Urbanities

Peter Shaw
Re-urbanizing The Projects
Winter 1996

Advertisements for New York City cooperative apartments often contain the abbreviation “PW,” which, buyers know, stands for “pre-war” and indicates an apartment in a building erected before World War II. The purpose of calling attention to this circumstance isn’t, as an outsider might suppose, to suggest that the building is superannuated and therefore that the prospective buyer can expect a favorable price. On the contrary, “PW” always indicates a more desirable apartment with a higher price tag. What every New York apartment buyer knows is that, deterioration over time notwithstanding, most buildings put up more than 50 years ago are both structurally and aesthetically superior to anything built since.

Nowhere in the city is the pre- and post-war architectural disparity more marked than in the poorer neighborhoods that 1950s-style urban planning remade. The old mix of five-story brownstones, tenements, and low-rise apartment buildings was leveled and replaced by high-rise housing projects. This “slum clearance,” part of “urban renewal,” gave us new neighborhoods both uglier and more dangerous than those they had replaced. Watch a local TV news report about drugs and violence in the projects, and you’ll likely see law-abiding tenants telling of their fervent wish to relocate anywhere but a project. To these residents, the old slum buildings, where people were safer, look like an improvement.

One can exaggerate the social costs of the projects’ architectural brutalism, of course: Norman Mailer’s tracing of teen violence to project elevator systems, for instance, is surely the most fatuous pop-sociological analysis of our time. Teenagers, Mailer opined, became violent in frustration built up by long waits for project elevators. Yet, silly as this notion is, surely something is awry in the design of the projects. Somehow, in “upgrading” the housing of the poor, planners worsened rather than bettered their living conditions.

It’s not slow elevators but, rather, unsafe spaces, interior and exterior, that make life worse for project residents. In the old slums, criminals had a harder time escaping detection. Housefronts presented a solid line to the street, restricting outdoor crime and violence to a space under observation by passersby and people in front apartments. Inside the buildings, people walking up and down stairs could see what was going on in stairways and on floor landings.

The urban planners’ mistake in designing housing projects was the one Jane Jacobs famously pointed out in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Buildings set back from the street did away with the watchers, the people looking out for one another as they mingled on busy streets. The old streets, not the idealistically conceived urban gardens the projects were supposed to create, turn out to have been both humanizing and safety ensuring.

Guards checking identification at the doors can mitigate somewhat the interior dangers of the project. But the exterior dangers are inherent in the design. The open spaces meant to overcome city crowding have instead become free-attack zones. The shrubbery meant to humanize the macadam and concrete urban environment instead gives muggers a place to hide.

If violence in the projects is—at least in part—a consequence of their design, then correcting that design could improve the lives of project tenants and reduce overall crime in the city still further. But can one improve the layout of the projects, short of dismantling them and starting over? To be sure, some cities have literally dynamited projects to the ground. St. Louis razed the uninhabitable Pruitt-Igoe buildings early in the 1970s; Newark closed the four 13-story towers of the Christopher Columbus Homes in 1990 and dynamited them in 1994.

It is instructive to ask what we would ideally wish to do if we could start from scratch. What kind of housing could and should replace the projects? Judging from the recent designs for new projects, the common answer is that we need to switch to low-rise buildings. Yet the height of buildings does not seem in itself to cause social breakdown. Rather, dangerous spaces inherent in the layout of the buildings within the projects are the problem.

What, then, would we really wish for if a genie came out of a bottle? Certainly not urban renewal via innovative new designs: we know too well where twentieth-century architecture can lead us. In truth, we would opt for traditional, pre-war New York City streets— “PW” streets, one might call them. This dream is not as implausible as it sounds. Planners could at least partially re-create PW streets—and reduce the security problems of the projects—by adding on to the existing structures. I call the process they would employ “re-urbanization.”

The idea begins with the observation that in most projects, the lamentably lost street plans have only been ignored, not obliterated. Thanks to the tendency to set back project buildings from the street, the low-rise houses that used to stand along the streets surrounding the projects could, in many cases, be put back in place without disturbing the project buildings, which sit where the old buildings’ backyards used to be. With a few adjustments, rebuilding on the model of the old streets is eminently possible.

Here, then, is the plan. First, in the spaces between project buildings and the street, erect traditional five-story, brownstone-like residences, exactly as they would stand on an ordinary city street. These buildings will back up toward, but not reach, the project buildings.

