The first typology we are examining is “towers-in-the-park.” The description refers to multi-family, high-rise housing complexes located on a “superblock”: a dedicated area of open space disconnected from the street system. Contemporary urban thought tends to view this type of housing as a relic of outmoded theories of urban form, replete with negative associations with concentrated poverty or its isolation from vibrant, mixed-use street life. But that’s not the whole story. Specific towers-in-the-park have particular assets — including opportunities for productive ecological planning, convenient elder living, access to light and air, and open space programming — that must be more fully understood if we are to align New York’s extant supply of housing with our goals of encouraging socio-economic diversity in the city.
One of the first steps to unlocking the potential of traditionally maligned building typologies is to investigate examples in a non-typological way. That is, to focus on the particular confluences of historical, economic, architectural, and social forces that render each of these building complexes its own, singular environment. Last year, we kicked off this project with a series of photo essays of five different towers-in-the-park, one in each borough. Starting today, we revisit these same sites with journalistic accounts of some of those forces. In the inaugural article of this series, labor journalist Ari Paul visits Electchester in Queens, a complex of 38 buildings constructed in 1949 by Local 3 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. As he uncovers the history of what sets this development apart from much of the rest of union-built housing in New York, he finds an example that provokes urgent questions about how to meet contemporary challenges.
Electchester: the name itself tells the story. The second half of the title, -chester – a suffix that carries so much Anglo-American stateliness – lends an air of gentility to what might otherwise evoke a rugged world of wire strippers and cable cutters inhabited by New York City electricians. Electchester, in short, is an estate meant for those workers without whom the city would be, quite literally, stuck in the dark.
Situated on what was once a golf course at the intersection of Parsons Boulevard and Jewel Avenue in the Pomonok neighborhood of South Flushing, Queens, the sprawling complex of dozens of six-story, red brick buildings is anchored by a white, multi-use commercial building. This building also houses the Joint Industry Board of the Electrical Industry, which in today’s climate of anti-union hostility seems like a relic. The board is a collaborative venture of the union and the industry to set working standards. In this case, the Joint Industry Board also helps to ensure a middle-class existence for workers, harkening back to Henry Ford’s notion that companies can only thrive if workers are paid well and have decent living standards.
On a crisp autumn afternoon, as I walked through Electchester’s 38 buildings, I noticed well-kept lawns, basketball courts, playgrounds, and parking lots with sheds for residents. One courtyard was already equipped for the holiday season, with a menorah and Christmas tree. These days, about half of the 6,000 residents have family ties to Local 3 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers; many others got in through personal connections to the complex, residents said.
The idea behind Electchester — the notion that housing should not be a commodity, but rather a form of basic welfare managed by workers rather than bosses — might seem, at first, to be in the domain of utopian socialists. The complex proves, however, that such a mission is not only practical and possible, but also not necessarily confined to radical corners. As a labor journalist who has covered militant movements advocating collectivism, a goal almost always steeped in anti-capitalism, I was struck by what I saw as a case of worker-managed welfare situated in a context of middle-class, patriotic, American splendor.
Electchester was the vision of Harry Van Arsdale, Jr. In 1933, he took leadership of Local 3 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which to this day provides the coveted benefits skilled trade union workers like electricians enjoy. Van Arsdale’s endeavor to create housing for those workers began in 1949, a year that marked the beginning of what would eventually become the golden age of post-World War II American prosperity. He worked with the Joint Industry Board to purchase 103 acres of land in Pomonok and develop approximately 2,500 dwelling units as a “limited dividend nonprofit.” Van Arsdale, who later went on to head the city’s Central Labor Council, himself lived in the complex.
As Joshua Freeman, a professor of labor history at the CUNY Graduate Center and the author of Working-Class New York, explains, garment trade unions had begun developing co-op housing in the Lower East Side in the late 1920s. These activists, unlike the anti-communist, self-styled “patriotic” building trades unions, saw union-built housing and services as part of a grand, radical labor plan to unite the working class. The unions of the meat-cutters, the typographers, and the garment trades all developed housing projects, creating, by the early 1950s, nearly 40,000 units of union co-op housing in New York City. But Van Arsdale differed from other activists in that his devotion to labor wasn’t based in radicalism; he had strategic alliances with politicians of both parties. He was a close ally of Robert Moses, under whose authority the construction of new bridges and expressways was concurrently giving rise to the increased settlement of places like Long Island.
