Peter Cooper Village-Stuyvesant Town, Manhattan, New York City
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Peter Cooper Village-Stuyvesant Town is a large private residential development on the East Side of the borough of Manhattan in New York City. One of the most iconic and successful of post-war private housing communities, Stuyvesant Town was planned in 1943. Its first tenants, two World War II veterans and their families, moved into the first completed building on August 1, 1947. The complex itself is based on Parkchester, which was completed in 1942. The same companies and developers also built Riverton, which was completed around the same time.
|Peter Cooper Village-Stuyvesant Town|
The model, middle-income housing development was named for the last Director-General of New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant, whose farm occupied the site in the seventeenth-century. In the late Nineteenth Century, the area became known as the Gashouse District because of the many huge gas tanks that dominated the streetscapes. The tanks, which sometimes leaked, made the area undesirable, as did the Gas House Gang and others that operated in the area. With the construction of the East River Drive, the area began to improve. By the 1930s, all but four tanks were gone and, while shabby, the area was no more blighted than many parts of the city after the years of the Great Depression.
Before the construction of Stuyvesant Town, the neighborhood contained eighteen typical city blocks, with public schools, churches, factories, private homes, apartments, small businesses, and even relatively new modern-style apartment buildings. In all, 600 buildings, containing 3,100 families, 500 stores and small factories, three churches, three schools, and two theaters, were destroyed. As would be repeated in later urban renewal projects, some 11,000 persons were forced to move from the neighborhood. In 1945, The New York Times called the move from the site "the greatest and most significant mass movement of families in New York's history" (NYT, March 3, 1945). The last residents of the Gashouse District, the Delman Family, moved out in May 1946, allowing demolition to be soon concluded.
Today, Stuyvesant Town is a sprawling collection of red brick apartment buildings with typical housing project-style architecture, stretching from First Avenue to Avenue C, between 14th and 20th Streets. It covers about 80 acres of land. Stuyvesant Town has 8,757 apartments and with its sister development Peter Cooper Village they have a combined 110 buildings, 11,250 apartments, and over 25,000 residents. It is bordered by the East River on the east, the Gramercy neighborhood on the west, the East Village (or Alphabet City) to the south, and Kips Bay to the north. This area is notable for historic Stuyvesant Square, a two-block park surrounded by the old Stuyvesant High School, Saint George's Church, and the Beth Israel Medical Center.
In spite of its project-style architecture and layout, and its controversial history, Stuyvesant Town remains as desirable a place to live today as it was in 1946, when the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company began taking applications. On the first day the company received 7,000 applications; it would receive 100,000 applicants by the time of first occupancy. In 1947, rents ranged from $50 to $91.
Stuyvesant Town history
Due to a housing crisis building since the Depression, Stuyvesant Town was planned as a post-war housing project already in 1942-43, some years before the war's end. Provision was made that the rental applications of veterans would have selection priority.
Stuyvesant Town was controversial from the beginning. It was championed by Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, who, at the behest of Mayor La Guardia, sought "to induce insurance companies and savings banks to enter the field of large-scale slum clearance" (Moses, Letter to The New York Times, June 3, 1943). It was enabled by various state laws and amendments which permitted private companies to enter what was previously a public field of action. The new public-private partnership, and the contract entered between the city and the developer, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, were the source of much debate.
Among the issues at stake were use of the power of eminent domain for private purposes; the reversion of public streets and land, such as public school property, to private ownership; the 25-year tax exemption granted by the contract; and the rights of the company to discriminate in selecting tenants.
When the $50 million Stuyvesant Town plan was approved by the City Planning Commission on May 20, 1943 by a five to one vote, discrimination against African Americans was already a significant topic of debate. Councilmen Stanley M. Isaacs and A. Clayton Powell Jr. sought to introduce a provision into the contract that would prevent racial or religious discrimination in tenant selection. This provision was not accepted, with those rejecting it, including Robert Moses, arguing that the company's profitability would be harmed and that opponents were "obviously looking for a political issue and not for results in the form of actual slum clearance" (NYT, May 29, 1943). Lee Lorch, a City University of New York professor, petitioned to allow African Americans into the development and was fired from his teaching position as a result of pressure from Metropolitan Life. Upon accepting position at Penn State, Lorch allowed a Black family to occupy his apartment, thus circumventing the no Negroes rule. As a result of pressure from Met Life, he was dismissed from his new position as well.
Lawsuits were filed on the basis that the project was public or semi-public, and thus violated anti-discrimination laws for New York City public housing. In July 1947, the New York Supreme Court determined that the development was private and that, in the absence of laws to the contrary, the company could discriminate as it saw fit. The court wrote, "It is well settled that the landlord of a private apartment or dwelling house may, without violating any provision of the Federal or State Constitutions, select tenants of its own choice because of race, color, creed or religion... Clearly, housing accommodation is not a recognized civil right" (NYT, July 29, 1947). The suit brought by three African American war veterans was thus settled.
By this date, Metropolitan Life was building a separate-but-equal housing project in Harlem, Riverton Houses. Some years later, the company admitted a few Black families to Stuyvesant Town and a few white families to Riverton. Both projects, however, remain largely Black and white, as do many housing projects to this day.
A host of other issues and controversies surrounded Stuyvesant Town's urban planning and design. From the first debates in 1943, objections were made to the haste with which the project was approved and lack of public participation in the process; the project's population density; the absence of any public facilities such as schools, community centers, or shops in the development; the gated-community, private property character and the denial of city residents to walk through a part of the city that was once public; violations of the city's master plan; and the walled-city character of its design. Lawsuits were brought by property owners of the land, but in February 1944 the Supreme Court of the United States refused to review the constitutionality of the New York State redevelopment companies law that enabled the development, despite the taking of public property for private profit, the granting of tax exemptions, and the public benefits advanced by the developers and their advocates.
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