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Celebrate ten years of Urban Omnibus and support ten more years of fresh, independent perspectives on citymaking with a donation today! This project seeks to move beyond stereotypes of architectural form by revealing the social and spatial specificities of distinct sites that share physical characteristics and philosophies of de but differ greatly in their lived experience. To that end, we have commissioned a series of writers to investigate specific examples of this typology in a non-typological way.
In December, labor expert Ari Paul visited Electchester, Queensto uncover what contemporary lessons might be drawn from the history of housing built by labor unions. This week, journalist Sarika Bansal investigates Alfred E. Tenants from Smith Houses have been very vocal in their opposition to the plan, and many have filed suit against the housing authority. Understanding this contemporary controversy requires engaging a long history of local advocacy, tensions between successive waves of immigrant groups, and chronic underfunding of public housing.
That history is among the intangible forces that contributes, in highly site-specific ways, to the experience of place and the bonds of community in this particular patch of New York City. Smith Houses forms the western edge of a continuous group of towers-in-the-park developments in the Two Bridges neighborhood of Manhattan. All photos by Anna Beeke. New Towers, Same Park? One night last February, hundreds of residents of Alfred E. Lopez emphasized that public housing residents would not be displaced in the process — and that 20 percent of the new units would be reserved for affordable housing.
Others asked about the implications of new residents for the neighborhood schools. Still others worried about potential clashes between public housing residents and well-heeled Manhattanites. Underscoring these concerns was a general sense that Smith residents have little to gain from the proposal. True to her word, over three Alfred e smith houses individual Smith tenants banded together two months later to file a lawsuit against NYCHA — the first of two lawsuits in After Hurricane Sandy, mold became an additional problem in the buildings closest to the East River.
Starting inwait times for individual unit repairs at Smith Houses seemed only to get longer. This appeared to be the case in public housing units across the city. Smith residents considered this blackmail. The land lease proposal, meanwhile, is under scrutiny. People here make a lot of noise. Mayzabeth Lopez agrees. After growing up in public housing in Williamsburg, and working with a dozen housing projects today, she said that Smith Houses is noticeably different from other projects in that regard.
Indeed, among the eight developments affected by the land lease proposal, Smith tenants have been the most audible in opposition to the plan. Smith is a legacy of its rich history. The development, which opened its doors inwas built in place of teeming tenement row houses, in what was then predominantly a neighborhood of Catholic immigrants from Southern Europe. That was in Smith Houses were constructed shortly afterwards.
The sprawling project consists of twelve brick buildings, which today house over four thousand people. The campus, however, offers a distinct sense of respite, especially when compared to the bustling Chinatown streets nearby. Buildings at Smith Houses are separated by Alfred e smith houses and inviting walkways, many lined with benches and trees. There are two playgrounds for children, as well as a recreation facility. During the summer, the space is often used for fairs, music festivals, and other activities. Kerri Culhane, associate director of Two Bridges Neighborhood Council, said Smith was intentionally deed to foster a sense of community.
Unfortunately, in recent years, much of the open green space has been razed in favor of parking lots or dumpster corrals. Smith Houses opened at a delicate time, demographically speaking, when Puerto Rican and black families were beginning to enter the neighborhood. In fact, Two Bridges Neighborhood Council — now predominantly a housing rights organization — was founded in to ease mounting tensions between racial groups.
In some instances, rivalry turned to violence. Ivan Hecker, who lived at Smith during the s and s, told me that while growing up, Italian boys would sometimes throw bottles at him and his Puerto Rican friends from their rooftops. Despite his gang participation, Hecker went to church on Sundays growing up.
For a time, he was even an altar boy with some of his Italian neighbors. Papa, who is Italian-American, experienced some friction as well, though less violently. While at church, he met a Puerto Rican woman who grew up in Smith Houses, whom he eventually married. According to Papa, the local Alfred e smith houses in the s was instrumental in bringing the neighborhood together — and in planting seeds for community activism.
It plays a lot into activism, since many church leaders became advocates for conditions at Smith. She also believes that the activist culture at Smith is a function of the long-term outlook many residents share. It became particularly intense after the proposals were released in March. The first land lease proposal at Smith Houses included two story residential buildings facing outwards to the river, replacing a parking lot, and a story residential building built over what is currently a basketball court and baseball diamond.
Residents and advocates alike found major flaws with the proposal. Urban Justice Center, a legal service and advocacy organization, is co-leading a lawsuit on behalf of five housing projects — including Smith — regarding the land lease proposal. It claims that NYCHA failed to conduct environmental reviews or floodplain analyses to see whether the land is suitable for construction.
There are also concerns regarding the implications for the public housing community. The most important one was leading with the money. The eagerness from the [real estate] development community confirmed many long-term suspicions on the part of tenants. Residents are well aware that in other cities, public housing has become a land grab. I reached out to NYCHA for comment, but was told that their policy was to not comment on proposals during the review process.
Kerri Culhane, of Two Bridges Neighborhood Council, believes the existing land lease proposal represents a huge missed opportunity. Make it a real neighborhood. Will the market-rate developments allow the city agency to raise the money it needs for capital improvements? Lopez, Epstein, and other advocates have been proposing alternative schemes to raising the money.
Other ideas Alfred e smith houses making public housing buildings greener to save on energy costs and shooting more films on the campuses. However, it is unclear how viable or lucrative these alternatives are. Lopez also suggested turning to the state or federal housing department for additional subsidies.
Their [tenant] association is really organized. In a partial win for the tenants, the Bloomberg administration announced in August that it would slacken the pace of the land lease proposals. Mayor Bill de Blasio ran his campaign on the platform of fighting citywide economic inequality. The agency is now waiting for a new chairman to be appointed. De Blasio has also spoken against the initial land lease proposal. The future of the land lease proposal is uncertain. Additional details are yet to be disclosed. Bloom predicts that it will be difficult for the new NYCHA chairman to say no to some version of the proposal; the revenue potential is just too great.
Many public housing residents are in fact open to a more nuanced approach to infill development — especially if it includes features that directly benefit them. Residents at Smith Houses, however, will likely not fall in that category in the near future. Sarika Bansal is a journalist who specializes in social innovation and global health. She is also the Director of Partnerships at the Solutions Journalism Network, which supports rigorous journalism about responses to social problems.
She is based in New York City. The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York. We are currently fighting the issues in relation to the ignoring of the unretrofitted towers, and dead-ending a muni station in Parkmerced vs. We can send you additional contacts and information. Knickerbocker is a pair of courtyard buildings, with interior parks.
The buildings maintain street walls with commercial uses along many of the street frontages. Much more of a traditional New York building type, with far superior urban features. During the time that I lived there, the formerly open to the street courtyards became gated, probably because the elderly who spent time there were afraid of crime. That was a pity, as was the closing of Police Plaza to through pedestrian passage.
The gating of public space to create more Gramercy Parks detracts from the experience of the city as a linked green spaces. The uninformed response of the activists is a pity because a more important dialogue is possible about how to preserve and extend the great resource of the landscape of Al Smith.
Save my name,and website in this browser for the next time I comment. A housing court case can make the difference between safe at home and out on the street. Jenny Laurie of Housing Court Answers explains how it works and what throws the scales of housing justice out of balance. In the thorny thicket of housing problems, from cost to supply to quality, what roles can architects play?
Typecast: Towers in the Park. Sarika Bansal. In This Series Row House. Towers in the Park. Housing Neighborhood. Activism Affordable Housing Real Estate. Comments February 6, February 11, December 27, Housing Brass Tacks.Alfred e smith houses
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Portfolio: Alfred E. Smith and Vladeck Houses