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.
Walk as far east on Houston Street as you can until lines of imposing brick towers shoot up over the river – about 27 acres of them. The streets no longer make sense in context and the lines don’t link up with the grid. It’s like you’ve passed into another city. Instead of the jumble of old-fashioned tenements with ladders hanging out the windows coexisting with storefronts and street life, you encounter 17 almost uniform towers with yards of greenery surrounding them – a luxury of space rarely seen in Manhattan. These buildings are tough, institutional even, with their glazed red brick to discourage vandalism, lines of bars in windows and signs that say, “Welcome to Bernard Baruch Houses” outside each building.
Turn down Baruch Place, a little U of a street bounded by Baruch playground. Now you are standing on what was once Goerck, a street that was wiped off the map in the 1950s. Here you will find a squat little building that shelters homeless families waiting for placement in public housing. It’s now known as the Urban Family Center and run by the Henry Street Settlement. Exactly 87 years ago today, this building – the only remaining structure that hints at the former life of the street – opened as the Lavanburg Homes, one of the very first non-profit low-income housing experiments in New York.
But before that happened, and before the construction of the largest housing project in Manhattan, this area was just another tenement warren, part of the fabric of the Lower East Side – perhaps even the cruelest part, tucked in the bulging corner of Manhattan like an afterthought, battered by the whistling winds of the East River.
I first came across mention of forgotten Goerck Street in a blog post by the Bowery Boys about the Short Tails gang that once terrorized the neighborhood. I’ve spent enough time exploring New York over my seven years in the city to feel a twinge of surprise when I hear an unfamiliar street name in Manhattan. I’ve relished the idea that my story here is joining those who came before, imagining that my memories may get stamped onto the streets I pass everyday, places that I’ll be able to revisit decades from now with my grandchildren and spark a story with, “I remember when I lived on such-and-such street…” So it struck me as brutal that one of New York’s byways might just vanish. Who had lived on this little part of the island and why was it demolished?
Mention of Goerck Street first appears in the Mangin-Goerck plan of 1803. It didn’t exist yet – the plan was a proposed expansion of the city grid, prepared by Joseph F. Mangin and Casimir Goerck, the surveyor. The Common Council rejected it, but when the city finally did expand in 1811, the name Goerck stuck as a tribute to his work.
Tenements quickly filled the crowded street and in newspapers from the 19th century, unsurprisingly, it appears to have harbored two of the main evils of tenement life: cholera outbreaks and gangs.
In the 1880s, while Goerck Street was home to the Short Tails, this band of “ruffians” marauded the docks at nearby Corlear’s Hook and did anything they could to get their hands on beer. In fact, the New York Daily Tribune credited the Short Tails with introducing the then-popular system of “rushing growlers.” Their method was described in some detail in the Tribune:
When thirst came upon them they used to send out one of their number with a large pail, which was to be filled with beer. It was seldom that the gang took the trouble to pay for this. The man who went for it would simply march out of the saloon with the filled receptacle, and if the barkeeper attempted to stop him he would make a few remarks of a maledictory sort, interlarded with profanity and obscenity, and containing references to the complete ability of the gang to clean out the saloon that night too if the ‘barkeep’ didn’t ‘hold his yawp’.
They also smuggled themselves onto boats off the docks to cause mayhem and harassed policemen by throwing bricks at them from the top of rooftops.
Although it seems most of their antics were petty (they are characterized as “kids from sixteen to eighteen years of age” and there’s no indication that they were involved in any kind of organized black-market racket or prostitution dealings like many gangs of the day) they also wouldn’t hesitate to pull a knife or gun. Peter Stein, a lager-beer saloon owner at 56 Goerck Street, was one of the many victims of the raucous crew.
“They have repeatedly invaded his saloon, ordered drinks and refreshments, and refused to pay for them,” wrote the New York Times in 1882. “When Stein protested against their conduct they attacked him with beer glasses and other missiles and cut him very severely about the head and face.” When the gang returned days later, Stein refused to serve them and was shot in the jaw by Frank Nixon, the gang’s apparent ringleader at the time.
