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.

I moved to the Lower East Side in the Spring of 1961 and was immediately struck by the housing conditions. Most of the blocks are covered by narrow five-story tenements, each housing from ten to twenty families. The buildings are smack up against one another and flush to the sidewalk. They are called "old-law tenements" because they were built during the last century before a new housing law laid down specifications regarding air space, ventilation, and plumbing. They are called "walk-ups" because they have no elevators. They were built for inexpensive, crowded living and have served as the starting point for just about very wave of immigrants that hit our Eastern shore. That is the reason the Lower East Side is so cosmopolitan. These immigrant groups huddled in ghettos and went through all the familiar pains of being the outcasts of the land before they made their way successfully into the mainstream of American life. But they always left their traces behind, and the Lower East Side retains a sprinkling of various ethnic groups—Italians, Irish, Jews, Poles, Ukrainians, Germans, Chinese, Negroes, and the most recent arrivals, Puerto Ricans, our largest single group, who constitute more than one third of the population of Precinct Nine, where I live. This precinct is smaller than one square mile but claims more than a hundred thousand residents.

The streets are busy streets, alive with people when the weather is warm. The streets are also dirty. They always bear the traces of garbage that never quite made it from the battered cans to the sanitation trucks. Sometimes it seems that both the people and the debris on the streets have oozed out of the tenements, and in a sense that is so.

Most of the tenements have not been maintained properly, though their internal condition varies considerably. Two buildings side by side may look almost identical from the street. Inside, one is relatively well kept, while the one next to it attacks you with the smell of urine and other odors. The plaster may be cracked, the stairs unsteady, and obscene words scratched and scrawled on the walls. The apartments, too, can be attractive and livable or depressing depending on the intention of the landlord and the resources of the tenants.

Low-income public-housing projects accommodate about 15,000 people on the eastern side of the precinct along the East River. North of the precinct is a giant middle-income housing development owned and operated by Metropolitan Life Insurance Company but it is separated from the precinct both by its affluence and by Fourteenth Street, a wide and heavily traveled boulevard.

Most of the buildings in the tenement area are structurally solid, but violations of the building code are common—defective plumbing, no heat, rats, and the like. These violations go unchecked because slum real estate has become a profitable business. For a variety of reasons the way to make money on these buildings is to have many apartments, invest as little cash in them as possible for maintenance, and let the rents go as high as New York's rent control will allow. Since landlords are permitted an automatic 15 percent increase every time there is a change of tenants in an apartment, it can be lucrative to encourage a rapid turnover of tenants, and unscrupulous landlords have ways of arranging that, sometimes by direct harassment.

Of course there are laws that require landlords to meet minimum standards in maintaining a building, but these laws are seldom enforced. First of all, a tenant must file an official complaint with the city, and many do not know how to file or are afraid of reprisal from the landlord. Second, if a complaint is filed, let us say with the Department of Buildings, it may be one or two years before an inspector comes out to check the alleged violation, since the staff is always inadequate and there is always a tremendous backlog of complaints.

If a landlord is charged by the city with a violation, he must be found before a summons can be issued. Most of the landlords are absentee landlords and some of them are experts at evading the court. One newspaper item, dated August, 1962, tells of a landlord from Long Beach, Long Island, who was chased by the city for three years. He was finally handed a summons in the lavatory of his office building by process servers who hid there and waited sixty hours for him.

Even if the landlord is summoned to court, there is usually not much to worry about because the penalty is mild—something like a license to violate the law. A landlord who is fined $85 for a building with 100 violations may justifiably consider himself rewarded by such an arrangement. And if he is compelled to spend money clearing up violations, he usually has dozens or hundreds of other buildings to make up for such losses many times over.

It would be a mistake, however, to single out the landlord and lay all the blame on his doorstep while ignoring the banks who support him, the political establishment, which is much more responsible to his real estate interests than to human suffering, and our own apathy, which permits all this to happen. A reporter once told me: "Landlords ought to be given medals. They are the heroes in this housing mess. They are the heroes because they offer themselves as society's scapegoat. We blame them for everything and get rid of our own guilt in allowing this kind of situation to exist."

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.

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.

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.