Places that Matter

Knickerbocker Village

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Knickerbocker Village, photo by Molly Garfinkel
Knickerbocker Village, photo by Molly Garfinkel
Knickerbocker Village courtyard, photo by Molly Garfinkel
Knickerbocker Village, Cherry Street facade, photo by Molly Garfinkel
Knickerbocker Village, photo by Molly Garfinkel
Knickerbocker Village, Monroe Street view, photo by Molly Garfinkel
Historically significant residential complex between the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges
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Place Matters Profile

Written by Molly Garfinkel
Located between the ramps of the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges at the nexus of Manhattan’s historic Lower East Side and Chinatown districts, Knickerbocker Village was New York City’s first federally-subsidized housing development. Designed for middle-income families, the complex was conceived and completed in the early 1930s, an era when city and regional planners endorsed urban renewal and wholesale slum clearance as the optimal solutions to the problems of the inner city working-class “ghetto.” For the last eighty years, residents have fought hard to preserve the development's affordability, as well as that of the surrounding neighborhood.
The Lower East Side reached peak residential density at the turn of the 20th century. Henceforth, the area would be decisively associated with its majority immigrant population – a heterogeneous conglomerate cast as uniformly undesirable by planners and private real estate moguls hoping to profit from the neighborhood’s social and physical rehabilitation. As 1924’s Immigration Act reduced the previously reliable flow of poor new immigrants into the country, demand for the area’s old tenement housing correspondingly decreased. Vacancy rates rose, and after the 1929 Multi Dwelling Law imposed more rigorous tenement housing regulations, many landlords boarded up their properties or had them demolished. During the 1920s, bridges, parkways and other public transportation projects also enabled (or forced) many of the Lower East Side’s long-standing ethnic groups to relocate to the outer boroughs, where new waves of speculation offered up-to-date housing stock. The vacancies and outmigration called into question what could and should be done with the Lower East Side.
New York City’s politicians, planners, and private real estate sector embarked on a mission to reinvent the district’s environs as an upper-class urban residential haven. In 1929, the banker and industrialist-dominated Regional Plan Association (RPA) published and was charged with implementing the Regional Plan of New York and its Environs, a long-range master plan that projected a pro-business, automobile-based New York metropolitan area stocked with modern high-rises and upwardly mobile, middle-class citizens. Established at a time when neighborhoods were viewed as potentially profitable parts of “rational” regional systems, the RPA was also proponent of slum clearance. As Christopher Mele writes in Selling the Lower East Side,
Consequently, the remedy that emerged was not to improve the ghetto but to eliminate it entirely under the guise of “modernization” and “community betterment.” Private capitalists, not social reformers, were best positioned to make such “improvements.”
Developers like Fred Fillmore French also looked into the regional forecast, and saw a New York City endowed with expansive mid- and up-scale housing complexes built over the ashes of tenement blocks razed during slum removal initiatives. In 1928, French completed Tudor City, an inward-facing, upscale model housing project constructed on East 42nd Street’s former tenement-cum-office district. There his goal was to lure the suburb-oriented middle-class back to Midtown.
Following the success of Tudor City, French amassed fourteen and a half acres between the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges. There he planned to build Knickerbocker Village, a middle-class residential complex that was to accommodate thirty thousand tenants. The land cost approximately five thousand dollars, and the housing project was supposed to cost one hundred fifty thousand. However, the 1929 stock market crash thwarted these plans, and as French failed to secure private funds, he was forced to appeal to New York State for financial assistance.
Although prior federal policy dictated that the national government should compete as little as possible with private enterprise, the New Deal provided capital for some of the earliest government subsidized housing developments. In 1932, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) was established as an independent federal agency authorized to provide loans to private developers erecting housing as part of slum-clearance initiatives. The short-lived RFC only made two loans, one of which was in the sum of eight million dollars to New York City toward French’s Knickerbocker Village. 1933’s National Industrial Recovery Act established the Public Works Administration (PWA), which yielded large-scale public projects like highways and dams, as well as public housing. The 1934 Municipal Housing Authority Act permitted local governments to create housing development authorities that could receive federal contributions. With funding from the PWA’s Housing Division (which took over for the RFC) and the New York State Board of Housing, Knickerbocker Village was New York City’s first urban housing project erected with the help of government monies.
