In the third article in our Typecast series, writer Brad Fox travels to Todt Hill Houses on Staten Island. Safe, suburban, and well-maintained, Todt Hill defies many of the stereotypes of New York City housing projects. Unlike the Lower East Side’s Smith Houses, which were constructed in the place of demolished tenements, Todt Hill predates most of the single-family homes in its surrounding neighborhood. At six stories tall, its buildings would not be considered towers in much of the rest of the New York City. But its brick construction, superblock layout, and very existence attests to a particular moment in the housing history of New York, when post-war ambitions absorbed a range of disparate ideologies for urban development (Todt Hill was completed in 1950; Smith Houses in 1953). Improving the conditions of poverty was only one among a variety of objectives, including housing veterans, clearing slums, providing construction jobs, and stimulating the economy.
Fox invokes that history as he describes Todt Hill, but finds the characters that populate this often overlooked corner of New York to be its defining characteristic. Experts have argued for generations about the factors that determine the success or failure of government-subsidized housing. Some blame design, a claim cited in support of razing notorious housing projects like Pruitt-Igoe and Cabrini-Green. More plausibly, some credit management practices, drilling down into details of site maintenance, tenant eligibility requirements, or the structures of resident self-governance. Fox’s narrative account reminds us that in attempting to understand how design and policy can produce environments of opportunity, people are what make a place. — C.S.
Like Rome and Istanbul, Staten Island occupies seven hills. The highest is a serpentine formation at the island’s center, rising 410 feet above sea level. It’s a hill of gray-green rock composed of talc and magnetite and a form of asbestos. Until it was covered with houses and roads, its heights were mostly barren. For that reason — or to honor a 19th century massacre — it came to be called Todt, old German for “dead.”
The S62 bus leaves from the ferry port in St. George and hugs the waterfront before turning right and chugging uphill along Victory Boulevard, passing stretches of little clapboard houses, the Silver Lake Golf Course, and the Shree Ram Mandir Temple near Marx Street. The upper reaches of Todt Hill are dotted with columned mansions, but a few of us prepare to get off at the bottom of the hill near Manor Road.
We step down from the bus in front of the Family Health Store. The neighborhood here is called Castleton Corners, and this is its main drag. Across the street is the former Sunnyside Club, now occupied by District Carpet. There’s a bank, a Mobil station, most everything is two-stories tall. At the door to Joe and Pat’s, a man with a two-way radio clipped to his belt slaps down a few bills to pay for his Sicilian and waves at the cashier — “Take care, sweetie” — before scuttling to his van.
A trickle of pedestrians heads south down Manor Road to where it cuts under the Staten Island Expressway. Avoiding an area where the sidewalk is closed for construction, I come to the site of the old country branch of the Nursery and Child’s Hospital, where children of unwed mothers were sent to recover from infectious diseases until the Board of Health shut the place down around 1900. The structure that once housed the Monroe Eckstein brewery, closed during Prohibition, is now a strip mall — Happy Fortune Chinese, Dunkin’ Donuts, the Village Maria Pizza.
Across the road, at the foot of a grassy slope, is the sign for the Todt Hill Houses. Trudging up the steep path, a cluster of red brick buildings come into view — six-story blocks surrounding a children’s playground. They pop up from the hilltop wide apart, amidst green areas cut with arcing walkways, thickly planted with trees. A lot of public housing towers lay at fifteen degrees against the grid in efforts to sweep in fresh air and sunlight, but Todt Hill’s seven buildings fan out at various angles. Seen from above, they resemble four-legged animals crawling away from the La Guardia and Westwood crossing at the southeast corner of the grounds, toward Manor Road to the west and Schmidts Lane to the north — two old streets that predate the development of the neighborhood.
The few other bus riders that came this way have scattered by now, either into the buildings’ blue-tiled entranceways or cutting further through the red brick buildings, disappearing into the neighborhood beyond. I drop onto one of the wood-slat benches that line the hill’s north-facing crest to take in the views: a go-kart track in the park below, rushing traffic on the Expressway, the hills of New Jersey in the distance.
This development deep in the forgotten borough, an hour’s commute from downtown, was opened by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) in 1950, 14 years before the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. On the first day of spring, after an endless trip down from Harlem, it feels like the end of the world. But City-Data chatrooms will tell you: the Todt Hill Houses are quiet and safe; many call it the city’s nicest housing project.
The plot was purchased in the early 20th century by a Czech immigrant named Moritz Glauber. Left afloat after running a Colorado general store during the Gold Rush, Glauber first drifted to Memphis, then took over the Wormser Hat Store’s offices in Manhattan. He lived with his family on the Upper East Side, but — perhaps in imitation of the Rockefellers and other wealthy New Yorkers who had country estates on Staten Island — he bought a 35-acre tract of wilderness on lower Todt Hill.