How will residents reach the project buildings if they’re cut off by the houses? And what to do with the substantial remaining open, unsafe space? Designers created the spaces between project buildings in large part by sealing off streets and turning them into lawns and paths-the present danger zones of the projects. Restoring these streets and sidewalks would afford access to the project buildings. The restored streets can be lined by low-rise buildings-in many cases, on both sides of the street.

Spaces for passage into the project buildings would break the solid line of houses that we want to preserve. Instead, to maintain the street’s solid front—and its solid barrier protecting the project from intruders—the lobbies of the project buildings could extend out to the sidewalks.

Looming behind the new lowrises, the project buildings would have a place in the street’s scheme not very different from that of the medium-rise buildings that punctuate the brownstone fronts on many Manhattan streets. Some project buildings rise 25 stories high, rather than the typical ten. But they would be far less imposing than they currently are, standing alone without relation to either buildings or streets. And the re-urbanization scheme would make room for mid-block, mid-rise buildings, too. Because these mid-rises are wider and deeper than the five-story buildings, they help fill in the empty spaces of the project.

At this point, our changes have largely restored the traditional look of the city street. To imagine just how the new arrangement will look, study the streets of Battery Park City, where in places, high-rises alternate with low-rise private houses punctuated by mid-block mid-rises.

Adding traditional backyards behind the new low-rises would fill in more of the open space within the old project. The remaining open spaces now present an opportunity rather than a problem. The amenities previously scattered around the project site-often isolated and out of range of parents in the windows-now can find a place. There is room for playgrounds, small parks with trees and benches, fountains—all on an intimate, city scale.

This design would require fine tuning depending on a particular project’s design. The depth of setback of some project buildings, for instance, leaves little or no space for some of the five-story buildings to have backyards. Squeezed up against the tall buildings, the new houses would cut off project residents’ light and views. But the main floor of a project building usually consists of service areas rather than apartments. Blocking the view of this level inconveniences no one. To admit light into the projects’ second- and third-story apartments, it is necessary only to reduce the height of those small houses that abut on project buildings. Depending on the circumstances, the small houses can be three or four stories, or they can be shorter in the rear. Buildings of varying heights fronting the restored streets further recapture the variousness of the old streets.

Some of the small houses will have to be both reduced from five to three or four stories and cut down at the back. To compensate for the loss of living space and the absence of backyards, in some cases the three- or four-story house, with its single-story back portion running up to the project building, could extend right into the large building’s service area. This way the small houses have enough residential space, yet the large building’s tenants don't have their light or view obstructed.

In other cases, the project building may not be set back far enough from the street to allow the construction of any houses at all in front of it. In such cases, it may be possible to extend the project building the short distance out to the sidewalk line—at a height of two stories.

The first story of the new structure is borrowed from the ground-floor service area of the project building. The second story enlarges and extends second-floor project apartments out to the street. These apartments gain one or two rooms; third-floor tenants gain a large terrace. The new ground-floor space can become a lobby entrance to the project building. Better still, if the second-floor tenants are interested in expanding downward via an internal staircase, the ground-floor area could become the lower portion of a duplex apartment, which would have windows and an entrance on the street.

Unlike urban renewal, re-urbanization need not create conflict between beneficiaries and casual ties. It would displace no one, tear down no buildings, eliminate no local amenities such as stores. No one would have to accept an arrangement he didn’t like. For example, the second-floor dwellers near the street would not be obliged to expand their apartments into duplexes; the conversion could wait until the next tenant moves in. Project residents would benefit from an improvement in their safety and quality of life. The new houses and apartments should be sold, not rented; purchasers would be attracted by the chance to acquire inexpensive property, which would sharply rise in value when the neighborhood improved. Reopening streets would improve traffic flow.

Re-urbanization would improve conditions for everyone in the neighborhood and, indeed, for the city at large. Each re-urbanized site would make the city look a bit more as it once did and as it should look. The old feeling of neighborhood would be on the way to renewal, and New Yorkers would realize that the city harbors the solutions to its own problems.

SHARE
respondrespondTEXT SIZE
If you liked this story, you may also be interested in:
If you enjoyed
this article,
why not subscribe
to City Journal? subscribe Get the Free App on iTunes Or sign up for free online updates: