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4. Tenant Power in the Liberal City 1943-1971
Title I: Challenge and Response, 1949 - 1963
As the American Labor party clubs settled into routine neighborhood service, they soon found that they could not isolate rent counciling from the demolition that was becoming the chief by-product of Title I redevelopment in New York City. The Title I program became synonymous with Robert Moses, his ruthless political-construction complex, the wanton destruction of neighborhoods, and the scattering of their residents. To a generation of critics, notably Robert A. Caro in his blistering biography of Moses, Title I was also synonymous with reckless power that went unchecked until a small band of urban liberals rallied the conscience of the city. Few observers (including Caro), however, fully appreciated the extent of neighborhood opposition or the spearhead for that opposition provided by radical tenant councils and ALP clubs. But they were ever present, with their eviction protests, their city hall vigils, and their legal challenges, thus shaping the climate of neighborhood resistance as well as the disillusionment with large-scale redevelopment, which forced liberals to their agonizing reappraisal. Out of the rubble of countless defeats, tenant radicals would emerge with a critical understanding of the interaction between neighborhoods and the greater city that would become a fundamental aspect of the liberalism of the 1960s. And they would fashion a tenant coalition that would thrust that new consciousness onto the councils of the city.
Tenant radicals failed at first to grasp the full implications of urban redevelopment or the vital necessity of maintaining good relations with housing liberals, the allies they would need in the struggles to follow. The misunderstanding began at Stuyvesant Town in 1943, when the United Tenants League's blanket endorsement of private-sector initiatives undercut what might have been a liberal-Left coalition to humanize the scale of Metropolitan Life's inner-city plans. The divergence widened as cold war suspicions poisoned relations between liberal Democrats and radicals, who seemed determined to politicize the OPA rent crisis for the Wallace presidential campaign. What were otherwise common grounds against redevelopment became further occasions for acrimony. In 1947, when tenant radicals belatedly tried to exploit the Jim Crow issue with their Tenants Committee Against Discrimination in Stuyvesant Town, liberals from the Citizens Housing Council, the American Jewish Committee, and the Ethical Culture Society responded with their own implicitly anti-Communist, open-housing lobby -- the New York State Committee on Discrimination in Housing. When liberals held a 1948 Conference on City Planning to challenge Moses's ideas for large-scale redevelopment, the tenant councils were noticeably absent. During the special mayoral election of 1950 ALP candidate Paul L. Ross snubbed Citizens Union queries about city planning, while two Republican property owners' candidates welcomed the notion of urban reconstruction limited by the vetoes of neighborhood planning boards. By then it was already too late to restore the splintered coalition.
This fateful division handed the initiative to Moses's redevelopment machine, a phalanx of experienced realtors and public contractors, many of them alumni of the New York City Housing Authority's largest clearance jobs and long reconciled to shoving thousands aside for housing progress. They found their instrument in the new law that Moses had helped draft, Title I of the Federal Housing Act of 1949. Title I authorized the U.S. Housing and Home Finance Administration to contribute two-thirds of the "write down" costs incurred by local redevelopment authorities to acquire and prepare "blighted" residential acreage for resale to private developers. It also contained formal safeguards for local, democratic decision making, such as public planning commission hearings to define blighted areas and city council votes to condemn property and to authorize the required, local one-third contribution. But it was generally acknowledged that Moses stood the system on its head. His Committee on Slum Clearance (CSC) secretly arranged with favored realtors to pick choice sites and cleared votes on the City Planning Commission and Board of Estimate before site residents could respond. The master of visionary blueprints, Moses drove his CSC staff to churn out a glossy agenda for the city's redevelopment: Corlears Hook, Harlem and North Harlem, Washington Square South, South Village, Williamsburg, Delancey Street, Manhattantown, Morningside-Manhattanville, and others, which would transform New York's cityscape and force at least one hundred thousand people from their homes by 1960.
While the CSC held the initiative in packaging and promoting projects, it was often forced to dicker with local opposition, play a game of divide and conquer, and wield as its trump card the promise (or threat) of public housing projects. In the complex shuffle among government agencies and civic groups, tenant groups usually played a peripheral, yet often influential, role, creating the tension that forced liberals to intervene. When the CSC unveiled its "Corlears Hook" Title I for the Lower East Side in 1950, the ALP and its Manhattan Tenants Council tried to organize the 878 site families, an effort joined by a few Socialists and the local Tammany congressman. But the project suffered no major delays, except for those involved in the removal of a few isolated Puerto Rican families and some small businesses along Grand Street. The CSC enjoyed much the same sway at "Godfrey-Nurse" and "North Harlem," Title I sites on the Harlem periphery. Both were praised in the black press, and none of the community's tenant groups challenged these efforts at redevelopment. CSC proposals for "Washington Square South" and "South Village," however, poked into a locale whose institutions ranged ideologically from St. Anthony's Roman Catholic parish to the Little Red School House. The intrusion on the Square roused a committee of old Moses foes, such as Charles Abrams and planner Robert C. Weinberg, and middle-class residents stirred by the area's brownstone heritage. A large, effective Village protest forced Moses to withdraw, but not before liberals conceded that some plan should be adopted "before local opposition crystallized to a point where no redevelopment in Greenwich Village could be accomplished." Some were ready to appease Moses with the "blight" to the south and east of West Broadway so that he might keep his hands off what they considered the real Village center.
"Manhattantown" (later renamed Park West) comprised six square blocks between 97th and 100th streets, Central Park West to Amsterdam Avenue, with five thousand families, which the CSC marked for clearance in 1951. ALP workers and their Manhattan Tenants Council, quickly arriving on the scene, helped tenants form an opposition group, gathered over a thousand protest signatures, and held demonstrations at city hall. In December 1951, local Protestant clergy and the editor of El Diario convened an emergency conference at the Grace Methodist Church on West 104th Street and denounced the dissolution of "one of the oldest Negro communities in New York outside of Harlem," a transparent strategy to force blacks and Puerto Ricans back across 110th Street. Few prominent liberals cried out against the proposal, while the controversy over relocation was defused when the state housing commissioner offered eighteen hundred public housing units for site families who cooperated. Nevertheless, the Manhattan Tenants Council, with Manhattantown protesters leading the way, rallied resisters in Harlem, North Harlem, and Manhattanville into a United Community to Save Our Homes, which brought suit against the Title I contracts in state supreme court. While fighting a losing cause, ALP radicals achieved two important breakthroughs. They had raised a rallying cry in Save Our Homes and had established the liaison that made possible citywide protests from scattered sites. In the process, their inflammatory, aggressive attacks had also unnerved liberals, who preferred urban redevelopment without incident.
How far liberals would go to suppress the contrary arguments presented by tenant radicals is revealed in the controversy surrounding the Title I project for Morningside Heights. The struggle against urban decay on this edge of Harlem dated back to 1947, when Columbia University and the Riverside Church founded Morningside Heights, Incorporated (MHI), a consortium of local churches, hospitals, and educational institutions to stimulate the upgrading of housing that would "stabilize" the area's "exposed fringes." Soon after enactment of Title I, David Rockefeller, chairman of the Riverside Church board of trustees, solicited Robert Moses's interest, particularly in potential superblocks north of 122d Street. Working closely with the CSC on redevelopment plans, MHI director Lawrence W. Orton organized a cadre of local redevelopment enthusiasts, the Morningside-Manhattanville Community Advisory Committee. With elaborate publicity, the CSC and MHI soon released plans for "Morningside," six high-rise middle-income, cooperative apartment buildings. As an afterthought, the CSC also announced it was trying to commit the Housing Authority to build sixteen hundred low-income units for "Manhattanville," the companion development straddling the Harlem boundary at 125th Street.
The developers, however, had not anticipated the anger of site residents nor the resourcefulness of local ALP radicals. Led by a site tenant Elizabeth Barker, ALP stalwarts organized a Save Our Homes committee operating out of an Amsterdam Avenue storefront. At preliminary Board of Estimate hearings, seventy residents warned lawmakers that "they would rather have no housing than housing not suited to their incomes." The head of the Community Advisory Committee, Father George F. Ford of Corpus Christi Church, also had to face his parishioners' resentment at being torn from everything familiar. Troubled by the unexpected hostility, particularly by the charge of "Negro removal," MHI considered reshaping the plan to attract the more amenable of the ALP radicals. MHI hoped to get a stronger Housing Authority commitment for the low-income Manhattanville component or perhaps a foundation to finance less expensive co-ops. Some suggested pursuing the inquiry from the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters to sponsor limited-dividend housing (north of 125th Street). Aware that they had to strengthen the promise of low-income housing to site residents, Father Ford, Orton, and Rockefeller conferred with Robert Moses about community "tensions." When Rockefeller suggested that the CSC emphasize its guarantee of adequate public housing, Moses petulantly questioned their own support for the project and warned that he would ask the Board of Estimate to defer consideration of the project at its November 15, 1951, meeting. In the meantime, the Committee to Save Our Homes collected five thousand signatures from site residents and rounded up several hundred persons for the Board of Estimate hearings. While the Housing Authority came through with $23,000,000 for "Manhattanville," with priority to families displaced from the Title I site, 250 protesters remained unmollified and boisterous. At the hearings, they sneered at the "luxury" co-ops that would force blacks back to "walled-in Harlem" and cried victory when the board laid the project over to spring 1952.
This delay provided both sides with time to regroup. MHI and the Community Advisory Committee hired social workers to organize a Manhattanville Civic Association, "a broadly-based cross-sectional organization for community improvement," open to "residents only." Nevertheless, Save Our Homes packed the association's first meeting, booed down a conciliatory resolution, and resolved "to see the high rent cooperative plan defeated." Furthermore, the Save Our Homes appeal to site residents increased over the winter, as tenants brooded over their uncertain future and landlords began to cut services in anticipation of imminent clearance. Save Our Homes well cultivated these concerns. It established a Tenant Information Service to advise on a wide range of rent control and Multiple Dwellings Law violations, while trying to maintain site residents' morale. For its part, MHI spent the winter lining up prestigious endorsements, including testimonials from the Liberal party, Negro Labor Committee, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and the Morningside Cooperative Society. Even so, the opposition proved more effective than ever. For the April 1952 Board of Estimate hearings, Save Our Homes orchestrated pleas from residents, a committee of small-store owners, and another parish priest. Before Elizabeth Barker was thrown out of the hearing, she "shocked," boasted the Daily Worker, seasoned professionals with her detailed analysis that showed the feasibility of nine-dollar-per-room public housing for the Morningside site. MHI regarded further Board of Estimate action as inadvisable and agreed to a delay until the fall, in hopes that the opposition would melt away with the first chance to apply for the co-op apartments.
During spring and summer 1952, when much of Truman liberalism seemed under a cloud, anxieties among redevelopment liberals and Washington's impatience with Title I in New York reached a crisis. Both were crystallized to a great degree by the Save Our Homes furor. In March, liberals on the influential Citizens Housing and Planning Council (CHPC) warned Washington that Robert Moses's cavalier practices had risked "an unfavorable public reaction" against Title I, especially when "Communist dominated groups are piling misrepresentations and falsehoods on top of the weak relocation structure." When the Housing and Home Finance Administration dismissed these fears, the CHPC argued for a "go slow" policy that would allow only one major clearance project, as an experiment in the careful relocation of site tenants. After fruitless negotiations with the city, the CHPC, joined by the NAACP, United Neighborhood Houses, and Americans for Democratic Action, publicized its opposition, warning about the mischief of "Communist dominated groups" and the adverse impact on Title I of relocation that was "improperly handled." Liberals' anxieties had some justification. In May 1952 delegates from sixty-two civic and housing organizations met at the McBurney YMCA to protest the entire Title I program, the loyalty oath for public housing tenants, and Metropolitan Life's racial quotas at Stuyvesant Town. Several Save Our Homes groups were featured, along with vivid testimony of hardships faced by black and Puerto Rican refugees from site demolition. The ALP was also behind the Chelsea Tenants Council's efforts to defy the New York Port Authority's clearance of five thousand residents from the approaches of the Lincoln Tunnel. In a well-organized campaign, the Chelsea Tenants leafleted buildings, advised tenants to band together against demolition, and vowed to delay evictions for years.
Threats to urban redevelopment -- the good Title I projects along with the bad -- forced housing liberals to choose between the Moses program and the Save Our Homes intransigents. Many remained silent or vented an uneasiness, which to Moses was as useful as silence. While the State Committee Against Discrimination (SCAD), for instance, conveyed to the Board of Estimate its displeasure toward the CSC's Title I work, its criticism remained behind the scenes. Its intervention was limited to a quiet study of relocated families from Title I sites and to cooperation with the CHPC and the American Jewish Committee on a City-Wide Committee on Housing Relocation Problems. Supporters later conceded that the City-Wide Committee was "marked with confusion as to purpose and method" and never united on a program. SCAD, for its part, failed to fill the breach. While worried that the Save Our Homes zealots might dominate the debate against Title I and relocation and fearful that it was forfeiting involvement in "one of the city's most serious minority housing problems," SCAD nevertheless voted not to assume "any great responsibilities" in the relocation controversy.
Moses's prodding finally forced committed redevelopment liberals off the fence. Skillfully exaggerating Housing and Home Finance Administration's doubts about the city's Title I progress, including Morningside-Manhattanville, Moses warned that he too might lose interest in the Morningside package. This was enough for MHI to assemble the ultimate sales pitch, which included dubious census data to make a "stronger case for physical deterioration" of the site, Father Ford's personal lament that his parishioners were fleeing "this festering sore," and CSC data on the influx of low-income groups that "definitely proves that it is deteriorating and it is blighted." MHI director Orton made the rounds at Housing and Home Finance, while his staff experts in cooperative housing reached influential Democrats on Capitol Hill. A few days later Truman administration officials gave their hearty endorsement, which also broke the logjam in the city. Further Board of Estimate hearings were rendered academic, although the Save Our Homes contingent had become so versed in Title I technical manuals that it raised embarrassing, largely unanswerable questions about the CSC's plans for relocation. The Board of Estimate braved three hundred diehard protesters and approved Morningside-Manhattanville on January 15, 1953.
In defeat, Save Our Homes managed to hang on in a caretaker role. Still dominating Manhattanville Civic Association meetings, the group turned its expertise to strictly practical questions, such as Do you sign a loyalty oath before entering projects? Is a woman with children, but no husband, eligible for public housing? Will the city pay moving expenses? Elizabeth Barker's message mixed cold fury with sound advice for desperate site tenants -- "Organize to save rent control. Every week we'll have a meeting somewhere, even in the apartments. Don't get hysterical. Keep people in the houses. Don't race around." Both Save Our Homes and the Manhattanville Civic Association continued to dispense rent and relocation advice and to hold weekly information nights that emphasized the peculiar rights of relocatees. "As long as you remain here and pay your rent, you are a project site tenant. The City and Morningside Heights are required by Law to help you." Save Our Homes remained active on the site as late as 1954, when it sponsored a bitter dispute contesting MHI's "diligence and sincerity" in carrying out its relocation responsibilities. But as demolition proceeded, it remained a champion of only a forlorn remnant, the large number of blacks and Hispanics struggling for "reasonable offers" for public housing or private rentals.
During the Title I controversy, tenant opposition proved more substantial and liberal critics played far more ambiguous roles than observers have heretofore admitted. Much of the time, Moses was careful to direct his Committee on Slum Clearance onto marginal black and Hispanic neighborhoods, generally isolated, unorganized, and "invisible" in the early 1950s. Harlem's few tenant groups remained significantly still. Jesse Gray's Harlem Tenants Council, an ALP faction hanging on in the ghetto, was too weak to serve as an instrument of mass agitation. The venerable Consolidated Tenants League was a mere specter, clinging to its clientage with the Housing Authority. What remained were scattered lower-middle-class ALP clubs and Save Our Homes committees. But their rhetoric and motives were already discounted as Communist-tainted by liberal housing reformers. The liberals remained ad hoc committees of committees, with little grass roots support and too much faith in back-room consciousness-raising, hardly an even match with the best bureaucratic infighter of his time. Of course, liberals might "go public" with their doubts, but not with the impact of a Moses publicity barrage. Besides, in the early 1950s SCAD and the American Jewish Committee were preoccupied with providing open access to housing for the City's racial minorities, an effort that won passage of the Austin-Wicks and the Brown-Isaacs laws, which barred discrimination in state- and city-aided projects. These triumphs, accompanied by bitter SCAD attacks on the spurious aid given minorities by Communists and the ALP, ironically provided nondiscriminatory seals of approval on the Title I program, if not on its methods of relocation. But the distinction was lost on the public and, when it counted, on the liberals as well. They went along with the ends, if not the means, of Moses's redevelopment. They tried to hold out for adequate, humane relocation. But when that position meant jeopardizing glittering high rises or aligning closely with Save Our Homes radicals, the liberals began to weigh the costs of their quibbling intervention.
