Joaquin Berdonces October 2018
Urban Studies Ms. Pillsbury
New York’s Anti-City: Stuyvesant Town
A walk through Stuyvesant Town today would not tell of the destruction needed to make it. Today families consider themselves at home where others once did. Community events are held on lawns that once housed hundreds of people; basketball games are played where storefronts supported local families and walkways cut through vanished factories. Stuyvesant town is home to thousands of families today: it also was prior to 1945 to the residents of the Gas House District. The plan was to replace the Gas House District with an “anti-city”, a purposeful rejection of the typical city layout meant to feel like a suburban space while still existing within a city. Open spaces between buildings, walkways lined with trees and a semi-enclosed structure are all features purposely integrated into Stuyvesant Town’s design.
The proposed construction of Stuyvesant Town, by the means of eminent domain granted to a privately owned company, created controversy between the city and New Yorkers. From the beginning Stuyvesant Town was a controversial undertaking. The proposed land for the site already had a dynamic community established there and the construction of such a massive project would require the leveling of this part of Eastern Manhattan. The neighborhood in the project’s way was called the Gas House District (named after the enormous gas tanks erected throughout the blocks) and was home to thousands of poor migrant families who were only able to afford very low rents. The rights to evict the residents of the Gas House District were granted to MetLife, a privately owned company who many New Yorkers thought had no business in displacing people living on public land. Despite the outcry, the rights to eminent domain and a 25 year tax exemption were given to Metlife to construct Stuyvesant town. In 1942, Metlife was granted the rights to evict over 3,000 families of the Gas House District. The obliteration of this neighborhood would hurt more than the physical structures themselves. Neighbors and friends were separated, businesses owned by local residents were demolished and the workplaces of many New Yorkers were now gone. Essentially, for the creation of the Eastern Manhattan community we know today, another had to be awfully torn apart. The destruction had a very real impact on the people living there. Many would not be able to recover from the loss and some were not even fully compensated for their losses. The evicted families were also not granted or even guaranteed apartments in the new development as the majority couldn’t even afford the rent. A lawsuit, filed on the grounds of discrimination in city funds and property, was brought against the company with welfare, labor and civic organizations backing it. Many New Yorkers felt it was unnecessary to “clean up” the Gas House District, as locals valued their relationship with the neighborhood and its residents.
Once Stuyvesant Town was constructed it fulfilled the needs of middle class whites, but offered no place for families of color. As the first tenants of Stuyvesant Town moved in and many more filed applications for a spot in the buildings, black families were explicitly prohibited from moving into any apartments. MetLife exclusively allowed white families to live in the project based on the grounds that it was privately owned housing. New Yorkers, however, felt that this was an unfair collaboration between the city and MetLife; “The tenants committee contends that Stuyvesant Town housing 50,000 persons, should not bar Negroes because it was built with the cooperation of the city by condemning tenements and displacing persons of all races in the lower East side area”. Many New Yorkers felt that the city shouldn’t have allowed a private company to racially profile housing which was built on a previously multi-ethnic neighborhood. It didn’t make sense for the city to support the relocation of thousands of families only to bar some of the same people who were removed, either through out-of-reach rents or outright banning. A few years later, because of public pressures, MetLife lifted the ban on black families, although not without having first threatened white families who opposed the ban with eviction.
In 1942 Jane Jacobs would oppose the construction of Stuyvesant Town. Jane Jacobs did not believe that the replacement of neighborhoods with anti-cities was the solution to rehabilitating a poor, too densely populated section of the city. The construction of anti-cities, she argues in her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, only spawns a whole new set of problems; the open spaces between buildings allows for concealed crime at night, the people who move in are usually of low income families who tend to engage in criminal activity more often than their higher income counterparts and the absence of storefronts eliminates the “eyes on the street” (local resident’s watchful gazes) that would normally keep a neighborhood’s sidewalks safe. Anti-cities eliminate the essential communal network of relationships which are present in typical city neighborhoods. Without storefronts or safety, there is no daily engagement with others which strengthens the bonds between local residents.
It would surely surprise Jacobs that an apartment in Stuyvesant Town today is highly sought after by the working middle class. Stuyvesant Town was an experiment which turned out successful because it was specifically targeted to the middle class. The money brought in by its residents allows for the organization of community events on the complex’s grounds which fill the void of lack of storefronts in the area. The money also allows Stuyvesant Town’s owners to invest in public facilities which people go to and from throughout the day. The public gyms, study areas, lobbies, farmer’s markets and sports courts are all places which sustain public life within the complex. There are always people in the spaces between buildings and in the facilities available to them. The residents care for the condition of the spaces and in turn they are maintained. Even at night when foot traffic is at a minimum, several hundred windows watch down onto any given patch of ground. This constant surveillance reduces the chances of crime and in turn makes Stuyvesant town a safe neighborhood. Weekend events bring people together on the common lawns which creates a sense of community among the 30,000 or so residents of the complex. The residents artificially pay for not only a safe neighborhood, but also Jane Jacob’s essential communal network of relationships by supporting these public events and facilities.
The Gas House District, once called home by thousands of New Yorkers, now sits under Stuyvesant Town which is home to even thousands more. Weighing the morality versus the benefits of reconstructing massive city sectors is a dilemma that must be examined closely and decided carefully. Now, 75 years removed from the demolition of Eastern Manhattan, most don’t know about the destruction needed to construct such a large project. It is interesting to consider what the modern public sentiment would be today versus what we know it was in the 1940’s when the Gas House District was forcefully pushed under Stuyvesant Town. We live in a different time where I am sure the proposed destruction of such massive city blocks would cause much more controversy, as New Yorkers would be much more sensitive to the collateral effects caused by the destruction of our city’s neighborhoods.