A terrible crime involving the Short Tails occurred on Goerck Street on the unbearably humid night of August 22, 1884. It involved two men who by some accounts were friends and by others were simply acquaintances. Newspapers described John Heil as “a young man of good character” and Francis McLaughlin, the gang member, as “turbulent and quarrelsome – known to threaten several people with a knife which he always carried.”
Heil had escaped his hot and stuffy tenement to sleep outside on a truck bed. A drunk McLaughlin came upon him and began to play tricks – pulling off his hat, teasing him. McLaughlin perceived an insult: “I guess you were fooling about me, trying to rob me,” Heil reportedly said, setting him off, and McLaughlin challenged him to a fight. Heil refused and tried to escape – but McLaughlin kept provoking Heil, and when Heil tried to push him away, McLaughlin viciously stabbed into Heil’s thigh with a three-inch clasp-knife until he was dead.
Still, the Tribune article said that, even though most barkeepers and restaurant owners were afraid of the Short Tails, “the tenement dwellers nearby sympathized with them, and were really rather proud of them.”
By the time a young precocious child named Bella Cohen, later Bella Spewack, arrived in the neighborhood at the turn of the century, the area hadn’t improved much, even if the Short Tails had been replaced by other gangs by then. Bella was an immigrant born in Bucharest who spent her childhood on the streets that are now Baruch Houses. She began living on Goerck in the 1910s in a tenement on a section of the street flanked by two saloons and a trash heap.
“It was a ‘tough’ block,” she writes in her short but haunting account, Streets: A Memoir of the Lower East Side, a name to evoke the family’s constant search for decent housing. “From [Goerck] would come every offensive in the bottle fights that would visit Lewis, Canon, Columbia, and Sheriff streets like some short, noisy pestilence. Bottle fights included every kind of weapon; and the Goerck Street gangs used to throw rusty blades.”
Scrappy, perceptive and a sharp, evocative writer, she would survive her impoverished neighborhood and go on to become a reporter, author and playwright, best known for the musical Kiss Me Kate, which she wrote with her husband.
But, even at 23, recently married and working as a correspondent in Moscow and Berlin, she seemed instinctively to feel that her memories of growing up in the tenements were important enough to record. She never published Streets during her lifetime, but her matter-of-fact recollections bring to life the poverty and ambition that characterized those now-vanished streets and the filthy tenements that lined them. Although her mother was often begging at the local charity’s doors in between jobs, she was determined to keep Bella in school and make her grow up to be “a lady.”
This wasn’t easy when the family was barely scraping by, tossed from one terrible tenement to another equally filthy one. Of Goerck Street, where she moved to with her mother and two half-brothers after her stepfather left the family, we get a distinct description of the street’s character:
There was a constant going and coming of moving vans and pushcarts – one family moved into one house and another moved out of the next. The houses formed a drably indifferent village that on rainy days looked like a row of washed-out, badly patched petticoats. They shared their submerging sorrows, small sufficient joys, and frequent fights. The majority of the families sprang from Galician sources; the rest were Hungarian and German Jews and a few Russians. The first half of the block was Jewish and the rest of it was Italian, with an invisible but definite line of demarcation.
Roaches and rats infested her home on Goerck and the disturbance from the constant sounds of ferryboats and ships was relentless. Her mother sewed from home and Bella, in addition to caring for her young half-brothers, often worked odd jobs while attending Washington Irving High School, near Union Square.
The family must have lived in one of the many old-law tenements, built between 1879 and 1901, which were especially concentrated in the Lower East Side. They had a specific dumbbell shape, with a dark bedroom, a kitchen with a bathtub and a cramped living space. Conditions were highly unsanitary and unsafe. Tenants often disposed of their trash in the shaft ways between buildings because there was no efficient way of gathering waste. This led to outbreaks of diseases like cholera. Bathrooms were in the hallway, shared by all the families on the floor. The buildings were also highly flammable and the airshaft design acted like a flue, spreading fire rapidly between apartments.