During the winter of 1953-1954, lingering tenant anger had combined with the liberals' criticism of relocation to shape a new sensitivity in Washington and New York toward bulldozer removal. The Dwight D. Eisenhower administration, anxious to lower federal spending on Title I, approved the new concept of urban "renewal" in the Housing Act of 1954. Newly elected mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr., an astute compromiser, tried to find some middle ground between Czar Moses and the housing liberals who worried about the social cost of redevelopment. The new sensitivity was skeptical about large-scale clearance for high-rise apartment slabs on superblocks, but enthusiastic about small-scale brownstones and townhouses and their networks of middle-class families. It was strong enough to force Moses to choose his targets with more care, and it gave opponents far more powerful weapons to resist his encroachments. Yet, while angry lower-middle-class tenants had helped shape this new appreciation for small-scale urbanism, its immediate beneficiaries were upper-middle-income preservationists, the first wave of the new era of urban "gentry."
Moses still scored his victories, but they came on carefully prepared ground, through indirection rather than frontal assault and from opponents already softened by the promise of relocation to public housing. In December 1953 the Board of Estimate gave the preliminary go-ahead to yet another Title I project, controversial "Washington Square Southeast." While Greenwich Villagers were up in arms, their real outrage may well have been the realization that many had unwittingly contributed to the plan's audacious cynicism. Moses had apparently remembered liberals' suggestions about the Village's undesirable "fringes," when they defeated his "South Village" proposal in 1951. This time, Moses refashioned his dream of an arterial highway through Washington Square with a redevelopment package between West Broadway and Mercer Street and the low-income Mary K. Simkhovitch Houses slated for the "South Village" site. Preservationists and New York University officials had been won over by the promised stability of real estate near the park, while liberals again conceded the inevitability of redevelopment for commercial buildings and "narrow truck-clogged streets" on the southeast. Villagers objected to public housing south of Houston Street and were adamant against the highway through their beloved park. But while liberals and ADA-ers sniped at the plan's expensive apartments and the bisected park, an unexpected dissident group, the Lower West Side Civic League, speaking for tenement residents and small manufacturers, lashed out against the proposed Simkhovitch Houses: "'Slum clearance' here would mean clearing out of crowded slums in Harlem and elsewhere into these Village projects." In the end, Moses rammed through the Board of Estimate most of his original plan for Washington Square Southeast, including the high rises and arterial roadway. But he could not have done so without NYU and the Washington Square Association. He also appreciated the "Italian interests" in whose behalf he killed the Simkhovitch Houses, his expendable bargaining chip all along.
The next near-crisis in the Title I program was also occasioned by mounting tenant protest, but this time against a backdrop of civic dismay about scandalous contracts at Manhattantown. During 1955, sordid facts began to dribble out about lucrative deals made with CSC insiders, while the plight of site tenants became an ugly and undeniable issue for city policymakers. In February, after a tenant was killed at half-demolished Godfrey-Nurse, Jesse Gray's Harlem Tenants Council leafleted the surrounding neighborhood. Urban League officials and Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., then met Moses, who would not concede much. He merely assigned an aide to speed relocation, while pledging quick demolition of dangerous, abandoned tenements under his control. But the controversy would not subside, as Harlem agitation touched off intervention by outside liberals. During summer 1955, attorney Harris Present, Urban League secretary Edward Lewis, and Ira S. Robbins of the CHPC organized the City-Wide Committee on Housing Relocation Problems, which stirred newspaper inquiries about the fate of Title I site residents. The backlog of site residents awaiting new shelter had "seriously impeded" the program's progress, acknowledged realtor James Felt, one of Moses's most influential supporters. Facing another grave challenge, Moses threw down one of his support-me-or-I-quit ultimatums to Mayor Wagner. His threats to bring all construction to a halt forced the Board of Estimate's approval of clearance projects then pending, abruptly thrusting aside the relocation debate. The City-Wide Committee on Housing Relocation Problems had split down the middle about confronting the mayor and chose not to do so, while State Rent Commissioner Charles Abrams contented himself with Moses's reassurance that site residents would have the full protection of the Multiple Dwellings Law until their homes were razed. Again, housing liberals had backed down rather than force a confrontation.
The resolved crisis, however, raised the curtain on widespread discontent, stirred by a loose coalition of civic and neighborhood groups, which enjoyed unprecedented attention from city agencies. With fears that two thousand low-income Yorkville families faced imminent eviction for speculative construction, State Rent Commissioner Abrams in November 1955 conducted hearings with witnesses from the Lenox Hill Neighborhood Association, Yorkville Save Our Homes, and other tenant groups. In Greenwich Village, Moses's plans for the four-lane artery through Washington Square faced a formidable new antagonist, the irrepressible Village Voice, and neighborhood groups ready to block traffic with their bodies. By January 1956 a coalition led by the Department of Church Planning and Research of the Protestant Council, SCAD, and Harris Present, chairman of the new City Council on Relocation Practices, met at the West Side ADA to condemn the Title I program and the havoc of relocation. Commanding new media attention, public agencies again nerved themselves to intervene. The city council, provoked by the Lenox Hill Neighborhood Association and Yorkville Save Our Homes, held week-long hearings during which East Harlem and Yorkville tenants told how speculative landlords thrived on "human misery." The Urban League urged the city to repossess Manhattantown, Godfrey-Nurse, and North Harlem for public housing sites, while the Women's City Club and Charles Abrams recommended a moratorium on slum clearance. At this juncture, the regional housing and home finance administrator charged that the CSC's laxity had allowed private sponsors to run four Title I projects close to default.