Yet, in the immediate postwar era, the construction industry was having trouble meeting the increased demand for building. “Construction was hard to get going,” Freeman told me. “There was a lot of uncertainty,… a big lag in post-war housing construction.” This lag was one of many factors that led to the 1949 Housing Act, which expanded federal spending on urban housing. The legislation marked a significant milestone in the evolution of housing policy in this country, formalizing the urban renewal movement and laying the groundwork for the eventual creation of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The union’s investment in the development of Electchester, supported by these newly available federal funds, acted like a sort of stimulus package: buying materials that individual builders could not afford and employing otherwise idle workers. The end result continued the spirit of the New Deal: public investment to hire workers, enable prosperity, and deliver a physical and utilitarian infrastructure for the long-term use of those we today would call the 99 percent.
Once approved by the board, an incoming resident can purchase a share of the co-op with a down payment, leading to homeownership. But these subsidized mortgages and units have strings attached: if you decide to leave, you have to sell it back to the co-op at a predetermined price, a stipulation that ensures the overall affordability of the project. Your home is a home, not an investment vehicle.
“The legacy is the project itself, which is doing fine. It’s still a model as an alternative to suburbanization for working people,” Freeman said. “Electchester and these other projects enabled working people to have comfortable, affordable housing in the city.” He cited union-built co-ops alongside the housing developed under the Mitchell-Lama program, a New York State housing subsidy that created affordable housing for middle-income residents, as helping to explain why New York “never suffered the kind of drastic population loss in the ‘50s and ‘60s other cities did. Between Mitchell-Lama and co-ops, there were alternatives.”
Significantly, the distinctions between the housing project of Local 3 — whose membership at the time was predominately white — and those of other unions had racial as well as political implications. Housing policy scholar Hilary Botein’s comparison of the Local 3 housing to that of the East Harlem housing built by Local 1199, now an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union makes this case:
Local 3 represented the white, politically moderate and middle‐income building trades; Local 1199’s membership was primarily non‐white, low‐income service workers. Local 3’s Electchester created a homogeneous and exclusive residential enclave in near‐suburban Queens that was part of an array of benefits funded collaboratively with the union’s employers. Local 1199’s 1199 Plaza used public funding and resources to construct striking modern buildings in the low‐income neighborhood of East Harlem, with the goal of creating a community that was inclusive in terms of both its residents and its relationship to the neighborhood. These different visions of community were based largely, although not entirely, on race.
Electchester walks a fine line. On one hand, it can be seen as part of a broader movement of union housing. On the other, given the demographics of the union’s membership and political orientation of its leadership, it stands apart, eschewing any agenda that some people (including politicians looking to make a career by engaging in Cold War-era witch hunts) might have found subversive.
Today, it appears healthy, with nicely kept lawns and playgrounds, near a public school and a city park. In 2012, the AFL-CIO’s Housing Investment Trust injected $49 million of pension fund money into Electchester to ensure long-term affordability, but also to make necessary structural improvements that were expected to create 175 union jobs. Devoid of street-level retail, the surrounding neighborhood is quiet, with relatively little foot traffic, unlike the strips of commercial activity to its south on Parsons Boulevard. Electchester’s location, south of the LIE and east of Queens College, means it’s well out of walking distance from the 7 line, though several bus lines connect the complex’s residents to the rest of New York. While racial diversity has increased over the decades in this once white racial enclave, the presence of East Asians is low, especially when compared with the rapid growth of Flushing’s Chinatown nearby.
The anchor building houses several amenities for the union worker, including a bowling alley and a branch of Amalgamated Bank (founded by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America and currently majority owned by Workers United, an SEIU Affiliate), a lasting reminder of the development’s entrenchment in the working-class and the labor movement. With one of the few bars in walking distance, the bowling alley serves not just as a community meeting place, but a draw for outsiders; a recreational league for mentally disabled adults meets there regularly. To the west are New York City Housing Authority low-rises, which serve to maintain the area’s economic diversity in this ever-gentrifying city and also create almost 150 contiguous acres of towers-in-the-park. This concentration of multi-story buildings combines with the open space of the development and the relative calm of the sidewalks to create the ambience of a suburb within a context of distinctly urban density. The majority of commercial activity in the immediate area is contained within a suburban-style shopping center.
But in a time when unions, especially in the private sector, have been on a steady decline in America, some fear market forces could undo the stability of this community of workers. Even Freeman’s theory that these types of co-ops have historically stemmed the flight from the city is called into question. David Chen of The New York Times warned in 2004, “Rather than staying for generations, as they used to do, more residents are treating Electchester as a springboard to the suburbs.” Recently, residents are increasingly discussing a desire to sell their shares on the open market.
