Imagine standing at 116th Street and Morningside Drive and looking out at the great sweep of Harlem spreading forth below you. Everywhere you turn there are “cultural centers… concert halls, theatres, workshops… dancing pavilions, and athletic fields….” Instead of dilapidated brownstones, there are “pathways for strolling under trees” and “contemporary sculpture” enriching the open spaces.
This all sounds lovely, but you can’t actually see any of it.
Instead, from your vantage point, what you see is a “radical landscape: vast cleared ranges of spaces with fifteen peaks rising into the sky. These fifteen widely separated conical structures” are each 100 stories high. They resemble gargantuan nuclear power plants. Highways run below them and through them, zipping traffic across the island at breakneck speed.
This futuristic vision for Harlem, credited to architect R. Buckminster Fuller, best known for his embrace of the geodesic dome, first appeared in a 1965 essay in Esquire magazine titled “Instant Slum Clearance.”
It was the sort of grandiose idea that big-name modernist architects and planners often put forward to solve thorny problems, and the accompanying illustrations by Fuller’s longtime collaborator, Shoji Sadao, show a sci-fi landscape that simultaneously embraced and destroyed Manhattan’s century and a half of rigid adherence to its famous street grid. Reading the story, it is easy to assume that Fuller was yet another white man with a plan, a part of what author Teju Cole has dubbed “the white-savior industrial complex.”
Esquire readers who noticed the story’s byline were likely unfamiliar with its author, June Meyer, and perhaps assumed she was a member of the magazine’s staff. In truth, Meyer was the married name of June Jordan, the black poet, author, essayist, urban thinker, and Harlem resident. What the story never mentioned was that the genesis of the entire project, dubbed “Skyrise for Harlem,” had been hers.
To understand “Skyrise for Harlem”—and debates about housing and development that continue in the neighborhood today, most recently as part of the East Harlem Rezoning—it’s crucial to look at how the area came to be what Alain Locke called in 1925 the “race capital” of black America, and what that meant for the area’s economic life.
Harlem was settled by Dutch and Walloon farmers in 1637-39; 20 years later, under the direction of Peter Stuyvesant, the Dutch West India Company created the formal village of Nieuw Haarlem. During British rule, the town nominally came under the governmental control of New York City, but continued to be a remote enclave dotted with farms, estates, inns, and taverns.
That changed with the coming of the Ninth Avenue Elevated IRT in 1879. Soon, real estate developers began to snatch up large swaths of property, and by 1904, when the IRT subway reached the neighborhood along Broadway, most streets were lined with townhouses. Too many townhouses, it turned out. A sharp real estate downturn in the early 1890s left many developers holding on to a glut of housing stock.
David H. King, the contractor who built the Washington Square Arch and the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, invested heavily in four blocks of housing along West 138th and 139th streets between Seventh and Eighth avenues. (Today, those streets are known as Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and Frederick Douglass Boulevard.) King hired three well-known architects—James Brown Lord, Bruce Price, and Stanford White—to create terraces of elegant homes, the King Model Houses, better known today as Striver’s Row. However, by 1895, only nine of the 146 buildings in King’s development had sold and his mortgager was desperate to find buyers and renters.
At the same time that King’s project was falling apart, Manhattan’s largest African-American neighborhood, the Tenderloin, faced its own dilemma: Starting in 1901, agents of the Pennsylvania Railroad had been buying up properties in the area for a massive railroad station. Soon, they began evicting residents, many of whom fled to Harlem. In 1910, Hutchens Bishop, the rector of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church on West 25th Street in the Tenderloin—America’s second-oldest black Episcopal parish—began purchasing property for a new church on West 134th Street, along with 10 apartment buildings nearby, so that his congregation could move, wholesale, to the new neighborhood.
By the end of World War I, Harlem was well on its way to becoming New York’s largest black neighborhood. The relative prosperity of the 1920s, combined with shifting social and cultural norms during Prohibition, meant that in the era of the Harlem Renaissance, the neighborhood was celebrated, but exoticized. As Langston Hughes wrote in his autobiography, The Big Sea, this was the period when “the Negro was in Vogue”; historian Irving Lewis Allen concurs: “White New Yorkers saw all of Harlem as a jungle of wild parties, hot jazz, and primitive passions.”
