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.
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Top officials of the HRB consistently admitted to us, and on occasion said publicly, that the third of the city's population with no place to go is the third with incomes of less than $4000 a year, precisely those citizens whose needs were being bypassed in this urban renewal venture. These same officials admitted with equal candor that they had no solution for the problem of low-income housing. Such honesty impressed us but clearly offered no acceptable way out. Officials appealed to the need for middle-income housing in Manhattan and asked us to look at the city as a whole, not just at our own neighborhood. The city's need for more suitable middle-income housing and for higher tax returns cannot be denied. However, when such needs consistently take priority and ride roughshod over the obviously more urgent needs of others, one can be forgiven if one fails to be persuaded by those arguments. They give the poor little to cheer about. In the last analysis they prove to be another instance of the welfare state operating for the benefit of those who are fashionably middle class and of interests such as real estate and the construction industry, which stand to reap immense profits from such ventures.

Another aspect that concerned us deeply is the history of discrimination against Negroes and Puerto Ricans to which urban renewal has played partner. It is not because of misunderstanding but because of suffering that some have called urban renewal "urban removal" or "Negro removal." Since our whole pattern of discrimination has forced Negroes and Puerto Ricans into slums and ghettos, they find themselves living in precisely those areas which the city designates as blighted and suitable for urban renewal.

President Kennedy's Executive Order of November 20, 1963, banning discrimination in federally aided housing, put an end (at least legally) to the practice of refusing to rent to Negroes and others for racial or ethnic reasons. However, that was never the chief form of discrimination in urban renewal. The chief form was economic, because it displaced minority group people (in our instance, Puerto Ricans) who were not able to pay rents in the new buildings. Thus on the Lower East Side, which is both racially mixed and predominantly low income, the thousands of middle-income housing units that urban renewal has produced have virtually no Negro or Puerto Rican residents. These projects have become less a means of giving "balance" to the area than a way of producing islands of imbalance. Our committee was understandably concerned about the perpetuation of this pattern in our instance.

I have already said that the HRB was able to secure support from organizations (including one church and several synagogues) whose leadership resided above Fourteenth Street. Two fall in a different category and deserve special mention. One was the board of directors of LENA. Our neighborhood council, which is one of four neighborhood councils making up LENA, endorsed the committee's plan and opposed the city. So did the Housing Division of LENA. But the board of directors of that organization is dominated by people who can be classified as representing the interest of middle-income cooperatives and business on the southeastern part of the Lower East Side. They have generally favored middle-income housing over the needs of low-income people. Organized in terms of power from the top down and not from the bottom up, LENA illustrates how spokesmen for the poor tend to be people who do not always represent them favorably.

A similar instance was endorsement of the HRB proposal by the borough president's Planning Board for the Lower East Side. This board has advisory power only, but as a group of leaders who ostensibly represent the people of the area its voice carries some weight. Even more so than LENA, the board is controlled by political, commercial, and middle-income housing interests. (Some people are members of both boards.) I was appointed to this board, I was told, as a way of giving "balance" to that body, but there is no balance in sight. Again the poor are shortchanged in such an arrangement.

When the HRB announced its "tentative final" concept and began systematically rounding up support for that concept, there was no longer any question about being in dialogue with the city. Officials went through some of the motions. The borough president paid a surprise visit to our parish house, but it was to explain, not to listen. Robert Dennis (our city planner) and I learned of one minor concession in May, 1963, in a final meeting with the chairman and board members of the HRB (a proposal to include 200 units that would rent possibly as low as $18 to $20 a room), but this could hardly be confused with dialogue. As a result, we were left with no alternative but to oppose the city plan. We corresponded with Robert C. Weaver and officials of the Housing and Home Finance Agency, protesting in particular that the city had failed to meet the requirement of citizen participation. The reply was that the mayor's Citizens Advisory Committee had reviewed and approved the HRB concept and therefore the legal stipulation had been met. It was the first time I had heard that such a committee existed. They probably had never heard of us either, and we certainly had no opportunity to present our ideas to them. After all the promises about citizen participation we received from the HRB, this small group of well-to-do citizens, all quite removed from our neighborhood, suddenly became the authorized vehicle for that participation. We felt we had been made victims of citizen manipulation.

We fought the HRB at City Hall in public hearings before the City Planning Commission and the Board of Estimate. We were able to produce more speakers than our opponents; and if speakers who resided outside the neighborhood had been disqualified, our strength would have been far more apparent.

We lost. But we gave the city a hard time and hammered home a point: The poor must become our first concern in housing, not our last concern. Late in 1965 it was announced by the HRB that the number of the moderately priced units, financed under Section 221-d-3 of the National Housing Act, was increased from 200 to 370—but with estimated average rentals of $26.50 per room. Under this arrangement a one-bedroom apartment will rent for $106 to $111 per month, plus utilities.

The relation of Stuyvesant Town to the area south of Fourteenth Street is a modern classic example of evils that are showered upon the poor in and through housing because they are politically expendable. Stuyvesant Town covers eighteen city blocks and houses 22,405 people, according to the 1960 census. Until the end of World War II those blocks were an extension of the old, dilapidated tenement houses south of Fourteenth Street. Economic and racial factors and mutual suspicion separate residents below and above Fourteenth Street. People who live in Stuyvesant Town usually do not like to go south of Fourteenth Street to shop or visit or attend church. Not many of them send children to school south of Fourteenth Street, but to vastly superior schools west of the development. They are afraid and disgusted by what they see below Fourteenth Street. A local paper that circulates to every apartment in Stuyvesant Town encourages such fear in dramatizing the most sordid features of the tenement area and speaks in glaring headlines of the young hoodlums and punks below Fourteenth Street who attack or rob people in Stuyvesant Town. On the other hand, people south of Fourteenth Street do not know their neighbors to the north. They are not welcome to play on the streets or playgrounds of Stuyvesant Town because it is private property watched by uniformed guards. Fourteenth Street is sometimes called the Barrier.

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