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Books and Culture

Anthony Paletta
Urban Renewal’s Human Costs
A history of postwar Manhattan developments shows the pitfalls of mass planning.
5 November 2010

Manhattan Projects: The Rise and Fall of Urban Renewal in Cold War New York, by Samuel Zipp (Oxford University Press, 488 pp., $34.95)

Samuel Zipp packs into the title of his new book not only a pun about the atom bomb but also a direct mention of the Cold War. When a book that isn’t actually about the atomic project does this, it’s usually cause for alarm, a signal that sweeping generalizations about a “climate of fear” and the “military-industrial complex” lie ahead. Happily, Manhattan Projects is actually an excellent account of the process leading to the construction and clearing of land for four projects in postwar New York: the United Nations complex, Stuyvesant Town, Lincoln Center, and several public-housing developments in East Harlem.

Zipp convincingly demonstrates that Cold War rhetoric played a significant role in these undertakings. Take the construction of Lincoln Center. George Meany, head of the AFL-CIO, lamented that “the breath of one-party control blights the growth of genuine culture” and extolled Lincoln Center as an exemplar of the accomplishments of a free society. From a different quarter, Fortune publisher C. D. Jackson called cultural achievements “positive, dynamic, and essential assets in the great and dangerous international game that we must play today.” Lincoln Center, he assured the magazine’s readers, would be just such a “new, visible, artistically impeccable, majestic, cultural asset.”

Arguments about the federal Housing Act of 1949—which provided federal support for slum clearance, the construction of new public housing units, and expanded mortgage insurance—came similarly couched in Cold War rhetoric. Zipp quotes Gerald J. Carey, the head of the New York City Housing Authority, who asserted that “public housing might not be the one weapon, or even the most important weapon, with which we will defeat Communism in general, or the Soviet Union in particular.” Carey went on to say that “the strength that comes from unity of purpose and equality of sacrifice is needlessly sapped” by objections to public housing. He asked: “Why then do we casually decimate a program that not only helps provide the decent shelter so necessary to our long-term strength and well being, but that also demonstrates our ability to democratically solve a difficult problem?” The Cold War mentality wasn’t confined to one side of the housing issue; Zipp notes that the president of the National Association of Real Estate Boards described public housing as “the cutting edge of the Communist front.” Hyperbole in both cases, to be sure, but also a reflection of the publicity struggles shaping “renewal,” as large-scale urban redesigning was called.

Too often, historians examining New York’s struggles with urban renewal during the forties, fifties, and sixties simplify them into a story of Robert Moses’ hubris and comeuppance—or, a little later, into every preservationist’s favorite David-and-Goliath tale: Moses versus Jane Jacobs. The debate about Moses continues to play out, most recently with Kenneth Jackson’s part-apologia Robert Moses and the Modern City, a presumed retort to Robert Caro’s earlier, more damning The Power Broker. The past year has seen more of the same, with new books by Roberta Brandes-Gratz and Anthony Flint. These accounts all have something to recommend them, but as Zipp shows, they tend to diminish both the extent of support for urban renewal independent of Moses’ influence and the significance of grassroots resistance to it that preceded Jacobs’s famous Greenwich Village stand. Zipp documents public housing’s national underpinnings—most crucially through Titles I and III of the Housing Act, which, respectively, furnished funding to local development agencies to acquire and clear land and authorized the construction of over 800,000 new public-housing units. Without understating Moses’ importance, Zipp makes clear just how uniform support was for the large-scale model of urban renewal—and how blithely its potentially negative human consequences were dismissed.

While Zipp admirably situates New York urban renewal in the national and international context, the book’s greatest strength is its portrayal of the very local circumstances and consequences of these projects. It includes numerous newspaper, magazine, pamphlet, and poster illustrations surrounding the development efforts. Metropolitan Life Insurance’s photography of the 24-block Gas House District, demolished to make way for Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village, could hardly be more unflattering. The photographs, some taken in the grimy aftermath of a deep snow, show dilapidated tenements, jumbles of trash cans, and streets roamed by tattered children. In demolishing this, a New York Times editorial proclaimed, “the middle classes are all set for a smashing victory.” A left-wing paper, PM, offered a different perspective: photos of churches, shopkeepers standing in front of their tidy businesses, and residents who would be forced to leave the neighborhood.