French’s plans notwithstanding, the Lower East Side was hardly a tabula rasa. Significant numbers from the older cultural groups had stayed behind, much to the dismay and confusion of reformers. Beyond the prohibitively time and resource-consuming burden of finding new housing, immigrant communities had forged deep attachments to their homes and local cultural centers. Housing authorities interpreted this fidelity as inertia, and evidence that residents had failed to assimilate. In their view, Lower East Siders’ apparent preference for squalor over the suburbs directly correlated with low aspirations, and contemporaneous redevelopment logic suggested that these under-achieving residents should be replaced with rising numbers of ambitious white-collar workers who were on track to fulfill the American Dream.
When Congress empowered the RFC to make loans on slum clearance, French decided to build his project on one of his worst holdings -- the site formerly known as “Lung Block,” a reference to the area’s high tuberculosis mortality rate. Thirty years prior, Tenement Housing Department commissioner Robert W. DeForest recommended the same area for clearance. At that time, the presence of six hundred fifty families stayed the demolition of the Lung Block. The 1933 development of Knickerbocker Village displaced almost four hundred low-income households, only three of which were able to move to the new complex. Most of the local families from the “Lung Block” moved back to the neighborhood and into Old Law tenements located near each other. Half of those moved into apartments without toilets, and one-third to apartments without hot water.
Initially, ample New Deal monies yielded housing projects wherein relatively high construction price tags were not at odds with affordable rental rates. Although the government subsequently focused on building low-income complexes, many of the early developments, including Knickerbocker Village, are considered some of the best-designed government housing in New York City. Victor Papa, Director of the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council, grew up in the Lower East Side surrounded by a “very extended Italian family.” His cousins moved to Knickerbocker Village in the early 1940s, when the development was considered the cream of the crop. Papa recalls, “it was the Sutton Place of the Lower East Side. It was the place. It was beautiful. It had furnishings in the lobbies. It had a telephone intercom. There were brass buttons and brass bars in the elevators. It was quite a nice place to live.”
Situated between Cherry, Catherine, Monroe and Market Street, Knickerbocker Village was designed by John S. Van Wart of the Fred F. French Company. The complex is comprised of two twelve-story perimeter block buildings with only forty-six percent site coverage. A concrete playground separates the two low-rent housing units, each of which surrounds its own “introverted” courtyard. These quiet, verdant spaces are still exclusively for tenant use. Papa remembers the gardens as decorous didactic spaces, “you were not allowed to play in their courtyard. You could sit where the benches are now, but you couldn’t play or rough-house in the garden.”
The fortress-like façade is foreboding, but crenellated exterior walls permit maximum light and air circulation. For their part, early residents circulated through the building via pushbutton elevators, which were included in the original plan to obviate the need for a paid elevator staff. When the complex opened in 1934, each of the 1,593 units had wooden parquet floors, electric refrigerators, tiled bathrooms and exterior-facing windows. Rents ranged from $22.50 per month for two and a half rooms on the ground floor, to $87.50 per month for a five and a half room penthouse. Of course, the development monies were not infinite. French’s plan was scaled down to two units of a much larger original plan. The average cost per room was $12.50, and the whole project cost nine million dollars, eighty-five percent of which was contributed by the RFC.
As rents in the neighborhood’s remaining tenement district averaged five dollars per room, Knickerbocker Village was initially dominated by middle-class occupants. Many hailed from around the greater New York region, not from around the corner. Moreover, approximately two-thirds of the units were one bedroom, which was far too small for most of the area’s long-standing, multigenerational households. Critics claimed that units were designed to serve as temporary housing for up-and-coming corporate types, rather than for working class families who worked in local workshops, storefronts and wholesale concerns, and who hoped to reestablish themselves in the Lower East Side.
While the Depression put many urban renewal plans on hold, New York’s developers, planners and business elites kept Lower East Side redevelopment visions at the fore. But local residents began to retaliate by canvassing for housing reform in the face of evictions and foreclosures. They successfully rallied against area-wide zoning that lacked provisions for maintaining or creating true affordable housing. By 1939, it became difficult for developers to assemble usefully substantial land holdings for large-scale middle-class housing. Mayor LaGuardia’s city planning commission endorsed slum clearance and new, low-cost housing for large swaths of the rest of Lower East Side. The future of the area was to be public housing for the working-class.
Tenants were equally active inside the walls of Knickerbocker Village, where they formed clubs and hosted meetings of the American Labor Party, The Pioneer Women, and Hadassah. During the 1940s, the Knickerbocker Village Tenant Association (KTVA) was a force to be reckoned with. In 1947, French tried to raise the rent, and the KVTA went to war and won.