Shrewdly, Moses focused the Title I debate on his own terrain -- the Lincoln Square site, where he could present a dazzling cultural center to the liberal cognoscenti and an elaborate relocation package for 6,018 site families. He appointed a special CSC group on relocation, then announced that 25 percent of the displaced would be guaranteed public housing. When Lincoln Square residents began continuous picketing at city hall and sent a telegram blitz to federal officials, Moses brought his enormous pressure to bear. While the CSC made glib promises of five hundred co-op units on the site and public housing nearby, Moses threatened to resign unless Title I got more "cooperation" from the Wagner administration. Finally, he tossed some conciliatory gestures at the housing liberals. He sent the new City Planning Commission chairman James Felt to an ADA luncheon to defend the city's relocation record and to argue that slum clearance could not await complete solutions to relocation. To the Citizens Housing and Planning Council, Felt made a more significant offer. His City Planning Commission would study the Upper West Side near Lincoln Square as a possible new "urban renewal area," presumably safe from large-scale demolition.
Moses would carry on other projects after Lincoln Square, but he came up against steadfast, skilled opposition by neighborhood groups. When Moses pressed his arterial roadway through Washington Square in 1958, he encountered twenty-two ad hoc organizations that held meetings and collected thirty thousand names on petitions, and the Village Voice, which helped organize the insurgency. That spring, the park savers, led by Jane Jacobs and Eleanor Roosevelt, icon of the Village Reform Democrats, put tremendous pressure on the Wagner administration and Carmine DeSapio's Tammany organization finally to bar Moses's automobiles from Washington Square. When the CSC earmarked 8.3 acres between 24th and 27th streets east of Third Avenue for redevelopment, a new group, Gramercy Park Neighbors, spiritedly lobbied for the alternative of rehabilitation and selective demolition. On the East Side, Sloan-Kettering Hospital's expansion plans, thwarted by the Lenox Hill Neighborhood Association and Yorkville Save Our Homes, produced an agreement in which the medical center's real estate developers would absorb the costs of private relocation. And on the Lower East Side, CSC proposals for Title I co-ops at Cooper Square touched off local tenant opposition organized by East Side settlement worker Selma Burdick, who had close contacts with Planning Commissioner James Felt.
By 1959 both the institutional and ideological support for Title I had completely eroded. Shaken by controversy over "unjust" evictions, growing youth-gang violence, and "the behavior of the problem families... [that] threatened the reputation of the whole housing movement," the New York City Housing Authority was undergoing a not-so-quiet crisis. Some observers argued that the New York system needed a two-year "breathing spell" on new tenant admissions "to concentrate on building a more favorable reputation of the projects." The Housing Authority could no longer be that convenient dumping ground where Title I developers "externalized" the costs of relocation. In mid-1959 the New York Times climaxed a half decade of growing doubt with a devastating review of urban redevelopment, which concluded that Title I had destroyed much of the housing of the poor and given them no alternative but the impersonal, crime-ridden public projects. Searching for a way out, many planning experts focused on James Felt's "spot" renewal, advocated with growing vehemence by community groups on the Upper West Side, at Cooper Square, in Greenwich Village, and in Chelsea. That year, when an outraged Citizens Union documented the insiders deals between the CSC and Tammany realtors, Mayor Wagner scrapped the CSC for a new Housing and Redevelopment Board dominated by James Felt and realtor J. Clarence Davies. Both were liberals with a reputation for listening to neighborhood views on redevelopment and for sympathy to selective "renewal" rather than bulldozer clearance. Subsequent observers, such as Jeanne R. Lowe and Robert Caro, related these changes to the liberals' outcries, to good-government audits, and to newspaper scrutiny given Title I after 1957. But more important was the crisis in public housing, the growing neighborhood opposition, and the citywide coalition of tenants up in arms. In the climate largely shaped by tenants themselves, housing liberals could no longer turn a deaf ear to their protest.
The new tenant voice emerged with the spring 1959 formation of the Metropolitan Council on Housing from tenant councils and neighborhood protest groups across the city. Its first meetings revealed visible links with the past, such as Helen Harris from the Bronx Council on Tenants and Housing (which was still holding daily rent advisement at the same storefront, 910 Southern Boulevard); Esther Rand and Frances Goldin, veteran ALP organizers from the Lower East Side now involved in the recent turmoil at Cooper Square; and Jane and Robert Wood, from the Chelsea Tenants Center. There were new faces, fresh from the war against Title I: Miriam Moody and Edward Schaffer of Gramercy Park Neighbors, a middle class protest group; Staughton Lynd, from Cooper Square; and social work liberals from the University Settlement and the Community Council of Greater New York, who reflected the growing unrest among tenants on welfare and the "advocacy" movement in casework ranks. Their joining into the most influential radical housing voice since the old City-Wide Tenants Council was an auspicious event in the city's postwar history. For the first time since the chilled anti-Communist atmosphere of the early 1950s, a political thaw had allowed Save Our Homes radicals to project their viewpoints on citywide forums and expect to be heard.
But if the political climate gave Met Council's radicals the opportunity, the new liberals' enthusiasm for "neighborhood renewal" made it imperative for them to act. Across the city, public interest was turning away from Moses and toward the neighborhood liberals' gearing up of the first pilot programs in community renewal. In the late 1950s, Chelsea's influential settlement house, the Hudson Guild, transforming a small rent clinic into a broad, paternalistic intervention in community housing, had provided the prototype for local tenement rehabilitation that the Wagner administration later formalized as the Neighborhood Conservation Program. In Yorkville, the luxury apartment boom along Third Avenue forced the Lenox Hill Neighborhood Association to similar efforts at ameliorative housing action. A Lenox Hill staff worker, Victor Remer, organized the Yorkville Housing Committee, which started with tenant counciling and wound up as the planning agency for middle-income cooperative housing to "maintain a balanced community." In both neighborhoods, Save Our Homes radicals dismissed these as clumsy attempts by liberals to fashion a more palatable kind of Title I clearance.
