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The Dream of a Middle-Class New York

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On the immigrant Lower East Side, the space itself was the problem—it smothered light, separated people from water and toilets, and pressed them together with strangers and their garbage. In 1901, Seth Low, the president of Columbia and of Stanton Coit’s settlement, was elected mayor on a reform ticket, and the movement that began in the settlement houses acquired political power. Low and his allies won passage of the Tenement Reform Act of 1901, which reformed building codes to require light in every room, and soon six-story New Law buildings started to emerge on ghetto corners, with courtyards and good light.

What is remarkable about this emerging movement is that it did not become a permanent charity endeavor. As the tenement residents left squalor behind and began to acquire a more permanent piece of the middle class, the movement followed them. Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Party set up shop on 42nd Street, soliciting ideas about minimum wage and unemployment insurance from the city’s social scientists.

Some of the reform unions began to interpret their mission more broadly. Enter Abraham Kazan, a young, immigrant union official on the Lower East Side, equal parts socialist pauper-prince and A-list macher. From a tub-thumping Scottish anarchist, Kazan learned of European experiments with the cooperative—union members would pool their resources, building houses and factories that they could own themselves. The labor movement had been oriented around strikes, around class combat, but to Kazan the cooperative model seemed to promise something different for his members, a way to buy their own dignity. Soon, the ladies of the garment workers union were building the Amalgamated Houses in the Bronx, the Hillman Houses on the Lower East Side. By 1927, Governor Al Smith had signed a law providing public financing for cooperative housing. The model spread, but by 1930 the city still had more cooperative housing than the rest of the country combined. During the Depression, high-end housing around the city went vacant. Not a single working-class cooperative did.

If you grew up middle class in New York’s outer-boroughs at any point in the past half-­century, then this has likely been your sentimental geography—some evolved, Taylorized version of Kazan’s design, which metastasized after the Mitchell-Lama middle-class housing initiative of 1955: the airfield-size expanse of Co-op City in the northeast Bronx, the towers perched strangely, opportunistically on top of the approach to the George Washington Bridge. This long phase of development contained all manner of mistakes—it often destroyed neighborhoods, many of them poor, and replaced old communities with brick monstrosities—and it has no real heroes, only complicated figures like Robert Moses, at least 50 percent villain. And yet it is telling that the lasting monuments of the postwar housing boom in New York—one of the wealthiest places in the world, in the era of the greatest economic expansion in human history—are not luxury towers but endless redbrick buildings in the boroughs, space carved out for a middle class.

Even now, no one is certain quite how to pinpoint De Blasio—at some times he has seemed a committed left-wing ideologue, at others an operative, even a hack. So it has been possible to assume that his rhetoric was merely opportunistic campaign talk, his leftward move only tactical. (That some of the mayor’s early appointments have been Establishment figures has reinforced this sentiment.) But this obscures the scale of De Blasio’s stated ambitions, which seem enormous. He built his campaign around the proposal to make prekindergarten universal and free, an idea that policy wonks have pushed for years but that had usually been considered a dreamy political nonstarter. He has said he means to build or preserve 200,000 housing units. This suggests that the new mayor understands something about the nature of reform in New York, that it is—that it has always been—essentially physical, a matter of space.

Affordability is a moving target: What should a middle-class person be able to afford, and what constitutes a denial of his or her dignity? We can agree that the tenements of the 1890s did not meet basic human standards, but middle-class New York does not look like that today. But there are, in fact, real ways in which the city could be ­rearranged to make it easier for the non-rich to stay here and thrive. A survey of some of the best of them appears on these pages, from attacking housing costs by flooding the market with supply to building a transit system that serves the outer-boroughs as well as it does the inner one; from reviving our public-school system to embracing tax hikes on the city’s financial class to support whole categories of targeted social-service programs for those who are undeniably in need. Of whom there are millions.


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