“Tear down the old, build up the new. Down with rotten antiquated rat holes. Down with hovels, down with disease, down with firetraps, let in the sun, let in the sky, a new day is dawning, a new life, a new America.”
—Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, touting slum clearance and the construction of public housing projects in New York City, 1936
In 1935, the first public housing complex in New York, prosaically christened First Houses, (landmarked since 1974) on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, offered 122 apartments featuring oak wood floors and brass fixtures. The rent, adjusted to each family’s monthly income, ranged from five to seven dollars. The recently formed New York City Housing Authority—the agency charged with the design, construction, and administration of this and future housing developments across the city—stopped accepting applications when their number went north of three thousand.
As of 2012, according to figures compiled by Mark Jacobson for New York Magazine, the NYCHA oversaw 334 projects, 2602 buildings, nearly 180,000 apartments, and 400,000 to 600,000 tenants (the wide range a result of the impossibility of tallying the number of off-lease tenants). In Jacobson’s words, “If Nychaland was a city unto itself, it would be the 21st most populous in the U.S., bigger than Boston or Seattle, twice the size of Cincinnati.”
And in defiance of their current hell-hole reputation, the waiting list for apartments stood, in that year, at 160,000 families.
In the beginning it seemed like a good idea.
When the NYCHA was established in 1934, at roughly the midpoint of the Depression, a great number of working-class people were still living in housing that had been described, fifty years earlier, as dangerously decrepit, including a swath of the Lower East Side known as the “Lung Blocks,” notorious for their transcendently high rates of tuberculosis, diphtheria, and cholera.
From the beginning “the projects,” as they came to be known, were never envisioned as havens for the truly hopeless and disenfranchised.
The idea was to provide a living environment designed to improve the quality of life of people who had already exhibited, in their applications and interviews, a desire to improve.
One needed to be steadily employed. Family savings and previous rent habits were taken into consideration. Social background. There were income floors and ceilings.
No prospective tenant would carry the slum like an infectious disease inside these towers.
By the late 1940s the NYCHA had both raised the minimum income requirements and established a twenty-one-point non-desirability template for eviction, including single motherhood, poor housekeeping, an irregular work history, and “lack of furniture.”
And by the late 1940s the projects seemed to be working for some. In 1947, 2770 families were evicted for making over $3,000, that year’s income ceiling.
From 1935 until the end of World War II, public housing, idealistic in concept, paternalistically overseen, and architecturally innovative, could be considered to have been in its youth.
And then Johnnie came marching home…
In 1947, with Robert Moses riding the bulldozer, the NYCHA announced the construction of fifteen new developments that would accommodate sixty thousand new tenants.
One of these was the Parkside Houses, formerly eleven acres of granite outcropping in the north Bronx. The blasting commenced in ’48.
Three years later, in the spring of 1951, the first tenants, the Originals, began to move in. I would enter as a two-year-old and live there until college took me upstate in 1967.
For many in this postwar wave of newcomers, the move to the new projects was just as much about seeking decent affordable housing as it was about finding any housing at all.
In the years immediately after the war, returning GIs married in record-breaking numbers only to discover that the city’s available housing stock was borderline nonexistent, forcing many of them to live in crapulous overpriced living quarters that they could barely afford or, in the case of my own mother and father, to move in with their parents or in-laws, their home on earth reduced to a childhood bedroom, cramped common space, unasked-for personality clashes, and an unbearable lack of privacy.
And then came the first baby…
And so, when Parkside finally opened in ’51, those whose applications had been accepted grabbed the kid and took off running as if they were escaping from behind the Iron Curtain.
For these working-class children raised in tenements and aging apartment buildings, Parkside, with its relatively roomy two-bedroom affordables, its landscaped gardens and playgrounds and communal benches, wasn’t only a new beginning, it was a first beginning, and mingled with the tang of fresh paint was an air of optimism, of gratitude.
They were on their way.
They could finally breathe.
They could finally concentrate.
This was the beginning of public housing’s golden age. And it would last for roughly fifteen years.