“How we ever achieved the rent when the day of payment came around, I don’t know,” Bella wrote, describing one of the pervasive worries of every poor tenement dweller. “The landlord, still a young man, had already acquired the calculating glazed look which all of us on the Lower East Side understood as ‘Pay or get out.’ He never looked directly at us.” To save on rent, her mother always took in boarders – which meant having a number of strange men – and sometimes women – sleeping on the floor and couches of the living room and bedroom.
And even after she’d escaped the tenements, Bella would never forget the mixture of yearning and desperation she felt while living on Goerck Street.
One night, after a particularly hard day with the children and at home, I could not sleep, I looked at the sleeping tenements and down at the street strewn with garbage and wet newspapers. Was this living? Someone moaned from the fire escape above me, some sleeper who sought a little rest under ‘God’s canopy.’ God’s canopy! I looked up at it sneeringly. We could see enough of it to be able to believe that somewhere God did keep his canopy, but all we got was on thread from its many million fringes.
It was all so hopeless. When would it all end? I began to drowse and dreamed consciously – that a vast fire destroyed the slums but no one was hurt. Everybody went to the country and there were no more slums.
Many shared Bella’s dream of annihilating the slums but in 1922 she couldn’t have known that her dream would, in a way, reach reality. It would take more than 30 years, but by 1952, Goerck, Lewis and Canon streets would exist no more. And her former home on Goerck may have disappeared long before that.
In the 1920s, Bella’s stretch of Goerck Street became part of a new housing experiment. Slums such as Goerck had always been a problem in New York, but they had been largely tolerated as part and parcel of the city’s growth and accommodation of poor newcomers. Although new regulations for tenements were added at the turn of the century in the hopes of making them more sanitary, even these left much to be desired and the slums seemed to grow in the public imagination as a virus to be eradicated lest it swallow up the rest of the city.
“New York’s slums, those sluggish backwaters of city life where disease and crime and vice breed and foster, are faced with the most powerful concerted attack against them,” wrote Mildred Adams in the New York Times in October 1926. “The great private fortune and the personal interest of such men as John D. Rockefeller Jr. and Mr. [August] Heckscher are being marshaled by expert advisers to add their power to the general attack.”
A new chapter was opening: the city’s well-to-do were suddenly taking note of the slums that seemed to overwhelm their city, traveling to Europe to study examples of how to ease inner-city congestion and trying to wrangle private philanthropists and the federal government to submit to a new vision of public housing for America’s cities.
But this process moved slowly, years away from actually affecting the lives of tenement-dwellers living in dire conditions. In the meantime, Fred L. Lavanburg, a successful paint manufacturer with a small fortune, stepped into Goerck Street’s future.
While others debated possible course of action for the city, Lavanburg simply went ahead and brought one of the very first non-profit low-income housing experiments in New York to 124-136 Goerck in 1927, likely on the very site where Bella had grown up in a rat-infested “rookerie.”
Never married and in his 60s, Lavanburg was said to have a soft spot for children and stipulated that his “model tenements” would only be for young families. He delighted in visiting the construction site and watching his vision unfold, but unfortunately did not live to see the homes opened on December 28, 1927 – he suddenly died of pneumonia just two month earlier, leaving five million dollars to his foundation to be used for building model tenements.
If he had lived, opening day would have been immensely gratifying. According to the New York Times, people were overjoyed when the apartments opened. Mayor Jimmy Walker heralded the project as the beginning of “a march that will lead into every street in the city where there remains even one unsanitary apartment . . . Let’s wipe out each one of these dark homes and let’s give self-respect a chance to grow.”
“The house itself is an imposing structure that would do credit to almost any uptown residential district,” wrote the New York Times. The six-story buildings were set back from the street a bit with a “spacious, inviting courtyard,” unlike most tenements that were smacked against the sidewalk, and it even had a roof garden and a basement playground “where boys will be permitted to bounce balls to their hearts’ content.” A trained social worker managed the building.