This was not a part of the island associated with wealth. Rather, it had a history of housing the unfortunate. Up Manor Road from the abandoned children’s hospital was the Seaview, a sanitorium for people with TB. Beyond that lay the City’s Farm Colony, where indigent New Yorkers were encouraged to labor in the fields for their keep.
In the Glaubers’ time there was a house here along Schmidts Lane, but when Moritz died in 1943 it was left to rot. His wife Elsa remained on 86th Street, and his son J.J. was busy developing variable vacuum capacitators in New Jersey. In 1948 the land was deemed “substandard and unsanitary” and condemned.
New York was always short of housing, but with returning soldiers stuffed into Quonset huts around the city after WWII, Mayor William O’Dwyer created the Emergency Committee on Housing and handed it over to Robert Moses. The Sheepshead Bay and Glenwood Houses were slated to open in Brooklyn, but Moses was already picturing traffic off the unbuilt bridge across the Narrows. While the bridge wasn’t completed until 1964, Moses convinced the Army Corps of Engineers to approve the plan the year after Glauber’s land fell under City control. 1949 was the same year that Congress passed the landmark Housing Act, drastically increasing federal funds available to city governments to clear slums and build public housing.
The Glauber estate, newly acquired and undeveloped City property along the right of way of the impending Staten Island Expressway, was naturally suited to Moses’ purposes. It was the first public housing project in the borough, and like all NYCHA sites selected at that time, Moses signed off on it personally.
The architect H.I. Feldman — who would later design the Tilden Houses in Brooklyn and La Guardia Houses in Lower Manhattan — drew up a plan for seven buildings scattered across 13 acres, with 502 apartments that could house over a thousand people. The development was to include a photography workshop, a sub-branch of the New York Public Library, demonstration kitchens, social rooms, and two craft rooms.
“The architect of the future will cease to think in terms of design alone,” Feldman told the New York Times. “A building is not to be seen as a single entity but rather as part and parcel of the integrated community. Social, recreational, and community services will be given the fullest consideration for the complete and well-rounded scheme of living, work, and playing. The individual project will be a thing of the past.”
Ground was broken on a rainy October day after a brief speech by O’Dwyer. “That’s enough talk,” he concluded. “Let’s start digging.” And after Rabbi Morris Mitzner blessed the ground, the mayor grabbed a chrome-plated shovel and dug in.
When the Houses officially opened in 1950, apartments were rented for 65 to 85 dollars a month. As with the new projects opened in Brooklyn at the same time, applicants had to make less than $4,900 a year, with preference given to veterans. NYCHA records describe the first inhabitants as predominantly “clerks and kindred workers, salespersons, cashiers, bookkeepers.” There were 20 firemen and 18 policemen.
For many who applied, the apartments were a step up. John Maresca, now an IT worker in New Jersey, moved in with his family as a toddler in 1954. “My dad had lived in Brooklyn all his life,” he told me. “He used to take the 69th Street ferry to go golfing on Staten Island with a couple of his buddies. And somehow he heard about it.”
The Marescas had already been looking to escape their poorly heated row house. “We came to the Todt Hill Houses. They’re up on a nice bluff. To my dad this was the country. There were old houses here and there, but it was mainly wooded.”
Maresca described his neighbors as “a microcosm of New York City.”
“Most of us were from other boroughs — from the Bronx, from Brooklyn; there might have been a few people that came over from Manhattan. We had Spanish living upstairs from us. We had Jewish people, Scandinavian people. We had black families living across the way. There were a few Asian families. But everybody got along.”
His father was a salesman, and went to work each day in Manhattan. “He and some other fathers used to stand on Victory Boulevard and wait for the bus together, like a commuters club. The women would sit out with their kids, with strollers, and gossip and talk. The kids would play. The guys would be off at work. We were all in the same boat. People from other boroughs, raising kids in the 1950s.”
The apartment where they lived was not large, but they made do. “My brother and I were in one room and my parents in the other. We had a refrigerator, a little freezer inside about the size of two shoeboxes, a gas stove you had to light it with a match — two 15-amp fuses ran the whole apartment.”
For kids growing there, the woods around the Houses formed an extended playground. “We’d go walking around exploring. The first woods was our woods, right across the street. Across Todt Hill Road — we called that the second woods. Across Ocean Terrace was the third woods.”
That era came to an end rapidly with the opening of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. “From the mid-’60s on they started to bulldoze and pull down trees. Houses started to be built everywhere.”
What Maresca called the first woods is now an area of residential lanes lined with two-story homes clad in clapboard and aluminum siding. There are squat shrubs and trees in planters, but nothing as old and stately as the oaks growing out of the green areas between the Houses. Walking toward Westwood Avenue on the first day of spring, I come across long-time Todt Hill resident Bob Ambio taking the air at the southern end of the development. The former head of housekeeping at the Clove Lakes Retirement Home, Ambio now serves as vice president of the tenants association.
