East Harlem: A History of Housing Developments in New York City

By Daniel Morales

          The history of public housing has long been a complex and contentious issue in the United States. The debate over how to properly care for the poor and even more specifically to whom this responsibility should fall has been heated and the consequences of government-subsidized housing has been greatly criticized. It is an issue that first rose to general consciousness starting in the early to mid-nineteenth century and has continued through the turn of the century and on to the present day. In order to come to a better understanding of the causes and effects of public housing developments, and taking into consideration the broad scope of an endeavor to look at a general history of public housing in America, it is useful to look at a specific area. In this case, the focus will be on East Harlem, which was one of the original recipients of governmental funds for public housing in the 1930s. Here, we can see specifically the consequences and effects of this governmental policy in relation to the rest of the city and the nation as a whole.

Colonial History

          The area now known as East Harlem was originally inhabited by the Wecksquessgek Indians who valued it for its rich natural resources and a convenient availability of water, with the Harlem River to the north and the East River to the east. The area would eventually be settled by Dutch settlers who named the entire area “New Amsterdam,” and a farming community was founded and named “Nieuw Haarlem” by Peter Stuyvesant, the Director-General of the entire Dutch colony New Netherland (the greater New York area). After the British arrived in 1664 and renamed “New Amsterdam” “New York,” Harlem retained its Dutch name.

A Growing Housing Problem

          The early to mid-nineteenth century saw an increased focus on which direction the development of the city should take as “population density” and “immigration” became factors that needed to be addressed. A major component of this larger issue was housing developments: where would the people of the city live? In East Harlem, the Dutch houses that had characterized lower Manhattan had already disappeared by the 1830s. By the 1850s, the older city landscape was being replaced with cheaper housing developments, later called “old-law tenements” because they were built with no government regulation as would later housing developments that would be standardized.1 As Pluntz, author of A History of Housing in New York City, points out, “[new] housing possibilities were correlated with a new class structure” crudely divided into “Upper,” “Middle,” and “Lower.” East Harlem soon became an area for the housing of the “Lower” stratum of urban society.2

          In the 1830s, the construction of the New York and Harlem Railroad along what was then Fourth Avenue (now Park Avenue) and the later extension of the New York Elevated Railroad in 1880 north to the Harlem River made East Harlem one of the most accessible areas of Manhattan by providing cheap transportation. A consequence of East Harlem’s accessibility was an influx in the newest (and poorest) immigrant classes. “With the large supply of cheap housing [the tenements] began a pattern of in-immigration and dispersal of ethnic groups that would characterize the history of East Harlem from beginning to the present,” from Italians from the 1880s through the 1910s, to the Eastern Europeans soon after, to Puerto Ricans who, by 1950, along with blacks, predominated East Harlem (which is still known today as “Spanish Harlem”). What all of these ethnic groups shared, however, was that they were the poorest social groups in the city, which created a need for housing. This in turn led them to be particularly susceptible to the wave of public housing developments later in the mid-twentieth century.3

          The tenements were not intended to house such high densities of people.4 By 1865, there were already 15,309 tenements in the city and the population had reached about 1,000,000. The Tenement House Committee, established by the New York State legislature in 1894, released a report in which they determined that “while New York ranked sixth among world cities in population, it was found to be ranked first in density at an average of 143.2 persons per acre.” It also established that over one half of the entire population of the city lived in tenements. Still, despite precedents set in Europe in 1895, there was resistance to the idea of government housing, as there still existed “faith in the private sector to house the poor.”5

The Role of the Federal Government in Housing Projects

          It was not until the Great Depression of the 1930s and FDR’s New Deal that the government’s housing role would expand. In 1934, the Municipal Housing Authority Act was passed by the New York State legislature. It permitted municipalities to develop housing projects which would be funded by either municipal bonds or federal funds. This would eventually result in the creation of the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA).6 The emphasis for these housing projects would be “low-cost.” This strategy encouraged lowered construction costs in exchange for lower rent. Although this made these housings more affordable for the poor, what they got was poorly constructed buildings which would eventually become reflective of poor, urban areas of life. Those housing projects created directly from the New Deal did not suffer these problems because they were paid for by the federal government as part of the deal; in fact, they “remain among the best government housing in New York City.”7

          Future projects, however, would suffer as “government housing programs became….more institutionalized…. [and] a conflict between high project costs and rentals developed.” The Wagner-Steagall Bill, known as the United States Housing Act, passed by Congress in 1937, would further institutionalize the area of government public housing. It “limited federal intervention at the local level” and empowered local authorities to administer federal programs. In New York, this would give more authority to the NYCHA to oversee the construction of these projects.8 These new projects were originally seen as “beacons of hope.” It was believed that the slum clearance that these projects represented would “spell an end to the social and personal ills of slum life….crime, juvenile delinquency, disease, infant mortality, [and] broken families…would dissipate and recede.”9 However, these projects would not be exactly successful in achieving these goals, as would soon become apparent.

