Monday, August 30, 2010


Last week we wrote about St Bernard Parish's BLOOD RELATIVE ORDINANCE. It turns out that a similar--though arguably slightly less sinister--weapon of exclusion is being deployed right here in New York City: the LETTER OF RECOMMENDATION.

We had just returned from a visit to Brooklyn's Sea Gate, and were doing some research on gated communities in New York City. (From what we can tell, outside of Staten Island--and not counting Park Avenue co-ops, Gramercy Park, or luxury rental towers, which some argue are effectively the same thing as gated communities--New York City has four gated communities: Sea Gate, Breezy Point, Edgewater Park, and Silver Beach Gardens.) This led us to research "co-op communities," an ownership model that all gated communities in New York happen to share. Co-op communities are a little bit different than co-op buildings. In the former, residents own their homes but lease the land from owners’ collectives. Owners pay a monthly maintenance fee for streets, common areas, and, in the cases above, the beach. Of course, with co-ops come co-op boards. While co-op boards can be famously exclusionary (just ask Richard Nixon, Calvin Klein, or Mariah Carey), they are 100% legal, and in fact do not even have to disclose what they are looking for in a buyer or explain why they reject someone.

Nonetheless, what was illegal, at least according to the Fair Housing Justice Center, was for the co-op community at Edgewater Park to use LETTERS OF RECOMMENDATION to steer blacks away from Edgewater Park. As the New York Times reports, the lawsuit filed by the Fair Housing Justice Center "claims the co-ops’ requirement that buyers procure three recommendation letters from current residents, who are overwhelmingly white, had a discriminatory effect." (A recent Architect's Newspaper story on gated communities in New York City notes that in 2000, Edgewater Park and Silver Beach Gardens were 82 percent white, 12 percent Hispanic, and 1 percent black.)

This begs the question: what makes these LETTERS OF RECOMMENDATION different from those that exclusive Manhattan co-ops require? Why doesn't the Fair Housing Justice Center take them to court? One answer is that it looks like Edgewater Park was caught practicing RACIAL STEERING. Another is the allegation that the LETTERS OF RECOMMENDATION "requirement" is not applied to whites, who "are told that a seller or the sellers' friends - whom the applicants do not otherwise know - can provide the references." But on another level, excluding people from a community in the city does seem more pernicious than excluding people from a building on the city. As urban theorists from Christopher Alexander to Leslie Martin to Kees Christiaanse have pointed out, pockets of homogeneity in the city are desirable, so long as they are open, connected, and accessible. If not everyone can live in a Park Avenue co-op, at least everyone can enjoy the same public amenities--handsome streets, Central Park, etc.--that those who do live in the co-ops enjoy. I don't want to overemphasize this point, but it does highlight an important difference: neither you nor I can enjoy Edgewater Park's beaches.

In any case, we're looking forward to hearing how this lawsuit progresses.

Sunday, August 22, 2010


The other day, Interboro had a surprise visit from Nurhan Gokturk, our pal from grad school who we hadn't seen in a while. After grad school, Nurhan moved to New Orleans, where he started a company building affordable, modular, New Orleans-style shotgun houses (this was in 2002 or so, before Katrina). Since then, Nurhan has built close to 100 scattered-site units.

This in itself is worth of an Arsenal of Inclusion entry, but we'd like to focus here on an exclusionary tactic that Nurhan encountered. When we asked Nurhan how he gets his sites, and whether or not he had been able to acquire scattered-site housing in "non-impacted" areas or "opportunity zones" (i.e., white suburbs), he said he tried (in St. Bernard Parish), but was thwarted by something that is even creepier than it sounds: a “blood-relative ordinance.” After Katrina, the Parish's Council President introduced an ordinance mandating that owners of single family homes that had not been rentals previous to Hurricane Katrina could only rent said single-family homes to their blood relatives (the Parish had previously introduced a moratorium on multi-family housing). An article we found in The Root called "Keeping St. Bernard Parish White" makes the obvious conclusion: "With an 88 percent white population which owned 93 percent of the housing stock before the storm, it was pretty clear at whom that ordinance targeted: black people, particularly those dislocated from their homes, and especially those who lived in the demolished public housing projects."

This is one of those weapons on the Arsenal of Exclusion--like EXCLUSIONARY AMENITIES or CONDITIONS, COVENANTS and RESTRICTIONS--that makes you want to throw up your hands and give up, or at least take a cynical attitude towards fair housing laws that, no matter how carefully we craft them, can always be circumvented. The BLOOD RELATIVE ORDINANCE is a reminder that evil is really creative, cleaver, and determined.

