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The Unsung: Lost Stories of New York Urban Renewal

Samuel Zipp is Assistant Professor of American Civilization and Urban Studies at Brown University, and author of Manhattan Projects: The Rise and Fall of Urban Renewal in Cold War New York. In this original post, Zipp moves beyond the well-known personalities of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs, profiling another cast of characters who molded and shaped the city we know today. For fun facts, media bites, and more about the evolution of New York City, check out the Manhattan Projects Facebook page.

For many New Yorkers and city lovers the story of post-World War II urban renewal in New York has long been synonymous with two names: Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs. A host of books, essays, and documentaries have celebrated their battle over the future of New York. I hope to put them in their proper contexts: Moses as both pragmatist and visionary who needed the right alliances to get things done and Jacobs as a savvy and wise writer and city thinker, among whose great talents was to gather and catalyze strands of dissent that had been building in the city before she came on the scene. The history of New York features a host of other personalities whose contributions to the drama of urban renewal in the twenty years after World War II have been less recognized. These people came from many walks of New York life; some were notable, some anonymous. They played roles both major and minor in the story of urban renewal, but stitching together stories like theirs give us a fuller portrait of this familiar episode in the city’s history. Here are just eight of many lost stories from New York’s urban renewal history.

1. Frederick Ecker
Head of Metropolitan Life, Ecker teamed up with Robert Moses and New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in 1943 to build Stuyvesant Town, the first privately-backed slum clearance and rebuilding project in the nation. Ecker’s efforts to build a new “suburb in the city” attracted equal measures of acclamation and condemnation. Supporters heralded the company’s unprecedented attempt to bring middle class residents back downtown in an age of suburbanization; critics decried the use of public powers to oust working class families from their homes and build a modern, but racially segregated middle class housing development.

2. Charles Abrams
One of the most important urban intellectuals of his time, Abrams was a Greenwich Village lawyer, author, and expert in housing issues. His was the first prominent voice raised against urban renewal. In the late 1940s, at a time when most liberals were firmly pro-redevelopment, Abrams launched a number of attacks on Stuyvesant Town. Abrams foresaw the public-private cooperation that would be needed to undertake urban renewal, but was not impressed. He charged Stuyvesant Town with being the harbinger of a “business welfare state,” in which public powers would be placed in service of private wealth.

3. Wallace Harrison
Often called the Rockefeller family’s “house architect,” Harrison’s great contribution to the history of urban renewal was his leadership of the two architectural committees assembled to design the United Nations headquarters and Lincoln Center. Harrison showed a gift for marshaling big projects and big egos, from Le Corbusier and Alvar Aalto to Marcel Breuer and Philip Johnson. A believer in the gifts modern architecture and planning could bring to city life, Harrison also saw them as vehicles for affirming and extending American power in the Cold War era. Lincoln Center, he said in 1959, was “possibly the most important architectural project in the world today…We Americans are writing our cultural history in stone and steel.”

4. Reginald Marsh
Known for his bawdy and romantic paintings of city street life, an offhand comment Marsh made to a reporter offered a succinct gloss on the menace many New Yorkers would come to find in urban renewal. In 1950 Marsh lived on 15th Street just west of Stuyvesant Town. The local newspaper, Town and Village, sought out the painter for his opinion on the new complex. Unfortunately, Marsh was none too impressed. “There’s no picture in a Stuyvesant Town husband going to work in the morning,” he complained, but he did admit that from the Brooklyn shore the complex’s skyline “would make a fine cubist painting.” Overall, he thought, Stuyvesant Town was just another step in a dismaying trend towards an “invisible abstract world.”

5. Stanley Isaacs
An influential City Councilman, Isaacs was a committed liberal who supported redevelopment in the 40s and early 50s. He was disturbed by the tenant displacement and racial segregation required for Stuyvesant Town, but remained a backer of Robert Moses’ urban renewal programs into the early 50s. However, as more and more people lost their homes, Isaacs began to lose his optimism. Pushed by more radical tenant activists, by 1957 he had swung to the other side of the aisle and testified against Moses’s Lincoln Square Urban Renewal plan. His shift signaled the growing alienation of Moses’s liberal allies, and helped legitimize mainstream protest against renewal in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

6. Harris Present
A lawyer with an interest in housing issues, in 1955 Present joined residents and businesspeople in Lincoln Square in defending their neighborhood against Moses’s urban renewal plan. Present galvanized their efforts to show city officials that the neighborhood represented an alternative, more bottom-up form of culture than that on offer at Lincoln Center, the centerpiece of the urban renewal project. Present and his neighborhood allies lost the battle, but their efforts blazed a path for later campaigns against urban renewal.

7. Ellen Lurie
A volunteer social worker at East Harlem’s Union Settlement House, Lurie noticed that all the new public housing in the neighborhood was starting to cause more harm than good. Her 1955 study of the George Washington Houses identified increased racial segregation, social dislocation, and anomie as a new “mass way of life.” With help from Preston Wilcox, Mildred Zucker, William Kirk, and Jane Jacobs, she started a comprehensive community organizing endeavor to help East Harlemites address the impact of public housing.

8. Albert Mayer
An architect, planner, and committed modernist, Mayer became more and more disillusioned with the realities of modern “superblock” and “tower in the park” urban design. By 1957 he had joined with insurgent social workers in East Harlem to try to weave some of the street life lost with modern planning back into the open spaces of public housing. His subtle and intricate open space designs for several projects represent a crucial, but largely forgotten aspect of the intellectual and social movement to remake modern urbanism and imagine cities again from the perspective of streets and stoops rather than towers and plazas.

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  2. Lia Miles

    Another great post, thanks for the write up! Have a great day and cant wait to see future posts

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