The First Housing Projects in East Harlem

          East Harlem would become the site of the first high-rise tower project in New York – the East River Houses. This project was intended for a mainly black population, with Williamsburg housing project in Brooklyn planned for the white population. The design for this early project was to achieve a structure that was “spacious, communal, and serene.”10 It was completed in 1941. The construction of this site required the demolition of two streets to be replaced by one large superblock. Twenty-eight buildings were constructed at the East River Houses, although only six of them would be high-rise.11 The density of East Harlem made it an attractive target for “federal slum clearance” required by the Federal Housing Act of 1937. The ideal set by the East River Houses would be replicated elsewhere in East Harlem; by 1950, construction on a second high-rise project had already been completed and four more potential sites were identified. Soon the entire area was slated for demolition, with thirteen additional sites being developed (four by the NYCHA). Over twenty years, starting in 1938 with the implementation of the Federal Housing Act, the East Harlem slums were razed, with the end result being that 171 acres (18%) were soon replaced by high-rise housing projects, replacing the “old and lively tenement buildings.” By 1967, 15,657 units had been created, with the result today being that “approximately one-third of East Harlem is covered with post-war subsidized housing.”12

Tower in the Park

          In post-war development, an emphasis was placed on the concept of the “tower in the park.” The sole criterion was the creation of park-like settings for the housing projects. The goal was to “[exorcise] the nineteenth century city of its tenements,” which had been characterized as slums – dark, cramped, and festering. This was marked by the use of space by the architects of the projects. While nineteenth century tenements covered approximately 90 percent of the land on which they were constructed, these new housing developments had slightly more than 10 percent coverage. Phrases were coined such as “slum clearance” and “urban renewal,” and the idea was supported by many members of the liberal establishment. In East Harlem, this ideal saw its expression in the concentration of housing projects along the scenic East River.13 The first housing project in New York was in fact the Harlem River Houses, which as the name would suggest, was built along the East River coastline. The choice of this location for the first significant housing project was done purposefully. The architecture was designed to maximize the feeling of spaciousness and serenity, and the scenic view of the East River was seen as accomplishing this idealized living condition. The hope was that, by improving the view and sense of space, these housing projects would be able to improve the living conditions of the city’s poor and thereby reduce crime and other negative conditions associated with the “slums.” The East River, a scenic piece of nature in the midst of one of the poorest slums in the city, provided an ideal location for the testing of the first housing project, and overall the Harlem River Houses were a success.

          Unfortunately, the quality of future projects would not be as high and would prove to be not as successful in achieving their lofty goals of improving living conditions from those of the slums. Overall, these efforts were not entirely successful in achieving their intended goal of improving the quality of life of those that would live in these housing projects. Although the architectural plans were successfully implemented, they did not achieve the desired effect. Lewis Mumford criticized the concept of the “tower in the park” by arguing that its proponents “confused visual open space with functional (habitable) open space” and that the issue was “not merely the percentage of the land covered by the buildings, but the number of people crowded together in a given area.” In retrospect, Mumford appears to have been correct. Studies have shown that such projects display “a tendency to increase crime.” Oscar Newman, whose important study Defensible Space dealt with this issue, presented a number of theories as to how, as per his argument, “the difference in design approach accounted for much of the difference in [number of crimes],” including the notion that “the scale of the towers prevented normal exercise of familial territory” and that “removal of large numbers of units from visual contact with open space prevented proper public surveillance.”14

Reception of the Housing Developments

          These housing developments were also not entirely embraced by the communities in which they were built. These housing projects were intended by their originators to be “islands of hope;” however, in practice they were actually islands in a negative sense, “cut off from the neighborhoods from which they had been carved.” These housing developments were out of touch with the rest of the community, isolated within their spacious confines. The fact that different ethnic groups were thrown together in these projects led to racial tension as well. This led to a lack of a sense of ownership of these developments would have a detrimental effect on any sense of civic responsibility these new inhabitants had. They never were able to integrate into the general community in which they were placed. For their part, the original inhabitants of these neighborhoods resented these intrusions and the destruction they caused to their social community. In East Harlem, tenants and others in the neighborhood organized protests and demonstrations to prevent additional destruction of property. They resented the destruction of their “slums,” which to them were their “vibrant friendly neighborhoods and communities,” and were now being replaced by cold and inadequate high-rises. Others who joined in these protests were those who were ineligible for public housing and, in the face of the destruction of their tenements, faced the threat of homelessness. In East Harlem, the NYCHA completed its last project in 1965 and since then efforts at preservation of many of the surviving tenements has been successful in preserving East Harlem’s history.15 16

