A Brief History of Public Housing on the LES

New York Times, February 1938.

Editor’s note: The New York City Housing Authority’s decision to lease some of its property for luxury development has focused new attention on public housing on the Lower East Side. Eric Ferrara of the LES History project takes a look back at the origins of public housing, which can be traced to our neighborhood.

When the City Planning Commission formed on January 1, 1938, one of its primary initiatives was to revitalize the most poverty-stricken neighborhoods of New York City. After identifying the Lower East Side waterfront as one of the Big Apple’s neediest districts, the commission proposed amending long-standing zoning regulations in order to restore property values, to encourage new construction and to raise the standard of living for thousands of families.

Plans were drawn to rezone a stretch of Manhattan coastline—extending half a mile inland—between the Brooklyn Bridge and East 14th Street. This area served as the city’s primary industrial district for over a century, at various times hosting the largest concentration of stables, factories, warehouses, and coal, lumber and iron yards in the city. However, by the 1930s, these industries had moved on, leaving the long-neglected “Dry Dock District” an unsightly amalgam of abandoned piers and crumbling tenements, where some of the New York’s poorest families lived in hazardous, unsanitary conditions.

One proponent of the rezoning plan was newly appointed City Planning Commission Chairman, Adolf Augustus Berle, Jr., a Boston-born, Columbia University corporate law professor who was an original member of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Brain Trust.”

“After more than a century we are thus correcting one of the costly mistakes made in the original marginal layout of Manhattan Island,” Berle said in February of 1938. “Failure to provide ample open spaces along the East River and to make full use of the magnificent waterfront was a blunder…”[1]

The Mayor’s office and the East Side Chamber of Commerce prepared a joint study, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and City Council Majority leader B. Charney Vladeck helped plan financing and Works Progress Administration workers gathered statistical data.

The crux of the committee’s plan was to raze several city blocks and rebuild a “model housing development” from scratch; residential zoning would be increased from 22% to 44.5%, regular business and unrestricted zoning reduced to less than 30%. With this proposal, 27.1% of the district would also be marked for retail space (mainly first floor storefronts).

As an alternative to rows of cramped tenements, the proposal called for the construction of large-scale, affordable, high-rise housing complexes with ample outdoor recreational space. To accomplish this, the city looked to take advantage of a new federal program which helped finance municipal housing projects.

On Feb 4, 1938, U.S. Housing Authority Administrator Nathan Straus addressed an audience at the Architectural League of New York at 115 East 14th Street, where he described the development of a “city within a city,” with designated playgrounds and public schools to “promote a better way of life.” Crediting the success of a similar effort in Great Britain, Strauss stressed that the government was determined to “rehouse as many slum dwellers as possible in decent and healthful homes.”[2]

New York Times, February 24, 1938.

A public hearing for the Lower East Side rezoning plan was held on March 16, 1938 and met with a majority of support from property owners, residents as well as state and city agencies.

Originally the USHA thought the price of the land on the Lower East Side was too high for investment, but NYCHA Chairman Alfred Rheinstein persisted and worked out an agreement which cemented a deal. It was actually a somewhat complicated dual project; one section subsidized by the Federal Government and the other by the city.

On October 29, 1938, Mayor LaGuardia announced that the city was ready to embark on the first municipally-subsidized housing project in America, at the Corlear’s Hook site on the Lower East Side and on May 10, 1939, large scale demolition began in the neighborhood with over 1700 structures slated for removal.

(If you’re wondering, First Houses on E.3rd Street is the nation’s first public housing project, opened in 1935, but it was not financed by the city.)

By July, 1939, the architectural firm of Shreve, Lamb & Harmon filed plans for the Corlear’s Hook site and on August 16, 1939, Mayor LaGuardia announced that $20,000,000 was secured for new affordable-housing projects in three boroughs, including the East River Houses in Harlem, Red Hook and Kingsborough Houses in Brooklyn, and the South Jamaica and Queensbridge Houses in Queens.

On November 22, 1939 a press conference was held at the former P.S. 12 at Jackson and Madison Streets, celebrating the completion of the first phase of construction on the City-funded Corlears Hook project. The development was named Vladek City Houses after Baruch Charney Vladeck, the popular council member and labor leader who campaigned for the project, but passed away before groundbreaking.

On the public school auditorium stage, Mayor LaGuardia declared, “For Vladeck City Houses is not a monument of stone and mortar it is a unity of families to whom a city is giving their birthright.”

Senator Robert F. Wagner, who helped LaGuardia lobby Washington, credited the people of the Lower East Side for inspiring a trend in nation-wide public housing, stating that they were responsible for projects in “Forty of the forty-eight States of the Union. Just think of that!”[3]

The following month, December, 1939, USHA loaned over half a billion dollars to 169 municipalities across the nation in order to build low-rent housing projects, however complete transformation of the East Side waterfront took several decades; The Riis and Wald public housing developments opened in 1949, followed by the Smith Houses (1953), LaGuardia Houses (1957), Baruch Houses (1959), Rutgers Houses (1965), Gompers Houses (1964), and Campos Plaza (1979).

According to recent reports, the New York City Housing Authority plans to, for the first time in its 79-year history, lease playgrounds and parking lots within many of these housing projects to private developers, hoping to raise money to fill budget gaps. Citing internal memos, the Daily News reported on February 6, 2013 that around 3 million square feet of new housing—80% market-rate, 20% affordable housing—may be on the horizon.  You can read more about the this latest chapter in New York public housing here.

Eric Ferrara is founder and director of the non-profit Lower East Side History Project, and author of several New York City history books including two new titles, Lower East Side: Then & Now & Lower East Side: Oral Histories. Ferrara has consulted numerous movie and television projects for HBO, Warner Brothers, National Geographic, History Chanel and many more.

[1] “Big Zone of Homes and Parks Mapped Along East River,” New York Times, February 24, 1938

[2] “Cheap Land Basis For U.S. Housing,” New York Times, February 4, 1938

[3] Mayor Hails Work on Vladeck Houses,” Mew York Times, November 23, 1939