New Yorkers Without a Voice: A Tragedy of Urban Renewal

When the author, a thirty-five-year-old Lutheran minister, became pastor of Manhattan's Trinity Lutheran Church in 1961, he found himself in the middle of a political row involving New York City's redevelopment officials and tenement dwellers in and near an East River housing site marked for demolition. Set forth here are the details of that uneven struggle, and the dismaying lesson it holds for the poor in urban renewal conflicts. This article is adapted from Mr. Simon's book, FACES OF POVERTY.

The general situation is bad enough to make the visitor or newcomer to our neighborhood conclude that these tenements ought to be torn down and new housing constructed, the sooner the better. I was no exception.

In July of 1961, only a few months after moving to the Lower East Side, I was asked to take part in a meeting of representatives from neighborhood agencies. We were told that the city had designated a three-block site, which it called the Tompkins Square Housing Site, as suitable for urban renewal. It was an area composed largely of old, small industrial shops and only 165 apartments. A representative of the city's Housing and Redevelopment Board (HRB) was on hand to urge that neighborhood leaders participate with the city in working out a suitable plan for this three-block site.

I must admit I was impressed with the attitude of this HRB official toward our neighborhood. She made it clear that "citizen participation" is one of the federal requirements which must be met by the city in order to receive urban renewal funds. The city wanted to find out from neighborhood people what we needed and wanted. To illustrate how the poor lack political "savvy," I later found out that on May 1, when the chairman of the City Planning Commission announced the Tompkins Square Housing Site as suitable for urban renewal, he had simultaneously announced similar plans for an area two miles across town in the West Village. The reaction in the two communities was not the same. The West Village immediately thundered its vote of disapproval at the city's intention, and, led by Jane Jacobs, the Village Voice, and several articulate spokesmen, virtually inundated the Board of Estimate with its protest. The project was dropped. Meanwhile, there was nothing but silence in our neighborhood. We didn't even know what was going on. Partly as a result of West Village opposition, the Housing and Redevelopment Board was eager for a smooth relationship with our neighborhood and had suggested this meeting to request citizen participation.

Out of this request the Tompkins Square Housing Committee was formed and began to hold public meetings. We recognized a need for renewal, and we took at face value the clearly expressed wishes of the HRB for community participation. We naively assumed from official assurances that a genuine dialogue would develop between the neighborhood and the city.

Such a dialogue was never to take place.

At first we heard housing experts explain the options open to us. Meanwhile, five members of our committee interviewed most of the residents on the proposed site and came up with information that included the following:

Tenants paid a median rental of $36.50 per apartment, or an average of $10.08 per room a month.

Nearly half of the apartments were overcrowded.

Half of the family units had incomes of less than $3000 a year.

Nearly three fourths of the tenants said they would like to live in the new apartments, provided the rents were low enough.

Then Robert Dennis, a member of our committee and a city planner (though not in the employ of the city), together with another city planner and an architect, formed a team which made a building-by-building examination, not only of the three-block site but also of another eight blocks immediately to the west and adjoining the site. They designated each building in one of three categories: (1) structurally solid and not in need of repair; (2) structurally solid but in need of code enforcement; and (3) dilapidated buildings which should be demolished within ten years. The results showed that almost all the buildings, both on and off the proposed site, fit into category 2.

With this information we were able to piece together a kind of proposal that used this logic:

1. Recognizing that most of the people on the site and in the adjoining blocks had very low incomes, we asked that new housing, though including middle-income units, be built primarily for the people of the area at rentals they could afford .

2. Most of the apartments on the site were situated in two clusters of buildings on one corner of the site. Since many tenants had incomes so low that they could not afford the rentals even of new low-income public housing (which were then coming in at $16 to $18 a room), or for other reasons might not be eligible for public housing, we asked the city to redraw the boundary of the proposed site to exclude those buildings from the site. The supply of low-rent housing in the city is desperately short, and we felt it would be a mistake to deplete that supply further unless absolutely necessary.

