All week, we’re bringing you a series of deep dives into the surprising histories of storied addresses. Back to our usual after the New Year.
The sleet beating down on East 3rd Street in January 1935 didn’t stop any of the hopeful applicants from standing in line for hours between 1st Avenue and Avenue A outside the office of the New York City Housing Authority. During the Great Depression people had gotten used to life in the queue. They did it for jobs, for public benefits, and for food. But this time the reason was altogether different.
The dilapidated block was home to 24 tenements scheduled for demolition. They were like most of the other tenements in the area: crowded (they still had communal toilets), squalid, and so dangerous, averaging more than one fire per day. An 1892 report of the Tenement House Committee, found in the New York Historical Society archives, noted that the buildings were so poorly lit that it was actually possible for a tenant to pass someone in the hallway without noticing.
The people lined up because these 24 tenements were about to be transformed into something that for most of them was akin to dream. A total of 122 single family apartments would emerge in their stead, homes with at least one window in every room and all the modern conveniences of middle-class life: steam heat, hot water, a private bathroom, electricity, radio hook-ups, refrigeration; communal washers in the basement and a clothing dryer in each unit. At approximately $18 a month for a three-room apartment, this was more than attainable luxury. An apartment like this could mean stability, security, and a better life. It seemed unbelievable, but it was real.
It is 80 years this month since the New York City Housing Authority started taking applications for its “Experiment No. 1,” the inaugural project of the first public housing authority in the country. In the decades since, it has become responsible for housing throughout the city’s five boroughs more people than call Portland or Las Vegas home. Experiment No. 1 became First Houses, arguably the first public housing in the nation, which was designed to test two hypotheses. The first was unique to the Depression: Was it possible to build public housing with public labor, thereby housing the poor and putting them back to work at the same time? The other was more fundamental: Would public housing change the lives of the neediest Americans, helping them step into the middle class?
This past summer, Lesley Sussman published a piece about First Houses in the Villager. He’s a retired journalist and author who, at 66, still likes to keep his hand in. Although it doesn’t show in the article, he brings a particular perspective to the Houses; he has lived there for the past 15 years.
Sussman spent most of his life sharing a two-bedroom apartment with his parents in the Baruch Houses, Manhattan’s largest public housing complex, which was built 24 years after First Houses. In 1997, after his parents died, the Housing Authority transferred him to a one-bedroom but gave him his pick of developments. He scoured the city and chose First Houses for its courtyard, plentiful trees, and low-rise construction. After Baruch Houses, he said, First Houses was “like Paradise.”
The complex does have an air of sanctuary. Its eight five-storey buildings have ground-floor shops, and open onto an enclosed courtyard of sycamores and acacias, bare in winter. Sculptures of animals, created by artists of the Works Progress Administration, the WPA, decorate the yard and there are concrete tables with chess boards. The railings, benches, and trim are painted a bright green. It’s a tranquil place, good for enjoying a book in better weather.
The interior of the houses are a little less paradisal. The first floor of Sussman’s building smells unpleasantly of cigarettes and large swaths of oatmeal-colored paint have peeled away. A sign forbids everything from selling drugs to “possessing dogs not registered with NYCHA” or “lingering – in common areas of building.” It doesn’t exactly say, welcome. But it’s clean — cleaner than some other Lower East Side apartment buildings I’ve seen — and well-maintained. Sussman points all of this out as we climb the four flights of wide stairs to his apartment.
He makes me a chamomile tea and we settle in to talk in the tableau of mismatched furniture, overflowing bookcases, and bottles of herbal supplements that is his living room. There’s plenty of laughter in our conversation about journalism, housing, and community, and I feel comfortable. As his story unreels, I begin to see how much the experiment of public housing is alive in his identity.
“I have 21 books to my name, but I’m still here in the First Houses. It’s what God wants, I guess,” he shrugs. “And I haven’t given up. You know there’s the stereotype about people living in the projects, that they’re losers. But everyone I’ve ever met has really been trying hard, and they haven’t given up about improving themselves. In the interim, it’s a good place to live.”
Sussman’s words so reflect the founding intent of First Houses, that they could have been spoken by any of the project’s creators or supporters, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who was present at the opening ceremony on December 3, 1935.
The year 1934 was a watershed year for public housing and New York established the Housing Authority on February 20. Four months later, the National Housing Act followed, designed to “encourage improvement in housing standards and conditions.” Mostly, it benefitted middle-income people. The Depression had created a tidal wave of nouveau poor, and the nation moved to alleviate their suffering. They needed work and they needed affordable, safe, and sanitary housing.
This emphasis on safety and sanitation wasn’t new. New York’s tenement slums had been a subject of public concern since 1867, when the Tenement House Act came into effect. Committees, activism, and more legislation followed over the years, but little changed. Numerous articles in the New York Times as well as reports from the Housing Authority repeat the information that in the 1930s an estimated two million people — over one-quarter of the city’s population — were still living in some 67,000 city tenements. Even laws requiring certain safety improvements to tenements under penalty of fine or imprisonment did not always bring about change. The Times reported many landlords chose to board up the tenement buildings they owned rather than pay to improve them. By 1934, it was evident that private capital was not going to improve the lot of the poor.
Vincent Astor also shared the view that slum clearance needed a public, rather than private, solution. He was born into one of New York’s most powerful families, called “a territorial aristocracy” in the 1920 Encyclopedia Americana. His Times obituary painted him as an heir to a fortune, with a heart of gold. When his father, John Jacob Astor IV, died in the sinking of the Titanic, Vincent — then only 20 — inherited nearly $90 million, most of it in New York City real estate. Curious about the newly established Housing Authority and experiments in public housing, he offered to sell the department his 22 unprofitable lots on 3rd Street, between Avenue A and 1st Avenue. The agency was penniless, according to a 1960 retrospective, “Twenty-five Years of Public Housing,” found in the NYCHA Collection at the LaGuardia and Wagner Archives. “It lived for several years on the sale of second-hand bricks from the rookeries it demolished,” the report said.
But the authority did have the right to issue tax-free bonds. In December 1934, Astor exchanged his land and buildings at less than half their assessed value for $189,281.31 — the 2014 equivalent of $3.4 million — in bonds. Experiment No. 1 was almost off the ground, but a man named Andrew Muller, who owned two lots in the middle of Astor’s 22, stood in the way. After making several offers, the Authority condemned the lots and Muller fought back, producing a lawsuit and a historic decision that established the power of eminent domain for a municipal housing agency.
By early 1935, with the land secured, construction on the Experiment was underway. Its first challenge was the decision to use non-union labor to meet the project’s objective of putting people back to work. A report prepared for the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1974, when First Houses got landmark status, recalled how the WPA provided the workers and the State’s Temporary Emergency Relief Administration provided construction materials. This labor decision became one of the project’s most contentious aspects. During construction, it led to a 1,500-person union demonstration and a slew of articles debating the cost of WPA labor over commercial workers. Langston W. Post, the authority’s inaugural chairman, was thrilled with the outcome. “They told us we couldn’t build with relief labor,” he told the crowd assembled for the dedication of First Houses, “but we did it.”
Success aside, not everyone thought the experiment was worth the cost. A February 1935 letter to Post from George Gove, who was the secretary for the State Housing Board, estimates the total budget at just over $630,000. The original plan had been to demolish most of the tenements and gut-renovate the rest. But the buildings were structurally unstable and the plan was abandoned in favor of new construction, bringing the final cost to $1,155,649 (the 2014 equivalent of $20.5 million). A barrage of articles denounced the “million-dollar extravaganza” as an unsustainable model of public housing. Post agreed with cost criticisms, but argued that the project’s value was as a “laboratory” and “an investment in better citizenship.”
The experiment’s second challenge — put plainly — was proving that poor people would appreciate good housing. An idea that seems laughable today in 1934 appears to have been a real concern. Tenement dwellers had only known the most wretched of conditions, and prejudice often assumed this was of their making. To break this stereotype, the Housing Authority felt it had to be choosy about its first residents. As Eleanor Roosevelt said at the dedication, “Low-cost housing must go on in the United States, but it will not go on unless this is a success.… Now the question is, will the tenants do their part to make this experiment successful.”
In late 1935, the Times carefully documented this selection process in a series of articles (here, here, and here). The Authority established a four-person committee and opened applications. The application process that had started on 3rd Street in that January deluge, closed less than two months later after an overwhelming response from nearly 4,000 families. The committee then narrowed the pool based on the precariousness of current living conditions and financial need, and followed up with interviews and home visits. In the end, the 122 families were mostly laborers, from 17 different countries, and all white. Today, First Houses is only seven percent white. The second Housing Authority development to open would be the Harlem River Houses on W. 151st Street in October 1937, which was exclusively for African American families. Public housing in New York was gradually integrated over the next twenty years.
First Houses’ publicity campaign continued throughout the year, and most other newspaper articles and internal reports from the time are positive. A Tenants’ Association had been established and threw regular parties; the Sierra Club, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America had chapters on site; residents took trips to the theater and held forums to discuss contemporary social and political issues. There was a daycare center, a sewing group, and a Mothers’ Club. An April 1937 report from the building manager, found in the LaGuardia and Wagner Archives, notes that such activities were “something that we like to encourage” to expand the limited horizons of the residents.
The project was thriving and deemed a public housing success worthy of rapid replication. By 1940, the Authority was managing five developments and had seven more under construction. World War II brought this expansion to a halt but by 1951, the Authority’s apartment inventory had swelled to over 17,000 units, with approximately an additional 14,600 either under construction or in contract. Public housing had created an abundance of jobs, and had, in the words of Post, successfully disproved “the theory that people in slums would use bathtubs for storing coal.”