Harlem residents lived in relatively new housing stock. As sociologist Ira De Reid pointed out, they “inherited the homes and tenements of people more economically secure than they.” But beneath this outward curb appeal, those inherited homes were “congested and unsafe,” and residents paid “excessively high rents.” As George Schuyler, an African-American columnist for the Pittsburgh Courier, wrote in 1940:
the rents are criminally exorbitant, usually the highest in town.... Considering that there is proportionally 100% more unemployment among Negroes and that when they work they hold largely the lowest paid jobs, overcrowding is inevitable…. Rarely does a Negro get to move into a new dwelling. Usually we take over the outworn houses of white people, just as we get their leftover clothing, victuals, religion, and educational fictions.
Throughout the Depression, with many Harlemites struggling to find work, tensions grew. On March 19, 1935, a riot broke out after an employee at the S&H Kress store allegedly threatened to “beat the hell out of” a black youth, Lino Rivera, who’d been caught shoplifting. Following the riot, Mayor La Guardia commissioned a panel—members included labor leader A. Philip Randolph and poet Countee Cullen—to investigate. The commission’s report concluded:
While it is true that the present economic crisis has been responsible for the appalling amount of unemployment and dependency in Harlem… the main social factor which is responsible for this condition is racial discrimination in employment…. In view of the Negro’s impoverished condition, it is not surprising to find him living in the often dilapidated and dangerous living quarters which whites have abandoned.... The health agencies, as in the case of housing, were designed for a community with a different pattern of life and a different set of problems. There has been no systematic and comprehensive effort to modify these agencies to serve the needs of the present community….
Many of the panel’s recommendations were swiftly put into action, including “an Advisory Committee on Negro Problems, a new Central Harlem Health Center” and a new wing for Harlem Hospital. “Within a year of the riots, the city budget included 4 new school buildings and the Harlem River Houses, the first black public housing project, opened in 1937.”
Like Jordan and Fuller’s “Skyrise for Harlem” three decades later, the Harlem River Houses—today a seemingly modest enterprise in a city of 347 sprawling public housing projects—was a remarkable attempt to use architecture to address Harlem’s housing and economic problems.
In the 19th century, the concept of government-funded public housing didn’t exist in New York. Instead, a series of laws were passed to regulate (often ineffectually) private housing stock. The city’s minority and immigrant working class was mostly confined to tenements, and laws sought to address basic health and safety issues, such as mandating fire escapes (1867), windows in every room (1879), and bathrooms for every apartment (1901).
As Nicholas Dagen Bloom and Matthew Gordon Lasner point out in Affordable Housing in New York, the first real attempt to impose more direct government control came in 1920, with the passage of New York State’s initial rent control law. At the same time, the newly created State Reconstruction Commission recommended the creation of “a state housing agency empowered to make loans, and local housing boards permitted to buy land and build housing….” As the commission pointed out, “low-interest loans for housing had ‘been developed by almost every other civilized country, excepting America.’” In 1926, the state passed the Limited Dividend Housing Companies Act, granting the city the right of eminent domain to build housing and offering 20 years of tax exemptions to qualifying developers.
However, the first housing project to come to Harlem was not a public work, but instead part of John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s private philanthropic network of low-cost housing. Designed by Andrew Jackson Thomas—who gained some renown for his apartments in the planned community of Jackson Heights, Queens—the Paul Laurence Dunbar Apartments at Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and West 149th Street were built as a limited-equity co-op that Rockefeller hoped would prove that government intervention was unnecessary in the housing market. (For that reason, he refused the newly created tax exemptions being offered by the state.)
The Dunbar Apartments’ 511 units were divided over six buildings built in Thomas’s “garden apartment” style: Fortress-like facades faced the street, obscuring the fact that the building entrances were inside landscaped, semi-private courtyards that resembled “a college quadrangle” or a cathedral close. Many prominent Harlem residents moved to the Dunbar Apartments early on, including W.E.B. DuBois, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and A. Philip Randolph, who would join the mayor’s commission after the 1935 riot, by which time the Dunbar Apartments had fallen victim to the Depression. Rockefeller was forced to eliminate the largest apartments in the complex, breaking them into smaller units, and by 1936, the co-op had been converted to rentals, many of them still rent controlled or rent stabilized to this day. Rockefeller soon sold the complex.