The mass displacement of residents from these areas produced neighborhoods starkly richer or poorer than their predecessors, exacerbated racial divisions, and severed residents’ connections with the neighborhoods that they had inhabited. Zipp points to a June 1945 Community Service Society study that “determined that no more than 3 percent of the 3,000 Gas House District families would be able to afford Stuyvesant Town, and only about 22 percent would be eligible for public housing.” About 2,250 families had incomes too high for public housing but too low for Stuyvesant Town; they were forced to relocate to scattered corners of the city. Around Lincoln Square, a mixed-race, working-class community of over 7,000 residents was decimated; most of the neighborhood’s available housing was far beyond their economic reach.

In East Harlem, the George Washington Houses produced similar demographic stratification. “The project was open only to family units of two or more persons, so a large group of single adults had been eliminated,” Zipp writes. “The widows and widowers; bachelors and spinsters; single aunts, uncles, and cousins of neighborhood families; boarders, transients and other ‘free-floating’ people who had made up a significant portion of the neighborhood were not eligible for the project.” The number of children under age five accordingly doubled in number. Zipp continues: “In a pattern playing out all around east Harlem in areas where NYCHA projects were built, a mixed community of all ages with a small but crucial middle class was being replaced by a collection of young and poor families.”

Only 9 percent of Washington Houses residents had lived on the project’s footprint previously. An astonishing 41 percent were refugees from other renewal sites—many compelled to take the only housing assignment they could find, far from traditional neighborhoods, including many Puerto Ricans fleeing the path of the Cross Bronx Expressway. Racial stratification increased. Those living nearby, whose incomes were often slightly too high to be eligible for the projects, began leaving the neighborhood.

Small businesses were another casualty. While residents in the path of the projects moved elsewhere, most businesses simply vanished. Minimal aid was provided in each case, almost always insufficient to sustain relocation. Six hundred businesses were located on the Lincoln Square development plot; federal law required a $2,500 reimbursement for moving and fixtures, but most businesses’ estimated moving costs were far higher than that. A 1955 study in East Harlem found that ten projects had put at least 1,500 stores out of business entirely, eliminating some 4,500 jobs. These were businesses that anchored their communities, helping create, as Jane Jacobs put it, “an urban neighborhood instead of a dormitory.”

Zipp tells the familiar story of how mass planning produces mass stratification, bleaching variety out of the urban experience and crafting narrow and uniform enclaves: the middle-class wonderland of Stuyvesant Town, the cultural fortress and high-income housing of Lincoln Square, and the towering slums of East Harlem. Resistance was, on the whole, muted. It came from an assortment of neighborhood groups, most dismissed as parochial. A flyer that a Lincoln Square residents’ group printed in 1957 predicted: “We will have to hunt for apartments in the midst of a housing shortage—We will be forced to pay higher rents—Many of us will have to take smaller and poorer apartments—We will have to travel longer distances to our jobs—Many will be forced to move into worse slums, as has been the experience of displaced families in other areas.” All true.

Fortunately, enthusiasm for such large-scale efforts eventually declined as urban renewal’s human costs became apparent—and very apparently a miserable symbol of democratic decision-making in the Cold War. Yet similar impulses endure. While it is harder today to remove residents, there seem to be few obstacles to forcing out local businesses—whether from the site of Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn or in the Bloomberg administration’s Willets Point redevelopment proposal. The lure of massive redesigns has diminished but not vanished.

Anthony Paletta is the senior editor of MindingTheCampus.com, a web magazine sponsored by the Manhattan Institute’s Center for the American University.

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