I ask him what was across from the Houses when he moved in. “Dirt roads,” he answers, “dirt roads and woods.”
He lifts his black cane and shakes it at the 40-year-old duplexes across the street, sedans and SUVs parked in the driveways. “When they built that bridge, that was the worst thing that ever happened here.”
By the mid-’70s, the last woods surrounding the Houses were torn down. “I should have moved to Jersey,” bemoans Ambio as he thinks it over.
More recent arrivals to the development are likely to shrug off Ambio’s nostalgia for dirt roads, seeing their physical well-being as a more pressing concern: the Todt Hill Houses, surrounded now by middle-class suburbia, are among the safest of the city’s projects. Crime waves swept through Stapleton and Mariner’s Harbor in recent decades — Park Hill, down by the ferry, came to be called “Crack Hill” — but there was nothing like that up here. A coke dealer was busted last year as part of a two-year, borough-wide investigation, but it was an isolated case.
“You have people that used to live in Stapleton that moved here. They say ‘what a difference.’ In Stapleton housing, there’s a lot of crime. And you don’t have that here.”
Sylvia Cunningham, the tenants association’s current president, has spent most of her life in NYCHA housing. She grew up in Brownsville, and as an adult got a job in Willowbrook, Staten Island’s notorious home for mentally disabled children, which closed in 1987. For over nine years, Cunningham made the commute via subway and ferry, until she resolved to find a place closer to work. She was first situated in Park Hill, which is federally subsidized but privately owned, so not under NYCHA management.
“There started to be break-ins. I didn’t know anything about Staten Island, but I heard there was a nice building called Markham Gardens, and I lived there 30 years. When they tore it down I came to Todt Hill.”
A sprightly 73 year-old in a green beret and a sequined sweater, Cunningham still participates in praise dance competitions for seniors, taking second place in 2010 with a dance to R. Kelly’s “I Look to You.” We leave her office so she can take me into a few of the buildings and have a walk through the grounds.
“It’s nice living here. It’s quiet. It’s safe. I’ve had no problems living here.”
I ask if she thinks that’s because the apartments aren’t as high as other projects, but she doesn’t think so. “My building in Park Hill was only five stories,” she shakes her head. “It may be because of the screening process here” — NYCHA is stricter about applicants’ criminal records than other subsidized housing programs — “and people here have a slightly higher income.”
With Saturday night dances at the Senior Center, and a daycare that attracts children from surrounding areas, the Houses are not as cut off from their neighbors as other projects. Cunningham also gives credit to the strictness of the management. “You have people that are used to other developments and get behind on payments. Here — after a few months they throw you out.”
We pass a neighbor coming down the walkway. Cunningham hollers hello and explains that we’re wondering why Todt Hill is so quiet.
“Too quiet,” the neighbor laughs. “I grew up in Mariner’s Harbor. I’m like: Make some noise!”
Marcy Houses has Jay-Z; Queensbridge has Nas and Mobb Deep; the most famous former resident of Todt Hill is Drita D’Avanzo, a daughter of Albanian immigrants who grew up in the Houses. This February MC Drita hosted “Louder than Love: Freestyle Valentine’s Ball” in Nassau County, but she is best known as a star of the VH1 reality show “Mob Wives.” Her husband Lee D’Avanzo was arrested under “Operation Turkey Shoot” while breaking into the Richmond County Savings Bank in 2009. He is widely considered the leader of a farm team for the Bonanno and Colombo crime family. Drita defied her parents to marry Lee, but she was with her mother visiting Todt Hill this March. She dropped in on old friends and had her picture taken with a young girl who recognized her. “What are you doing here?” the girl asked. “I was born in this building and lived here for fifteen years.”
The Houses have also been home to Earn EZ, who dodges frog splashes in Staten Island’s upstart DIY pro-wrestling organization Warriors of Wrestling; YouTube rapper Vicki Vicious (“Time’s ticking so I put my life between my bars and sentences”); and Timothy Gardner, currently building what he hopes will be the largest ball of rubber bands in history. Gardner began the ball, which now weighs 420 pounds and is on display at the Snug Harbor Museum, while living in Todt Hill Houses as an 11 year-old.
“If I hadn’t gotten into rubber band ball-making,” Gardner told Carbon County Magazine, “I would have ended up nowhere good.”
On a stroll through the grounds on the first day of spring, most people I spoke with had positive things to say about life in the Houses. A man visiting his sister claimed it was “80 percent better” than where he lived in the South Bronx.
“It’s nice,” said a woman out with her dog. “You got to watch out for roaches, but it’s not bad.” She nodded to the lanes of single-family homes across the way and gave a definitive shrug: “Not as nice as over there.”
In case I didn’t understand what she meant, she clarified: “Not as nice as outside of here.”
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.