Stuyvesant Town

I am just returning from a weekend in New York, where I spent part of my time at Stuyvesant Town, or Stuy Town as it is more colloquially known.

Stuy Town and the adjoining Peter Cooper Village are a large post-World War II development originally conceived as housing for returning veterans and their families.

Covering 80 acres, 110 buildings, and 11,250 apartments, the development is the largest apartment complex in Manhattan and feels somewhat out of place in the dense urban center. There are trees and fireflies. Water features and basketball courts.

Previously, the area had been the Gashouse District – full of large, leaking gas tanks and people whose poverty kept them from living anywhere else.

In the early 1940s, the land was taken by eminent domain – a controversial move since the land was then owned and developed by Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. Supporters argued that the government needed to “induce insurance companies and savings banks to enter the field of large-scale slum clearance.”

To make room for the new development, 600 buildings, containing 3,100 families, 500 stores and small factories, three churches, three schools, and two theaters were razed. The New York Times called it “the greatest and most significant mass movement of families in New York’s history.”

And the controversy didn’t end there. After law makers declined to add a nondiscrimination clause to MetLife’s contract, the company barred blacks, with the company’s president Frederick H. Ecker arguing that “negroes and whites do not mix.”

The property has changed hands since then – and updated their applicant requirements – but it remains a private property with privately controlled rules. This felt particularly weird for a development that feels very much like a small town.

The development does have a very active tenants association, but I somehow expected more than that. I wanted there to be an egalitarian governing council that would oversee decisions about improvements and moderate tenant conflicts.

Stuyvesant Town is now Manhattan’s largest, and possibly last, “bastion of affordable housing,” having itself expelled poor people for a more refined, middle class community.

And there it stands, a monument to good intentions and the deep challenges of urban planning.

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