Meanwhile, in 1934, New York State authorized the creation of the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), the first such agency anywhere in the country. Given sweeping reform powers, NYCHA began enforcing the city’s lax building codes, especially in the tenements, which caused 40,000 owners to walk away from their properties “rather than comply with the law.” As these abandoned buildings were condemned, NYCHA began creating the first wave of public housing, beginning with First Houses on Avenue A in 1936. In part spurred by the 1935 riot, the Harlem River Houses, built by NYCHA using Public Works Administration (PWA) federal funds, followed in 1937. (One reason the Harlem River Houses were prioritized was that Harold Ickes, secretary of the interior and head of the PWA, “refused to integrate” housing projects, so black residents of Harlem had no opportunity to move to First Houses or other federally funded projects.)
The lead architect on the Harlem River Houses was Archibald Manning Brown, who worked in conjunction with a team that included John Louis Wilson, the first black person to graduate from Columbia University’s prestigious architecture program. The architects spread the project’s 577 apartments over low-rise buildings that cover just 28 percent of the 9-acre site (which is bounded by West 151st and West 153rd streets, Macombs Place, and the Harlem River Drive). In contrast to the isolated feel of the nearby Dunbar Apartments, the Harlem River Houses had “eyes on the street” (to borrow Jane Jacobs’s famous phrase), and the mix of rental units and ground-floor retail was at least as successful at creating a real sense of community as Thomas’s more private, interior courtyards. In a rare show of support for public housing, architecture critic Lewis Mumford praised them, “citing their access to natural light, safe courtyards, and modern amenities in kitchens and bathrooms as the key to ‘decent living.’” As Wilson later noted, “We tried to create a humane architecture.”
Like every affordable housing lottery today, the Harlem River Houses were instantly popular—11,000 applicants vied for 577 units. Some were lured by the amenities, including “playgrounds and wading pools,” along with a “nursery school, health clinic, library, and social rooms.”
However, the main draw was surely the rent. As Bloom points out in Affordable Housing in New York, “generous federal subsidies, which absorbed 45 percent of the construction costs, yielded apartments renting at an average of $7 per room per month ($1,200 in 2013 dollars for a five-room unit).” An extensive screening process and restrictive covenants (no lodgers, for example) meant that those accepted into the Harlem River Houses were economically more stable than many in Harlem. The median annual income for a black family in New York at the time was $837; for residents of the Harlem River Houses, it was $1,312. These were public housing projects, but were they truly serving the public?
Over the next two decades, numerous other projects—sponsored both by NYCHA and private developers—were built in Harlem, including the East River Houses (1939-41), James Weldon Johnson Houses (1942-48), Riverton Houses (1944-48), Jefferson Houses (1950-59), General Grant Houses (1952-57), Morningside Gardens (1952-58), Manhattanville Houses (1954-61), and Franklin Plaza (1954-62). Together, these buildings contained over 11,000 units of housing for Harlem’s low- and middle-income residents. However, restrictions placed on federal housing funds meant that with each successive iteration, public housing was more generic and less well constructed, while at the same time becoming more densely populated.
For example, the General Grant Houses, completed in 1957, featured 21-story towers, the biggest NYCHA had ever constructed. With the car-loving Robert Moses in charge of a wide swath of city agencies by this point, including the Mayor’s Committee on Slum Clearance, it’s not surprising that one of the features was ample off-street parking. Today, about 16 to 25 percent of Harlem households have cars; that number certainly can’t have been larger then. Were the parking spaces supposed to be aspirational—or were Moses and NYCHA that out of touch?
