Nearly 80 years ago on Jan. 20, 1934, New York City made history and established a benchmark that the rest of the country would follow as Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia filed a certificate officially establishing the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) as the first public housing authority in the country.
A year later on Dec. 3, 1935, a ribbon-cutting ceremony was held to celebrate the opening of First Houses on the Lower East Side, aptly named since it was NYCHA’s first public housing development.
NYCHA took 1,846 tenements and demolished every third building and renovated the remaining ones. Replacing the old dwellings were new, modern apartments, each with a private kitchen and bath, electrical refrigerator and stove. The development also included a common courtyard and recreation area. It was an ambitious and innovative architectural plan. Some 11,000 New Yorkers submitted applications for the 123 units.
Two years later, the Harlem River Houses and Williamsburg Houses opened. These developments were designed to create a “super block” effect. The 1940s brought the “Tower in the Park” scheme, which was a large, high-rise building in a park-like setting. A decade later came the “In-Line” and “Random Space” layouts. The Coney Island and Riis Houses developments are examples of these design concepts.
The 1960s saw a return to smaller scale developments that blended in with the surrounding community. Carlton Manor Houses in Rockaway, Queens, is an example of that idea.
Today, NYCHA remains the nation’s premier public housing authority and the largest in North America. With 334 complexes, 178,000 apartments and more than 400,000 residents throughout the five boroughs, it is the city’s largest landlord.
NYCHA is focused on modernizing and rehabilitating its buildings and continuing the plan prescribed by Greenwich Village native Jane Jacobs, who, in her book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” called for more diverse, small-scale developments.
The agency has not been without its problems and controversies. There is currently a plan underway by NYCHA to lease common and playground space to private developers who will build luxury high-rises amidst public housing structures. The move will generate millions for the cash-strapped authority, which plans to use the revenue to fix deteriorating structures.