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When Tenants Claimed the City

When Tenants Claimed the City: The Struggle for Citizenship in New York City Housing

Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 328
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  • Book Info
    When Tenants Claimed the City
    Book Description:

    In postwar America, not everyone wanted to move out of the city and into the suburbs. For decades before World War II, New York's tenants had organized to secure renters' rights. After the war, tenant activists raised the stakes by challenging the newly-dominant ideal of homeownership in racially segregated suburbs. They insisted that renters as well as owners had rights to stable, well-maintained homes, and they proposed that racially diverse urban communities held a right to remain in place--a right that outweighed owners' rights to raise rents, redevelop properties, or exclude tenants of color. Further, the activists asserted that women could participate fully in the political arenas where these matters were decided. Grounded in archival research and oral history, When Tenants Claimed the City: The Struggle for Citizenship in New York City Housing shows that New York City's tenant movement made a significant claim to citizenship rights that came to accrue, both ideologically and legally, to homeownership in postwar America. Roberta Gold emphasizes the centrality of housing to the racial and class reorganization of the city after the war; the prominent role of women within the tenant movement; and their fostering of a concept of "community rights" grounded in their experience of living together in heterogeneous urban neighborhoods.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09598-6
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xi)
  4. [Illustration]
    (pp. xii-xii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    One of the most-traveled roads in post–World War II America was the highway leading out of the city. Courted by realtors and dowered by Uncle Sam, millions of white-and blue-collar families moved out of their city apartments and bought single-family houses in the suburbs. Individually, they hauled furnishings and keepsakes; collectively, they shifted money and political power.

    The transfer of those collective resources exacerbated long-standing disparities within American society. It created a prosperous, racially segregated suburban world that left the fiscally burdened cities and their growing populations of color to fend for themselves. It produced zoning patterns that separated...

  6. PART 1

    • 1 “A Time of Struggle”: Holding the Line in the 1940s
      (pp. 9-30)

      “Peace is sure hell,” Marine Corps Captain Walter Mansfield told a reporter in 1945. The decorated war hero, just back from East Asia, explained that it was “far easier to locate a sniper in the jungles of China than to find an apartment in New York City.”

      At the end of World War II, New Yorkers faced their worst housing shortage ever. The housing supply, long inadequate for the city’s population and containing many substandard tenements, had fallen even further behind as construction virtually ceased during the Great Depression and the war. Demand, meanwhile, was rising. Veterans came home and...

    • 2 “The Right to Lease and Occupy a Home”: Equality and Public Provision in Housing Development
      (pp. 31-63)

      The rent-control statutes that tenants defended so tenaciously served to moderate prices that would otherwise be set higher by the law of supply and demand. But many tenants and housers understood rent control as a superficial fix. The underlying problem was scarcity of housing and a consequent landlord’s market. Therefore from the Depression onward, city tenants and their allies also promoted programs to build new rental units and improve old ones.

      These efforts extended “New York exceptionalism” in two important ways. One was expansion of public housing. As with rent control, so with public developments: Postwar politics set the stage...

    • 3 “So Much Life”: Retrenchment in the Cold War
      (pp. 64-106)

      Jim Torain still recalls his first neighborhood dance. The year was 1951, and the event was a rite of passage on West 99th Street in Manhattan. “Now, the annual dance, it was just an incredible thing happening. The whole neighborhood got excited about it. And it was the second Saturday of March every year. I first went, I was about nine years old. . . . And Tito Puente was playing! And there were a thousand people there.”¹

      That the King of the Mambo would play for a block association was atypical, but so was Torain’s block. West 98th and...

  7. PART II

    • Introduction to Part II
      (pp. 107-112)

      New York City in the early 1960s was going through profound shifts in economy and population, shifts that were recasting its political order. The onetime stronghold of organized labor and working-class culture was losing its blue-collar base. Manufacturing had declined steadily in the years since World War II—200,000 jobs moved away or simply vanished—while sectors like finance, real estate, and civil service had grown.¹

      This transformation was driven by corporate practices of automation and capital disinvestment that were remaking many urban centers. But deindustrialization in New York would be pushed further by City Hall, acting at the behest...