Demand was great. Some 1,200 families applied for the three-to-five bedroom rentals, which cost $7.50 to $10.50 per week. Of those, 108 families of diverse nationalities from all over the city were selected on the basis of their living standards, income, and number of children.
Four years after it opened, the homes seemed a great success. The supervisor of the Lavanburg Homes, Abraham Goldfeld, wrote a glowing report about the experiment he called the “House on Goerck Street” in the Jewish Social Service Quarterly and was also interviewed for the Brooklyn Eagle Magazine. “The Lavanburg Homes are not a charity any more than universities or hospitals,” he told the Brooklyn Eagle Magazine, characterizing the Lavanburg Foundation as bestowing a kind of “scholarship in living to the families under its aegis.”
Goldfeld said that, after a period of adjustment “to the novelty of living in a modern home” the social experiment of living in a clean model home seemed to have worked its magic. The residents, “a truly typical laboring group” made up of factory workers, street cleaners, clerks, peddlers and even rag-pickers, became enterprising and seemed to delight in forming clubs, associations and children’s playgroups in the Lavanburg Homes’ basement. The building even ran its own newspaper for tenants, the Lavanburg News, which both parents and children contributed to.
“In a period of three months, 11 clubs were organized, and at the close of the third year, there were 23 clubs and group activities for children,” wrote Goldfeld in the Jewish Social Service Quarterly. “One tenant remarked appreciatively that before moving in, his life was ‘just going to work every day and going to sleep.’ This man is now secretary of the Fathers’ Club and a happy and eager participant in its social functions.”
Lavanburg’s idea was a harbinger of what was to come. Visiting the street today, you find his small “model tenement” experiment overshadowed by the “tower in the park” superblocks of Baruch Housing that emerged out of the city’s growing push to eradicate the slums.
The process picked up steam in the 1930s. Despite Lavanburg’s success, it clearly had limited effects and Goerck Street retained its seedy reputation. On May 12, 1937, visitors to the North American Homes Exhibition in Madison Square were treated to a reproduction of a Goerck Street still considered a city eyesore.
Visitors entered the show to find a replica street of the slums, complete with a reproduction of 143 Goerck Street re-made from its original materials. They could enter the old-law tenement and observe the “windowless bedroom, dark hall and typical furnishings” facing a slum backyard. Then, visitors could visit two reproductions of new apartments from government housing projects in Williamsburg and Harlem – the future that would replace Goerck altogether. “This transition in the exhibit from typical slums into a typical modern apartments shows graphically exactly what moving into Williamsburg houses will mean to 1,622 families now living in slums,” Langdon W. Post, chairman of the newly created New York City Housing Authority said in the New York Times.
Historian Nicholas D. Bloom wrote, in his 2009 book Public Housing that Worked, that the city planners intended to “launch a European-scale authority with the funds and legal powers both to rescue the poor and to redevelop the city along modern lines.” But plans and action on a scale so large take time to realize, and the city was changing, perhaps faster than the housing authority’s plans could keep pace with. “You can never really predict what social policy will produce in the long term,” Dr. Bloom, an associate professor at The New York Institute of Technology, said in an interview.
On a frigid winter day in on February 22, 1952, the elderly residents of these easternmost tenements gathered in the raw wind to witness an era’s passing.
“Barely a soul moved, in what had once been a teeming neighborhood. Hardly a light showed in the blackened, empty tenements. The river wind hit the banshee note,” Meyer Berger for the New York Times wrote of the scene. “The whole quarter, huddled in dark melancholy in anticipation of demolition crews that will start work April 1, was a weird deserted village. It will pass forever as Baruch City goes up.”
Many of those gathered had spent their whole lives on the bleak little strip of Goerck. Perhaps they’d worked in the furniture shop on or Aetna Iron Work foundry on the same block, fought off gangsters in one of the many saloons, or bought a piece of candy for a neighborhood girl working in the coat shop.
