A book tip before I even read the thing…

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, aNew 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.

That’s from a CityJournal review of Manhattan Projects: The Rise and Fall of Urban Renewal in Cold War New York

by Samuel Zipp.

It sounds like exactly the kind of book I like to read,well at least of the political/urban type.


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