Tuesday, May 28, 2013

And now, for something completely different, part III

Just two more entries left for Gowanus Houses and Wyckoff Gardens: Neighborhood Anchors.

On a totally different note, if you have a copy of either InDesign or Microsoft Publisher that you'd be willing to share, hit me up, will ya? Microsoft Word has made my life a living hell, and I'd really like to try to get the thesis laid out on a proper desktop publishing program. Can anyone help a brother out?

Ok, back to the show.

New York City’s public housing has been as much of a success as any public housing development in the country, according to Bloom. By standards such as rent collection, occupancy rates, income diversity and building maintenance, he notes that the authority has always enjoyed a solid national reputation.

That said, both the Gowanus Houses and Wyckoff Gardens have, if not a major crime problem, a definite public relations problem. To some extent, the projects’ troubles mirrored those around the country such as the Pruitt–Igoe in Saint Louis and Chicago's Henry Horner Homes, as they were completed at a time of great upheaval in New York City. To wit:

The long running borough newspaper, the Brooklyn Eagle, closed in 1955, the beloved Brooklyn Dodgers decamped for Los Angeles in 1957, and the immigrants’ grandchildren were steadily heading out to suburbs to raise their families. When the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which had done the nation proud, producing record number of warships and material during the World War II years, in 1966, an era ended in Brooklyn.  

Spike Lee arrives at the 45th anniversary ceremony for the
Gowanus Houses on June 25, 1994
Photo courtesy of NYCHA
And indeed, both housing developments became associated with crime. The Gowanus Houses arguably became more infamous, in part because of incidents such as the accidental shooting death of Nicholas Heyward Jr., a 13 year-old resident of the development, at the hands of a New York City policeman.

At the same time, Spike Lee had chosen the Gowanus Houses as the site of his film Clockers, which the Internet Movie Database sums up as: “Young drug pushers in the projects of Brooklyn live hard dangerous lives, trapped between their drug bosses and the detectives out to stop them.”

 Even before that, shocking, seemingly random crimes were being documented in the vicinity, such as when Teresa Roger, 17, a “brown-haired Syrian” was found dead on the roof of 198 Bond Street, one of the six story buildings in the Gowanus Houses. (From “Strangled Girl is Identified; Slain for $4.” The New York Times, October 22, 1971) 

In a depressing twist of fate, Ronald Herron, the 12-year old friend of Nicholas Heyward Jr. who was playing cops-and-robbers with him when Heyward Jr. was killed in 1994, was arrested on charges of running a crack and heroin ring out of the Gowanus Houses in 2010.

A quick search through news clips reveals a tawdry past at the Wyckoff Gardens as well. The Daily News reported the in March 1974 the addition of two more patrolmen there, raising the number there to 12.  There have been deaths reportedly linked to the drug trade there, such as a 17-year-old killed in 2006

There have been confrontations that escalated to the point where lethal force was used.  And there have been reports of prostitution, particularly near the southern end of the development, where the industrial streets of Gowanus are noticeably quieter at night than neighboring Boerum Hill.  On Thursday, August 21, 2008, a confluence of several awful things came together, when 38-year old prostitute Elizabeth Acevedo was found murdered in the hallway of one of the three towers.

Relation to Community

When Helen Buckler first embarked on her campaign to rename the neighborhood, she was quoted as saying she was excited to find out that the reason her building was so cheap was because it was a “mixed neighborhood,” at the time 40 percent black, 30 percent Puerto Rican and 30 percent Italians, Polish, Lithuanians and Irish.  As she noted: “Of course, there are noisy people in the block and people who get drunk, Miss Buckler conceded. But don’t we have that almost everywhere in New York?”  (From -->"Rescue Operation On ‘Boerum Hill,” New York World Telegram, March 26, 1964)

Then there was Diane Foster, a Brooklyn Heights interior decorator and antique storeowner, who wrote the following in a March 1967 letter “Protecting the Perimeter,” to the Brooklyn Heights Press.

What I’m trying to do, is get some of our young people, who cannot afford the high prices of Heights homes, but who want city town homes, to get up enough “guts” to move into these beautiful townhouses, because that is what they once were, and will be again, and push out all the undesirables. It can be done, and more importantly, it can be done much easier, and much cheaper, than people think.

