The Politics of Dispossession
Book Review by Susan Allen
Manhattan Projects: the Rise and Fall of Urban Renewal in Cold War New York by Samuel Zipp (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
When something is gone from a place, too often it is completely erased from memory. Think of a building burned down and the site cleared, or trees removed to widen a road, or even the name and façade of a familiar restaurant changed it's hard to remember what was there before.
For many years I lived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, just a few blocks south of Stuyvesant Town. This is an apartment complex of 35 thirteen-story buildings covering eighteen city blocks, built in the late 1940's ostensibly to house veterans returning from World War II. Until I read Samuel Zipp's massive work, it had never occurred to me that Stuyvesant Town had not always been there.
What formerly occupied those 61 acres was the neighborhood known as the "Gas House District." Named for the gas manufactories that provided the lighting and fuel for the late 1800's Gaslight Era, the industry lingered into the first half of the 20th century with its tanks, warehouses and numerous four- and five-story tenement buildings that housed its workers.
Stuyvesant Town planning and construction was somewhat concurrent with that of the United Nations, 20 blocks to the north. The U.N. project cleared six blocks of an area known as "Turtle Bay," containing mostly outdated factories and slaughterhouses, with few families uprooted and therefore only a low-level hum of opposition from the many displaced business owners. Contrasted with the U.N.'s lofty goal of international peace, Stuyvesant Town was the more prosaic vision of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company to improve the city's housing stock, with its intertwined social and economic focus on the health and welfare of its policyholders. It also supposedly cared what happened to the 12,000+ mostly ethnic European residents it displaced.
Zipp's analysis tells a far different story. Manhattan Projects reinforces the theme of books I had previously reviewed on this subject of "urban renewal" and the heartbreak it creates Mindy Fullilove's Root Shock about Pittsburgh and Newark housing projects in that same era, and Robert Caro's The Power Broker, about Robert Moses, who was in charge of all major city building and who plays a major role in the fate of the Gas House and many other Manhattan neighborhoods.
Astonishingly, Metropolitan Life had taken block by block photographs of the entire Gas House District before it was wiped off the map. The photos show a neighborhood of Old New York to be sure, but as Zipp notes, the buildings look well-kept and the streets have an "almost prosperous" air. I wish more photos had been included, but the samples can't help but highlight the loss those residents felt upon being told to get out. Their stories illustrate the interconnectedness among the people, businesses and institutions of a working-class neighborhood, replaced by giant impersonal structures with rents those former tenants couldn't afford.
Zipp gives only a smattering of details on the Gas House's commercial aspect, but he makes up for it by his tale of the Lincoln Square neighborhood on the Upper West Side, demolished a decade later to make way for the opulent Lincoln Center arts complex, which also included apartment towers and a new campus for Fordham University. While I never lived in that area, I have attended many Metropolitan and City Operas, Philharmonic and Juilliard theater performances, unknowingly seated right above what was once a brownstone stoop, busy movie house or thriving grocery store. Here Zipp provides an exhaustive list of at least 600 commercial enterprises lost, along with similar stories of some of the 15,000 people displaced from the neighborhood they unsuccessfully struggled to save. At Lincoln Center, I saw the operas "Baby Doe" about Colorado silver miners, "Carmen" with its tobacco factory and cigarette girls, the low-rent neighborhoods of "Porgy and Bess," and "La Boheme" high art imitating the kind of real lives once led by Lincoln Square's working people. The book's title, with its play on the name of the atomic bomb project, ties into Cold War politics of the era, such as the branding of those dissident tenants as Communists.
Most illuminating is Zipp's account of the convergence of public and private capital that worked in tandem to make these "superblock" developments happen. Though the U.N. project used its own funds, its high-minded purpose and minimal opposition paved the way for public acceptance of much larger "slum clearance" areas to follow. The powerful Robert Moses exploited the 1940's housing laws to steer federal funds his way, working hand in hand with the banking industry's ability to define an area as "blighted," which made it ineligible for mortgages and investments that might have upgraded the old tenements instead of tearing them down. Then Moses would parlay the city's power of eminent domain into condemnation of the areas he wanted, selling that land back to private developers like Met Life or non-profits like the Lincoln Center arts consortium shades, certainly, of the contemporary fights over Brooklyn's Atlantic Yards and the Willets Point business district in Queens.
Zipp does acknowledge that time has softened the impersonal nature of some of the grand housing complexes, and recognizes they have provided affordable apartments, at least for some middle class tenants. He credits the old neighborhoods' activism for helping to kill off future Moses-style projects, though he remains doubtful about long-range housing solutions that value those human needs. Thankfully light on academic language, the exhaustively-researched Manhattan Projects is a dramatic and sympathetic look at the toll that "progress" takes. More distressingly, his work proves that the collusion among banks, businesses, religious and educational institutions, media boosters, planners and government at all levels had long ago laid the groundwork for the wretched Kelo decision.