East Eleventh Street.

A little over a year into the renovations, a young architecture student named Travis Price arrived in New York City from New Mexico, wearing a straw cowboy hat and jonesing for a cause to commit himself to. Price worked with a radical solar group in the New Mexico desert and now found himself contracted to work on an energy conservation paper for the Nixon administration in response to constantly rising fuel costs. He sought to improve his new community and set his sights on low-income housing projects. When the “Solar Cowboy” found the folks working at 519 East Eleventh Street, he wondered if they might like to put solar energy into the building and, as a matter of fact, they did. Together, the group installed solar collectors on the roof to heat the building’s hot water.

The neighborhood residents who helped install the building’s solar panels. Travis Price pictured third from the right.

The idea to install a windmill emerged soon after, likely prompted by newcomer Ted Finch’s interest in wind power. Finch’s and Price’s relentless pursuit of renewable energy provided the 519 collective with their own endless stores of energy to install a working windmill that would provide parts of the building with electricity. Finch helped the group obtain a wind generator previously used to pump up water from underground on a Midwestern farm. With no permit in hand and no intention to seek one, the growing collective hauled the 12-foot-wide wind machine to the roof and installed it atop a 45-foot steel base. 

Installation of the windmill in progress. 1976.

The installation required the labor of the entire crew (and a few extra helpers paid in cases of beer), and was a staggering feat of communal work. The resulting windmill was the first of its kind in urban America, and was able to generate two kilowatts of electricity – just enough to power the solar collectors and light all of the common space in the building’s hallways and its neighboring gardens. More than that, however, it illuminated the power of the people to come together and light up their communities both literally and figuratively.

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