Contentious Redevelopment in Harlem

The Polo Grounds Houses in Harlem. Photo: NY Daily News
The Polo Grounds Houses in Harlem. Photo: NY Daily News

Discrimination and segregation in housing have been the subjects of national conversation in recent weeks. First, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in a fair housing case emanating from Texas. Following that, there was news of a lawsuit against New York City alleging that its practice of setting aside apartments in new subsidized buildings for local residents perpetuates discrimination.

Sadly but unsurprisingly, even a quick search of “discrimination” or “segregation” in the CHPC archives yields a trove of historical records, documents, and policy discussions.

One example from 1960s mimics the dynamics of the Texas v. Inclusive Communities Project case that the Supreme Court recently settled. (One technical but noteworthy difference is the reliance in Texas on the Low Income Housing Tax Credit, the now-ubiquitous tool created in the 1980s and administered by the federal Treasury Department.) After the New York Giants baseball team moved to San Francisco in 1957, its home stadium, the famous Polo Grounds, was set for demolition. In its place were to rise several 30-story public housing buildings.

These redevelopment plans met with swift resistance from local residents. The Harlem Neighborhoods Association (HANA) and the Polo Grounds Community Association (PCGA) quickly began a campaign to rethink the redevelopment. In a letter from June 1964 to the NYCHA chair, PGCA’s chair listed reasons for “going on record in opposing your agency’s plan to build a 30-story, 4-building, low income project on the Polo Grounds site.” Included were questions of both race and class the group deemed fundamental to the neighborhood planning effort:

    • “Why are more low income houses being built in Harlem—especially a 30-story building, where the City knows it will not be integrated?
    • Why is prime land being used for this experimental project?
    • What methods are being used in the selection of prospective tenants?”
Cover page of the Harlem Neighborhoods Association report

In late 1962, the New York State Committee on Discrimination in Housing (a precursor to the current Division of Human Rights) filed a report with a background discussion and suggestions for the Polo Grounds plan. “There is no realistic prospect of achieving any racial integration in this project as planned,” begins its discussion titled “integration.” Touching on nerves that still resonate today, it continues, “The transfer of 400 units to middle-income housing would not change the picture in this regard. In fact, there are serious questions regarding the marketability of 400 units of middle-income housing surrounded by 2,000 units of public housing.”

The PGCA memo concluded, “We also want to go on record as NOT being opposed to low income projects. However, why must this particular site be used for one—and if such a project is deemed necessary, why not part middle income?”

In a letter dated November 19, 1962, Mayor Robert F. Wagner did not express his feelings on the policy matters at hand. Instead, he stated that “it is highly doubtful that the Polo Grounds site will be available for any kind of housing until 1964,” because the new stadium for the New York Mets (the now-demolished Shea Stadium) would not be ready. He added, “We are going to have plenty of time to review the plans for the Polo Grounds housing in the light of other plans we are working on for middle-income housing in the Harlem area, and, in fact, to look at Harlem’s housing and renewal needs as a whole.”

The NYS Committee on Discrimination in Housing memo, written one month later, calls on the mayor specifically to exercise his role under the then-new city charter and quotes his own report calling for an “open city” of racial and economic integration. “The kind of imaginative planning that went into Cadman Plaza and the West Site urban renewal project should be introduced here and a plan developed to use to its fullest all the resources of the area—the parks and institutions, and the river,” it suggests.

The Polo Grounds Houses stand today as planned—4 towers of 30 stories on a superblock bounded by Frederick Douglass Boulevard, West 155th Street, and Harlem River Drive—and house 4,200 New Yorkers. Likewise, contemporary debates (and lawsuits) hinge on the siting and planning on government-subsidized housing, much like the debates around the Polo Grounds in the 1960s.

You can read the PGCA memo here, the state Committee on Discrimination in Housing report here, and the HANA report here.

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