Similarly résuméd couples in their mid- to late twenties found each other effortlessly, quickly forming tightly knit cliques. The men were postal workers, chauffeurs, garment factory foremen, institutional cafeteria managers, cabbies, truck drivers, subway motormen, and the odd luncheonette or bar owner. The wives/mothers did what wives/mothers did back then. Housewifing, maybe taking on a little part-time work to cut the drudgery if their own mothers could cover the kid. Or kids.
Keeping up with the Joneses was a piece of cake.
Bragging rights were hard to come by.
None of the men seemed interested in taking advantage of the GI Bill to further their prewar education.
On the other hand, they all had jobs.
Everyone read the Daily News and the Daily Mirror, and occasionally the New York Post (vaguely Red), but rarely the New York Times, which, unlike the tabs, was too unwieldy for public transportation.
They were patriots but not particularly political.
In their downtime, many of the Originals, both men and women, took to the benches in front of the buildings, Greek-chorusing about this and that, the talk easily reaching their friends directly overhead, hanging out of apartment windows in order to join in the conversation. The buildings were only seven stories high, there was no reason to shout.
Everyone smoked like chimneys.
Summers were spent together in the flyspecked bungalow colonies of the Catskills, women and kids living there seven days a week, the men coming up on Friday nights.
The men had roving card games, poker, pinochle.
The women played gin rummy, mahjong, coming to each other’s apartments in quilted housecoats and curlers, clutching vinyl-covered packs of Newports and Winstons.
Many a kid, myself included, fell asleep to the clack of ivory tiles or the riffle of cards, nodded off to a non-stop soundtrack of laughter, blue language, and hacking coughs coming from the game in the dinette, our bedrooms comfortingly wreathed in cigarette smoke. And those kids, born in primarily two waves—from 1948-’50, brought in as infants and toddlers, and the second wave, my younger brother’s micro-generation, projects-born in ’53-’54.
There were some families that had three or rarely four children, but most couples called it a day at two. Like our parents, we formed tight-knit squads united by birth year and building proximity, roaming the projects from early childhood to high school. And if we didn’t quite cover all eleven acres in our travels (the geographical comfort zone for us being fairly medieval), we at least covered our quadrant.
Except when it came to the Playground—everyone went to the Playground.
Half kiddie-friendly, with cement sprinkler ponds and monkey bars, half gladiator pit, composed of handball and basketball courts—but it was all about those basketball courts because for the boys basketball was the test and everyone had to take it; twelve-year-olds and up, playing like their lives were on the line, adolescent gunners banging under the netless hoops with knotted temples and raging faces, shouting matches and physical throwdowns breaking out constantly. But the fights were always one on one and the weapon of choice was a closed fist; nothing more.
Most of Parkside’s darkness in those first fifteen years occurred indoors—morbid or raging marriages (heard through open windows) rarely ending in divorce, spousal black eyes, corporal punishment for the kids—in 1956, my six-year-old half-a-friend from apartment 4-C routinely being made to touch a hot iron every time he “misbehaved”—spare-the-rod beatings on the first and second floors that left the word “spanking” in the dust, and other manifestations of general domestic viciousness.
Drug abuse was unheard of until it wasn’t.
A vacating tenant in the mid-’50s leaving his set of works behind a loose bathroom tile, the maintenance man’s discovery sending shockwaves through the building.
There were two adolescent ODs, in the early ’60s, one kid found on the roof of a building overlooking the Playground, the other in a shooting gallery back in the old neighborhood that his parents had hoped to leave behind when they moved to Parkside.
Followed by my own 26-year-old cousin, visiting one afternoon to help me decorate the living room for a sixth-grade dance party, then going off to the bottom of the Bronx to succumb to a hotshot that same night.
There were no muggings or robberies. The crimes tended toward the more sensational; lurid one-offs that had nothing to do with the immediate environment.
