“A Naive Reliance on Physical Dwellings to Carry Out Social Goals”

The other day in class, Sierra asked whether, given the success of Ann Petry’s protest fiction, The Street had an any effect on the conditions it depicts.

I mentioned that the novel did not, to my knowledge, have any direct effects, but that it can be seen as part of a larger discourse on civil rights and urban conditions that ultimately had quite substantial consequences for the lives of African-Americans and for the social geography of the city. (For example, here is a 1948 article from the Yale Law Review, detailing the effects of discriminatory housing, which cites Petry’s novel in its discussion. Apart from its illuminating information, the essay shows that liberal reformers were raising the issue of discrimination and housing in some prominent venues during this era.)

Children at play in the rubble of a demolished tenement, 1949; eventually all these buildings were razed to make way for the Taft Houses, constructed in 1962 (photo, NYCHA)

In particular, I mentioned two areas of public policy to which views like those expressed by Petry were important. One was the development of fair housing laws that would make discriminatory housing practices illegal and seek to limit the ability of homeowners, landlords, brokers, and banks to confine African-Americans to segregated neighborhoods. After long advocacy, New York was the first city in the country to adopt such an ordinance, but that was not until 1957. You can read an economic historian’s summary of the history and likely effects of such regulations here.

The more immediate consequence of public concern about poor and discriminatory housing in New York in the 1930 and 1940s was the development of public housing and the emergence of what was known at the time as “slum clearance” and “urban development”–the forerunners of what would later be called “urban renewal.”

Construction of First Houses, at Ave. A and 3rd St (1935); this was NYC's first public housing and depended on the first use of eminent domain to raze existing structures, setting the patter for later "slum clearing"

With federal and state money, New York built subsidized public housing for low-income tenants during the LaGuardia years (through the late 1930s and early 1940s).

LaGuardia inspects stove in the new Kingsborough Houses, 1941 (photo, NYCHA)

This public housing was energetically championed by liberal reformers who worked hard to overcome opposition and to mobilize the resources needed to bring about a large-scale construction program. And it provided housing that was in very high demand, due both to the poverty and dislocation of the Depression years and to the overcrowding that became especially problematic during and after the War.

Prospective tenants line-up at NYCHA offices, 1946; such tenants would have been evaluated by the NYCHA for their ability to meet middle-class norms of propriety

But the rapid development of public housing in the 1940s also led to a dramatic reconstruction of the urban landscape and to the dislocation of many people and neighborhoods. Viable communities and good buildings were sometimes destroyed indiscriminately along with dangerous tenements. (A fantastic photographic record of this whole history is available at the LaGuardia-Wagner archive. See the link on the right-hand side of the page.)

A NYC Housing Authority Relocation Office (1947), whose purpose was to help displaced residents find new homes

But what happened in the LaGuardia years was relative small-scale compared to what came later. “Slum clearance” really got underway with the passage of the American Housing Act of 1949, which provided federal funding for leveling slum neighborhoods (Title I of the Act) and building subsidized housing projects (Title III).

Due to the great power wielded by Robert Moses (who, to add to his many other official positions, got himself appointed chair of the Mayor’s Committee on Slum Clearance), New York was more aggressive than almost any other city in knocking down tenement neighborhoods and erecting large-scale high-rise housing projects throughout the 1950s and 1960s. These were, by the way, not always in the same place. Most famously, New York’s performing arts complex Lincoln Center (opened in 1964) was built on the low-income tenement neighborhood previously known as San Juan Hill. Many of the new housing projects, however, were built in East Harlem.

Park West Village, upper west side of Manhattan, just below Harlem; designed by Skidmore, Owens and Merrill and completed under Robert Moses in 1957 after a long slum clearance battle

As the historian of housing policy Alexander von Hoffman points out federal housing law (and, by extension, housing policy in New York after 1949 in particular) rested on some assumptions about housing, social conditions, and public morality that in retrospect are quite dubious:

Title III of the Housing Act of 1949 . . . had a fatal flaw: a naïve reliance on physical dwellings to carry out social goals. The planners and developers of postwar public housing, whatever its architecture, inherited from earlier generations a faith in the influence of physical environment on individual values. Some believed, without examining the belief, that decent dwellings would impart middle-class standards of behavior to lower-class people. Others assumed that poor people would be grateful to live in new homes that were a great improvement over their old ones and would improve themselves correspondingly. The political exhaustion of the public housers after the long battles with their opponents and a shift in sociological theory to the view that the individual, not the community, was the basis of modern society, also may have affected the program. Regardless of the causes, new public housing projects lacked the community facilities and activities and social services that characterized early public housing [e.g., of the type constructed in NYC during the LaGuardia administration].

In the two decades after 1949, these assumptions would help lead to a drastic remaking of the social geography and architecture of the city–the most evident feature was the rise of the kind of “superblock” highrise construction Robert Moses favored.

Later this semester, we’ll talk more about the social conditions of Harlem in the 1940s (when we look at Ellison) and about the urban reconstruction driven by Moses (when we talk about him in the week that we read Kenneth Fearing). But for now, it may be helpful to realize that the community Petry describes would soon be reshaped, and often not for the better, by large-scale social policy some of which had the well-intentioned goal of addressing the problems that Petry highlighted.

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