Urbanities

Nathan Glazer
Letter From East Harlem
Autumn 1991

East 96th Street may be the most sharply defined border between poverty and affluence, urban misery and urban elegance, to be found anywhere in New York. Below, the streets glitter with fashionable apartments, shops, art galleries, bookstores, churches clothed in magnificent marble edifices, and nonprofit institutions ensconced in discreet million-dollar town houses. One block north, and suddenly there are shabby tenements, housing projects, storefront churches, cut-rate clothing stores, and groups of idle men on the street.

Once the division was not so sharp. Why should elegance end at 96th Street? Up through the 1930s, it was not expected that it would: Mount Sinai and Flower Fifth Avenue hospitals were built along the park; the New York Academy of Medicine erected its grand Byzanto-Romanesque building on 103rd Street; the Museum of the City of New York was built at 104th Street. Nor did poverty disappear south of 96th Street: The tenements along Second and Third avenues were much the same north and south of the great 96th Street divide.

From a street map, it would be hard to see why 96th Street should be a boundary at all. On the map, the same wide avenues sweep up from the East Side into contiguous East Harlem. The same long, narrow blocks created by the strange street plan laid down for Manhattan 180 years ago are found north and south of 96th Street. (The plan called for few north-south streets and many east-west streets, producing long, narrow blocks, because it was assumed the city would need many east-west streets to accommodate cargo from vessels in the East and Hudson rivers.) To the east, the East River flows as placidly above 96th Street as below; to the west, Central Park stretches all the way up to 110th Street.

Only the huge superblocks that sprout north of 96th Street offer a hint, in the streets that have disappeared from the grid, of one significant difference: the projects.

The decisive factor in the life of East Harlem, unlike the Upper East Side, has been the shifting winds of urban ideology. The same narrow, crowded tenements for the poor and working classes could be found north as well as south of 96th Street, but East Harlem was defined as a slum, ripe for clearance and projects. Yorkville (the east side of the Upper East Side) was not.

So East Harlem has been regularly scheduled for whatever treatment is currently in vogue—first slum clearance and huge public housing projects when they were the preferred reform; later, spot clearance, vest-pocket projects, rehabilitation projects, open-space projects, Model Cities social interventions, work-training programs—whatever the program, the funds poured into East Harlem in greater volume, with more resources, than just about anywhere in the city.

East Harlem has been a battleground for dueling schools of urban planning. In its shifting history, one can read a cautionary tale about the limits of the reigning ideology—today’s, perhaps, no less than yesterday’s.

When East Harlem, in the 1930s and 1940s, first became a candidate for massive clearance and public housing, it was largely an Italian area. This was Fiorello LaGuardia’s congressional district, and the largest Italian neighborhood in the United States—far larger than the historic Italian settlement on the Lower East Side known as Little Italy. This was the district that sent Vito Marcantonio again and again to Congress.

The other large population group of East Harlem was Jewish. I was born in 1923 on East 103rd Street, between Second and Third avenues. One side of the street was mostly Jewish, the other mostly Italian. When, in the depths of the Depression, my family moved on to greener pastures (the Bronx), it was not because we were pushed out by crime or social decay, or because we thought of East Harlem as a slum, but because the Bronx offered more room for the money.

And yet East Harlem was already defined as problem country. Langdon W. Post’s The Challenge of Housing defines it so in 1938. He was the first chairman of the New York City Housing Authority when it was formed in 1934, and a great advocate of public housing. To him the solution to East Harlem was simple: total clearance and rebuilding.

A speech from New York City’s greatest mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, in 1944, captures the enthusiasm of a whole generation of urban reformers:

“Tear down the old,” he said. “Build up the new. Down with rotten, antiquated rat holes. Down with hovels. Down with disease. Down with crime. Down with firecraft. Let in the sun. Let in the sky. A new day is dawning. A new life. A new America!”

Woody Klein, a famous reporter of his day, borrowed a line from that speech to use as the title of a very interesting book, Let in the Sun. In 1959, Klein moved into East Harlem (on 101st Street, between Second and First avenues) and wrote a series of articles for the New York World-Telegram about his tenement, located on what he labeled the “worst block” in New York City. (It is a common form in New York journalism—there have been a lot of “worst blocks” over the years.) I was intrigued—it was only two blocks from the block I had lived on, which was no longer eligible for “worst-block” candidacy because all of it had been torn down for a superblock housing project, George Washington Houses. (The block we moved to in the East Bronx, Kelly Street, later became “the worst block in New York City,” and the subject of a three-part series in the Wall Street Journal.)