Meanwhile, the housing stock in the rest of Harlem continued to age poorly. As Kenneth B. Clark points out in his controversial 1965 study Dark Ghetto: Dilemmas of Social Power, Harlem housed “232,792 people within its three and one half square miles,” a population density of “100 people per acre.” He goes on to note that:
The condition of all but the newest buildings is poor. Eleven percent are classified as dilapidated by the 1960 census; that is, they do “not provide safe and adequate shelter,” and thirty-three percent are deteriorating (i.e., “need more repair than would be provided in the course of regular maintenance”). There are more people in fewer rooms than elsewhere in the city. Yet the rents and profits from Harlem are often high, as many landlords deliberately crowd more people into buildings in slum areas, knowing that the poor have few alternatives…. Cruel in the extreme is the landlord who, like the store owner who charges Negroes more for shoddy merchandise, exploits the powerlessness of the poor.
When Clark wrote this, nearly three decades had passed since the 1935 riots that sparked the building of the Harlem River Houses. Nearly one-fifth of Harlem’s population had moved into public housing in the intervening years. Yet overall economic and housing conditions had barely changed. Throughout the Depression and World War II, discontent simmered in Harlem, occasionally rising to the surface, as it did in August 1943 in the two days of riots that inspired the culminating scenes in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.
While writing that novel, in 1948, Ellison penned an essay, “Harlem Is Nowhere.” It was published by Harper’s in August 1964—immediately following another week-long bloody conflict in Harlem that July. In the essay, Ellison writes that:
Harlem is a ruin—many of its ordinary aspects (its crimes, its casual violence, its crumbling buildings with littered areaways, ill-smelling halls, and vermin-invaded rooms) are indistinguishable from the distorted images that appear in dreams and, like muggers haunting a lonely hall, quiver in the waking mind with hidden and threatening significance.
By 1965, did Harlem need a much more radical solution than what NYCHA could provide?
June Jordan was born in Harlem in 1936, the daughter of immigrants from the West Indies. Raised in Bedford-Stuyvesant, she became reacquainted with the neighborhood as a student at Barnard College in the 1950s, where she developed interests in both sociology and architecture. As a budding journalist in the early 1960s, she traveled to Mississippi to report on—and engage in—the civil rights struggle. She worked on the Shirley Clarke film The Cool World, a docudrama about gangs in Harlem, and as a freelancer, she “met and interacted with Malcolm X… activist James Farmer, who was the National Director of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and a slew of news reporters, writers, editors, and political figures.”
When the riots broke out in Harlem in 1964—the result of a police officer shooting and killing an unarmed black teenager—Jordan “hurried to the scene and spent the night ‘running on the streets of Harlem,’ administering first aid, and ‘trying to avoid being killed’ in the ‘unbelievable, horrifying siege.’” As Daniel Matlin reports in “‘A New Reality of Harlem’: Imagining the African American Urban Future during the 1960s,” it was the “agony of that moment” that spurred Jordan, as she later recalled, “into a collaborative architectural redesign of Harlem, as my initial, deliberated move away from the hateful, the divisive.” Jordan’s interest in architecture had led her to the work of R. Buckminster Fuller, who was famous for championing not only the geodesic dome but also the even-more-futuristic Dymaxion House. Jordan wrote to propose a collaboration.
In the essay “Place, Emotion, and Environmental Justice in Harlem: June Jordan and Buckminster Fuller’s 1965 ‘Architextual’ Collaboration,” Cheryl Fish points out that when Jordan corresponded with Fuller, she made certain to emphasize that their plan must embrace “radical reconstruction rather than mere improvement into the middle-class physical chaos prized by the rest of the city.”
That plan, as detailed in Esquire, was certainly radical. As Jordan herself writes:
Harlem is life dying inside a closet, an excrescence beginning where a green park ends, a self-perpetuating disintegration of walls, ceilings, doorways, lives…. Redevelopment generally means the removal of slum residents while land is cleared for new buildings and new purposes. In fact, “redevelopment” is frequently a pretext for the permanent expulsion of Negro populations. Fuller’s design permits all residents to remain on site while new and vastly improved dwelling facilities rise directly over the old. No one will move anywhere but up.
The idea was that Fuller’s fireproof, cylindrical towers would be flown in via helicopter and assembled over the top of the preexisting landscape. Once these 15 “abstract, stylized Christmas trees” were completed—with room for 500,000 people—the older Harlem below them would be razed to be replaced by green space.
