Last Monday night, I had the opportunity to attend the premiere performance of Stuyvesant Town: This is Your Home, an original play commissioned by the Citizens Housing & Planning Council (CHPC) at the Pershing Square Signature Theater. A wine and cheese cocktail reception preceded the performance in the Frank Gehry-designed lobby space, which opened to the public in January of this year, and a panel discussion with experts in real estate, history, and housing advocacy concluded the evening.
This play came about in a unique way: CHPC commissioned playwright Adam Thorburn to use the primary source documents from CHPC’s Ruth Dickler – Marian Sameth Archival Library to tell the story of the battle to desegregate Stuyvesant Town in the 1940s and ’50s. Since its founding in 1937, CHPC has been instrumental in helping shape New York City’s public policy across a range of issues that affect affordable and public housing, such as zoning, gentrification, mixed-use areas, and regional housing strategy. In October 2011, CHPC partnered with the Architectural League for the Making Room design study, which investigated the current stock of available housing units and analyzed both how contemporary New Yorkers were occupying them and how city regulations limit the ability of architects and developers to meet contemporary housing needs. This design study and advocacy initiative led the way to CHPC’s recent work with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development to help launch the adAPT NYC Competition for micro-unit apartment buildings in the East 20s and 30s of Manhattan this past July.
Presented as a stage reading, Stuyvesant Town is narrated by a single female actor, and features 13 other actors reading source materials in chronological order that tell the story of the development from 1943-1952. The most action that occurred during the play was when an actor would move to the edge of his/her chair at a particularly poignant part, but any more elaborate staging would have been unnecessary. Yes, one could also simply read the letters, articles and transcripts used in the play from CHPC’s archive, but the passion and conviction the actors put behind the words made the shared, live experience worthwhile and all the more engaging. As panelist Charles Bagli said after the play, “Everyone knows about Stuyvesant Town, but no one really knows much about it.” His observation was quite true in my case. I knew more about the present history than about the housing complex – its purchase by Tishman Speyer for a record $5.4 billion in 2006, the ensuing lawsuit by tenants against MetLife and Tishman Speyer over paying market-rate rents while the latter were receiving tax breaks from the city, and the eventual default of the mortgage by Tishman Speyer in 2010 – than I knew about the circumstances that surrounded the complex in its initial years.
In the first half of the 20th century, the area of Manhattan between 14th and 20th Streets, and between 1st Avenue and Avenue C, used to be called the “Gas House District” after the large gas storage tanks that dominated the landscape. While the neighborhood was diverse and featured many long-time residents, city officials viewed it as little more than a slum. Stuyvesant Town would be the first project under New York’s Urban Redevelopment Act of 1943, which encouraged private business to invest in urban renewal projects, or “large-scale slum clearing.” The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company would buy the land from the City for market value after the area was condemned, and it would receive generous tax breaks from the city for 25 years in exchange for the development of the site. Demolition of the existing Gas House District would force over 3,000 families (11,000 people total) to find new housing. As reported in The New York Times in 1945, this was “the greatest and most significant mass movement of families in New York’s history.” MetLife did form a division within the organization to help displaced families find suitable new housing; most went from one “slum” to another.
Robert Moses, who was Parks Commissioner at the time, was named the “construction coordinator” for New York City in 1946. He was a proponent of using private enterprise to finance slum clearance, and thought that opening Stuyvesant Town to African-American families would reduce its profitability. As Bagli noted in the panel discussion after the play, the use of eminent domain to acquire the land was not what enflamed opposition to the project, as most thought of slum clearance as a positive move. The racial segregation of the development was the bigger issue. Frederick H. Ecker, who was chairman of the board and CEO of MetLife at the time and devoted most of his life to the company, was quoted as saying that “Negroes and whites don’t mix. Perhaps they will in a hundred years, but not now. If we brought them into this development, it would be to the detriment of the city, too, because it would depress all the surrounding property.” Thus, MetLife built Riverton Houses up in Harlem at the same time as Stuyvesant Town, a “separate but equal” housing complex in Harlem that was for African-Americans exclusively, although only a tenth of the size of Stuyvesant Town. Stuyvesant Town and Riverton may have been the last housing complexes built by MetLife, but they were not the first. MetLife also designed and developed the Parkchester in the Bronx (built between 1939 and 1942) to appeal to the middle class and returning war veterans; apparently the company saw its fortunes as tied to the domestic aspirations of the middle class.