    • 4 “Out of These Ghettos, People Who Would Fight”: Claiming Power in the Sixties
      (pp. 113-145)

      On December 30, 1963, five Harlem tenants walked into Manhattan Civil Court, reached into their coats and handbags, and each pulled out a large dead rat. The judge barred the four-legged exhibits from the rent hearing that followed. But this bit of courtroom theater, captured on film by reporters, reached a larger audience and became an emblem of a new generation of confrontational black-and Latino-led tenant politics in New York. Rats were nothing new, of course; they had long enjoyed star billing in ghetto housing exposés. But in the past, tenants had invited investigators uptown to see the vermin. Now...

    • 5 “A Lot of Investment, a Lot of Roots”: Defending Urban Community
      (pp. 146-168)

      While ghetto strikes tested grassroots power over the rental market, two other neighborhood-based movements challenged redevelopment. Morningside Heights and Cooper Square became policy battlegrounds in the early 1960s as tenants mounted a second round of struggle against urban-renewal schemes. Tenant mobilizations in these areas shared some features with the strike movement, namely tangible contributions from Old Left activists and complicated relations among left and liberal players.

      But Cooper Square and Morningside Heights tenants fashioned different ideological tools. They articulated a concept of urban community rights in which “community” signified a racially mixed, predominantly low-income, place-based collectivity bound by neighborly ties...

    • 6 “Territorio Libre”: Upheaval in the Vietnam War Era
      (pp. 169-210)

      Seven years after rat-wielding rent strikers made the headlines with their presentation before Judge Ribaudo, New York tenants were back in court for another major hearing. This time a full judicial panel heard testimony from scores of witnesses. “[S] tories of crumbling ceilings, broken fixtures, injuries, lack of hot water, and illness caused by heatless winters began to sound almost routine,”The New Yorkerreported. Several tenants also told of rat bites, lead poisoning, and beatings by landlords’ hired thugs. The defendants were found guilty of “permitting slum conditions, maintaining firetraps, . . . criminal neglect, racism and harassment.” A...

    • 7 “To Plan Our Own Community”: Government, Grassroots, and Local Development
      (pp. 211-241)

      Months after Columbia shelved its gym-in-the-park plan, two local organizations released a new proposal for Morningside Heights. The West Harlem Community Organization and the Architects’ Renewal Committee in Harlem, both formed during the mid-sixties struggles over institutional expansion, remained concerned about the Title I plan that the city had approved in 1964. That plan would redevelop blocks along Morningside Park’s eastern border for university use and widen Eighth Avenue to create a “buffer” against Harlem. ARCH and WHCO denounced this agenda in terms that resonated with the principle of ghetto liberation. “For too long,” they wrote, “[the institutions] have despised...

    • 8 “A Piece of Heaven in Hell”: Struggles in the Backlash Years
      (pp. 242-256)

      In 1974, the Staple Singers released a track that showed how far urban hopes had fallen since the Great Society days. For years the gospel crossover group had served in the black freedom movement. But “City in the Sky” expressed little faith in earthly justice:

      There’s too many children with tears in their eyes

      We’re gonna have to build them a city in the sky

      Where they can fly away . . .

      They sure ain’t gonna miss the city they leave behind

      Like the Stapleses, many Americans now questioned whether cities could be made livable in this life.¹


  8. Afterword
    (pp. 257-264)

    In the winter of 2001, Marie Runyon’s building loomed over weeds and rubble. With Manhattan’s real estate market humming all around, 130 Morningside was a throwback, its boarded windows and graffiti reminding passersby of the fiscal crisis thirty years before.

    Today the marble gleams. And 130 nestles against a modern high-rise on the neighboring lot. After what journalist Clyde Haberman called the Forty Years War, Columbia University completed a handsome renovation of upper Morningside Drive and made peace with its senior resident. Most buildings are dedicated to institutional uses, but 130 itself houses a mix of institutional and noninstitutional tenants.¹...

  9. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. 265-268)
  10. Notes
    (pp. 269-320)
  11. Index
    (pp. 321-330)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 331-332)