Stuyvesant Town, Manhattan (History)

neighborhoods_manhttan_stuyvesant_town_peter_cooper_village_300x300Stuyvesant Town–Peter Cooper Village is a large, post-World War II private residential development, on the east side of the New York City borough of Manhattan. Stuyvesant Town, known to its residents as “Stuy Town”,was named after Peter Stuyvesant, the last director-general of the Dutch colony ofNew Amsterdam, whose farm occupied the site in the 17th century. Peter Cooper Village is named after the 19th century industrialist, inventor and philanthropistPeter Cooper, who founded Cooper Union. The complex, which was planned beginning in 1942 and opened its first building in 1947, replaced the Gas House district of gas storage tanks.

The complex is a sprawling collection of red brick apartment buildings stretching from First Avenue to Avenue C, between 14th and 23rd Streets. It covers about 80 acres (320,000 m2) of land, a portion of which is utilized for playgrounds and parkland. The development located between 14th and 20th Streets, Stuyvesant Town, has 8,757 apartments in 89 residential buildings. Combined with Stuy Town’s sister development Peter Cooper Village, located between 20th and 23rd Streets, the complex has a combined total of 110 residential buildings, 11,250 apartments, and over 25,000 residents.

The combined development is bordered by the East River/Avenue C on the east, the Gramercy Park neighborhood on the west, the East Village and Alphabet Cityto the south, and Kips Bay to the north. The surrounding area to the west is notable for a historic two-block park surrounded by the old Stuyvesant High School called Stuyvesant Square, Saint George’s Church, and the Beth Israel Medical Center.

History

East 20th Street looking east in the direction of First Avenue in 1938. This picture shows two of the hugegas holders that gave the area the name Gas House District; the block in the foreground did not become part of the Stuyvesant Town–Peter Cooper Village complex, but the area on the east side of First Avenue, where the tanks are, did. (Photo credit: Berenice Abbott)

Gas House District

In 1842, one gas storage tank at East 23rd Street and the river was erected,[3](p187–189) quickly followed by the construction of other gas tanks, and by the late 19th century, the site of the complex had become known as theGashouse District because of the many tanks that dominated the streetscapes.[4] The tanks, which sometimes leaked, made the area undesirable, as did the Gas House Gang and other predators who operated in the area. With the construction of the FDR 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; crime in the district had been endemic, however. When Alexander S. Williams was promoted to police captain and assigned to the area, he met the gangs’ violence with equal force of his own, putting together a brute squad that beat up gangsters with clubs. He commented: “There is more law at the end of a policeman’s nightstick than in a decision of the Supreme Court.”

Before the construction of Stuyvesant Town, the neighborhood contained 18 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 razed. 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.” The last residents of the Gas House district, the Delman family, moved out in May 1946, allowing demolition to be completed shortly thereafter.

Planning

Due to a housing crisis that had been growing since the Depression, Stuyvesant Town was already being planned as a post-war housing project in 1942–43, some years before the end of World War II. A provision was made that the rental applications of veterans would have selection priority. The complex was developed by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, and was based on its earlier development in the Parkchester neighborhood of the Bronx, which was completed in 1942. The same companies and developers also built Riverton, which was completed around the same time.

Metropolitan Life president Frederick Ecker said of Stuyvesant Town in its initial offering that it would make it possible for generations of New Yorkers “to live in a park – to live in the country in the heart of New York.” On the first day the company received 7,000 applications; it would receive 100,000 applicants by the time of first occupancy. The complex’s first tenants, two World War II veterans and their families, moved into the first completed building on August 1, 1947. In 1947, rents ranged from $50 to $91 per month. Current rents range from $2,800+ for a one bedroom apartment to $7,000+ for a 5 bedroom unit.

 Controversy

Stuyvesant Town was controversial from the beginning. Although nominally a private development, it was championed by Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, who has been called the “dominant force in [the] creation” of both Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village. At the behest of Mayor LaGuardia, Moses sought “to induce insurance companies and savings banks to enter the field of large-scale slum clearance.” 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 ofeminent 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. CouncilmenStanley M. Isaacs and Adam 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.” In the years after it opened, blacks were barred from living in the complex, with Metropolitan Life’s president, Frederick H. Ecker, stating that “Negroes and whites do not mix.” Lee Lorch, a City College 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 a position at Pennsylvania State University, Lorch allowed a black family to occupy his apartment, thus circumventing the no Negroes rule. As a result of pressure from Metropolitan 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.” 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 segregated.

A host of other issues and controversies surrounded Stuyvesant Town’s planning and design. From the first outset, 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 of the complex and the denial of city residents of the right to walk through a part of the city that was once public; and violations of the city’s master plan. 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 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.