Notes on New York Housing
Notes on New York Housing
The absence of esthetic gratification—an outstanding characteristic of the architecture of our cities—has definite effects on the community as well as on individuals. The main effects become apparent through a multitude of symptoms, ambiguous enough to be seldom traced and related to their origin: without esthetic gratification man’s capacity to give meaning to his life atrophies. The untranscended life is not worth living, though it sputters on amorphously. The feeling of valuelessness, of futility—which oozes from our suburbs as much as it does from the city itself—is at the root of the tedium vitae, the listless and the restless boredom, the quiet or unquiet desperation which generates so many of our amusements, crimes and neuroses.
AMERICAN SLUMS never offered much esthetic gratification. Unlike many European slums, they are not, after all, neglected places through which the splendor of the past still shines. There is no splendor, no past. They were built as slums, as tenements, or, as ramshackle houses once sheltering the middle class. Buildings are monotonous rather than varied and picturesque. No one every bothered to adorn the streets on which they were built with monuments or fountains, or even trees. Nonetheless our slums at one time were neighborhoods which generated or permitted communal feelings, if we are to believe the memories of many writers who were brought up in them. There were perhaps two major reasons for this. First, the inhabitants of each slum were ethnically homogeneous, in the main, and often the tenants of entire blocks came from the same village or region. They shared the same culture, the same past. And they were bound together by their common situation with respect to outside society. Today the slum is no longer homogeneous. (Puerto Rican slums are perhaps an exception; and the Negro slums are ethnically homogeneous, but not otherwise.) The population is recruited from the poor, the old, and the marginal of a great variety of ethnic and cultural groups. They have in common nothing but poverty.
Secondly, the pervasiveness of modern means of transportation and communication impairs the existence of separate cultural communities within the city. Thus the slumdwellers could hardly maintain a shared culture if they had one. The slumdwellers are on the outside; but they each look toward American society at large, not toward an autonomous slum community. They have nothing of their own. Thus, only the disadvantages of the slums have remained, the badly built, badly maintained, crowded, ugly and dirty houses.