A large portion of the play focuses on the 1943 vote at the New York City Board of Estimate, which featured some of the most impassioned speeches of those for, and especially against, the plan for Stuyvesant Town. The Board of Estimate President and Manhattan Borough President agreed that a housing project of such a nature was desperately needed in New York City at the time, but voted to oppose the plan on account of its racial segregation. Other speakers brought up the fact that African-Americans were currently fighting for their country in the war. Why should they be denied the possibility of housing at Stuyvesant Town, especially when the project was going to be marketed to returning war veterans? Opponents also challenged the Stuyvesant Town plan on the grounds that it would, in effect, be a private, walled community on public land, and would provide no public services such as schools or churches, despite displacing both. Numerous late 1940s lawsuits against MetLife and the development, including one filed by three African-American war veterans, all went in favor of MetLife. Most judgments found that as a private development, MetLife was entitled to a policy of racial discrimination when reviewing applicants.
In 1951, the City Council passed the Brown-Isaacs Bill, named for Manhattan Council Members Earl Brown and Stanley Isaacs, which made racial discrimination illegal in all private city housing projects that received tax breaks or subsidies from City agencies. This bill ended racial discrimination at Stuyvesant Town in policy, though the actual desegregation of the development was slow moving, and few African-American families moved into Stuyvesant Town in the ’50s. Despite slight gains over time, including the overturning of the evictions of tenants who challenged MetLife’s policy in January of 1952, Stuyvesant Town remained largely white through the next decade, and still continues to be a largely white, and increasingly upper-middle class development.
Jerilyn Perine, the executive director of CHPC, hosted a short panel discussion after the play, featuring Charles Bagli of The New York Times, who recently wrote a book on the history of Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village; Gwendolyn Wright, a Professor of Architecture at Columbia University; and Seema Agnani, the founder of Chhaya CDC, a community-based organization focusing on housing and development issues within the South Asian community in NYC with a particular focus on Queens. All three of them noted how many of the issues that were at play in the fight over Stuyvesant Town are still issues within city planning in the present day. The recent fight over the development of Atlantic Yards was similar in the use of eminent domain, but the approval process for Stuyvesant Town was remarkably quick compared to the drawn out fight over Atlantic Yards. Actor Elliot Mayer, who joined the audience for the panel discussion, also noted that the process of the public hearing in New York has changed little over the past 70 years, which often makes it difficult for the public to hold much sway over the final vote. Wright was impressed by how the play emphasized the fight of “ordinary people” against the project, often doing the best they could under the circumstances. She was also surprised by how many tenants were involved in the fight for desegregation, including 35 families whom MetLife tried to evict as a result. Agnani agreed that it was surprising how little “we” have learned in the fights over city public housing, and noted how the majority of large-scale co-ops and garden buildings in Jackson Heights have beautiful outdoor spaces that the majority of the public cannot access.
“Stuyvesant Town: This is Your Home” was the slogan for a marketing booklet produced by MetLife in 1949, and was the final chapter within the story told by Thornburn. Despite the initial controversy over segregation, and even current debate over market-rate apartments, Stuyvesant Town has consistently been a desired location in Manhattan for one to live. The play highlights how ordinary citizens can be outraged and stand up for what they believe to be right, and eventually have a positive impact on the city at large. While simple in its set and method of storytelling, “Stuyvesant Town: This is Your Home” is a powerful portrayal of the battle for desegregation, at Stuyvesant Town and other public / private housing developments. It also illustrates the importance of organizations like CHPC and their archives in maintaining a record of such events. The history of housing in New York City continues to resonate with current events and contemporary urban challenges, all the more reason to find creative ways to engage present-day audiences with informative and creative interpretations of our shared past.
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.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.