A double homicide, the teenaged perp (destined to spend the rest of his short life in a state-run criminal psychiatric facility) having crawled through a random ground-floor bedroom window then stabbed to death a mother and daughter in their sleep.
A Holocaust-survivor suicide.
A ten-year-old friend wrongly thinking that it would be funny to put Clorox in his grandmother’s soda and watch her drink it…
Racial balance in public housing got off to a rocky start. In 1940, the massive Queensbridge Houses, which was and still is the largest public housing complex in America, opened with FDR in attendance. But among its 3,959 families, only fifty-two were black.
By 1953, however, the numbers had considerably evened out; in all NYCHA developments of the city, the breakdown was 58.7 percent white, 33.7 percent black, and 7.4 percent Puerto Rican. By 1959, reflecting the shifting demographic of the city, black and Puerto Rican residents made up 57 percent. If America had ever come close to approaching the fata morgana of a true melting pot, it was in these projects, in those years. But the numbers were misleading.
Although the NYCHA tended to pay heed to the racial makeup of the neighborhoods in which the new developments were being built in order to assign the new black and white tenants in corresponding proportion, the administration was more concerned with a prospective family’s ability to meet the income floor than with any de facto segregation.
But those income floors varied from projects to projects, with the result that some housing developments came to be known informally as “low income” or “middle income,” or, more crudely, good and bad, and to the extent that straight-up historical and contemporary racism tended to comparatively hobble the earning power of African-Americans and Hispanics, those “low-income” projects tended to be darker.
Parkside was “middle income,” whiter than some of the other developments but more mixed than others. The tenants were by nature racially, ethnically, and religiously clannish, but no more than most and not to a great extent. The proximity of families, four to a floor, twenty-eight to a building, made intolerance intolerable. You let it all go or you lost your mind.
Civility reigned. Occasionally, genuine friendships formed.
Among the white Originals, the non-white, primarily black Originals who had moved in at the same time were regarded as “Hardworking” and “Strict (in a good way) with their kids.”
An effort was made—on both sides—but conditioned acculturation was a tough nut to crack, and strained liberal-sounding commentary was everywhere; convoluted flattery, thoughtless patronization.
Did you ever notice how Viola’s boys never leave that apartment without she’s got them looking neat as a pin?
I was telling my own monsters, I wish they had manners like those Powell boys.
I came into the building late last night, I saw this big colored guy, by the elevator, I almost had a heart attack. Turns out it was Henry Davis and he was a perfect gentlemen.
I was going to ask my son to go over to the Carters and invite Andre to join the Cub Scout den, I mean, why not—but then I thought it would only make the kid uncomfortable.
It was the generally accepted wisdom that after a colorblind childhood, the kids at a certain age would naturally gravitate to their own.
Sometimes the parents helped this along, and when they did their actions cut like knives.
After her sixth-grade graduation in 1959, Dolores, a mixed-race eleven-year-old girl, since early childhood tight with a group of white girls in the building, first experienced being disinvited to one birthday party—no explanation given—and then another. A dance party. A group trip to Rye Playland, to Orchard Beach, to Freedomland and Palisades Park. No room in the car, you can come next time. In a few weeks the kid was bewilderingly friendless. Her mother, Terry, though, understood what was going on right away. Now that all the girls were starting to hit puberty the other mothers were afraid of young black boys coming around, drawn to their crowd by Dolores. Terry’s sport over the next year became daring those other mothers to meet her eye in the hallways or the elevator. Embarrassed, they never did.
In the gladiator pit, however, racial delicacy, racial hypocrisy, was nonexistent, had never existed to begin with because, well, it was a gladiator pit. But pickup teams were never divided along racial lines and the everyday verbal put-downs between the whites and the non-whites curiously lacked teeth.
Your people, Marcus, they’re so fucking cheap they rinse out the scumbag.
Who you calling cheap, Shenkman, nobody cheaper than a cheap Jew. You know in football why Jews like to play defense? They want to get the quarterback.
Are you kidding me? I knew a nigger from Edenwald once…
You don’t call nobody nigger.
