Public Housing: Tenants and Troubles

Public Housing: Tenants and Troubles

By June 30, 1960, the New York City Housing Authority had become the country’s largest landlord, housing some 567,000 lower-class tenants in 109 projects. Anyone who has visited some of these projects, however, knows that the problem of slums in New York City has not yet been overcome. Even though the new apartment units are freshly painted and spacious, often with enviable views of the city, the curses of children are still etched into the sidewalks surrounding each building, a leitmotif which continues up the asphalt walkways, into elevators, on corridor walls, ending in front of each apartment door. One middle-aged Jewish tenant put the paradox, “Urination in elevators, light bulbs taken out, dirty remarks on the stairs. But let me ask you? Compared to the Puerto Ricans and Negroes, did we ever get such good places to live when we first came to New York?”

As it becomes increasingly clear that public housing has failed to make its tenants middle class, a host of critics have appeared who seem almost to defend the slum. The problem, they claim is the dislocation of tenants from the social structures and cultures in which they felt at home, cultures which did more to enrich city life than to destroy it.

The human map of the slum has traditionally been a patchwork of ethnic territorial claims, each informal island held together by bonds of family, friendship and culture. These territories even produce their own “militias,” the ethnic gangs, whose function it is to fight for or defend a share of New York real estate. By eating away the traditional battlefield, public housing plots partially destroy this hundred-year-old pattern. Instead of living in island villages transplanted on city blocks, Puerto Rican families find themselves randomly shuffled among Negroes, Italians, and Jews, all of whom share a dislike for Puerto Ricans. Having left an ethnic community with its churches, storekeepers, men’s clubs, teenage cliques, and well-established networks of female gossip, the ethnic tenant finds himself in what is defined by the gang world as “neutral territory,” an integrated housing project. Without the social support that the ethnic neighborhood and its institutions provide, it is increasingly difficult for the individual tenant to face the work-a-day world.

This critique of public housing, however, misses essential aspects of the problem. First, public housing projects are not devoid of ethnic social structures. Anyone who is skeptical about this need only spend some time sitting on the benches in front of project buildings. On one side of the asphalt play area is the Puerto Rican bench where women gossip in Spanish about the Negroes, the Whites, and the Management. Facing them is the white bench and on a third side sit the Negroes. The careful observer will notice that the ethnic lines are rarely crossed in this small world of bench culture. Each ...

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