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Friday, August 15, 2008
Three Layers of Housing Development in East New York Expose Society's Priorities

The neighborhood of East New York, Brooklyn, offers an interesting window into the changing values of American society over the 20th and early 21st centuries, as expressed through architecture. The different types of buildings that exist there trace the neighborhood and city from optimistic heyday to a society that had retreated from the public realm and turned inward, to the current revitalization.

Walking around the neighborhood it is clear that there have been three types of urban growth to be built over the years. I'll describe each one and speculate about what the architecture says about the people who built each layer.

Layer 1: Early 20th Century Row Houses

The first wave of major development came during the first three decades of the 20th century between the 1903 opening of the Williamsburg Bridge and the opening of the BRT subway c. 1908 and the IRT subway in 1922. The photo at the top shows examples of the residences built during these years: two story rowhouses often with wide porches. Here's another photo.

These porches provided the occupants of each building with a front-window into neighborhood life and social interaction. Today's residents have maintained the tradition by putting chairs up. These sturdy buildings, flush with and enclosing the street, stood for some sixty years. Then the neighborhood entered the crisis decades in New York's history, the 1960s and 70s, with the associated white flight from the city, arson, high crime and general mayhem and urban decay. One intellectual current during this time was the notion of "planned shrinkage" advanced by Roger Starr, which advocated curtailing city services (like police and fire protection) to neighborhoods like East New York and the South Bronx that by the 1960s had a low-income population. The goal was to allow these neighborhoods to lose population so that there would be enough money to keep the city center flourishing.

For further reading on planned shrinkage and the crisis decades more broadly, see Jill Jonnes, South Bronx Rising; Walter Thabit, How East New York Became a Ghetto; Deborah and Rodrick Wallace, A Plague on Your Houses; Roberta Brandes Gratz, The Living City (ch. 7 on planned shrinkage, ch. 8 on urban dispersal); and many others.

The policies did what they were intended to do, and by the 1980s, East New york was filled with blocks and blocks of empty lots, with just a few scattered buildings remaining. But lo and behold, people still needed homes, and people still wanted to live in East New York.

Layer 2: 1980s to Today: The Nehemiah Houses

All this empty land tempted officials like Ira D. Robbins into large-scale development representing a kind of suburbanization of formerly urban land, similar to but not quite as egregious as what happened at Charlotte Street. This is what Jane Jacobs would condemn as "Cataclysmic Development," or too much development happening at one time. But worse, she would say, not only was it large scale, it was too low density, lacking in the concentration of people needed to create that inherent advantage that the city enjoys over suburbia: a robust and active street life.

Robbins was aware of Jane Jacobs' ideas about what makes a healthy city, and it seems they touched a nerve. He called her and those with similar ideas: "ignorant, neurotic, dishonest, slanderous, disorderly, and disgusting."

And when Kathryn Wylde, then president of the NYC Housing Partnership, suggested that infill and rehabilitation would be preferable to clearance and mass-production, he replied that such thinking was "the legacy of the soft, muddle-headed Jane Jacobs cult of the 60's." So the result is the Nehemiah Houses. Block after block of low-density sameness that makes it difficult to build more vibrant neighborhoods that could house more people.

Monotonous and cheap, the Nehemiah Houses, worse, are withdrawn from public space not only by the fact that they are set back from the street but from the fact that, though they are often within walking distance to public transportation, they encourage occupants to zip in and out without seeing one another via use of the private car.

Here is how they look side by side with the first layer of housing growth.

But these houses represent more than the will of a handful of folks who prefered a particular type of construction. They represent broad societal changes, too. Between the4 1920s and the 1980s there had been a broad reordering of priorities. Twin technologies had come that would destroy the type of public culture embodied by rowhouses with porches. The first has been described by George W.S. Trow, in the New Yorker as: "Television -- slayer of movies, slayer of radio, slayer of popular magazines, slayer of every form of human activity and inactivity except itself."

Gone is the streetscape as provider of entertainment and facilitator of neighborhood interaction. The porches disappeared as now too expensive. The people withdraw into isolation inside their homes, lured inward by TV and Nintendo and pushed inward by fears of crime now that the informally policing "eyes on the street" provided by porch sitters are gone. Without the need for a porch the space in front of the building is given over to that second community-destroying technology: the private automobile, slayer of the streetcars, slayer of the passenger railroads, slayer of walking, slayer of every form of human transportation and recreation except itself.

It is worth repeating, that these houses are an improvement over the rubble-strewn empty lots that immediately preceded them, as if that says anything. And they began encouraging low-income homeownership in an honest way decades before the proliferation of subprime mortgages would do so dishonestly.

Between 1982 and 2006, some 2,900 of these land-gobbling single-family houses have been built in East New York. That's about 2,800 too many. These both encourage further development by improving the neighborhood (over the empty blight that had been there), and preclude it by using up all available land.

Thankfully, that plan seems to be ending now as the housing shortage continues and housing officials are looking to higher density residences to alleviate it.

Layer 3: Today's Apartment Buildings: The Neighborhood Restored

Here are 48 new apartments on Malta Street and Alabama Avenue, completed last fall on a lot that had not been used for Nehemiah. These buildings represent the latest wave of housing construction in East New York, one that recognizes that in a city, you build up if you want to house all the people who who want to live there, and who make the city great. These buildings show that there is a great need for housing in urban neighborhoods. If we had just been able to preserve the first generation and avoided the massive flight to the suburbs, the housing already there would have been more elegant and community-oriented that what we are building now. But what we're doing now is a great step forward.

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