On the Block, a Dream by the Sea
THE day Starrett City opened, Oct. 13, 1974, was cold and, to read contemporary news accounts, somewhat inauspicious. The sprawling 46-building middle-income project on the south shore of Brooklyn near Canarsie was still a month away from having any residents, and 18,000 promised trees had not yet been planted. Aside from the blocky tan towers, the property on the edge of Jamaica Bay, next to a garbage landfill and a sewage treatment plant, was wide and bare.
The development’s schools were behind schedule, too, and a shopping center on the site was not yet ready, so a minibus service was being planned to take residents to schools and stores off site. To top it off, Gov. Malcolm Wilson arrived late for the ceremony and was unable to deliver his prepared remarks about a government’s duty to furnish its citizens with moderately priced housing.
But whatever chill was in the air that day, it could not hide the warm glow from some of the ceremony’s other attendees: the members of the 300 families that had already signed leases to live in the brand-new buildings on Pennsylvania Avenue along the Belt Parkway. Mayor Abraham Beame presented five of them — the first of more than 5,800 families to move in — with oversize gold-painted keys.
“It’s a new concept in community living,” one resident told a reporter. “The man who designed it must have loved people, because he didn’t leave anything out.” For her and other early residents, their forest of towers in a grassy field held the promise of deliverance from crowding and high rents and crime.
Their dream is now on the block. Ten days ago, they and the rest of New York learned that Starrett City, which is now called Spring Creek Towers (though not by many of its residents), has been put up for sale by its private owners. An auction of the 140-acre complex, the largest federally subsidized housing project in the nation, is set for early next year and is expected to bring more than $1 billion. In mid-November, in an even bigger deal, the Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village apartment complexes in Manhattan were sold for $5.4 billion.
Some of the promise of Starrett City has gone unfulfilled. The edge of Brooklyn, out by Kennedy Airport, still has an end-of-the-earth feel, and over the years, controversies have swirled around issues like rising rents and a system of racial quotas that was overturned in the ’80s.
But residents who were around in the early days speak in language far different from the hard-edged, money-centered talk of today’s housing market.
“It was like one big family,” said Aileen O’Pharrow, 82, who lived with her family in the city-owned Linden Houses in nearby East New York before moving to Starrett City in 1974. “The races, it didn’t matter. There was no division between neighbors; it was like one. The kids went to the same school, they played together, they were invited to one another’s parties. Some of those kids are still friends.”
Now, she said, some of their parents go to the same senior center, also on the grounds of the complex.
When Mrs. O’Pharrow’s family moved in, the roads were not yet fully paved, and only one other tenant lived on their floor, on the other side of the building. The residents felt like pioneers. But the appeal of their new home was obvious: The apartments were new and big (though with smaller closets, Mrs. O’Pharrow said, than at the Linden Houses), the grounds were well kept and the elevators always worked.
She also had vivid memories of the amenities that were designed to make Starrett City a self-contained neighborhood: the shopping center, the private security force, the basketball courts, the playgrounds. Her husband, Jimmy, founded the Starrett City Boxing Club in 1978 in a former storage space under a parking garage.
The other day, sitting at a desk by the entrance to the gym as thick-shouldered young men pounded on heavy bags, Mr. O’Pharrow said that more than 4,000 boxers have passed through the gym since then. Many did not live in Starrett City, added Mr. O’Pharrow, a wiry fellow with a white beard who is widely known as Jimmy O, but their racial makeup has roughly followed the complex’s: mostly white in the early years and less so today, but always diverse. Nowadays, many residents come from Russia and the Caribbean.
“We got a league of nations in here; it’s nice,” Mr. O’Pharrow said. “That’s what the place was built on, the theory that people of all races can get along.”
The development’s racial composition had been a source of worry for planners since the mid-’60s, when the first of a series of aborted housing developments were being planned for the site. City officials reluctantly approved one of the plans, called Twin Pines Village, amid concerns that the development would attract so many white families that it would encourage white flight from other neighborhoods.
In later years, management — and many residents — defended a quota, an attempt to fix the proportion of white residents at 70 percent, on the opposite grounds, arguing that more black residents could lead to a “tipping point” in which whites would abandon the complex. The United States Supreme Court overturned the quotas in 1988, and many white families did leave. Today, whites make up only about one-third of the residents.
The planners had other early worries, like a pungent landfill nearby and a 1967 warning from the Federal Aviation Administration that planes landing at the airport would disturb residents. But their conclusion, stated in the City Planning Commission’s 1969 master plan, was steeped in optimism: “The city will reduce or eliminate these problems to create a balanced residential and industrial development that will combine the assets of urban life with many of the advantages of the suburbs.”
PERHAPS that optimism is necessary to create an entire neighborhood from scratch, or to move into one. Decades later, the planes do fly low along the shoreline, and the landfill, long since sealed up, still gives off an odor when there is a stiff breeze. But for Marie Purnell, a Starrett City resident since 1976 and currently president of the complex’s tenant association, the warm glow of those first years has not faded.
Last week, Ms. Purnell, 76, who was stringing holiday lights along her 16th-floor balcony, recalled the day her son fell in love with a model apartment and the family moved from their home in East New York. With the sale of the complex looming, she was also wondering what the future would bring for her and other tenants.
“I’m going to stay, no matter,” Ms. Purnell announced. “I have a nice apartment, I have a terrace, I have a slight view of the parkway, I can see the water. Why would I want to leave?”
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