Yet, while Berger delicately recorded the pathos at the scene of departure, he himself didn’t seem to be able to muster much nostalgia for the blighted neighborhood and its dank old-law tenements:
“Just before darkness hid the ugliness of the old rookeries, a journey through some of their vacated cold-water flats – many sixty to seventy years old – proved the need for new housing in the area, even at the cost of some human suffering,” he wrote. “It was difficult to understand the group’s sentiment for such a quarter. The old East Side is overdue for the wreckers.”
Baruch Houses were just one of many public housings being rolled out across New York over the 1940s and 1950s. It was built piecemeal over the course of the 1950s and officially finished in 1959. Much of New York’s public housing was characterized by racial segregation at the time, but when Baruch Houses first opened it was remarkably integrated, said Bloom. In 1962 the inhabitants were 51 percent white, 16 percent black, one percent Chinese and 31 percent Latino, primarily Puerto Rican. Clearly, the neighborhood had changed drastically since Bella’s and even Lavanburg’s time, when it was majority poor Eastern European and Jewish families, and it continued to change.
From the 1940s into the early 1970s, Puerto Ricans were numerically the largest Hispanic group to migrate to New York City. The Lower East Side was such a destination for the Puerto Rican diaspora that it became known by a new name: Loisaida. Then, from the 1970s into the 1990s the neighborhood began to win some cachet, thanks to the struggling artists and bohemians who gathered there.
And today things have changed again – the neighborhood has become more sanitized, with luxury condos and boutique hotels looming over the old buildings. A museum dedicated to exploring the history of the tenements like Bella’s attracts tourists from around the world to pay $25 a ticket. But few new immigrants could make their home in one of the neighborhood’s tiny studios, now averaging $2,000 a month. The quaint streets of the Lower East Side, an area traditionally known for its poverty and all the colorful stories that come with it, are now a destination few can afford.
And in Baruch, there are now barely any white families– in 2014, less than four percent of public housing residents Manhattan-wide were white, compared with about 50 percent Hispanic. Bloom attributes this to a “white flight” in the late 1960s and 1970s, when crime began to rise and union co-ops drew many Jewish families away.
Roberto Napoleon, originally from Puerto Rico, was part of the demographic transition. He moved to the Lower East Side in 1956 when he was 14 and got his start working in a grocery store owned by an Orthodox Jewish couple. “They used to pay five cents a delivery,” he said. “That was a lot back then!” Now he is 72 years old and has five children, 12 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, many of them living in public housing.
Mr. Napoleon, as everyone calls him, began living in Baruch Houses (which he often pronounces with a soft “ch,” like the end of “smooch”) 45 years ago and has been the president of the tenant’s association for nearly as long. He’s a familiar fixture in a complex that can feel architecturally alienating to an outsider. Everywhere he goes, people recognize him and greet him with high fives and grins and, “Hey Mr. Napoleon, how’s it going?” On evenings, you can often find him in the lobby of the senior center on Columbia Street, listening to music with his friends.
The houses were a big upgrade for him, he remembers. He had been living with his wife and young son in an old-law tenement infested with roaches on nearby Clinton Street. “The old tenement looked like a little subway inside, like a little train,” he said, and he shared a bathroom with 12 families. He moved because “I couldn’t have my little son using those filthy bathrooms.”
The fact that he has been the president so long is a testament to his ability to keep the peace in an environment that can sometimes be volatile. When he first moved into his four-room, $72-a-month apartment in 1972, he had to fight to even become part of the tenant’s association. “The tenant’s association was discriminating against blacks and Hispanics. It was all white,” he said. But he thought to himself, “Let me work to see if I can help the situation of discrimination.”
Mr. Napoleon convinced them to open up and, in his telling, won everyone over with a speech about how all the races need to work together. “Since 1972 I have been concentrating on destroying the image of discrimination in Baruch,” said Mr. Napoleon, who remains a frequent mediator in tenants’ disputes.