By spring 1959, however, liberals' initiatives could no longer be shrugged off. Liberal Democrats and their trade union allies at the United Housing Foundation held a "slum prevention" conference at which they proposed housing rehabilitation for the Upper West Side. In a throwback to Octavia Hill paternalism, the headworkers of participating settlements would undertake rent collection and social counseling at the properties undergoing renewal. The conference was followed by the Wagner administration's proposals for a centralized relocation bureaucracy to identify available shelter and expedite relocation. By then, as well, Victor Remer's Yorkville success had brought him into the Wagner administration's Neighborhood Conservation Program. It was still in the start-up stage and working under federal demonstration grants in Harlem (coordinated by the Community Service Society), the Lower West Side (by the Hudson Guild), and Bedford-Stuyvesant (by another settlement, Colony House). But Remer was a tireless advocate of the idea that housing blight could be reversed by combining city assistance to landlords and consultative service to tenants. As so conceived, Neighborhood Conservation amounted to a strategy of community maintenance involving close cooperation between city agencies civic groups, and landlords, with tenants and their spokesmen left out in the cold.
Many Met Council charter members had had their brushes with the liberals' brand of community renewal. Jane and Robert Wood's perspectives had been shaped by a messy tenant fight against redevelopment in Chelsea. Their Chelsea Save Our Homes had originally joined hands with the local settlement, the Hudson Guild, on the Chelsea Community Council, but they could not go along when Guild headworker H. Daniel Carpenter insisted on cooperation with the relocation efforts on the "Penn South" Title I. Save Our Homes' withdrawal split the Community Council, but its vow to continue the fight against Penn South carried many neighbors along. The Woods were a tough, yet self-effacing, mix of Catholic Worker pietism and early 1930s confrontation. "We are not a rent clinic," Jane Wood told an interviewer in 1962. "We pick out the worst houses on a block -- and we go in and organize the tenants." They earned the loyalties of the neighborhood's working-class Catholics and its old-line political club, Horatio Seymour Democrats, while somehow managing to stay on good terms with the predominantly Jewish reformers, the New Chelsea Democrats. At a meeting at the Horatio Seymour Club in late 1962, Jane Wood pilloried Carpenter for lending his support to the Wagner administration's Neighborhood Conservation Program and charged that it would rival Title I as a ravager of tenants.
The most creative tenant efforts came out of the University Settlement's confrontation with Title I at Cooper Square on the Lower East Side. In the late 1950s, University Settlement had thrown off its recreation-room traditions in the struggle to defeat the "Delancey" Title I. During that stand, when the community learned to distrust city officials and big-shot landlords, the University Settlement formed the One Mile Neighborhood Council, a self-conscious grass roots organization that prided itself on "open" meetings and no formal hierarchies. Thus the area's dissident groups had already been blooded when the Committee on Slum Clearance announced plans for the "Cooper Square" Title I -- twelve square blocks between the Bowery -- Third Avenue and Second Avenue, north of Delancey Street. The CSC envisioned 1,800 middle-income cooperative units on land already occupied by 2,400 housing units, mainly old law tenements, and some 450 furnished rooms and 4,000 lodging-house beds that served homeless men on the Bowery. Moses's bulldozers would have also swept away 400 small businesses, two churches, and the Cooper Square Settlement.
Based on past practice, site tenants would have responded with protests organized by a local Save Our Homes committee, with which, in fact, Frances Goldin had already begun on the One Mile Neighborhood Council But several social workers, touched by a radicalism alloyed with a sense of Christian witness, had other ideas. Staughton Lynd, caught between social work and American history at Columbia University, was working at the University Settlement in early 1959 when he broke with the headworker's apparent acceptance of the Title I project. He joined Thelma Burdick of the Cooper Square Settlement and Walter Thabit, a maverick city planner at the New School for Social Research, to discuss alternatives to what Moses was banding down. At the outset, Lynd and Thabit agreed that Cooper Union, the churches, and other indigenous institutions had to be preserved as anchors in any renewal plan. They went on to attack relocation provisions, which they suspected the CSC had woefully underestimated. Lynd and Thabit conducted their own site survey, with Sarah Lawrence students going house to house among five hundred residents, finding that many were tightly-knit Italians who wanted to hold on to their modest apartments. In the meantime, Frances Goldin and Esther Rand organized a system of block and house captains that brought out local residents to noisy protests at Cooper Square and city hall during 1959 and 1960.
Through the Met Council network -- organizers from Jane Benedict's Yorkville Save Our Homes -- and money from the J. M. Kaplan Fund, alternative planning went forward. Lynd coordinated a series of presentations to public meetings of site residents, while Thabit's professional staff shaped up the final renderings. On July 31, 1961, what was now the Cooper Square Community Development Committee and Businessmen's Association presented the Wagner administration with its version of the future of Cooper Square. Boldly challenging the CSC's plan to raze nine blocks between Delancey and Ninth streets, Thabit's alternative spared five blocks and depicted an imaginative mix of high rises and open space along Third Avenue. It contained ample provision for housing middle- and lower-income site residents, plus artists' lofts and single-room-occupancy space (although even Thabit's plan, while recognizing the Bowery's "function" as a haven for homeless men, suggested that the flophouses be relocated south of Delancey Street). Thabit's work at Cooper Square was an impressive debut for "advocacy planning," as young architects in the 1960s would soon proclaim.
