Remember years ago when I got excited about that whole south-southeast corner of the Lower East Side – where the streets run basically true east west, pointed straight towards the Woolworth Building, diagonal to the grid – and I mentioned that I was going to spend some time exploring it? (Of course you don’t! Hehe.) Well there’s still time right? Because I was down here the other day and I was once again struck by the sunlight, or I mean to say, the fact that you can get such wide bands of sunlight actually hitting the street due to the whole “tower in the park” paradigm that’s so prevalent – you know: big 20+ story brick buildings surrounded by swathes of open space that let the sunlight in. And I was thinking, as I often do, how it didn’t always look like this – how it used to look like the rest of the Lower East Side in fact – and then my wife mentioned in passing how one particular group of buildings looked nicer than the others and I realized – wait a minute, just cause these buildings look almost the same doesn’t mean they actually are and wait a minute, if I wanted to I could try to learn what the differences are between them. Well sure, why not?
Now I’m not quite ready to dive into the NYCHA houses yet – the New York City Housing Authority – that’s too large a beast for me to tackle. Though I suppose in the grander sense that’s the big divide when it comes to these types of buildings, buildings that at a first glance you might consider “projects”: NYCHA versus non-NYCHA; public versus some type of cooperative/private enterprise. So let’s start with something non-NYCHA and let’s start with something more recent and work our way backwards from there. Let’s start with East River Housing. Well sure, why not?
East River Housing is made up of four buildings total: 2 just south of Grand Street and 2 just north, just west of the FDR Drive. Built by the East River Housing Corporation formed late in 1950, groundbreaking began in 1953, with the first building completed late in ’55. The buildings were the third group to go up as part of what was (until recently) known as Cooperative Village – 4 separate but adjacent affordable co-operative housing projects built by trade unions over a period of some 30 years. The specific union that financed the East River Housing project was the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, working in tandem with the newly formed United Housing Foundation. The project was also the first to qualify for slum clearance funds under Title I of the Federal Housing Act; basically the federal government and New York City paid for the cost of acquiring the land via condemnation – 13 acres of “slums” (you always have to be wary about what that actually meant) to be torn down and replaced by the four new towers – with the East River Housing Corporation purchasing the land at public auction for about 1/6th of its condemnation price.
All right, there’s a lot to unpack in that last paragraph, but the main thing that jumps out at me is that unions used to build affordable housing. Private sector unions. In the 1950s. I mean, no wonder people were so afraid of communists! There were actually some kinds of real live socialists around back then. Abraham Kazan was maybe one of them. He was key to the whole creation of Cooperative Village – and to scores of cooperatives throughout New York. Known as the “father of U.S. co-operative housing” he was appointed president of the newly created Amalgamated Housing Corporation in 1927 – founded by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America as the first limited dividend housing company in NYC and responsible for some of the earliest cooperatives in the city (and the country). Those included the first two projects to make up Cooperative Village: Amalgamated Dwellings and Hillman Housing. By the time East River Housing came along Kazan had just founded his United Housing Foundation (UHF), aimed at providing broader sponsorship for cooperatives throughout New York. The UHF would go from here to develop numerous affordable cooperative projects – including the massive Co-op City in the Bronx (its 40,000+ residents making it, on its own, the 10th largest city in New York State).
One of the key ideas of East River Housing – and of limited dividend housing in general – was that the apartments weren’t to be used for speculation. When it came time for an owner to sell they were required to sell it back to the Corporation, receiving back what the originally paid plus a limited dividend. This was housing as a nice place to live, fulfilling a need (not just physical – spiritual too (says I)), as opposed to housing as an investment. It’s not like that anymore of course, because the last 30 years has generally seen the doing away of those types of things. If I understand it correctly, an East River Housing apartment today can be sold at market rate to whoever – though I imagine that coop board approval must still be needed. In 1999, as the buildings were in the act of privatizing, the price of a one bedroom was still apparently capped at $65,000. Today they go for at least 10 times that amount. Now I know last time I was talking about how change is inevitable, and you can’t bemoan it too much, but we can bemoan this one a little right? The cooperative members themselves were the ones who ultimately voted to privatize. What happened to all the communists?