Hillside Homes

One of my last posts from here is about another remarkable place in the Bronx. Hillside Homes was the first public housing built through the New Deal and more evidence of what government for the people, not private developers, can do, especially in an emergency. (Any similarity with today’s situation is purely non-coincidental.)

Hillside Homes was built in 1935, the brainchild of Clarence Stein, a pioneering planner and architect who believed in designing homes and places where working class people could thrive, not just survive, in a way the Great Depression forced politicians to see the market could never do.

With the recognition of President Roosevelt’s government that only direct public investment in public services could rescue America from unemployment, homelessness, sickness and starvation, Stein had an opportunity to put his ideas into practice. He wrote:

“President Roosevelt’s New Deal promised large scale funding…I decided to develop the basic conception of a self-contained, integrated neighborhood in New York for desirable community living in apartment buildings renting from $11 a room per month” (“Toward New Towns for America”, 1957).

Hillside Homes, providing housing to 1,416 households and constructed through the prolific Public Works Administration, was the result.

Sadly, Hillside Homes has gone the way of far too many others and has been lost to the public sector. But just like when I’m walking around the Boundary Estate (the UK’s first council estate), the bricks seem to whisper that this was about building something more than “just housing”..

I don’t have to imagine this though. Last Sunday, I had the privilege of sitting-in on a conversation between a group of people who grew up at Hillside Homes. It was wonderful hearing them reminisce about old friends, local characters and an environment that, when they lived there, was very different from today.

But the over-riding sentiment they shared was of how important Hillside Homes was to their childhood. As one said, “I wouldn’t change it for anything”. They described a community where people felt safe, secure and able to live their lives in a place that wasn’t exposed to the constant volatility of the market. In a phrase I’ve heard many times from people living in similar places, one former resident said, “We didn’t have much money, but we had each other”. I wonder how today’s children, growing up in the precarious, sub-standard private rented sector will look back on their childhoods?

As always with life and housing, not everything was perfect at Hillside Homes. Like all aspects of US housing policy – then and ever since – institutional racism was baked-in. The former residents were remembering a largely all-white, suburban neighbourhood, with African-Americans confined to the squalid, inner-city conditions their Jewish, Italian and Irish families had been offered an escape from. Price, as much as explicit discrimination, is usually the most effective method of ethnic segregation and although the rents at Hillside were significantly below the market level, they would still have been beyond the means of most non-white New Yorkers.

However, the contrast between the vision, ambition and action that led to Hillside Homes and the inertia of today’s government in America – and everywhere – is vivid. Against a background not dissimilar to the 1930s, the Biden administration is still failing to seriously address the nation’s acute housing problem. From a moment of real optimism in the summer, it looks like I will leave these shores with no commitment made to spend the kind of money needed to reproduce places with the enduring qualities of Hillside Homes.

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