The heart of Met Council, however, lay within its largest, most reliable affiliate, the Yorkville Save Our Homes Committee, run by Jane Benedict. Involved with radical white-collar unions in the 1930s, Benedict had gravitated to ALP clubhouse politics in Yorkville, working in Congressman Marcantonio's last campaigns and running (unsuccessfully) for local office. As the last chairman of the Yorkville ALP club on East 70th Street, she provided a decent interment for the local party when the wave of luxury high-rise construction hit the area in 1955. Rent control laws had never prohibited evictions that landlords claimed necessary for new residential construction, a loophole that particularly affected the elderly who lived on fixed incomes and were the least able to secure new shelter. This hard fact gave Benedict's tenant work its modus operandi and salient issue -- individualized tenant casework that appealed to the elderly and a "moratorium" or complete halt to evictions and to the destruction of existing housing for new luxury units. When the old ALP cadre called a community protest meeting, several hundred packed the Jan Hus House to form the Yorkville Save Our Homes Committee. But once the excitement against gentrification died down, Benedict and her ALP veterans settled Yorkville Save Our Homes into the daily community services reminiscent of the old ALP clubhouses. Their work depended upon a seven-person executive committee, which everyone admitted depended upon the dominating presence of Jane Benedict. She and her handful of loyalists did the typing, ran the mimeo, licked the stamps, and passed out leaflets. They had neither the troops nor the inclination to engage in rent strikes; nor did they ever mount door-to-door campaigns to sign up supporters. Benedict recalled "a great reliance on the rent control laws, on filing forms." Tenants were urged to visit the Jan Hus House for advice on approaching city departments to request improvements in services and the Temporary State Rent Commission to apply for reductions in rents, and not to panic upon receiving an eviction notice. By the late 1950s, Yorkville Save Our Homes had become a reliable, comforting fixture in the community.
For a while, Met Council was more taken with the impetuous program of Staughton Lynd than with the routine tenant work of Jane Benedict. Lynd personified Met Council's first duels against the housing policies of Wagner administration liberals. Lynd, Burdick, and the other veterans from Cooper Square gave Met Council its early involvement in alternative planning, which they conceived as a powerful instrument to give people control of their neighborhoods. Their standing committees launched inquiries into Multiple Dwellings Law violations, the continued Title I program, and the City Master Plan and followed these with sophisticated press releases to housing reporters at the New York Times and New York Post. In 1959, Met Council contested the last attempts by the CSC to extend Title I and disputed relocation plans at Lincoln Square and Cooper Square. In the public opinion war for Chelsea Title I, it prepared a conference of academics and community groups in 1960 that amounted to ambitious intervention in the planning process. Like the City-Wide Tenants Council of the late 1930s, Met Council's agenda had ranged far beyond the boundaries of "tenant issues."
Met Council's forays into the realm of housing and city planning were always held hostage by particular interests caught up with rent control. The council's center of gravity remained the Yorkville radicals, who had the tightest coalition of support among elderly tenants and small businessmen, who could stage the most impressive street rallies and who possessed their blunt solution for city planning issues, the "moratorium" on demolition.
Events during 1961, when both state rent control and the Wagner administration were up for extension, showed how Met Council's large visions could become subordinate to the trivial debates orchestrated by the politicians. Early that year, Met Council, at the zenith of its influence, had forged a united front with the Manhattan Reform Democratic movement, which had made rent counciling a mainstay of its clubhouse routine. Yorkville assemblyman Mark Lane, supported by Met Council and Yorkville Save Our Homes, led a diverse coalition into the Housing Emergency Legislative Program (HELP), to coordinate mass demonstrations in the city and Albany that would "save" rent control. Under HELP auspices, Met Council and Assemblyman Lane's East Side organization held rallies, distributed thousands of leaflets, and bussed fifteen hundred protesters to Albany, where they demanded an end to loopholes in the rent laws and an immediate moratorium on demolitions. They dominated the legislative rent hearings with descriptions of wanton landlords whose unconscionable "hardship" applications forced thousands onto the streets. Jane Benedict ridiculed suggestions of liberals on the CHPC and United Neighborhood Houses for a modest leeway on controls and called their proposed 15 percent rent increase "a stab in the back." Again and again she referred lawmakers to Yorkville and other neighborhoods, where landlords had leveled twenty thousand low-income units to build luxury apartments starting at sixty dollars per room. But for all the fury, the Nelson A. Rockefeller administration rammed rent control, only slightly revised, through the legislature, after which Mayor Wagner, blaming the law's shortcomings on the Republicans, handily won reelection.
Having joined the Wagner Democrats against the enemies of rent control, Met Council radicals found themselves stuck with a mayoral administration quite smug about the 1961 extension package. At the third annual Met Council conference in November 1961, members adopted the idea of mass demonstrations for the "moratorium." Assemblyman Lane called for "mass action" to force a tenement repair bill out of legislative committee. Keynote speaker Harris Present, citing the methods "used by the sit-in and Freedom Riders," called on Met Council to "court mass evictions" to win the "moratorium." But the politicians again pulled the rug out from under this militance. In spring 1962 Governor Rockefeller had the legislature hand the headache of rent control administration to the city. Mayor Wagner then proceeded to make controls "a supple and powerful instrument" within his "new look" housing program. He ordered his new Rent and Rehabilitation Administration (RRA) to make controls "serve the positive purpose of encouraging rehabilitation and repair" within an expanded program of "neighborhood conservation." To critics, such as Met Council, who contended that rehabilitation would outweigh controls at RRA, Wagner countered that for the first time a single agency "had the tools required to assist owners in rehabilitating rent controlled property while retaining rents which present tenants will be able to afford."