In The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn, Suleiman Osman notes that the leaders of the then nascent Boerum Hill Association were “horrified” by comments such as these, but it’s worth noting that when one visits the associations’ website today, it still draws both the Wyckoff Gardens and the Gowanus Houses right out of the neighborhood. One could argue that the later extends into Gowanus and is named for it, therefore it should be associated elsewhere, but 2/3rds of the Wyckoff Gardens falls within the neighborhoods’ borders. There is still ambiguity about where the residents stand within the larger neighborhood.

Screenshot taken from the Boerum Hill Association website April 16, 2013
And yet…

Next: Signs of Hope, and the Conclusion.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

And now, for something completely different, Part Deux

This is part two of Gowanus Houses and Wyckoff Gardens: Neighborhood Anchors, my final paper for the class Urban Political Processes.

The History
221 Hoyt Street June 27, 1945, shortly before
being demolished to make way for the
Gowanus Houses
Photo courtesy of NYCHA
The Gowanus Houses came first. Bordered by Wyckoff, Douglass, Bond and Hoyt Streets, the 12.57-acre complex was completed June 24, 1949. With 1,134 apartments spread across 14 buildings that vary from 4, 6, 9, 13 and 14-stories high, it houses an estimated 2,836 residents. To make room for the site, NYCHA began demolishing 199 buildings there on September 3, 1946, resulting in the eviction of 442 residential tenants and 62 commercial tenants.

Befitting its name, the development straddles the neighborhoods of Boerum Hill in the north and Gowanus in the South. It was designed by Rosario Candela, Eli Jacques and William T. McCarthy, and estimated to cost $6,738,000 when it was proposed in 1945.  McCarthy, the chairman of the board of the housing for the Brooklyn Bureau of Charities, was also instrumental in the design of the Red Hook Houses, which were finished in 1938, just a year after the passage of the United States Housing Act of 1937.

Perhaps stung by criticism from Lewis Mumford, who in a 1940 New Yorker column Versailles for the Millions criticized Red Hook as “Leningrad formalism,” “barracklike” and “hygienically undesirable,” he laid the Gowanus Houses out in a more varied pattern, with five different building heights.

The announcement of the Gowanus Houses
Wyckoff Gardens, which is just one block west, between Third Avenue, Nevins, Wyckoff and Baltic Streets, came 17 years later, on December 31, 1966. It consists of three 21-story buildings on 5.81 acres, with 528 apartments housing some 1,226 people. Like the Gowanus Houses, it is linked to the industrial Gowanus neighborhood; the pumping station for the Gowanus Canal is a mere block and a half away on Butler Street.

Although it is newer than the Gowanus Houses and much more compact, Wyckoff Gardens, which is named after Pieter Claesen Wyckoff, a 17th-century immigrant from the Netherlands, is very much tied to the Gowanus Houses; when it was first proposed, it was known as Gowanus Area Federally Aided project No. NY-5-74.

When it was first proposed by NYCHA on August 29, 1962, at a cost of $10,234,000, it was estimated that there were 317 tenants living on the site, of which only 206 were deemed eligible for public housing. Planning documents reveal the rationale for placing the development in this particular area:

The condition of the buildings in the neighborhood varies considerably. The dwellings in the conversation district are in fair or good condition as are the houses between Nevins Street and the Gowanus Houses. The conditions of the structures on the site, however, is generally poor. Most of the buildings have deteriorated to the point where clearance is necessary.

(From Major Change to the Development Program Project No. NY5-74 For 531 Dwellings Program Reservation No. 5-C Gowanus Area, Borough of Brooklyn, NYCHA, August 29, 1962)

Befitting the hope and promise of the development at the time, one of the first residents of Wyckoff Gardens, Sergeant Leonard Pavia, a World War II veteran, was a guest of honor at “Public Housing Day,” a ceremony held on at City Hall Saturday, Dec. 3. Pavia, who had been paying $110 a month for a five room apartment for his wife and three children, was now paying only $84 a month for the same space.

Design Differences

The two complexes share a goal, as they are both owned and operated by NYCHA, whose aim is “to provide decent and affordable housing in a safe and secure living environment for low- and moderate-income residents throughout the five boroughs.”

As noted earlier, they are very different designs though. This is not an accident, as the New York City Housing Agency (NYCHA) experimented with different kinds of layouts and designs between 1935 and 1967, the years it was actively constructing public housing. For instance, to construct the appropriately named “First Houses,” on the Lower East Side, in 1935, NYCHA took a series of 1846 tenements and demolished every third building to provide adequate light and air, and rehabilitated or rebuilt the remaining buildings.

