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Sardine Life

River House, 1931  

In that first phase in the saga of the New York apartment, the middle class emulated the prosperous in order to separate themselves from the poor. In the next chapter, plain but modern housing for the poor became the standard for everyone else. Widespread hardship, followed by a world war and a housing shortage, plus a multi-decade campaign to flatten differences in income, meant that New Yorkers of all strata were moving into streamlined homes, with lower ceilings and restrained rents.

Affordability and unassuming dignity had always been a goal of apartment advocates. In 1867, 1879, and 1901, Progressives had pushed through laws requiring small increases in the standards of ventilation, light, and sanitation in tenements, which were often disease-ridden firetraps. In the 1870s, the Brooklyn philanthropist Alfred Tredway White built handsome complexes of worker houses like the Tower Buildings in Cobble Hill, which featured a toilet in each apartment, outdoor staircases, meticulous brickwork, and wrought-iron railings. But it was the Depression that brought the issue of how to house the have-nots into the realm of public policy. In 1935, the New York City Housing Authority rehabilitated a neighborhood of crumbling Lower East Side tenements by tearing down every third house to maximize light and air, and renovating or rebuilding the rest. In the end, the First Houses project required near-total reconstruction, but the result inaugurated the public-housing era and remains an emblem of its promise.

Providing apartments to those who needed them proved such a massive undertaking that all levels of government had to get involved. Rent control arrived in 1943, and a smorgasbord of federal, state, and city agencies floated bonds, granted tax breaks, wrote checks, evicted citizens, and redrew maps, all in an effort to scrub putrid slums and erect stands of thick, solid towers instead. Private developers, too, got in on the action. The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company opened Stuyvesant Town as a middle-class gated community around a series of verdant courts. One irony of that contradiction-laced period is that, in order to save the decaying city, densely populated towers cut themselves off from the noise and mess of urban life. This was not because residents wanted to distance themselves from the street but because planners did. “The growing antimetropolitanism of most housing architects [was] matched by the new suburban bias of the bankers, lawyers, and bureaucrats who wrote the programs and administered the policies,” write Robert A.M. Stern, Gregory Gilmartin, and Thomas Mellins in New York 1930.

The story of mass housing is an intricate epic of idealism, destruction, and partial successes. Public projects obliterated neighborhoods, boosted the crime and segregation they hoped to alleviate, killed miles of street life, and vivisected vibrant communities—but they also redeemed a lot of grimly constricted lives. “Before, I lived in the jungle,” one garment worker said at the time. “Now I live in New York.”

“I live in New York.” The optimism buzzing through that phrase brought people here in search of whatever damp, dim, cramped, and clanking digs they could find. Even as the authorities were condemning acres of cold-water walk-ups in East Harlem and the Lower East Side, ­Abstract Expressionist painters were renting similar apartments in Greenwich Village. If for Wharton’s Lily a poky flat represented the last rung before indigence and an early death, for the siblings in Ruth McKenney’s 1940 play My Sister Eileen (and its 1953 spinoff, Wonderful Town), a basement pad in the Village had a raffish, stageworthy glamour. Penury was cool.

So powerful was the ideal of the apartment for the masses that luxury buildings aspired to it, too. Postwar architects embraced the austerities of modernism, which they applied to bourgeois quarters as rigorously as they did to public housing. The most bracing high-end apartment building was Manhattan House, an immense 1951 complex that architect Gordon Bunshaft clad in glazed brick that everyone called white, was actually pale gray, and has always looked slightly unwashed. Stretching along 66th Street between Second and Third Avenues, Manhattan House adapted the grand apartment to the stripped-down modern era persuasively enough to attract Grace Kelly as a resident, and Bunshaft chose to live there, too. But its huge scale, stark design, and chain of slabs sitting back from the sidewalk evoked Stuyvesant Town more than it did the ornate prewar palazzi like the Beresford. Half a century earlier, New Yorkers had hoped to live fabulously. Now it was stylish to live just well enough.

It soon became difficult to distinguish Manhattan House from the knockoffs that developers churned out for less discerning clientele. For a while in the fifties and sixties, it seemed as though every new residential building, whether it contained cramped studios or assembly-line “luxury” pods, wore a uniform of glossy white brick. The postwar pathways of influence resembled the water cycle: an aesthetic of conspicuous sameness, developed for the poor and taken up by the affluent, trickled back to the middle.

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