Public housing is a major, yet rarely confronted issue in New York City. According to the New York City Housing Authority, over 600,000 people in New York City either live in public housing, or receive subsidies. Since so many people require assistance, housing as many people as possible has taken priority over the experience of the individual tenants. As a result, the quality of life in public housing tends to be relatively poor; in fact, crime is a problem that consistently plagues housing developments across the city. Although crime tends to occur proportionally more in large urban areas, New York City has proven to be one of the safest cities in the United States. However, the city’s public housing has for the most part not aligned with this trend. From 2009-2013, crime throughout the city increased only by about three percent, while increasing in housing developments by thirty-one percent.
The Harlem River Houses, in Manhattan, represent a strong model for other housing communities to emulate. Although the development has seen a significant increase in crime in recent years, the decades before it present a strong prototype for creating safe, productive places for tenants to live.
Opened in 1937, the Harlem River Houses were the first government-funded housing complex in New York City. At that time, the development was meant to be an environment in which African Americans could live safe from the effects of discrimination. Even though it was segregated housing by today’s standards, the Harlem River Houses were a safe community for its residents, in large part due to its architectural design. Like many government developments built during the Great Depression, design was used to promote communal spaces and cooperative living.
One of the most popular and important areas in the Harlem River Houses is the courtyard. As it takes up a significant amount of space in the lot, it was a space that fostered social interaction, as well as created visibility for occupants in every unit.
Image above: A map of the Harlem River Houses. The housing units line the perimeter of the lot, while all of the white areas are public spaces. The largest space in the complex is the central courtyard in the Western portion of the Harlem River Houses. This is where a majority of tenants engaged socially with their neighbors.
These aspects were an integral part of the building’s success and are still considered facets of a successful public housing community today. It was here that neighbors forged lasting relationships with one another, as well as a desire to keep one another safe. The windows that surround the perimeter of the courtyard enable the residents to be active bystanders, capable of seeing everything that happens in the development. Tenants were proactive in their safety, and the emphasis on shared space in the program is directly responsible. This model for public housing proved extremely effective for decades after it opened, as it was consistently celebrated and admired during its prime.
Image above: Harlem River Houses Courtyard. This space lies on the interior of the complex. It was the main recreational and leisure area in the development. This area is visible from nearly every unit in the housing, a major factor in its safety over the decades.
Despite its past accomplishments, the Harlem River Houses have recently been dealing with issues of maintenance and vacancies. These problems have interrupted the harmony of the design, which is arguably part of the reason for the increase in crime. While most New Yorkers do not live in some form of subsidized housing, safe and affordable public housing is in the best interest of all New Yorkers, as safe housing projects means a safer city for everyone. The Harlem River Houses offer a meticulously designed template for other complexes to emulate.
For decades, the Harlem River Houses have demonstrated the potential of a meticulously designed development, however, the city strayed away from this model as quantity became the focus over quality. In order to be successful, these complexes must once again embrace the power of design and empower its residents through its design.
Is there public housing near you- like that of the Harlem River Houses? What impact does public housing have in your area? Is there enough public housing to meet the demand? Share your thoughts and your city's stories in the comments area below.
Credits: Images by Quinn Harding. Data linked to sources.