After meticulously documenting the varied efforts to improve East 101st Street, Klein concluded: “More money and manpower have been spent trying to save the poor people and old buildings in this one block during the past two decades than any other piece of real estate in New York.” He also writes of this “worst block”: “It has been compared to the slums of Calcutta.” (Today the comparison of New York to Calcutta is so common that it was adopted as a running title for a series of editorials on New York by the New York Times.)

In 1969, a master Plan for New York City was published in six massive volumes. Yet by 1969, master planning was no longer held in high repute. The plan itself expressed doubts about the old faith in slum clearance, dismissing the enormous effort that, an aerial map shows, had indeed transformed East Harlem:

Although there is more public housing in this district than in almost any other place of comparable size in the country, the population is still crowded into decaying tenements that lack light, air, and often the most basic conveniences of a home. Public housing projects housing close to 53,000 residents have been built since 1940. Yet they only scratch the surface of the district’s housing problems.

That 53,000 was one-third of the population of the area at the time. Some scratch.

The age of the giant housing projects was already drawing to a close in 1969. The city had moved into a new age, and a new faith: in the power of comprehensive social programs to cure the ghetto’s ills. The Model Cities program had been launched, and two-thirds of East Harlem had been designated as an area in need of comprehensive aid under that federal program. In time, that too would pass.

In the intervening years, the controversy over the very real problems in housing projects has obscured the earlier, happier experience with projects in places like East Harlem. Up to the 1960s, housing projects were by and large successful. Relocating existing tenants was not a major issue. When controversy over relocation began to emerge in the late 1950s, the main concern was not tenants but storekeepers: The housing projects had no stores, and urban renewal projects had few. In the clearance for Lincoln Center (an urban renewal project, not a housing project, but the same was true of housing projects), 325 retail businesses were replaced by a mere twenty.

In the 1940s and the 1950s, the public housing projects of East Harlem were welcomed. And why not? Good, new, subsidized housing was available for low-income people. The housing it replaced was narrow, dark, crowded, and dilapidated. The argument for light, air, and open space seemed overwhelming.

For years, public housing was not just another social program but part of a utopian vision—the embodiment, in stone and mortar, of the good society. The New York City Housing Authority’s commitment to giant projects was based on the best thinking of the 1920s and 1930s: First wipe the land clean, and then stamp a new, better pattern upon it. The Housing Authority’s very first large project in the 1930s, Williamsburg Houses, reflected this approach. The tight grid of streets was replaced by a superblock, and the houses were set at an angle to the street grid, almost as a demonstration against the grid. The reasons for this unusual site placement were partly ideological. Lewis Mumford had denounced the uniform grid, indifferent to features of topography and landscape, as the soulless invention of commercial capitalism, interested only in creating fungible plots to buy and sell. There were also practical reasons: The land acquired by closing the streets could be used for parkland, open space, trees, and playgrounds. The aesthetic of Williamsburg and other early projects is not futuristic but pastoral.

As public building for low-income tenants resumed after World War II, the projects got taller and taller. George Washington Houses, the East Harlem project that replaced the block on which I was born, towered 14 stories high. Housing projects spread upwards for many reasons, but one of the most important was the planners’ commitment to open space: Light and air and lawns and playgrounds would not be given up. And they weren’t—even if land costs dictated high density. The George Washington Houses, for example, cover only 13 percent of the land.

At first, the pastoral quality of this new urban landscape was matched by the values of the early residents. The first New York projects were designed in the Depression for a society in which vast numbers of people qualified for public housing. One critic has said that the early public housing projects were designed really for a “submerged middle class,” rather than the truly poor. Residents of housing projects were happy to take the air on the benches scattered through the project. They enjoyed the grass and the trees. They hoped to get to Levittown, and many eventually did. Fathers worked, and mothers kept watch over the children—and the neighborhood.

But as the economy revived, the income and social characteristics of project dwellers began to change. The submerged middle class surfaced and left the projects, and the elements of community life that policed open space and inner corridors weakened.

The Italians of East Harlem initially welcomed the housing projects. Who could object to new housing, larger and cheaper than what they possessed? But that changed very rapidly when they saw what the projects meant. E. J. Dionne, as an undergraduate at Harvard in 1972-73 (he later became political reporter for the New York Times and Washington Post, and is the author of the current book Why Americans Hate Politics), studied East Harlem for his senior thesis. By then the remaining Italian population violently opposed the projects, which they saw as the turning point in the destruction of their neighborhood. “The projects brought in Puerto Ricans and blacks. Politicians are held responsible. . . . Vito Marcantonio is especially held at fault.” Italians, as he writes, “were poor enough to live in substandard housing, but not poor enough to get into the housing projects.” But it was not the Italians—or any other residents—who ultimately halted the housing projects.

The forces pushing for public housing were strong enough to overcome all opposition through the 1970s. The greatest of these forces were the trade unions and the builders, allied with political liberals, who could always point to the overwhelming need for low-income housing to justify massive new construction.