In the post-war years, government housing programs favored suburbanization, and the state began to lose interest in the inner city. French sold the Knickerbocker Village complex in the 1970s, when the surrounding area began to change. Papa recalls, “my family moved into Knickerbocker Village the day RFK was assassinated, in 1968. And I got married in ’71, so I moved out then. But my family stayed there. It was a penthouse apartment on Monroe Street, right near St. Joseph’s bells. We had a three-bedroom unit, and the last part of growing up I was there with my sisters. It was a great time then. But there was contrast between knowing was Knickerbocker Village was early on, and having lived there later. It was two different things.”
Mid-century discriminatory housing policies elsewhere in the city forced minority households to move to areas like the Lower East Side, which had the largest concentration of government-subsidized housing projects below 96th Street. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, the neighborhood was becoming more integrated, and as minority and new immigrant communities began to repopulate the area, Knickerbocker Village’s tenant selection criteria were modified to reflect the real applicant pool. Knickerbocker’s affordable housing units were slowly opened to all demographics, and the resident population began to reflect that of the surrounding neighborhood.
These changes did not happen overnight, and required serious negotiation and self-reflection on the part of new and existing residents. In 1969, Papa and other community members organized a street festival, “what we would call a Happening,” he says. They closed off Catherine Street between Monroe and South Streets to create a space where increasingly diverse neighborhood denizens, local churches and other organizations could gather and get better acquainted. Festival pre-organization meetings at Papa’s family apartment included African American residents from the Al Smith Houses who were not likely to have gained access to Knickerbocker Village otherwise.
“The street event was meant to cause Happenings. Change. It was like Summer in the City.” In 1967, East Harlem’s Monsignor Robert Fox initiated the Summer in the City movement as a way of addressing the neighborhood’s structural poverty and intense racial tensions. With funding from the federal Office of Economic Opportunity, Summer in the City operated twenty-six storefront centers around the city, and employed nearly six hundred workers, many of them artists, nuns and priests. The program’s goals included breaking down social barriers, creating local relief networks, and providing residents with creative and professional development opportunities. Summer in the City established community mural projects, credit unions, and adult education courses in the South Bronx, East Harlem and the Lower East Side. In communities with large Spanish speaking populations, youth were engaged to teach Spanish to police officers. “Fox was very charismatic; philosophical,” Papa recalls. “He influenced a lot of our thinking down here in the Lower East Side. And it was essentially, ’these are your neighbors; these are also your neighbors. You don’t need the government. You just call your neighbor and say, ‘come on, we’re gonna have a party.’ And it really worked.”
African American, Puerto Rican and Chinese families integrated into the Lower East Side’s existing Jewish, Irish, Italian and German communities. Tensions were real, but the neighborhood was undeniably diverse. “This was a time when New York City neighborhoods were changing. Philosophy was changing. And on the Lower East Side there was a very ecumenical approach to things. St. James was incredibly powerful, and that’s where I learned everything. They were adapting to the times. The priests pushed us out into community involvement. They were very civic-minded, very pro-Community Board. And social justice was emphasized in all of the teachings. They showed us that the neighborhood was not only our community, but also the Hispanic and African American communities. And Chinese. They were all still minorities in the area then, so as the dominant group, we had to work toward mitigation.”
In Knickerbocker Village, these groups have been able to age into the 21st century in place. The complex hosts a NORC (Naturally Occurring Retirement Community), and thanks to a contribution toward improvements from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, Knickerbocker Village has remained within reach for low-income households and elder citizens. But continued affordability continues to be a hard-won victory.
In 2006, Knickerbocker Village’s owners applied to the Division of Housing and Community Renewal (D.H.C.R.) for permission to dissolve and transfer the property to Cherry Green Management, an iteration of itself that would be able operate outside of the Article IV rent-protection program of which Knickerbocker Village had long been a part. D.H.C.R. approved with the caveat that all tenants, both old and new, be offered rent-stabilized leases. They also stipulated a five-year grace period before the management could convert Knickerbocker Village into a co-op or condo.
At that time, sixty-eight percent of the tenants were Chinese and many were above the age of sixty-five. According to Article IV, tenants could earn no more than seven times their annual rent, which was approximately $50,000 per household. At the time of the legal battled, Bob Wilson was the president of the Knickerbocker Village Tenants’ Association, and a resident of the complex since 1944. In a 2006 interview with The Villager, Wilson noted that rent-stabilized leases would still allow rents to triple, thereby becoming far too expensive for almost all of the then-current residents.
