Public Housing That Worked: New York in the Twentieth Century

Public Housing That Worked: New York in the Twentieth Century

Public Housing That Worked: New York in the Twentieth Century

Public Housing That Worked: New York in the Twentieth Century


When it comes to large-scale public housing in the United States, the consensus for the past decades has been to let the wrecking balls fly. This text shows how New York's administrators developed a rigorous system of public house management that weathered a variety of social and political challenges.


Is it possible to say anything new about public housing? After hundreds of sobering studies and thousands of desultory newspaper articles it is difficult to imagine that any uplifting lessons can be salvaged from this country’s tragic public housing experience. Almost all these studies have been informed by a sense that public housing inevitably fails no matter the intentions of administrators or tenants.

The story of the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) reveals such important differences from other cities that urban historians, sociologists, journalists, and designers should never have generalized about public housing’s essential nature without wrestling with America’s largest and most successful public housing system. Public Housing That Worked, by enumerating the factors that led to New York’s survival, offers a renewed historical framework for American public housing history generally. The reader of this book will come to realize that, as in New York, public housing could have been built and maintained to a decent standard; tenanted with a wider range of income groups; and policed in a systematic fashion.

It is distressing that much American subsidized housing turned out to be not much better, and arguably worse in some extreme cases, than traditional slums. Too little attention has been paid to management deficiency as the principal factor in this widespread failure. Dedicated housing advocates rarely prospered at America’s mismanaged, patronageridden big-city housing authorities. Where patronage was not rampant, housing administrators often lacked the necessary skills and staff to manage multi-family housing.

Architects and planners were the first to lump together public housing and urban ills. Idealistic designers had promoted public housing in the first place, but by the 1950s they were blaming tall buildings and modernist superblocks for mounting social disorder. Critics became so obsessed with the negative influence of design on behavior, however, that they rarely factored in growing evidence of basic housing management failure. Sociologists in the 1960s and after linked public housing to a growing crisis of an urban underclass trapped in America’s inner . . .

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