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.

In 1940 about 15,000 people lived in those blocks. Most of them were poor. In 1943, under a new state law and by contract with the city, Metropolitan Life Insurance Company agreed to buy the land from the city at a drastically depreciated price. The city was willing to bear the loss on this in return for anticipated gains in property taxes later on. The bulldozers moved in, and thousands of families were evacuated. Hardly any of them were rehoused in the new buildings that were completed between 1947 and 1949.

Metropolitan Life made Stuyvesant Town middle class and white, reflecting a strong impulse to create a suburban community in Manhattan, a non-city city. In keeping with the mood of the 1940s, it openly discriminated against Negroes until pressure from the city council led Metropolitan Life to admit three Negro Families in 1950. An ordinance passed by the city council the following year made discrimination in such projects illegal. However, according to the 1960 census—a decade after Stuyvesant Town agreed to integrate—only 47 persons from a total population of 22,405 were Negroes, barely two tenths of one percent. If one includes the 16 Puerto Ricans, that would raise the integration percentage to almost three tenths of one percent, three Negroes and Puerto Ricans out of every thousand residents!

Several things happened with the creation of Stuyvesant Town. First, thousands of people, most of them poor, had to move off the property. The cancer of slums spread elsewhere. Second, the new housing units were not only economically stratified but racially restrictive as well. Even more is at stake, however, for injustice has a way of reaching out in all directions. Consider the matter of education.

Since the latter part of 1963, when long overdue pressure for quality and integrated schools in New York suggested the possibility of exchanging more children in both directions across Fourteenth Street, a furor was created by parents in Stuyvesant Town and elsewhere above Fourteenth Street. In public meetings many residents spoke self-righteously of conditions below Fourteenth Street, defending indignantly the sanctity of the neighborhood school. If a project like Stuyvesant Town systematically excludes people, and if the residents of that project exclude themselves from responsibility toward the misery of neighbors whose community they have invaded, is it fair to blame the excluded ones for conditions that are characteristic of crowded ghettos? Or to be surprised that Negroes and Puerto Ricans and others are desperate for a break in this ugly pattern? One may ask also what price Stuyvesant Town residents ultimately pay in moral currency for living in a middle-class ghetto. What we see happening in Stuyvesant Town is precisely the same flight from reality represented by most suburban communities.

Unlike the area below Fourteenth Street, Stuyvesant Town is to be reckoned with politically. In terms of financial resources, organization, and ability to articulate their desires, residents of Stuyvesant Town carry a disproportionately strong voice in the decision-making process, as effective blocking of any school pairing demonstrated.

On the eastern edge of Precinct Nine is a large strip of low-income public housing (Jacob Riis and Lillian Wald projects) with a population total of approximately 15,000. This figure includes about an equal number of Negro, Puerto Rican, and Caucasian tenants. Rents range from $11 to $18 a room per month in these two projects, with the rent based on income, number of dependents in a family, and other factors. The Jacob Riis and Lillian Wald projects in some respects also represent a form of discrimination against the poor, although such projects were obviously conceived and are operated for the benefit of low-income families.

For many, public housing represents their only live option for decent housing, and critics of public housing should not forget that. At the present time there is a backlog of 120,000 applicants for public housing in the city of New York. Only 10 percent of the applicants make it in any given year. Some do not apply because they cannot afford even the lowest rents in public housing, and some cannot qualify because of such factors as illegitimate children or incidence of crime in the family.

In some respects public housing is sick. It is sick primarily because it dumps low-income families into one economically (and often racially) segregated pile. There is nothing intrinsically bad about poor people living together. It is bad, however, when they are systematically excluded from living with others, and when 15,000 people are legally penalized by constantly draining off their most economically successful families and their leadership. This happens because to qualify for public housing, one must not earn more than a specified income (depending upon family size, and so forth). Thus the most stable and helpful members of such developments—precisely those who are best situated to help it achieve some sense of community—are continually being evicted.

The most obvious result of this situation in public housing is that the slums tend to invade these projects. Tenants have to take the onus with the bonus, for such projects become stigmatized, and residents are often made to feel not quite human for living there. Demoralization sets in.

There is a less obvious result of public housing's policy of evicting leadership. Politically the poor are robbed of some of their strongest spokesmen and best organizers. When they leave, these aspiring and successful residents in public housing cannot be expected to retain their sympathy for the suffering they once knew; and even if they do, they are usually too far away to do much about it. One outcome of this is that the poor, kept in isolation and with only a whisper of a political voice, can easily be bypassed when public policy is made.

Isolated in ghettos of poverty, abandoned by yesterday's poor who now live separate lives in new middle-class ghettos, the very poor find themselves outside the mainstream of concern. Like Samson, they have been shorn of their strength and left to tread the mill.

Often we do not allow them even that dignity.

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