3. We asked that the site be treated not as an isolated area but in relation to the surrounding blocks, so that this renewal program could become the first phase of a series of stages to upgrade and replace housing without displacing large numbers of residents from the neighborhood.

4. We suggested that renewal, in its various stages, not simply bulldoze blocks wholesale but pursue a more selective course to preserve the most habitable buildings and construct new houses, including perhaps some row houses, in "vest-pocket" sections.

Although we were limited by lack of personnel, time, and funds, we were able to pick up widespread support for our proposal in the neighborhood. Our neighborhood council, the Housing Division of LENA (Lower Eastside Neighborhoods Association), Puerto Rican and civil rights organizations, and other community groups supported our proposal, and it was clear that the great majority of neighborhood people who have no institutional voice were also responding favorably to our approach. Even the local Democratic organization, a stronghold of Tammany Hall, promised support—which was later retracted, presumably under pressure from the city.

Already it was becoming evident that while the HRB was ready to fill us in on the most general sort of information regarding procedure, there was no willingness to exchange ideas of substance. We met with Milton Mollen, chairman of the HRB, and board members on several occasions, and we were always received with courtesy. But we had no idea what the city planners were producing for the HRB, nor were we allowed access to their thinking. As the chief of the Project Development for the HRB said at a meeting with us in August, 1962, the technicians did not want someone from the neighborhood "peeking over our shoulders."

At HRB headquarters in December, 1962, Chairman Mollen unveiled what he announced to be not the preliminary concept but "the tentative final concept." It ignored the key priorities urged by the community and proposed instead a straight middle-income development of 900 units, with rents up to $30 a room, but with the possibility of as many as 20 percent of the units skewed down to $18 a room—still out of range for most of the site tenants. Mollen emphasized that the HRB wanted to speed it on to Washington for approval as quickly as possible.

On January 10, 1963, an open meeting was held at Public School 61 on East Twelfth Street. The entire neighborhood was invited to hear both plans presented on an equal-time basis. HRB chairman Mollen and his staff members did so on behalf of the city. Nearly 300 persons (a phenomenal turnout in our neighborhood) listened to both proposals and asked questions, after which a motion from the floor to back the neighborhood plan rather than the city's proposal carried with only four dissenting votes, although there were, no doubt, other dissenters present.

The expression of the community by this time could not have been more evident, but even that elicited no readiness on the part of the HRB to discuss serious differences. The HRB continued to use the enormous resources and personnel at its disposal to garner support for its concept in the face of a clear neighborhood consensus to the contrary. They did so chiefly by contacting and soliciting support from a number of groups, most of which had leadership north of Fourteenth Street and who might, therefore, be prone to favor middle-income housing as a way of upgrading the area.

All of this impressed me as a violation of the needs and interests of people who had much at stake, but who carried little political weight. It was small comfort to learn that our experience was not unique but part of a pattern that affected other neighborhoods of the city.

Much of our opposition came from well-meaning men who seemed incapable of putting themselves in the shoes of our neighbors. After repeated invitations the chief of Project Development of the HRB agreed to tour the site and visit a few apartments with us. We visited one elderly Jewish lady who showed us her home. Everything looked old inside, but it was clean and well kept. "It's not the best," she said, "but it's home. Where else would I go?" We talked downstairs in the hallway of her building for a while, but what impressed our city official most seemed to be a garbage can in the hall and a cockroach that scooted along the wall and almost got on his shoulder. Repeatedly the HRB officials would wax indignant about the "rat- and roach-infested slums" which they wanted to remove. They had a point, and living as they did in far better conditions, they were probably saying what they honestly believed; but they never seemed to be able to see through the eyes of the poor and understand that an old, small place is better than no place at all. Nor could any of them suggest what could be done to house the poor removed by urban renewal other than to crowd them into the already diminishing supply of low-income housing.

This illustrates the strongest argument against urban renewal as now conceived—namely, that it usually destroys low-income housing and fails to replace it because it is basically in the business of middle-income housing. The net effect is that the slums are simply shifted and spread. For every slum it destroys, New York creates two new ones.

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