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Columbia University Digital Knowledge Ventures The Architecture and Development of New York City with Andrew S. Dolkart
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Federal Housing
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By the mid-1930s the federal government begins to build public housing as well. The Congress finally passes a law that allows the federal government to invest in housing construction. And this was not only to create quality housing but it was also during the Depression to create work for architects and for construction workers. So the reason why the government got involved in housing was very complex. Creating good housing wasn't the only reason.

The first two major public-housing projects in America are the Williamsburg Houses in Brooklyn and Harlem River Houses in Harlem. And these are low-rise projects that were very large projects in which streets were closed, so they're built on what are known as super blocks, with no streets running through them and very large areas of open space.

Williamsburg Houses are set at an angle to the street, and as if to say the street is not a friendly place to be. Instead, you don't want to be on the street, you want to be inside in the protected core of the complex, which was a vast open park with trees and benches and playgrounds, sunny places and shady places, a really delightful place to be. And again, only four stories.

Williamsburg Houses, Harlem River Houses, and other early projects were very successful, and there was a huge waiting list to get into these projects. So successful were they that the city had this notion that if these had been successful we can build more housing, we can build more decent housing for poor people in high-rises. And so by the 1950s and 1960s instead of these modestly scaled projects, you get the projects of huge numbers of high-scale apartment houses.

Some of these become very problematic as you have huge numbers of people with social problems moving into the same building. But one thing that can be said about public housing in New York is that for the most part it has been a great success. Unlike Chicago and Detroit and St. Louis and other cities that have had to tear down their public housing, New York has never had to do that.

Public housing continued to be built until the latter part of the twentieth century, when the funding dried up. And it's interesting that we are now back in an argument that was had a hundred years ago and more about whether or not it is the government's role to support the construction of housing for the poor.


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