When at last the housing project fell into disfavor, the successful attack was, surprisingly, mounted from above: from architects and planners who were turning against the Corbusian vision of towers in a park. Catherine Bauer wrote one of the earliest critiques of public housing, “The Dreary Deadlock of Public Housing,” in 1956. It appeared not in a political magazine, but in the journal Architectural Forum. The place of its appearance, as well as its content, marked it as a critique from the outside—elitist, if you will. True community, she decided, had not been achieved:

The public housing project . . . continues to be laid out as a “community unit,” as large as possible and entirely divorced from its neighborhood surroundings, even though this only dramatizes the segregation of charity-case families. Standardization is emphasized rather than alleviated in project design, as a glorification of efficient production methods and an expression of the goal of “decent, safe, and sanitary” housing for all. But the bleak symbols of productive efficiency and “minimum standards” are hardly an adequate or satisfactory expression of the values associated with American home life. And all this, in addition, often embodied in the skyscraper, whose refined technology gladdens the heart of technocratic architectural sculptors but pushes its occupants into a highly organized, beehive type of community life for which most American families have no desire and little aptitude.

Open space, once the crowning glory of the housing project, now came under attack. The decisive blow was delivered by Jane Jacobs (who was an editor at Architectural Forum when it published Catherine Bauer’s article). In her 1961 classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs celebrated the street over the superblock; the mixed array of housing and stores, and even the little factories and artisan shops she found near her West Village home on Hudson Street, over the large project devoted to residential housing alone; the closely built streets, without gaps, against the verdant expanse punctuated by freestanding slabs or towers; the mix of income groups created by the complexities of small scale development, against the uniformity produced by bureaucratic rules reserving subsidized housing for the most qualified.

In 1962 Jane Jacobs described in almost apocalyptic terms the way the projects transformed East Harlem:

Eventually, much as the generosity of a rich nation might well extend massive aid to a deprived and backward country, into this district poured massive “foreign aid,” according to decisions by absentee experts from the remote continent inhabited by houses and planners. The aid poured in for rehousing people—some $300 million worth [the current replacement cost of the housing projects of East Harlem would be many times that]. The more that poured in, the worse became the troubles and turmoils of East Harlem, and still more did it become like a backward and deprived country. More than 1,300 businesses which had the misfortune to occupy sites marked for housing were wiped away, and an estimated four-fifths of their proprietors were ruined. More than five hundred noncommercial storefront establishments were wiped away. Virtually all the unslummed population which had hung on was rooted out and “dispersed to better itself.”

Lack of money has hardly been the problem in East Harlem.... The money poured into East Harlem alone from the public housing treasuries is about as much as was lost on the Edsel. In the case of a mistake like the Edsel, a point is reached when the expenditure is reappraised and halted. But in East Harlem, citizens today have to fight off still more money for repetitious mistakes that go unappraised by those who control the money floodgates.

New York was built up densely on a uniform grid, with every street front occupied continuously by housing, stores, institutions. It is the typical thing in New York for a large church to be placed chock in the middle of a block, with tenements or apartment houses flush up against it on either side. Or a police precinct-house. Or a school. Or a branch library. What was to be gained, urbanists such as Jane Jacobs argued, by isolating apartment houses in open space?

Of course there were other factors besides the changing mood of urbanists and reforming architects and planners that condemned the large project. One was community organization. Community activism always prefers the existent to the very different that is going to replace it. The relocation of the 1950s had been carried out with relatively little protection for the sitting tenants, storekeepers, or owners. The pains of relocation became the most powerful argument of community activists. Even as tenements were abandoned or vandalized, it became more and more difficult to propose large-scale clearance and wholesale replacement with a radically different urban form. New projects had to ape the old tenements. Urban theorists combined forces with urban activists. The first preferred the lively slums: All they needed was upgrading. The second feared what would come if the slums were demolished: the bureaucratic project for which they would not be eligible, the expanse of green fields with no room for small stores.

With the rise of the drug trade, it seemed that every open space, whether in a project or not, could become a drug market. Washington Square, edged by fine town houses and apartment houses and churches and New York University, was as difficult to keep free of drug dealers as the open spaces of housing projects. With the increase of the homeless population, open space could become their camping ground, and its use by families and children became problematic. (Interestingly enough, the open spaces of the housing projects did not become camping spaces for the homeless. Was it because of the efficiency of the New York City Housing Authority police? Or because the homeless themselves preferred the lively precincts of Tompkins Square Park, edged by tenements and stores undergoing getrification, to the uniformity of the projects? Or because panhandling was more productive in upper-income areas?)