Over the years, he has also seen Baruch Houses go through its ups and downs, particularly with high crime rates starting in the 1980s. He remembers the turning point as when people stopped sleeping on the roof in the summer. “We didn’t used to have any air conditioners,” he explains. People would sleep on the fire escapes to get out of their stuffy apartments. Whole families would congregate on the roof and make a party of it, bringing up couches and mattresses to catch the breeze.
But that all stopped in the 1980s. In perhaps an echo of the Short Tails, gangs were once again terrorizing the neighborhood, this time even more ruthless, and residents began to shut themselves in their apartments despite the heat. Sleeping in the open meant you were almost certain to get robbed. Newspapers from the time report robberies and killings in Baruch Houses, when the city itself was in its descent into lawlessness. “The city started to get poison,” as Mr. Napoleon puts it.
Today, violent crime has lessened in Baruch Houses, but drug activity is still a problem. In April 2013, police arrested 33 members of the “Blocc Boyz” street gang based in Baruch Housesin a drug dealing ring. Police said they were tipped off by the group members’ social media postings, which bragged about their fancy cars and showed them waving around cash at high-rolling parties.
“When they tell me I have an apartment selling drugs, then I get dizzy,” Mr. Napoleon said, shaking his head. “I have to have a meeting with the captain right away and be careful that they don’t do any crazy things.”
So what would the original city planners and reformers think of Baruch Houses if they could see it today? Dr. Bloom, the historian, is remarkably positive about the state of public housing in general in New York. Yes, it has its problems – the crime, the delayed repairs, the inefficiency – but he said the miracle is that it continues to exist at all when so much of the rest of the country has given up on public housing.
“It’s still full, people live there,” he said. “There are bound to be trade offs. If you are paying $300 or $400 for an apartment in the Lower East Side right now, it may come with a crankier elevator.” After all, he said, the other option is not “new fancy buildings. The other option is leaving New York.”
Bloom makes the point that, these days, places like Baruch Houses are the only thing keeping this part of the city from completely sliding into a bland global streetscape. “If you really want to look at the legacy today, it’s one of the few islands of poor people in the Lower East Side today,” he said. “Its totally inverse of the idea at the time, which was that mostly higher income people would replace the tenements.”
So Baruch Houses may actually preserve an element of diversity that keeps the neighborhood in touch with its poorer, newcomer roots in a way that wouldn’t be possible with New York’s real estate madness.
“If,” Bloom went on, “you’d have told Robert Moses, what you are building is actually something that in the ‘60s keeps some people of color and lower income in the neighborhood and allows them to live here – in a way, provides an island of working-class people – they wouldn’t have believed you.”
“The interesting thing is that some people in these neighborhoods say, ‘This would be a perfect place if not for the public housing’ – and I’m like, but what kind of place do you have in mind?” he continued. “It would be a different kind of neighborhood, and I personally don’t think it would be a very New York neighborhood.”
The future of Baruch Houses and public housing in New York is still not clear. The city’s Housing Authority is clearly struggling financially and wrestling with adapting a system built in a very different time to the modern context. When Hurricane Sandy hit, the ground floors of most buildings at Baruch were washed out and residents who stayed behind were without electricity or water for weeks. The Wall Street Journal reported in December that the New York City Housing Authority will sell a 50 percent stake in nearly 900 apartments to private developers to bolster cash flow. Is there a chance Baruch Houses could follow this trend and lose its public housing identity?
Mr. Napoleon hopes not, though he knows this stretch of Manhattan is now desirable for developers with dreams of luxury housing. Despite its problems, he is proud of Baruch’s community feeling. “There’s a lot of positives here going on, it’s not all crimes and drugs,” he said. “You don’t feel lonely here. If you have any problems you have your neighbor and you can knock on his door. He’ll help you call the police, or give you something to eat, give you something to drink, and maybe take care of your children when you go to the pharmacy or grocery. You have your neighbors and they can do that for you. And that’s working.”
For him, Baruch Houses is now the site of his memories, just as Goerck Street once was for the old-timers who stood and watched as they were being pushed out of their tenement homes back in 1952.