Of Lower East Side Hovels and Housing Projects – Surveying the Slums [HISTORY]

Posted on: March 24th, 2016 at 9:29 am by

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Construction of First Houses in 1935, Photo: NYPL

Tear down the old, build up the new. Down with rotten antiquated rat holes. Down with hovels, down with disease, down with firetraps, let in the sun, let in the sky, a new day is dawning, a new life, a new America. —Mayor Fiorello La Guardia,


Today we visit how the best laid plans can eventually go horribly wrong. In this case, the housing projects.  With historic heavy-hitters involved such as the Roosevelts, Robert Moses, Jane Jacobs, and Mayor La Guardia, it’s no doubt a loaded topic.

Let’s get into some definitions and who’s who before diving head first into the pile of shit that was slums, and later housing projects:

The origin of the word “slum” is thought to be the Irish phrase ‘S lom é, meaning “it is a bleak or destitute place.”

The most pitiful victim of city life is not the slum child who dies, but the slum child who lives, Every time a child dies, the nation loses a prospective citizen, but in every slum child who lives the nation has a probable consumptive and possible criminal. –Jacob Riis

Thanks, Jake.

Housing Project: an initiative devised by the government to clear out the slums of yore for a different version of same. High-rise deteriorating, crime laden, piss-poor piss pools. From the beginning, “the projects,” as they came to be known, were never envisioned as havens for the truly hopeless and disenfranchised. The idea was to provide a living environment designed to improve the quality of life of people who had already exhibited, in their applications and interviews, a desire to improve.

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Eleanor Roosevelt at First Houses

First Houses: Completed in 1936 on East 3rd street, First Houses was the first wholly government-built housing project in New York City. Tearing down some existing buildings and reconstructing others, architects created a complex of 24 rehabilitated pre-law tenements with courtyards and shared recreational space. Per author Richard Price, “122 apartments featuring oak wood floors and brass fixtures. The rent, adjusted to each family’s monthly income, ranged from five to seven dollars. The recently formed New York City Housing Authority—the agency charged with the design, construction, and administration of this and future housing developments across the city—stopped accepting applications when their number went north of three thousand.”

Robert Moses: “Bob, the Builder.” Responsible for:

…the construction of the Throgs Neck, the Bronx-Whitestone, the Henry Hudson, and the Verrazano–Narrows bridges. His other projects included much of Interstate 278 (the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and Staten Island Expressway), the Cross-Bronx Expressway, parkways, and other highways. Federal interest had shifted from parkway to freeway systems, and the new roads mostly conformed to the new vision, lacking the landscaping or the commercial traffic restrictions of the pre-war highways. He was the mover behind Shea Stadium and Lincoln Center, and contributed to the United Nations headquarters.

Love him or hate him, he also championed Jones Beach and other recreational facilities funded by (F.D)Roosevelt’s New Deal/Work Progress Administration; the answer to the great depression. However, Moses managed to piss off a lot of people. Trying to build a highway across Canal Street, destroying bundles of tenements, displacing families and for the good and great of a crime-free New York. And then came the idea for the Lower Manhattan Expressway along with the political travesty that was the 1964 World’s Fair. Bye, bye Bob.

Mayor La Guardia: The Italian and Jewish, “little flower” was Mayor of NYC in 1934 and a congressman. Collaborated with Moses to modernize infrastructure in NYC. Worked with Franklin Delano Roosevelt to implement his New Deal.

Eleanor Roosevelt: Wife of FDR, diplomat, politician, activist, the First Lady of all First Ladies, champion for civil rights, spoke at the opening ceremony of the First Houses.

New Yorkers: Me and you, your mama and your cousin, too.

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USHA Poster for Slum Clearance

A pretty ‘lil rowhouse and Black Maria (darkly colored police van) implying crime. Posters breed innuendo.

The United States Housing Authority (“USHA”) & the Works Progress Administration (“WPA”) posters (below) are absolutely hilarious and equally sad. From the Housing Authority, the Works Progress Administration and other governmental bodies, this was their take on ridding NY (and the nation) of the “foul” tenements that plagued the city. And now look at us? Condos and PJs; almost nary a tenement left and for what? A good idea gone bad and a lot of greed.

You can take crime out of the tenement, but not out of people. Essentially, what these organizations did was wipe out hundreds of years of history focusing on locations instead of the people.

The New York Housing Authority (“NYCHA”) was founded in 1934. A year after its birth, NYCHA dedicated its first development, called First Houses. It was built using the wood and bricks of the tenements torn down to make way for their construction.

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Courtesy of NYCHA: Completed First Houses

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Old Backyard of First Houses NYCHA

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