Public Housing That Worked: New York in the Twentieth Century

public-housing-that-workedEvery city has its own unique public housing and problems that go with it. New York City has huge high-rises in bad areas, where land is nonetheless at a premium. Chicago had the Robert Taylor high-rises far from the city center, on a strip of land that nobody wanted. New Orleans had the Iberville Houses, only four stories high, and possible the very first of its kind in the USA. Boston had Old Colony, London had Broadwater Farm, and Paris has its “banlieues.” Wherever you go, public housing usually stinks. The questions of this book are as follows; why do they stink, and were there any that worked?

Nicholas Bloom begins with the Depression in the USA, a time when everyone in the USA was broke and desperate for work. In NYC, the crumbling fire-trap tenements needed to be torn down, and with Hoovervilles springing up in Central Park, there was also a need for cheap apartments. Under Mayor LaGuardia there was a lengthily study of this problem, and it led to the founding of NYCHA. The New York City Housing Authority would start with just a few buildings, and for the most part it went well. But as the years went by, NYCHA would build many more buildings and become less adept at managing them.

Bloom defines NYCHA as having higher standards than other cities, but staying cheap without going shoddy. New York City’s public housing does have a higher standard than Chicago, as with the poorly-built projects like James Honer, Robert Taylor, Ida Wells, and Cabrini-Green. Soviet visitors to Chicago once remarked on the poor quality of the Honer buildings, and how such terrible construction would cost a Soviet architect his job (and possible his life too) if he were to skimp on quality. Under Federal laws, the buildings couldn’t be far-off from the main parts of the city, or in an area badly-served by transit. This meant that to cram more people in, NYCHA had to use the high-rise approach, which didn’t foster a sense of neighborhood.

Robert Moses also comes into play here. He didn’t want the public housing in the outer-reaches of the city; that would necessitate bringing public transport all the way to the suburbs. He also designed the Patterson Houses to be occupied by two-parent families, no single moms, prospective tenants had to show their marriage certificate to get in. The wicked Robert Moses thought such a rule would keep unruly tenants out, and for a while, he was right. But here’s where the problem started, one which nobody anticipated. Once the small 1950’s houses came within their means, the regular working people left the projects, replaced by Black and Puerto Rican families. The next wave of tenants didn’t meet the “21 traits” of Robert Moses, and there weren’t enough gainfully-employed two-parent families to fill the buildings. Single mothers on welfare with unruly kids moved in.

Compared to Chicago’s housing and the Pruitt-Igoe houses in St. Louis, NYCHA buildings worked. But just because they’re still standing doesn’t mean they’re any good. They still look horrible, and they still diminish the sense of neighborhood. But unlike the extensive South Side of Chicago, NYC land is limited and costly. That’s the only reason the tenants in the worst buildings don’t move out. Did NYC public housing really work? Maybe, at first, it did.

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