It’s hard for Lesley Sussman to say a negative word about life at First Houses, and his only complaint is a small one. Now that he’s getting older, he wishes the building had an elevator. Repairs and maintenance are good, the management is thoughtful, he says. He is an active member of the Tenants’ Association and speaks warmly of the current president, Brenda Santiago. She hosts holiday parties and in the summer, a courtyard potluck, known as Family Day.
“This is like a little village,” he says proudly. “We have a world-class bookstore downstairs, and a health food store, and everybody knows everybody.”Santiago has been the Tenants’ Association president for two years, and isn’t reticent about cataloguing where improvements are needed. After all, it’s part of her job to represent the tenants and their needs to the Housing Authority. She says First Houses has problems with mold, poor drainage in the courtyard that leads to flooding, loose bricks, and no space for seniors needing to transfer out of higher-floor apartments.
She takes the other part of her job — building community — just as seriously. “My first Family Day that I did, I didn’t sleep for like 24 hours,” she laughs. Her community extends beyond First Houses’ walls, and she has a strong network of local politicians, other Tenants’ Association Presidents, and various community organizations. This broad sense of community comes from her activist background. Shortly before moving to First Houses, she became a member of GOLES, a housing and economic justice organization on the Lower East Side. Membership led to a position as a community organizer working on issues of environmental justice, including as part of a two-year collaborative study between GOLES and NYU to assess community health needs.
“That’s when I actually got more curious and found myself wanting to be more involved,” she said. After moving to First Houses she joined the Tenants’ Association, then served as vice president for three years, before becoming president. Her term will end in spring 2015, but her work will not be over. She plans to stay active in the association and will continue organizing and creating community on the Lower East Side. “I would like people to see me as a leader, ‘cause we’re all leaders at the end of the day. We’re just different types of leaders.”
The early critic, it turns out, had been correct in one regard. Small, precious, costly developments like First Houses could not possibly meet such a great volume of need. And indeed, the next seven developments, which spanned the East River between 14th Street and the Brooklyn Bridge, could accommodate not 122 families, but 10,000. And yet as early as September of 1951, critics were blasting the new decision to build public housing behemoths. At the time, Herman T. Stichman, the State Housing Commissioner, issued a prescient warning in the New York Times: “Concentration of subsidized housing in limited areas…leads to ‘ghettos’ of low income families, prevents those of different income levels from meeting in neighborhood activities and fosters class feeling.” Such housing not only isolated residents from society but from employment, as it was often far from the low-wage jobs at which they worked. “No effort has been made by the city to encourage the establishment of desirable large scale places of employment for them nearby,” Stichman said.
Six years later, the Times pointed out that only nine of the 82 Housing Authority properties had stores or commercial spaces built in, due to everything from federal legislation banning stores in developments, to the demolition of retail spaces to build public housing.
The outcome was clear: It was difficult to access food, and door-to-door salesmen often preyed on the residents. Unregulated tenement houses — however horrific they were inside — often had stores, clinics, and political offices on their ground floors. “Gathering places for such purposes are virtually nonexistent in the huge, institutionalized projects,” the Times said.
Although most developments had community rooms, they could not be used “for political meetings, birth-control clinics, gatherings at which liquor is served or denominational religious meetings.” First Houses was one of those lucky nine, as all of its ground-floor units served as commercial spaces. But by First Houses’ 25th anniversary in 1960, most New Yorkers in public housing were isolated from employment and the wider community. A 1975 article captured these changes: “Originally considered a stepping stone for Depression-poor families on their way up to middle-class status, public housing has become a permanent refuge.”
The small size of First Houses and the project’s integration into the community makes it special, but also makes it highly impractical in New York. A January 1937 article recognized this and predicted that “at this rate [that First Houses was built at]… New York City will be rid of its slums in a little under 270 years.” Seventy-eight years after that article was published, the city’s 67,000 tenements are, in name, a thing of the past. But the city’s housing problem is still very much alive and the poorest New Yorkers are still confined to the islands of public housing. What’s more, the Housing Authority — the largest in North America, with over 400,000 tenants in 334 developments — has nearly 250,000 people on its waiting list, and is facing significant financial challenges. With an aging and decaying public housing stock, the challenge of housing New York is as great as ever.
What we can say about First Houses is that it certainly feels more like home than the massive developments that the city established in its wake. I ask Lesley Sussman if he thinks that’s because his neighbors are somehow different from other public housing residents. He doesn’t even pause.
“No,” he says, “I think the people are pretty much the same. But once people come here, to this neighborhood, it’s not a slum area. It’s an upscale and yuppie area, and they respond to it. You know, they feel better about themselves living in a decent neighborhood, it improves their self-image and self-worth.”