The Tenants’ Association raised their own funds to pay for legal assistance, and in 2006, State Supreme Court Judge Walter B. Tholub ruled that the D.H.C.R. could dissolve the ownership corporation, but it could only transfer the property to another limited-dividend corporation or to a municipality. In 2007, an appellate court handed down the final decision that the property would remain in the affordable housing program. In speaking with The Villager about the 2007 ruling, resident Lisa Wolf, 62, said, “New York should be for everyone. It’s becoming very, very affluent. We think that’s wrong. We many not succeed, but we’ll try our damnedest to put up a fight.”
As of 2013, Knickerbocker Village tenants are again organizing, this time to purchase the complex. The benefit of making such a change depends on good tenant leadership. Knickerbocker Village is expansive, and it is eighty years old. There are expenses associated with a co-op, and while low-income residents will own their own homes, they will have the burden of maintaining an aging building in a flood zone.
Knickerbocker Village experienced sustained systemic shutdown in the wake of 2012’s Superstorm Sandy. Located in the basement, the Depression-era services and wiring were completely flooded. The buildings’ boilers and pushbotton elevators were knocked out, and residents lived without heat, electricity, and in some cases viable egress, for nearly three weeks after Sandy made landfall in New York.
Although the federal government was instrumental in shaping the Lower East Side, state intervention minimally impacted the neighborhood during and directly after Hurricane Sandy. Elderly citizens were trapped in cold, dark apartments. Many kept sane with spontaneous mah jong tournaments, and they made do thanks to generous assistance from outsiders. Two Bridges Neighborhood Council Associate Director Kerri Culhane says, “From what I understand, it was an occasion where neighbors who have lived next door to each other forever but never talked to each other were finally working together towards mutual goals.” She notes that volunteers from outside of the community made a significant difference as well. “They really mobilized people to bring food, and really cared about the situation on a person to person basis.”
For a year after Sandy, the Knickerbocker Village Tenants' Association petitioned the federal government to compensate residents for individual losses, and to restore the development's damaged infrastructure. In March 2013, local officials lobbied FEMA to pay the Knickerbocker residents who were denied hotel fee reimbursements. Knickerbocker’s management has since replaced the antiquated boiler, and on October 30 2013, city elected officials announced that Knickerbocker would be awarded almost one and a half million dollars of federal hurricane recovery monies through the "NYC Build It Back" program. Rehabilitation of the twelve elevator banks is at the top of the agenda. The management now has the opportunity to turn the buildings’ age to advantage. The complex is included in the Two Bridges Historic District, and as such, the owners are eligible to apply for New York State Historic Tax credits toward additional replacements. Happily, State tax credits do not require the burden of investment associated with Federal historic tax credits. Building owners in other flood-prone historic districts, including the Chinatown/Little Italy Historic District, the Bowery Historic District, and the Lower East Side Historic District, are likewise eligible for historic tax credits toward retrofitting their buildings to align with the city’s post-Sandy building codes.
Two Bridges Neighborhood Council has been working on a variety of resiliency efforts for the greater Lower East Side, including Knickerbocker Village. Together with community members and other local organizations, they are incubating a communications plan to effectively deliver evacuation information in the event of the next storm. And they are working with the community to internalize the inevitability of a next storm event. As sea levels are indeed rising, they are engaging neighborhood residents to generate ideas for better waterfront planning, and they are increasing awareness of the existence of historic tax credits while demystifying the process of applying for them.
For the time being, Knickerbocker Village’s affordability, as well as its tenants’ tenacity, seem to be intact. Hopefully New York will soon find an effective way to protect the Lower East Side and other low-lying neighborhoods so that they, too, can remain intact for many more summers in the city.
Selected Sources:
Braun-Reinitz, Janet and Jane Weissman. On the Wall: Four Decades of Community Murals in New York City. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009.
Interview with Victor Papa and Kerri Culhane, October 7, 2013.
Mele, Christopher. Selling the Lower East Side: Culture, Real Estate and Resistance in New York City.
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.
Plunz, Richard. A History of Housing in New York City. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.

Stevenson, James. “THE PEOPLE ALL THE PEOPLE.” The New Yorker, September 16, 1967, p.141.