General Grant Houses: Integrated Housing Done by Robert Moses (Spoiler: Not As Great As You’d Like)

Image of the Grant Houses today
Image of the Grant Houses today

In the 1952 December 11th issue of the New York Times under a headline that read “Vast Housing Plan Set for Brooklyn” was the subtitle, “[s]lums will be cleared near Manhattan Bridge– Two projects to be erected.” One of the projects that had been approved that was mentioned in the article is the General Grant Houses 125th street and Broadway in Morningside Heights. The slum clearance of the “project covering 11.28 acres near the Manhattan in downtown Brooklyn were announced by Robert Moses, chairman of the Mayor’s Committee on Slum Clearance.” In an article published in October of the same year specifically about the project, it stated that its goal of the project was to “make up an integrated neighborhood development.” The intention behind the creation of the Grant Houses was to provide housing for a class of New Yorkers who had no options because of the shortage of affordable housing which is addressed in an article from The Amsterdam News. The article, a retrospective of housing projects written in 1978, discussed the origin of the Grant Houses. The writer, Glester Hinds, explains that borough President Wagner visited “the LaSalle Street area of 125th Street, and to develop in that section of New York City a housing program whereby all people could live in that area, regardless of their income level.” According to the same article, Wagner suggested the construction of both the Grant Houses and Morningside Gardens, a higher income project, adjacent to each other. In an article published in 1957, a writer described the idea of the Grant Houses as a “testing ground of a major attempt at community integration, with all the hopes and hazards of a bold undertaking on so broad a scale.” In most of the articles describing the project prior to its completion, the Grant Houses and its initial good intentions are seldom explicitly described as the work of Robert Moses in many of the articles both in the New York Times and the Amsterdam News. From my research, Moses is more associated with Title I and his work with slum clearance rather than build-up of the slums he decided to clear out.

This is an image published in the NYT article of the Grant Houses lit up with a friendly message to welcome tenants to the neighborhood.
This is an image published in the NYT article of the Grant Houses lit up with a friendly message to welcome tenants to the neighborhood.

At the time of completion, the Grant Houses were celebrated as a new-founded racially harmonious image of what modern living and integration looks like in New York City housing. In the August 21st 1956 issue of the New York Times published around the time the project was completed called “5 Families Move to Grant Houses: Racial Integration Forecast in City Housing Project on Basis of First Tenants” explained that “an open effort to prevent economic stratification has been made by laying out the higher income Morningside Gardens just below the General Grant Houses and projecting the state-aided Manhattanville north of the Grant Houses.” The people behind the General Grant Houses were aware of the racially diverse neighborhood that these projects were being placed in because it was in proximity to Columbia University and many other cultural institutions next to the slums and lower income housing. They used this knowledge and made conscious design efforts in order to create structural integration rather than ignoring completely the social forces that exist in the context of neighborhoods. Jane Jacobs, too, understood that what made a neighborhood harmonious and good is the diversity of people racially and economically that coexist. The beginning stages of the project were so dear that a newspaper article from the New York Times August 20th, 1965 issue explained that “there will be dancing and talks by neighbors such as Dr. John Krout, vice president of Columbia University, and City Planning Commissioner Lawrence M. Orton, executive director of Morningside Heights, inc.” But there’s more: the building lit up its windows so that at night, the windows read “HELLO” as a welcoming sight to those who were scheduled to move into the newly erected housing structures.
What happens soon after the completion of the Grant Houses is when things become even more interesting. Many articles in the New York Times archives post 1956 regarding the Grant Houses are about crime and the issues that plague the Grant Houses. In an article of the NYT in 1962, less than a decade after the opening of the Grant Houses, because of the crime that soared in the Grant Houses, the chairman of the NYCHA proposed that locks should be put on the entrances to eight of the Grant Houses and that the doors would be locked from 10 in the evening. to 8 am. Many articles blamed slums as an evil force that offends the very prestigious and respectable institutions that exists in the same neighborhood. Wayne Phillips wrote for the NYT a piece called “Slums Engulfing Columba Section- The Cancer of Slum Housing Mars the Face of Morningside Heights,” which was written in 1958 just two years after the building of the Grant Houses. A particularly accusatory sentence described the situation that it is “from these buildings the cancer of slum living has spread through all Morningside Heights, driving out the good and the decent, dragging other housing down to its level, despoiling the schools and turning side streets and parks into fearsome places.” The article describes the history of the neighborhood, but overall makes the argument that slums infect the cultural institutions which was following the large volume of people of color who moved to the neighborhood post World War II who were desperate for housing and jobs, and in turn, shifted the cultural, social, and economic dynamic of Morningside Heights.

Article from NYT 1958

Based on the shift in attitude regarding the General Grant Houses observed in newspaper articles, it can be said that the Grant Houses did not continue to live up to the optimistic views shared during its beginnings. Jane Jacobs would be sad if she saw what the Grant Houses looked like. Their large scale and overall simplicity is the staple housing project mold, similar to the designs of Le Corbusier. These tall buildings allow no “eyes” that would keep the streets connected the Grant Houses safe from crime. Slums existed in its place before, and although the slums were initially cleared away, essentially another slum was built right on top of it. Perhaps some reflection on the part of planners and architects would aid in actually solving problems with blight and slums rather than false optimism that guarantees nothing.

Grant & Morningside Houses
HINDS, GLESTER. New York Amsterdam News (1962-1993); New York, N.Y. [New York, N.Y] 21 Jan 1978: A7.

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