The towers themselves—“great wheels of life”—would be encircled by a “parking system of ramps that never cross.” Each apartment would be 1,200 square feet (not including the balcony or the private parking space outside each unit’s door), but the towers would also include “shops, supermarkets, game rooms and workshops on every deck….”
In place of sidewalks, the towers would be connected by “wide walkways entirely separate from the cloverleaf ribbonry that will divide the high-speed through traffic from local traffic.” Meanwhile, that high-speed vehicular traffic would be “separately routed over an arterial system similar to that of the Pulaski Skyway in New Jersey…. Now it becomes possible to travel from the Triborough nonstop over Manhattan Island and onto a newly created Riverspan Bridge at 125th Street into New Jersey.”
Robert Moses had nothing to do with “Skyrise for Harlem,” but those familiar with his work—in particular, the ill-fated LOMEX expressway downtown, which was still on the drawing board in 1965—will see the influence of his type of urban thinking. Jordan and Fuller’s plans claim to save Harlem, but it is hard not to see their “radical reconstruction” as anything other than annihilation. Although Jordan was wary of the “expulsion” of people, she had no qualms about destroying the architectural remnants of the old neighborhood. As Fuller would later comment, the project would both accommodate those who already lived in Harlem and “an equal number who would ‘come from the rest of the world’ because ‘it would be such a wonderful place.’ Harlem would be ‘inviting to all races and all colors, so that there would be spontaneous integration occurring.’”
While “Skyrise for Harlem” may have been the most radical response to Harlem’s housing needs, it was certainly not the only solution put forward during the era. In 1964, the Architects’ Renewal Committee in Harlem (ARCH) was founded to serve, in the words of architectural historian Brian D. Goldstein, as a “community design center” but then transformed—as the influence of black nationalism became more prominent in Harlem’s political life—into a way to “resist and revise official urban development plans.” In contrast to “Skyrise,” the plans put forward by ARCH often dovetailed with the ideals of Jane Jacobs—whose 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities advocated preservation over radical new construction—though certainly not in all regards.
Take, for example, the ARCH proposal for the East Harlem Triangle redevelopment. As Matlin notes, “In 1961, the City’s Planning Commission had declared this mixed-use area blighted and unsuitable for housing, and specified that it should be rebuilt exclusively for industrial and commercial uses. Mid-decade estimates put the area’s population at 4,500 residents, 70 percent of them African American, 20 percent Puerto Rican, and 10 percent white.” The city’s plan was to turn the area—the triangle bounded by Madison Avenue, 125th Street, and the Harlem River—into an industrial zone. Pushback from the newly formed Community Association of the East Harlem Triangle (CAEHT) convinced the city to consider alternate proposals. Working with CAEHT, the planners at ARCH, led by its director, African-American architect J. Max Bond Jr., produced a plan that would not only radically transform the East Harlem Triangle, but would create a “distinctively black and democratic urban space.”
As opposed to “Skyrise for Harlem,” the East Harlem Triangle plan advocated the preservation of newer townhouses and tenements, while new construction would preserve “positive features of the present living patterns.” Like Jacobs, Bond and his ARCH team saw the street as the central commons of the community, and the plan’s drawings reflected that. On a reconfigured 125th Street, most of the traffic is eliminated in favor of wide sidewalks and tree-lined medians with bench seating. Typical examples from the urban planning wishlist are present, like a dedicated lane for bus traffic, while very specific symbols of Harlem abound: the bus boasts an ad for Muhammad Speaks, the newspaper of the Nation of Islam. A man in a dashiki stands in the median, while a woman on the sidewalk raises a black power salute.
Unlike the “spontaneous integration” Fuller envisioned for Harlem, this was architecture and urban planning as a specific embodiment of black pride. Jane Jacobs always saw the “slum” as a place where “advancement and self-diversification in a population” would ultimately lead to “unslumming.” Certainly, the ARCH plans were dedicated to the advancement of a black middle class in Harlem; however, as Goldstein points out, Jacobs’s nebulous idea of “self-diversification” can be interpreted as requiring “desegregation as a prerequisite for ‘unslumming.’” The ARCH plan envisioned no such desegregation, but instead “proposed the radical idea that Harlem did not need class transformation, whether from within or without, to succeed as a community but could flourish by housing and serving its existing residents.”
