Tony the Tour Guy's Blog

A not very regular series of posts on New York City history, historic preservation, genealogy and related themes.

Friday, March 10, 2006

The Origin of Housing Projects

To many New Yorkers the mere mention of the Housing Authority’s “Projects” calls to mind what? Drug dealers? Litter and graffiti? Violence? It’s easy to forget that public housing began as a noble experiment in providing decent homes for working people of modest means (ant that perhaps this ideal can be restored). In the meantime, a look at the history of the NYC Housing Authority provides some interesting insights into the mindsets of those who created its developments, to some extent as a form of social engineering.

I urge everyone to visit the Tenement Museum on Orchard Street in order to see what life was like for many thousands of poor New Yorkers in days past. Not only were the tenements crowded, but sanitary facilities were in short supply. Such buildings were considered not only inhumane, but a threat to the public order, in that they contributed to problems such as crime. Towards the end of the 19th Century assorted philanthropists, such as the famous A. T. White started creating model housing for working class families on a private basis. These were not charities, per se, but enlightened corporations whose owners believed that they could achieve a decent return on their investment while providing a public service (White’s motto was “Philanthropy plus five percent.”) Imagine telling a contemporary real estate developer in this town that they should build modest-priced housing and be content with such a rate of return! The experimental developments were innovative, but there never were nearly enough of them.

Enter the Great Depression, and the infusion of Federal relief funds. In 1934 Mayor LaGuardia initiated the New York City Housing Authority, an agency which, like any of the other public authorities which were emerging, was a semi-autonomous agency. NYCHA’s first development was called, of all things, the First Houses, opened a year later and was located on the Lower East Side. Instead of building entirely new structures, the Authority took several blocks of existing tenements; knocked down every third building in order to provide light, ventilation and some open space, and renovated the remaining apartments. Thousands of New Yorkers applied for these dwellings.

Soon afterwards larger NYCHA developments were opening, most consisting of high-rise buildings in large groupings. A popular design concept for such projects was the “Tower in the Park” model, in which tall structures, many of which featured four wings in a cross shape, stood in a landscaped area featuring trees, lawns, paths and playgrounds. Although some of these buildings were quite ugly, to this day one can see some good landscaping in certain NYCHA developments. Still, these projects were rather bare-bones affairs. Bureaucrats such as Robert Moses saw no need for luxuries such as toilet lids, and many of the buildings had elevators which stopped only at every other floor. I have visited many people who live in these buildings, and have been appalled by the smallness of their quarters. In many NYCHA kitchens it seems possible to use the stove, sink and refrigerator without moving one’s feet. Moses and Company also tended to locate the new developments in out-of-the-way areas, which is why you will find so many projects in places such as Coney Island and Far Rockaway.

Project life was anything but anarchy in those days. Tenants needed references and were required to abide by strict codes of behavior. Most were hard-working people who took great pride in their homes. What happened? I guess that depends partially upon whom you ask. But from what I have read, income limits for admission to NYCHA buildings failed to keep pace with inflation, with the result that most working people were considered too wealthy to qualify. At the same time, thousands of welfare recipients were moved into the projects, often because these were the only places whose rents they could afford. The City also had a policy of placing those who lost their homes due to fires in public housing, and guess what happened next? Then came the drugs and criminals.

Many experts blame the design of the mega NYCHA complexes for some of the problems their residents face. Putting huge numbers of unemployed people in out-of-the-way places loaded with drug dealers and other vermin did not exactly provide young people with good role models! The high-rise buildings were also difficult for the police to patrol. Starting in the Sixties housing theorists began to argue for smaller-scale developments, spread throughout the community. But at the same time funds for the construction of new public housing were drying up. Besides, who wanted a project in their back yard?

In recent years, many of the projects have made a remarkable comeback. They are well-maintained and patrolled, as residents partner with the police and other agencies to keep the trouble makers out. Some have butterfly gardens!

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Why do They Call It Union Square?

Many people presume that this well-known park got its name from its
proximity to the headquarters of many trade unions. Indeed, the area has
long been associated with labor, as well as grassroots and radical causes.
On the night in 1927 that Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti ("Anarchist
Bastards," according to the judge who sentenced them) were executed in
Massachusetts, a huge rally was held for them in the Square.

Alas, the real reason for the name is more mundane: it is at the union of
two major north-south thoroughfares: Broadway and 4th (aka Park) Ave.

Monday, March 06, 2006

The Great Cadaver Riot of 1788

The current scandal regarding the illegal "harvesting" of body parts by
"tissue banks" ain't nothin' compared to the brouhaha in 1788, when it was
discovered that medical students and doctors were robbing graves in order
to obtain cadavers.

At that time doctors had neither refrigeration nor embalming to keep the
bodies which they studied ....errrrr..... fresh. So, there was a great need
for new cadavers by hospitals and medical schools. So, they employed
hospital staff to recruit study subjects from local cemeteries.

Needless to say, the public was not pleased to learn of this. In addition
to the anger which one could be expected to experience at learning that a
loved one's remains had been snatched, there was also the prevailing
superstition of the day, which held that people who were not properly
interred could not "rest in peace," and would come back as ghosts. As word
spread of the practice, a huge mob invaded New York Hospital, snatching all
the cadavers and taking them back to the cemetery for proper burial. They
also captured many of the medical students and doctors.

The civil authorities of the day were somewhat accustomed to rioting; it
was a fairly common occurrence, and in this case they sympathized with the
crowd's outrage. After a time they negotiated with the mob to have the
medical personnel turned over to them, so that they could be imprisoned.
This was done, but the people were still furious. They demanded (and got)
the right to search academic institutions and even the doctors' houses for
more corpses. Following this, the growing crowd besieged the jail, intent
upon inflicting frontier justice on the doctors. Eventually a large militia
was brought in, and the crowd disbursed, but not before three rioters were
killed. On the defender's side, those attacked included NY Governor
Clinton, General von Steuben (yes, the parade's namesake) and future
Justice Department chief John Jay.