As early as 1962, housing projects in various cities—not New York—could not fill all their apartments. In Newark, Boston, and St. Louis many housing projects began to deteriorate rapidly. The project, originally a refuge from slums, came to be seen as the epitome of ghetto life: broken families, unruly youth, unkempt grounds, violent crime.

The new image of the project was not always accurate. But a change in mood condemned all huge projects, even when, as in East Harlem, they worked pretty well.

New York did better because the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) was one of the best-managed housing authorities in the country. In most projects, including those in East Harlem, vacant apartments were immediately filled; the NYCHA police force often kept crime lower in projects than in the surrounding streets; and tenants in NYCHA projects were a better mix than in other cities: fewer on welfare, more employed, fewer with social problems.

As the rights revolution swept over the country in the late 1960s and 1970s, the NYCHA’s severe management style, which served to maintain order, was forced to change. Still, NYCHA projects performed better than most. None lay half-empty and abandoned; none was dynamited, as happened in St. Louis and Newark; none was thinned out and turned into middle-class housing, as happened in Boston.

In dense East Harlem, the open spaces are not neglected. The trees have grown, the lawns are lush, the playgrounds are not vandalized and abandoned, the benches are not broken, as anyone who strolls around the Washington Houses can see.

And yet, the urbanists have won: New York City, it is agreed, should not be a verdant expanse punctuated by housing towers. We have Central Park for the verdant expanse. There will be no projects like the Washington Houses built again in the low-income areas of New York. What is there, stays. Half of East Harlem is occupied by these giant projects, and almost two-thirds of the population of East Harlem now lives in them. But today, in East Harlem at least, the only funds for low-income housing go to a very different strategy: the rehabilitation and maintenance of the old-law tenement and other forms of housing eighty or a hundred years old. Eschewing wholesale housing for the poor, New York has moved into small-scale, retail housing—one tenement at a time gutted and rebuilt into a handful of apartments in a hundred-year-old shell.

The housing that was decried by the housing reformers of the 1930s and 1940s as slums worthy only of destruction is today restored at great expense despite obvious deficiencies. Whatever its condition—and many of the tenements are now mere shells—every building is treated almost as a holy icon, to be restored whatever the cost. It is a very strange ending to a story that began with the enthusiastic destruction of these tenements. Fifty years later we have an equally enthusiastic movement for the preservation of those that have survived.

The programs under which old housing can be rehabilitated for low-income people—city, state, and federal—are so numerous, the sources of funds so varied, the regulations determining who can live in what kind of housing so complex, that we have spawned a host of nonprofit agencies that have developed the skills to fulfill the varied requirements these programs set, and to rehabilitate, rent, and maintain the rehabbed buildings. It has become a fascinating enterprise, drawing in reformers of the 1950s and 1960s, militants and activists of the 1960s and 1970s, and church groups and voluntary organizations. The major agency in East Harlem engaged in this work is Hope Community, directed by George Calvert.

Alongside the tenements rehabbed with public funds, one finds the occasional brownstone or tenement restored by private owners or developers. One wonders: Is this form of urban renewal merely an invitation, in the long run, to gentrification?

The city uses various devices to lock each newly rehabbed tenement into low-income housing as solidly and permanently as the projects themselves. And yet, for all its problems, East Harlem still provides the vibrant and varied street life for which gentrifiers look. We may yet see, in revived New York, efforts to extend the East Side above 96th Street.

The battle over the form of East Harlem was fought largely between two elites: the NYCHA, with its commitment to the projects it had created, and the urban theorists, who called for denser and more varied use and continuous street frontage.

But in the great urban mix celebrated by critics such as Jane Jacobs, perhaps there is room, along with the bustling tenement row, for the well-run housing project, for the verdant expanse and the sparkling tower as well as the crowded, row-house grid. At the very least, the East Harlem experience suggests that housing projects are not necessarily slums—and it may be worthwhile to discover the ways in which successful housing projects differ from those that did become slums.

East Harlem suggests, too, that peaceful co-existence between two warring schools of urban thought is not impossible. In East Harlem today the two epochs in housing reform seem to live in harmony, with neither the project threatening the tenement, nor the rehabilitated tenements threatening to invade the project. More than harmony, one notes a symbiosis. The project may not have any stores, but Third Avenue, edging the project, is filled with thriving small businesses, many run by Latino or Korean immigrants. The huge towers, George Calvert tells me, provide a very large number of customers.

Perhaps this harmony owes something to the very urbanists who stopped the projects. For if the projects had kept growing to cover almost all of the land (what, after all, in East Harlem was not a slum?), as they do in some of the neighborhoods that have given projects a bad name, there would not have been enough of a neighborhood left to root them in.

And perhaps, even though the sidewalk and the stoop are the preferred places for sunning and sitting, the tenement dwellers occasionally stroll into the project to enjoy the grass and trees and benches.

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