Our archives contain original copies of over one dozen slum clearance plans proposed in the 1950’s by the Committee on Slum Clearance Plans, whose Chairman was Robert Moses. These plans were proposed following the passage of the National Housing Act of 1949, which provided that areas with “slum conditions” could be seized, cleared and made available to private parties for redevelopment. Cleared land could be sold at a loss to induce developers to redevelop the sites, with the federal government taking two-thirds of the loss and local government one-third.
These plans contain detailed descriptions of slum conditions and photographs of the affected areas, which today provide a glimpse into what people’s lives must have been like in these neighborhoods before these areas were cleared. Renderings of the proposed developments to be built on the cleared land also help us understand the thinking of the time regarding what constituted a desirable living environment.
We look here at the 1951 plan for three blocks in Harlem from West 132nd to 135th Streets between Lenox and 5th Avenues, where Lenox Terrace stands today. The “Harlem site” included tenement houses described as “gloomy” with “overcrowded buildings so poorly lighted they are unsafe after dark”. 1,683 families lived in 164 buildings, of which 89% were categorized as “run-down” according to a survey of residents. Many of the buildings were found to have “inadequate courts and air shafts”. View select pages of the plan.
The proposal for the site included razing the three blocks and incorporating the “uneconomic street areas” into the superblock that exists today. Seven 20-story towers containing 1,113 units were to be built in a park with “landscaped sitting areas and playgrounds reserved solely for the tenants and their small children”. Parking would be provided and stores –until then located in converted basements and first floors in residential tenement buildings– would be replaced with dedicated commercial spaces along Lenox Avenue, separate from the residential areas.
Reducing overcrowding was central to slum clearance. The population at the Harlem site had increased by 22.5% between 1940 and 1950, reaching 803 persons per net acre of residential use according to the plan. The new development would reduce density to 440 persons per net acre of residential use, requiring the relocation of hundreds of residents. 1,010 families (60% of those living on the site) would be eligible to relocate to some of the 50,000+ units of public housing that were planned at the time; it was hoped that the rest would “prefer to relocate themselves”, although the City would offer relocation services to help those unable to find an apartment on their own.
Today the Lenox Terrace development appears largely as Robert Moses envisioned it over 60 years ago: tall residential towers stand in the middle of a superblock while separate commercial spaces front the avenues. Parking lots and driveways, however, occupy most of what Moses envisioned as playgrounds and landscaped areas. View an aerial photograph of the area.