In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy last October, a renewed public and journalistic focus on public housing emerged that left many questions unanswered. Writing on December 3 in The New York Times, Jonathan Mahler asked what might have been the most basic question on people's minds on the topic: "How is it possible that the same winding, 538-mile coastline that has recently been colonized by condominium developers chasing wealthy New Yorkers, themselves chasing waterfront views, had been, for decades, a catch basin for many of the city’s poorest residents?"
Mahler's answer was a restatement of our common belief. "New York," he wrote, "started building housing projects on the waterfront because that’s where its poorest citizens happened to live. It continued because that’s where space was most readily available. Finally, it built them there because that’s where its projects already were."
But Mahler only finds half the answer. What really drove this process was the impact of early de-industrialization.
New York's waterfront was, since its founding, a working waterfront. It was a place filled with ships, longshoremen and warehouses. In short, it was valued for its economic use, not its beauty. But New York in the 1950s was undergoing a spacial reorientation as the Port, long an economic engine, began dying as a result of containerization, leaving warehouses and rotting piers gashing the horizon. The birth of Jones Beach on Long Island made New York's own beaches less desirable destinations. This double whammy opened up opportunities to urban planners looking for places to put (or dump) the poor.
"In the era when public housing was created, being near the water was not necessarily a tremendous advantage," says Nicholas Bloom, author of the recent book Public Housing That Worked: New York in the Twentieth Century. "Adjacent to many of these old industrial areas were a lot of substandard tenements that had lost much of their raison d'etre in an increasingly post-industrial and suburbanizing urban region. Not to mention that being near the East River, for instance, was pretty unpleasant at this time.”
Mahler, along with others such as Mark Jacobson's brilliant reporting on public housing in the Rockaways, offer us insight into this too often forgotten zone in an increasingly mega-rich New York. With Sandy, suddenly, we got coverage of what are some of the most densely populated pockets of poverty in the city.
What drives New York real estate on one level is desire, and what we desire changes like fashion. New York's poor have long been the victims of this sort of fashion, being pushed continuously to less desirable areas.
This long-standing geographic tension between the city's super-rich and its poor has in many ways benefited the city, helping make us a vibrant metropolitan area. It is what helped give our neighborhoods character, made them real. Its loss will clearly make us a less interesting and vital city as we move forward.
Are the days of New York's current configuration of public housing numbered? If the past is any indication, then yes. Where will the poor go this time?