Preserving Stuyvesant Town
These days, when New Yorkers get misty-eyed about Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village, it’s above all about a faded vision of middle-class Manhattan. The developments, which some residents hope to have designated as city landmarks, have become, for many, a potent symbol of what Manhattan has ceased to be.
Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village — more than anything else built in Manhattan — completely altered the physical profile of a large area. Together, they comprise 110 buildings on a site bounded by 14th and 23rd streets, and First Avenue and the F.D.R. Drive. The complex replaced about 600 residential buildings and displaced about 10,000 people beginning in 1943.
The industrial East Side of Manhattan, south of 59th Street, had begun to be transformed in the 1920s and 1930s, with luxurious developments such as Sutton Place, Tudor City, and Beekman Place. During and after World War II, the replacement of factories and tenements with new housing continued, until the whole East River waterfront bore no traces of its pre-war character. The postwar redevelopment mainly comprised middle-income housing meant by its builders to retain and strengthen the middle-class presence in central areas of Manhattan. Robert Moses cleared the land for Stuyvesant Town, which reflected his vision of Manhattan as a place for the middle class.
Last month, the newsletter of the Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village Tenants Association announced the beginning of a movement — fund-raising events toward research and the production of a brochure and a film — to have the complex designated as a New York City landmark. Frankly, given many preservationists’ interest in Modernist architecture and planning, I’m surprised there hasn’t thus far been more of such a movement. The effort is being driven, in part, by residents concerned about their fate at the hands of Tishman Speyer — the real estate giant that purchased the two complexes in 2006 for $5.4 billion. By a factor of nearly three, the sale was the highest-priced real estate transaction in New York City history.
Stuyvesant Town, south of 20th Street, was intended for residents of more modest means than those for whom the smaller Peter Cooper Village, between 20th and 23rd streets, was built. Both were built in the 1940s by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. MetLife agreed to limit its profit to 6% for 25 years in exchange for the assessment of the property remaining at its 1943 level. As the 11,232 apartments were built, the waiting list to get in grew so long it seemed that New Yorkers had never so eagerly anticipated something in the city’s history. While many critics were horrified by the complex — for reasons stretching from aesthetics to MetLife’s racially exclusionary whites-only policies — the public clamored to get in. To be admitted, prospective tenants had not only to get lucky but also had to survive investigations meant to ensure that they met minimal standards of housekeeping competence and such. But it’s not hard to see what the appeal of the new developments was. In figures cited by Robert A.M. Stern, Thomas Mellins, and David Fishman in their book “New York 1960″ (Monacelli), in the previous housing on the site, 75% of apartments lacked central heating, 66% lacked bathrooms, and 20% lacked private toilets.
As the tenants association notes, Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village were “towers in a park,” 13- to 15-story buildings, mainly cruciform in plan, occupying only 25% of the site, with the rest given over mostly to lawns, trees, lanes, benches, and playgrounds. The projects were completely removed from the street grid, and represented a type of development that was very different from the Manhattan standard, where buildings were oriented to the street. “Superblock” is the name we give to a building site with demapped streets. While the superblock concept was hardly new in the 1940s, it — and the towers-in-a-park idea that had been championed by the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, who was unquestionably the most influential architect of the 20th century — came to dominate the postwar planning mentality everywhere in the world, from Timbuktu to Manila. In the brave new postwar world, the slums that had seemed an intractable feature of city life — considered breeding grounds of crime, vice, and pestilence — would finally be vanquished, and experts believed the superblock was the key.
Superblock planning was not without its critics, even before Jane Jacobs came on the scene in the 1950s. But Mrs. Jacobs’s “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” published in 1961, helped make (for a while at least) superblocks and towers-in-a-park deeply unfashionable. She persuasively argued that vanquishing the slums was not about changing the orientation of buildings to the street, or providing grassy knolls for frolicking children — rather, the basic physical arrangements of much of Manhattan were, in a phrase later associated with the architect Robert Venturi, “almost all right.”
Today, thanks to chic architects such as the Dutch Rem Koolhaas (who has revived the 1950s and 1960s megaproject aesthetic and cheekily praised most of what Jane Jacobs dismissed) and a broad reassessment of the Moses legacy, superblocks and Corbusian housing projects — the very things once anathema to the preservation movement — are newly fashionable. For many, it’s now Stuyvesant Town that’s almost all right. In their own ways, both the tenants association and Tishman Speyer think so.
By FRANCIS MORRONE
The NY Sun