You people call yourselves nigger all the time.
What did I say about that?
You people are fuckin’ hypocrites then.
How about I start calling you a spic, Del Pino.
How ’bout I fuckin’ kick your ass.
Who’s the hypocrite now?
Del Pino’s father said the car needs a lube job, Mario said no problem, lifted the hood, and dove right in.
Don’t fuckin’ talk about my mother.
Least I got one.
Shit, Marcus got three.
I would kick your banana-boat ass except I don’t want to get grease on my sneakers.
Well shit, at least my people…
Well shit, at least my people…
Well shit, at least my people…
And then back to the game, back to the same elevators, same hallways, same TV shows, TV dinners, public schools and homerooms.
And so it went, this bruising semi-tolerance, people going along to get along, for the most part, all through the ’50s and into the mid-’60s. And then it began to change.
Public housing had never been thought of as permanent housing. It was conceived as springboard housing, the idea being that a working-class family would utilize their years in residence to raise children free of the mean streets and free enough from financial necessity to allow them to take their education all the way, after which they would have no need to ever return except to visit their parents—if, in fact, the parents still lived there. In the best of all hoped-for worlds, the parents would move up and out too.
And that, starting in the early to mid-’60s, is what began to happen, as a small number of Originals who had accumulated, through a decade’s worth of job promotions and increased wages, did what they were supposed to do—leave—many moving to more upscale variations of a housing project; the privately owned Lefrak City, which had just opened in Queens, or low-rise garden apartment complexes in Westchester, New Jersey, or Long Island.
And as many of the remaining Originals saw the Parkside demographic inexorably shift out of their favor they began to slow-motion panic and white flight was on.
For a few more years the racial balance held, most of the Originals unable to afford to move out.
In those years the relationships between the newer tenants and the Originals tended to be warier than before, the interactions briefer, or altogether absent.
These were the “new” people, unknown entities, many from the intransigent racially and/or ethnically segregated poorer neighborhoods of the city, people for whom moving to Parkside fifteen or more years after 1951 was considered an improvement from where they were before.
And the song of the benches began to veer off key.
Don’t ever mention this to anyone, but the new family in 7-D? I think they beat their kids. The little boy always looks so terrified.
I don’t know what high looks like, personally? But if you ask me, half the time I see that one in 4-B she looks high.
Who was that man who rang 5-C’s bell last night? Does her husband have a brother?
That one’s got a real attitude.
I told my kids, from now on never get in the elevator if there’s more than one of them inside.
That one’s got a real attitude.
I’m sorry, I’ve never been a prejudiced person, but…
That one’s got a real attitude.
In 1968, the NYCHA began accepting tenants from welfare hotels.
In 1968, the white population of all NYCHA housing projects was down 29 percent.
Yet still, into the late ’60s, Parkside more or less maintained a solid racial balance, a combination of no other affordable alternatives and a core of old-timers who still enjoyed their life there and saw no reason to move.
But then, beginning roughly in 1970, Co-op City, a 15,000-unit high-rise complex built on former swampland and over the bones of a defunct amusement park a few miles from the Westchester border, began offering apartments and townhouses for sale. A two-bedroom went for $3,000.
Capitalizing on the white fear of a black planet, the sales brochures even included a coded promise to prospective buyers: “No subsidized apartments”—AKA, no welfare people.
In our building alone, twenty-one out of the twenty-eight families, primarily Originals, both white and black, put down their deposit and left—including my own.
This mass exodus was repeated building by building across the Bronx, leaving behind those who financially couldn’t or wouldn’t go, and creating nearly overnight a public housing occupancy vacuum that was quickly filled by those who considered moving to “the projects” an upgrade.
And by the early 1970s it could be said that public housing had turned a corner—increasingly segregated, and increasingly economically strapped.
But it was in no way dying.
As elsewhere in the NYCHA kingdom, many Parkside families continued to embrace the springboard concept, taking advantage of their relatively better living situations and eventually leaving for even better living situations. Men and women went to work. Another generation of parents continued to occupy those Greek-chorus benches, their children continued to finish school and move on.
