Evictions and housing issues more generally have gained increasing prominence in New York City. Not only has housing received increasing play from New York area media—a whole new host of programs, including Poverty Justice Solutions, have been implemented to help prevent homelessness and the devastating effects of eviction. But current discourse around New York’s housing crisis often neglects the long history of eviction in New York City. Though largely forgotten, a previous eviction crisis, the mass displacement caused by title I “slum clearance” projects in the late 1950s and 1960s, shows us how eviction can shape the very urban fabric of the city and the importance outspoken advocacy for tenants facing eviction.
In the decade after World War II, New York City evicted hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, predominantly low-income and disproportionately non-white, under a “slum clearance” program authorized by Title I of the 1949 Federal Housing Act. The program, led in New York by the city planner Robert Moses, provided federal funds to seize land in low-income neighborhoods and contract with private developers to redevelop them. Many Manhattan housing developments—like the Manhattanville houses on the Upper West Side or Stuyvesant Peter Cooper village on the Lower East Side, were originally Title I slum clearance projects, as was Lincoln Center, now home to The Metropolitan Opera and the Julliard School of Music.
The demolition of whole neighborhoods for Title
I projects created an eviction crisis of unprecedented scale in New York City history. As Robert Caro writes in The Power Broker, his biography of Robert Moses: “During the
seven years since the end of WW II, there had been evicted from their homes in New York City for public works—mainly Robert Moses’ public works—some 170,000 persons,” a number Caro also notes is likely far too conservative. This averages out to around 24,000 per year, comparable to what New York has been experiencing for the past decade, and proportionally larger considering that New York has added over half a million residents since the post-war period. A report published by Lawrence Orton, a member of the New York City Planning Commission, on the evictions referred to them as “an enforced population displacement unlike any previous population movement in the city’s history.”
The evicted population was 40% Black or Hispanic at a time when those demographics made up only a little over 10% of the city’s overall population, meaning that a large proportion of the evicted tenantrs faced extreme discrimination in finding new housing. And little arrangement was made by the city to help evicted tenants find new housing. Caro tells us: “For seven years, Moses had been giving the impression that the bulk of the low-income families displaced by his public works had been accommodated in public housing projects. In reality, [Orton] found, the percentage of displaced families placed in public housing was pathetically small.” many Tenants were forced to cram into already crowded tenement buildings nearby, exacerbating conditions caused by poverty and allowing exploitative landlords to reap huge profits. In the worst cases, tenants were forced to shelter in their old neighborhoods as they were being torn down, surrounded by the deafening noise of demolitions and often without basic utilities. A member of the The Women’s City Club, investigating the Manhattantown development on the Upper West Side, described people living in a scene that: “looked like a cross section of bombed-out Berlin right after WWII. Some of the tenements were still standing, broken windows gaping sightlessly at the sky, basement doors yawning uncovered on the sidewalks; and surrounding them were acres strewn with brick and mortar and rubble where wreckers and bulldozers had been at work.” Tenants displaced by Title I projects essentially became refugees in their own city.
What can we take away from Title I evictions as they relate to today’s eviction crisis? For one, they demonstrate that beyond the trauma they cause individuals and families, evictions can re-shape urban landscapes on a large scale. With little place to go due to housing discrimination, many Black and Latino families moved to neighborhoods in the outer boroughs that were previously predominantly populated by low-income Jewish families, like Brownsville and Bed-Stuy, accelerating demographics changes there and affecting how resources like public housing were allocated in coming decades. And the evictions of these families had a rippling effect: As they moved into already crowded neighborhoods they destabilized tenuous power balances between tenants and landlords by boosting demand, causing further evictions, and through them, poverty. The client centered nature of anti-eviction legal services work by necessity focuses advocates on individual outcomes. But considering the potential implications for neighborhoods or the city as a whole it may well be worth thinking further about how urban development and planning policy can be used to halt the changes wrought by large scale eviction.
The title I evictions also serve as an example of what can happen without advocacy and activism. The bulk of these evictions took place a time when there was almost no legal services infrastructure for low-income people. Tenants living on Title I sites had no recourse when Moses and his partnering developers reneged on their promise to provide relocation assistance, and Moses used his influence with the press to silence critics of his plan like Orton. Local protests were common, but lacked the organization a
nd political clout to halt the evictions. Without a voice, these tenant communities were both wiped off the map of New York and erased from its history: Looking at Lincoln center today, there is no trace of the trauma of displacement caused by its creation. It’s on advocates today to stop this from happening again.