Throughout 1962 the mayor posed as the champion of tenant interests. His Rent and Rehabilitation Administration plugged GOP rent "loopholes" and cultivated the support of organized tenants on the RRA Citizens Advisory Committee. He publicized tough standards against rent-increase applications for major capital improvements and new procedures to permit a complaint on behalf of several tenants that could be filed by their representative from the community. Tenants still tried to insinuate themselves in the policy debate. When Rent Administrator Hortense Gabel reported a December 1962 vacancy rate of 1.8 percent as continued evidence of the "oppressive" rental market, but argued for phased decontrol of luxury housing she was jumped on by Met Council, which called her suggestion an outright attack on controls. City takeover had given tenant groups greater access to rent administrators, especially when Met Council broke bread with Manhattan's Reform Democrats. But Mayor Wagner built his successful third-term reelection on the skilled absorption of Reform, and his Rent and Rehabilitation Administration stood an even chance of repeating that coup with the tenant radicals. Certainly, Hortense Gabel was in the position to initiate policy, set the parameters of the rent control debate, and reduce Met Council to little more than reflex action.
At a time when New York liberalism -- and the Wagner administration in particular -- was shaping the most creative housing programs since the city's liberation from Title I, Met Council radicals were demonstrating a decided turn toward tenant traditionalism. Already put on the defensive by press releases from Rent and Rehabilitation, Met Council suspected any measures that would weaken controls and saw the prime threat in RRA's rehabilitation policy. Met Council never did accept the concept of rehabilitation or the popular variants of the mid-1960s -- neighborhood conservation and historic preservation. "We who live in areas where we have seen such rehabilitation," claimed Jane Benedict, "know that its ultimate purpose... is to get rid of the low-income people living there." In June 1963 Met Council launched an assault on the Neighborhood Conservation Program. Tenant investigators looked beyond remodeled buildings to the relocation load. They found that Neighborhood Conservation's war on building code violations was really focused on alleged overoccupancy, which explained why 1,444 families had been displaced since the program's inception. Met Council concluded that "overoccupancy" was a racist euphemism, since 95 percent of those displaced were blacks and Puerto Ricans, forced from "integrated" communities such as Chelsea back to ghettoes such as Bedford-Stuyvesant and the South Bronx. The Chelsea Tenant Council added, "Neighborhood Conservation means the green light to real estate speculators who would like to turn Chelsea into another Yorkville or Greenwich Village."
Met Council called instead for "true" conservation based on a sweeping moratorium against demolition of habitable structures, accelerated construction of public housing on vacant land, and strict enforcement of the Multiple Dwellings Law. Either landlords would bring their properties up to standards or they would lose their properties to a city receiver and go to jail. But this adamance estranged Met Council from liberals, as Jane Benedict recognized in her testimony at the September 1963 City Planning Commission hearings. She defensively explained that Met Council did not "oppose the idea of rehabilitation... but is opposed to loading the burden of payments on tenants." That burden equitably belonged to landlords, she argued, forwarding a Met Council plan for a city loan bank that would extend twenty-year, low-interest financing for rehabilitation, plus limited tax abatement, to enable owners to shoulder the costs without raising rents. To suggest otherwise, as did Rent Commissioner Gabel, who ventured that modest increases should cover some of the costs and that most tenants should expect to spend up to 25 percent of their income on rent, was to invite a cold disdain. "A new figure loomed ominously at the hearings," was the way Met Council's Tenant News reported Gabel's participation. Tenants throughout the city were invited to "figure out for yourself" what the 25 percent limit would mean.
Despite the first New Left calls for "mass action" by tenants, Met Council remained dominated by older Leftists who looked with mixed envy and uneasiness on the ferment underway in the city. Not until summer 1962, in response to the civil rights agitation sweeping Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant, did Met Council move from the conference room and legislative lobby to the streets, and then only with great caution. In June it sponsored an Organize Your House campaign, with a series of street rallies on the edges of Manhattan's garment center. Lunch-hour crowds were handed leaflets, printed in English and Spanish, that advised "What the Law Says Your Landlord Must Do." Leaders were surprised by the "gratifying" response, but the effort at mass mobilization was never sustained. At Met Council's November 1962 annual conference, the focus was again on advocacy planning, including a "fresh look" from several prominent planners. The resulting publicity justified a series of miniconclaves, Met Council "roundtables," that brought community activists to talk about racial integration, community participation, public housing, and rent control. Met Council regarded these forums as highly effective instruments for citywide consciousness-raising.
Met Council's attitude toward tenant mobilization remained stodgy and conservative, until it was swept along by the civil rights movement in 1963. Although the clique around Jane Benedict at Yorkville Save Our Homes realized the need to react to the vogue in mass action, it ended up making a feeble gesture in the streets. Throughout summer 1963 it announced "vigorous" petition drives and street-corner meetings. But the Yorkville mobilization, which anticipated the December 1963 rent control hearings, was aimed at the media and downtown liberals. An actual canvas of Yorkville tenements still remained a novel, untried idea. That summer, Met Council had reached an acknowledged "milestone," with a special committee to "organize tenants throughout the city and to coordinate the work of [Met] Council affiliates." It proved a very tentative step toward mass involvement. Its largest direct operation -- among tenants at Seward Park Extension -- was really the work of local radicals. Otherwise, the new committee devoted its energies to street rallies on behalf of its traditional program, strong rent controls. While Met Council's Tenant News was filled with talk about sending organizers to "trouble spots" around the city, few were exploited. The mobilization, such as it was, went into overdrive for the December 1963 city council hearings on rent control, when locals collected signatures on huge petitions. In September 1963, when Met Council was joined by the Brooklyn-based Organized Tenants, Inc., and the Tenant Association of New York to form the Action Committee of Tenants, the largest tenant consortium since the 1930s set a remarkably circumscribed goal, "a huge rally and demonstration outside rent control hearings scheduled for December at the City Council." On the eve of the great Harlem rent rebellion, Met Council served notice that it would take on no large cause.
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