Marcia Blank, an Electchester resident for 58 years, described to me what she sees as a decline in social cohesion. On a recent autumn afternoon sitting outside her shed in the parking lot, she reminisced about how mothers used to watch their children play together in the central areas between the low-rises, and neighbors got to know each other through monthly management meetings. But Blank laments that those meetings are no more, meaning there are few opportunities to meet new residents. She also believes that the quality of services has declined, noting that there are fewer handymen to assist older residents like her.
Frank Presti, another 58-year resident, said that when he moved in “this was Electchester,” noting that the unifying identity and sense of community has faded. In a way, the co-op’s successful mission of providing material comfort for workers has disrupted what Marxist cultural critics call social reproduction. Unlike, for example, New York City firefighters, where there is a long history of fathers insisting their children at least take the firefighter exam when they come of age, there hasn’t been a tradition of children of Local 3 members growing up and joining the union, Blank said. Children growing up in Electchester have had access to education and other avenues that help to explain why, according to Blank, “99 percent of children didn’t want to become electricians.” She noted that the economic downturn meant there has been less work for buildings trades workers, diminishing the allure of unions like Local 3. (Some disagree with this assessment, noting that union work is still in high demand especially because of the downturn in the economy, as The New York Times reported about Local 3 in the spring of 2013.)
These days, it seems no living monument to New York City’s eclectic, mixed-income past is sacred enough to avoid conversion into luxury condominiums. For many, the 2006 sale of Stuyvesant Town to Tishman Speyer symbolized the end of large-scale, middle-class communities in Manhattan. Electchester, however, “has staying power, because of the union itself,” said 15-year resident Jill Lacroix, whose grandfather was an electrician. She added that she couldn’t imagine any real estate developer taking away Electchester from its residents. “I think there would be a lot of people protesting.”
With a new mayoral administration promising to address income inequality in the city, housing activists are devising strategies for how best to develop new forms of housing that can serve populations other than the mega-rich. Electchester could serve as an inspiration, but it’s hard to imagine this model being replicated. Given the contemporary economics of housing, the development of affordable units tends to require a complex mix of public policy incentives to encourage private sector investment: it would be next to impossible for the city’s other large unions to take on such a project without a for-profit developer as a partner. Further, unions aren’t currently motivated to take on such a task. Organized labor’s primary concern right now is simply surviving both rapid shifts in industrial production and the recent right-wing political attack on public sector unions, which make up the bulk of American labor. By contrast, the New York City building and construction trade is one of few sectors where labor and capital still work collaboratively.
The fact is that Electchester is a surviving, functioning example of the successful form of social democracy in New York City that emerged out of World War II, one that recognized that the power of organized labor did not undermine business prosperity, evidenced by high union density in a time of economic ascent. Historians debate as to when that consensus began to unravel, but many agree that the 1975 New York City financial crisis marked the beginning of the end.
Walking through the complexes, I was startled to realize that Electchester represents what is usually dismissed as an impossible left-wing dream. My personal experiences with collectivism and worker co-ops, from Brooklyn to Athens, have more often than not been small-scale, rag-tag operations reserved for people in a relatively exclusive and anti-materialist cohort. In other cases, like in Buenos Aires, worker-controlled businesses range from small, simple, and well-operated to larger, complicated, and haphazardly managed.
But Electchester proves that attempts to learn from what is often written off as dreaded socialism might help to inform our responses to contemporary challenges. This isn’t wishful thinking; the complex happened and continues to work, and it is embraced by firmly middle-class people. Electchester demonstrates that current demands for the new mayoral administration to provide higher wages, more affordable housing, and more collaborative relationships with organized labor are not just a desire for new responses to growing inequality. On the contrary, they represent a return to a New York City tradition.
Ari Paul is a lecturer at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and has covered labor and politics for the Nation, the Guardian, the Forward, Dissent, the Brooklyn Rail, Jacobin, the American Prospect and many other publications. He is also a former reporter for the Chief-Leader, the weekly newspaper covering New York City unions.
Photographs by Cameron Blaylock. All rights reserved. Cameron Blaylock is an architecture photographer and photojournalist living in Brooklyn, NY. In 2010, Cameron received a European Diploma in Fine Arts from Bauhaus-University in Weimar, Germany. Recent projects include VISIONS for Storefront for Art and Architecture and Neighborhoods for AirBnB.
The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.