Later developments would embrace features such as geometric designs and cross-streets that were closed to create “super-blocks.” Whereas the early 1940’s saw the embrace of the “Tower in the Park” idea, which featured high-rise buildings surrounded by park-like surroundings, the 1950’s were a time when developments were characterized by in-line layouts and random spacing.

The Gowanus Houses, being the older of the two developments, show elements of the Tower in the Park design, as the eight tallest of its buildings were build for the most part toward the middle of the two super blocks that are split down the middle by Baltic Street.

The Wyckoff Gardens are an even more extreme variation of the Tower in the Park model, as its three 21-story buildings are surrounded by even more greenery. Since their nearest neighbors top out at no more than 5 stories, the Wyckoff Gardens’ upward thrust appears even more dramatic than the tallest Gowanus House buildings, which at 14 stories are not short by any stretch either.
Architectural renderings submitted by McCarthy’s firm to NYCHA.
Courtesy of the Brooklyn Historical Society

In addition to the height differences and setbacks, the developments most obviously differ in color. While the Gowanus Houses were build with traditional brick, and thus more closely match many of the original structures in the neighborhood, the Wyckoff Gardens sport a white finish, which, while completely out of place, at least has the effect of giving the buildings’ an appearance of being lighter than they really are.

One would never mistake them for a condominium in Miami, Florida, but at the same time, they’re less imposing than the Gowanus House buildings which, outfitted with massive water tanks atop them, appear to be hunkering down with hunched shoulders. This difference in appearance can be attributed to the push of architects working for NYCHA who were tired of the agencies’ seeming indifference to creativity.

The architect Albert Mayer, in a series of tough radio conversations with NYCHA administrator Ira Robbins in 1962, asserted that that authorities obsession with low ground coverage inhibited the creations of better architecture. Robbins responded defensively, but he grudgingly agreed that he would be happy to look at Mayer’s estimates. In a different public appearance, Robbins sounded like the old guard when he defended the use of “Hudson River red” brick because anything else was very much more expensive.

I’m not alone in my assessment either:

In the distance, the Deco crown of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower, the tallest building in Brooklyn, once its only legitimate high rise, and until recently, a haven for dentists’ offices, though now inevitably converted into condos, towers over the Wyckoff Gardens, a public housing complex whose white-brick facades make it appear more hopeful or at least less stigmatized than the usual grim red project brick of the Gowanus Houses, glowering off to the right.  
The Wyckoff Gardens, as seen from the south, in Gowanus

Next: Crime and the developments' relation to the community....

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

And now, for something completely different


So I e-mailed my eight-page take home final exam for urban political processes Tuesday afternoon, and with that, I am officially done for the year. I still have three more classes to take to earn a masters in urban studies, but for now, I'm taking a break for the summer.

Oh, and the thesis? Also, DONE. WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! I haven't actually submitted it to the GSAS yet, because they don't want it until I've fulfilled all my class credits, but I'm working to get that changed.

Quite frankly, I'm ready to push this sucker out the door to a publisher or turn it into a web site if no one will have it. Quite happy with it too, although I have a confession to make. It was only after I'd already uploaded all 155 pages of it to Google Drive with the intention of sharing it with the world that I realized I hadn't done a full spell check of the damn thing. Ha, yeah....

Anyway, I'm going to print it all out this week on special acid free paper, slap the forms with my advisor's signatures on the top, bind it all up in a regulation Fordham dissertation folder and start shopping it around. I've got interviews in there from 2010, so I'm damn well not gonna wait any longer!

As for the summer, I've got a lot of ideas for the blog that I've been sitting on while the aforementioned urban political processes kept me busy. This, by the way, was hands down one of the better classes I've taken, and I'm not ashamed to say I worked my ass off for it. So much so that I'm going to share my 22 page final paper with y'all, via the next four or five posts.

It's not graffiti related, because  I'd already written quite a bit about graffiti when I started the class, and I wanted to explore something different. It's public housing in my neighborhood, so if that's not your bag, you might want to bail. I hope you don't.


P.S. Since I have no idea how to embed citations, I've simply linked to my sources whenever possible. If anyone knows of a better way to do this, I'm all ears.