But then the projects, as all of New York and urban America, began to pay the piper.
“[Housing projects are] monstrous depressing places—rundown, overcrowded, crime-ridden.”
—President Richard Nixon, declaring a moratorium on new construction of public housing projects across the nation, 1973
Parkside in the late ’70s was a community in which economic security was tenuous at best; the market crashes and rising unemployment of that decade combined with institutional racism, political indifference, and an unspoken acknowledgement in the NYCHA that it was now in the business of running a welfare state, was the true beginning of the end.
The ’80s were worse, that decade bringing with it the twin plagues of AIDS and crack, and an entire generation was lost to addiction, incarceration, and violent death. By the late ’80s, rather than leaving the houses, generations began to stack up in the same apartment, each one faring economically worse than the last.
From its inception in the 1930s, despite its social-engineering ideals, the NYCHA, like any city agency, had always been a bloated bureaucracy packed with political appointees, yet it still managed to get the job done and maintain a decent standard of life for its tenants. But when the overarching economic-social crisis began to hit home in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and into the present, the NYCHA seemed not only inept and useless, but increasingly abusive and callous to its tenants, chaotic and penurious in its services, alternately crying poverty and mismanaging the federal funds it had.
And then in 2012 came the revelation that it had been hoarding one billion dollars in federal funds, the money just sitting there as maintenance services became borderline nil, as apartments ran to mold, as gunfire made playgrounds free-fire zones, as the lack of promised security cameras in elevators, lobbies, and hallways turned every violent assault into a mystery and a manhunt, including, in 2014, the stabbing of a six- and seven-year-old, one fatally, in an elevator, the killer making it back out into the street like a phantom.
But still and still, despite all the grim statistics, NYCHA bureaucratic sociopathy, and the endless nightmare headlines, life goes on.
In most housing projects these days, a hard-times hidden economy thrives, what Mark Jacobson and others call the gray market, consisting of improvised and in some cases ingenious ways of making ends meet—apartments doubling as daycare centers, some licensed, some not; takeaway lunches sold out the door or lowered from the window; a legion of bootleg car mechanics whose garage is the street; come-to-your-house handymen, plumbers, carpenters, computer programmers, and repairmen; just-text-me drivers for hire; CD and DVD duplicators leaving for the commercial strips of Fordham Road, Harlem, and elsewhere; wholesale candy hustlers, kids mostly, heading out to Grand Central Station, Penn Station, and tourist-centric Times Square, introducing themselves as grassroots fundraisers in order to sell ten-cent chocolate bars for two dollars a pop, a 2,000 percent markup.
Many tenants, out of necessity, have evolved into community activists, media-savvy bridges between the NYCHA, the NYPD, and City Hall.
In a way, through all this, from its beginnings in 1951 through the various social pandemics of the last four decades, Parkside has reasonably prevailed, a relatively quiet place to live with a low crime rate. Some say it’s due to the fact that the houses became, within the NYCHA placement system, a destination for the elderly. And elderly it is. A good number of the Originals shunned the exodus and continued to live there until the end of their lives. And many of the first wave of newcomers from the late 1960s and early ’70s, those whose presence triggered the flight to Co-op City and other destinations, remained to become old-timers.
And like all old-timers they complain about how the good old days are gone, then brag about their Parkside-raised middle-aged children now living in the same suburban enclaves that the Originals left for forty years earlier (although no one thinks of moving to Co-op City any more, perceived these days as just another ghettoized housing project).
A lot of those graying children want their Parkside parents to finally move out—they’re too old, the houses too dangerous, they’ll help out financially, they’ll support them, they’ll get them an apartment out in Jersey or Yonkers, or Freeport near their kids and grandkids, or they simply invite them to move in, then make jokes about the free babysitting.
From what I’ve been told, despite their grousing, very few of these old-time newcomers—having struggled to make a stand in Parkside through all those years—take them up on their offer.