In A Walker in the City, Alfred Kazin describes the “uncanny” experience of seeing new public housing projects planted amid the tenements he knew growing up.
Despite those fresh diagonal walks , with their trees and children’s sandboxes and Negro faces calmly at home with the white, so many of the old tenements have been left undisturbed on every side of the project, the streets beyond are so obviously just as they were when I grew up in them, that it is as if they had been ripped out of their original pattern and then pasted back in again behind the unbelievable miniatures of the future.
The photograph above, from the New York City Housing Authority archives (an invaluable resource!), gives an idea of what Kazin was thinking about. In the foreground of the image are tenements that would be razed almost a decade after the publication of A Walker in the City. To the right are the Brownsville Houses, the development to which Kazin is likely referring.
Constructed in 1945, the Brownsville Houses were among the first of the NYCHA’s large, postwar projects. Although in ways Kazin probably did not realize, the Brownsville Houses were indeed harbingers of a future. Long a poor neighborhood with substandard housing, and one hit very hard by the Depression, Brownsville was also home to a powerful community of left-wing activists and civic reformers who pressed hard in the postwar years for public housing.
The neighborhood was notorious for its poverty, crime, and poor quality housing.
As Kazin’s remarks indicate, for many of those on the left and among liberal civic reformers in the 1940s, especially in Brownsville, public housing seemed to promise an opportunity to redress poverty and injustice and to offer an alluring vision of modernity.
In some respects, at least for a time, their aims coincided with the ambitions of New York’s powerful planning czar Robert Moses, who saw Brownsville as an area ripe for slum clearance and redevelopment and who anticipated that it would become the place to which (the overwhelmingly poor and minority) populations displaced by urban renewal elsewhere in the city would migrate. In the decades after the war, Brownsville would be more radically reconstructed than almost any other part of NYC.
The photograph below shows the original Brownsville Houses surrounded by the many subsequent public housing developments that displaced the world of Kazin’s youth.