          The movement for the creation of public housing developments arose out of necessity as a growing city needed to find a way to house all of its inhabitants. The original goals of the movement were good; they hoped to provide affordable housing and shelter for the poor and those who could not afford many of the more expensive housing options then available. They also wished to improve the urban decay and slum culture that had begun to characterize many areas in Manhattan, including East Harlem, as population density increased and living standards fell. Government regulation was instituted to preserve a high quality of living in these housing developments; however, as the whole movement became more institutionalized and a focus was placed on “low-cost,” the quality of these projects fell. They were mostly successful in providing affordable housing for many of the city’s poor; however, they failed in their goals of improvement over the tenements and housing all of the city’s inhabitants. Throughout that time and even today there is still a housing deficit.

Bibliography

Bloom, Nicholas D. Public Housing That Worked: New York in the Twentieth Century. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2008.

New York City Housing Authority. The City of New York. 09 Nov. 2011. .

Plunz, Richard. A History of Housing in New York City. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.

Pluntz, Richard A., ed. "On the Uses and Abuses of Air: Perfecting the New York Tenement, 1850–1901." Berlin/New York: Like and Unlike: Essays on Architecture and Art from 1870 to the Present. Ed. Josef P. Kleihues and Christina Rathgeber. New York: Rizzoli, 1993. 159-79.

Pommer, Richard. "The Architecture of Urban Housing in the United States during the Early 1930s." Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 37.4 (1978): 235-64. JSTOR. 14 Nov. 2011. .

Zipp, Samuel. Manhattan Projects: The Rise and Fall of Urban Renewal in Cold War New York. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010.

“A 197-A Plan for Manhattan Community District 11.” East-Harlem.com. 09 Nov. 2011 http://www.east-harlem.com/cb11_197A¬_history.htm.

“About NYCHA: Plan to Preserve Public Housing.” NYC.gov. 09 Nov. 2011 .


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1 “A 197-A Plan for Manhattan Community District 11.” East-Harlem.com. 09 Nov. 2011 http://www.east-harlem.com/cb11_197A¬_history.htm.

2Pluntz, Richard A., ed. "On the Uses and Abuses of Air: Perfecting the New York Tenement, 1850–1901." Berlin/New York: Like and Unlike: Essays on Architecture and Art from 1870 to the Present. Ed. Josef P. Kleihues and Christina Rathgeber. New York: Rizzoli, 1993. 159-79.

3“A 197-A Plan for Manhattan Community District 11.” East-Harlem.com. 09 Nov. 2011 http://www.east-harlem.com/cb11_197A¬_history.htm.

4Refer to Richard Pluntz’s essay “On the Uses and Abuses of Air: Perfecting the New York Tenement, 1850–1901" for more information on the history of tenement buildings.

5Plunz, Richard. A History of Housing in New York City. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.

6Refer to the Nicholas Bloom’s book, Public Housing That Worked: New York in the Twentieth Century, and the NYCHA’s official website for more information on the history of the NYCHA.

7Plunz, Richard. A History of Housing in New York City. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.

8Plunz, Richard. A History of Housing in New York City. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.

9Zipp, Samuel. Manhattan Projects: The Rise and Fall of Urban Renewal in Cold War New York. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010.

10For more information on the architectural planning for urban housing, refer to Richard Pommer’s essay on “The Architecture of Urban Housing in the United States during the Early 1930s.”

11Plunz, Richard. A History of Housing in New York City. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.

12“A 197-A Plan for Manhattan Community District 11.” East-Harlem.com. 09 Nov. 2011 http://www.east-harlem.com/cb11_197A¬_history.htm.

13Plunz, Richard. A History of Housing in New York City. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.

14Plunz, Richard. A History of Housing in New York City. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.

15“A 197-A Plan for Manhattan Community District 11.” East-Harlem.com. 09 Nov. 2011 http://www.east-harlem.com/cb11_197A_history.htm.

16Refer to the webpage “About NYCHA: Plan to Preserve Public Housing” on the NYCHA’s official website for more information on preservation efforts.