Gowanus Houses and Wyckoff Gardens: Neighborhood Anchors

Boerum Hill is a small neighborhood in Brooklyn, a mere eight by six blocks long, at .27 square miles. But unlike nearby neighborhoods like Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill and Brooklyn Heights, it is home to not one but two public housing complexes—the Gowanus Houses and the Wyckoff Gardens.

This paper will argue that these two developments, which were built at different times and in different styles, are representative of what Nicholas Bloom calls the New York City Housing Authority’s management of 2,600 buildings, including almost all extant high rise public housing in the United States, a “smashing success.”  In particular, I will show that in spite of occasional bad publicity, the developments have little negative impact on the Boerum Hill neighborhood.

The Neighborhood
Although the area of Brooklyn currently known as Boerum Hill was inhabited as long ago as the 1800’s by Dutch Farmers, in the 1950’s, it did not exist in its current form as an identifiable neighborhood, in contrast nearby Brooklyn Heights.

Bucckler's House
That change came about thanks to the efforts of Helen Buckler, a writer and publicist from Greenwich Village who in 1962 purchased for $18,000 a four-story brownstone building at 238 Dean Street. Although it was advertised as being in the “Borough Hall” section of Brooklyn, at the time the area was known as simply “North Gowanus,” taking its name, like the Gowanus Houses, from the 1.8 mile Gowanus Canal to the south.

Eager to find a name to replace the stigmatized North Gowanus, Buckler enlisted the help of the curator of the Long Island Historical Society. While examining 18th century maps of the area, they discovered Simon Boerum, a local farmer and politician who served as Clerk of Kings County from 1750 to 1775.

He was present at the March 1764 Assembly meeting where a resolution opposing British imposed sugar and stamp taxes was passed, and a relative, William Boerum, served in the Brooklyn Light Horse regiment during the Revolutionary War.

“The members of the new Boerum Hill Association (BHA) lobbied local newspapers and real estate brokers to use the name to attract new residents to the “reawakening” neighborhood. While some new arrivals took to calling the area Brooklyn Heights East, when an article about Boerum Hill appeared in the World-Telegram and Sun in 1964, the latter name stuck.”

The neighborhood has more than fully rebounded in the days since Buckler moved in; for perspective on housing prices, a four-story brick house one block away from Buckler’s house on Dean Street was put on the market in February 2013 for $4.2 million.

And yet, a few blocks away, there are the Gowanus Houses and the Wyckoff Gardens, looking tidy but tired.

Next: The history and design differences between the two developments...

Monday, May 6, 2013

42 days later...

Ugh. To say that April was brutal is an understatement. Sorry folks, but when a full time job, a 13 month old daughter and an urban political processes masters class are on the agenda, the blog sort of falls down the latter in importance. I also ran the Leatherman's Loop 10k; can't recommend it enough. Mainly because even at my age, I still get a kick out of splashing around in the mud from time to time.

Real quick before I collapse into bed.

Aside from a few tweaks to the conclusion, the thesis is ready to be pushed out into the great wide world. It's still not clear that I'll be able to submit it to the dean's office; I've been told I may have to wait until I finish my class credits. I have three left to go, which at one per semester will put at the finish line in December 2014. Either way, I'm not waiting around to shop it around to someone who might want to publish it.

Urban political processes meets one last time tomorrow, and then I have one week to finish a take home test. I've also written a research paper on two NYCHA projects for this class; will be sharing it shortly too. Got an A for it. Woo!

Finally, if you haven't read it already, I HIGHLY recommend Bushwick Gets a Fresh Coat: A Son of Bushwick Turns the Neighborhood Into a Gallery for Street Art, which appeared in yesterday's New York Times. Basically, this is the kind of story that, had it come out three years ago, would have been exhibit A for my thesis.

When I got to the end of the piece, I wanted to hug/shake hands with/fist bump/high five Joseph Ficalora, who is the focus of the story, just for this passage:

On a recent afternoon, he walked the neighborhood, greeting friends in fluent Spanish and checking on a new row of businesses under construction nearby. As he rounded the corner he spotted a newly renovated apartment building glistening under a fresh, even coat of cornflower blue.
 “What a mistake,” he said under his breath.
The building, he said, would be tagged with graffiti in no time. Standing next to the plain, pale blue, he just shook his head. “It’s such a waste of paint.” 

Be back soon. I promise.