Fuller and Jordan’s “Skyrise” never made it off the pages of Esquire. The ARCH plan for the East Harlem Triangle was never adopted, though Goldstein argues that it did lead the way for residents to build “a social service center and hundreds of affordable housing units in the following years.” Without any radical reconstruction, most of Harlem foundered, the area’s real estate prices plummeting in the 1970s as in so many other economically disadvantaged neighborhoods across the five boroughs. In the 1980s, gentrification tentatively arrived in Harlem, mostly by way of middle-class black residents who, as Monique M. Taylor writes in “Can You Go Home Again? Black Gentrification and the Dilemma of Difference,” were looking for “real estate bargains” while also being “strongly motivated by a desire to participate in the rituals that define daily life in this (in)famous and historically black community.”
What began as a trickle of black families soon became a larger number of whites. In the New York Times in 2016, Michael Henry Adams wrote of the “End of Black Harlem,” noting that while wealth and not race may be a primary factor in gentrification, that’s a “distinction without a difference.”
Unfortunately, this is often the price of attempting to maintain the sort of streetscape favored by Jane Jacobs. Where she was trying to “unslum” neighborhoods to create cohesive, working-class communities with the schools, churches, corner stores, and stoop-sitting she saw as crucial to an area’s lifeblood, the gentrifiers turn old schools into housing, replace corner stores with Whole Foods, and do their people-watching at Starbucks. A bodega is not ethically superior to a Whole Foods, but as Adams points out, for “so many privileged New Yorkers… Whole Foods is just the corner store. But among the black and working-class residents of Harlem, who have withstood red-lining and neglect, it might as well be Fortnum and Mason. To us, our Harlem is being remade, upgraded and transformed, just for them, for wealthier white people.”
Would things be better if Jordan and Fuller had been given the opportunity to fly in 15 gargantuan towers and drop them down on Harlem? Common sense says no, but looking at the success of large-scale planned urban communities, like Battery Park City, should at least make one pause to consider the possibility.
Residents of Battery Park City liken their neighborhood—large residential towers knitted together by a ribbon of parkland with a self-contained ecosystem of shops and entertainment—to living in a kind of urban village. Could “Skyrise for Harlem” have ever achieved the same success?
In Affordable Housing in New York, one resident of Rockefeller’s Dunbar Apartments told an interviewer: “The design of the building is phenomenal. We live in a two bedroom that has light, exposure on all sides.” Another concurs: “this building has far more of a hold on people than your average apartment building… The greatest thing is that you do know your neighbors and you do stop to chat in the courtyard.”
With the designs in “Skyrise for Harlem” emphasizing light-filled apartments, communal spaces within the towers, and green grass in place of Ralph Ellison’s “crumbling buildings with littered areaways,” could Jordan and Fuller’s mega-project truly have created a New Harlem that held onto the area’s unique sense of place?
On November 30, 2017, the City Council approved a new East Harlem Rezoning. The plan covers everything from affordable housing (including 3,500 units of new housing, “a substantial proportion of which” are supposed to be affordable), 122,000 square feet of retail and restaurants, and 275,000 square feet of office and industrial space. Using such preferred zoning techniques as Mandatory Inclusionary Housing, the proposal shifts much of the burden of development onto the private sector, while controlling for open space, building heights, and providing “incentives for the creation of visual and performing arts space and enhance the area’s role as a major arts, entertainment and cultural destination.”
The Harlem that emerges from this zoning resolution over the next two decades is anyone’s guess. Will this blueprint serve to help preserve Harlem’s vital ethnic and cultural mix? Or will it become just another enclave filled with faceless housing and retail corridors of CVS, Target, and Home Depot? And, from an architectural point of view, will there be any unifying program or just a hodgepodge of unregulated and incoherent styles?
At the conclusion of “Instant Slum Clearance,” Jordan writes that there is “no evading architecture, no meaningful denial of our position.” Architecture has the power to “protect” and “illuminate” the human condition, but only if we refuse to build “merely in spasmodic response to past and present crises, for then crisis, like the poor, will be with us always. If man is to have not only a future but a destiny, it must consciously and deliberately be designed.”
Editor: Sara Polsky