Fortunately, so is good. As reported here, soon after the ordinance was introduced in 2005, The Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center (GNOFHAC), a private, non-profit civil rights organization filed a lawsuit in federal court to force the Parish to repeal the ordinance and the moratorium on multi-family housing. The Parish repealed the blood-relative language of the single family ordinance in February of 2008.

Saturday, August 21, 2010


Interboro has been doing a lot of research on aging in New York City. Our research focuses on the phenomenon of Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities (NORCs) and the Social Service Providers (SSPs) that serve them. Our thesis is that by retroactively servicing buildings with the sorts of amenities that aging adults would otherwise move to purpose-built retirement facilities to access, NORC SSPs keep the elderly in the city, and thereby contribute to generational diversity.

To research this, we have been visiting a lot of NORCS, where we talk to elderly residents, interview NORC SSP Directors, and study how the elderly experience the city. We always walk away from these site visits with new entries for the Arsenal of Exclusion / Inclusion.

Here's an example: last week, we interviewed Ron Bruno, Director of Morningside Retirement and Health Services, Inc., the NORC SSP that serves elderly residents of Morningside Gardens, a 982 unit, multi-racial, middle income housing development in West Harlem. Ron mentioned that when Morningside Gardens opened in 1957, it was something of a safe haven for interracial couples and same-sex couples (many of whom still live in the development). If this doesn't sound shocking, remember that in 1957, plain old interracial housing--whether public or private--was controversial, and hardly the norm. Most of New York City's housing (and all of Baltimore's public housing) was segregated by race. Interracial housing that welcomed interracial and same-sex couples would have been unheard of. Morningside was way ahead of its time. How did this happen?

As it turns out, this amazing piece of history is under-researched, and so far as Ron or I can tell, it isn't known exactly how it happened. Was there an official decree? Was there a pioneering couple who disseminated word in the interracial and same-sex communities that Morningside was very tolerant? I see a dissertation in the making. (Morningside's tolerance was a news topic for a short while in 2003, when two residents of Morningside--Gustavo Archilla and Elmer Lokkins--got married in Canada after living together for 60 years.)

From a 2008 essay by a journalist (and Morningside tenant) named Beatrice Gottlieb called "The Historical Background of Morningside Gardens," we learn that the project's sponsors (Barnard College, Columbia University, Corpus Christi Church,International House, Jewish Theological Seminary, the Juilliard School of Music, Riverside Church, Teachers College, and Union Theological Seminary) had envisioned a residential community that would be attractive and convenient for their own employees, but were disappointed by a lukewarm response. "There were, however, many applications from others, some of whom expressed interest in the project’s social point of view and enthusiasm about a 'real cooperative.'"

Interestingly, Morningside Gardens has always been pretty racially integrated. A 1950 survey of the 36-square-block neighborhood that defined the Morningside Manhattanville redevelopment area (part of which was cleared to make way for the projects) found the area to be 27 percent Negro, 22 precent Spanish-speaking, 4 percent Oriental, and the remainder, non-Puerto Rican white. The original tenants of the Gardens were 75 percent white, 20 percent black, 4 percent Asian, and 1 percent Puerto Rican. Today, Ron estimates that there is a similar racial mix.

NORC SSPs, middle-income housing, and integrated housing are integrative in and of themselves, but when combined with the sort of tolerance demonstrated by Morningside Gardens, they are even more so.

Friday, August 20, 2010


Is Sea Gate the only gated community in New York? The policeman (or more accurately, the private security guard) who wouldn't let us in to see it said that it was. But surely there are some on Staten Island, right? Googling around, there are references to it being the "first" gated community, the "oldest" gated community, and the "largest" gated community: all of these adjectives imply that there are or will be others.

A New York Observer article makes the case that Manhattan's new luxury rentals--"clean, secure, exclusive (but not out of reach), and outfitted with amenities like grill stations, manicured rooftop lawns, and foosball tables"--are New York City's gated communities. Others have argued that there is no real difference between a gated community and a coop (especially a coop with strict coop boards, as you are likely to find on Park Avenue). Gramercy Park is private and gated: does it count?

Here's what we can piece together: outside of Staten Island, New York City has four "real" gated communities: Sea Gate, Breezy Point, Edgewater Park, and Silver Beach Gardens. Sea Gate is indeed the oldest: its gates went up in 1898. All four are "coop communities:" communities in which residents own their homes but lease the land from owners’ collectives (owners pay a monthly maintenance fee for streets, common areas, and, in these cases, beaches). All four are also (surprise) very white. A recent Architect's Newspaper story on the topic notes that in 2000, 75 percent of Sea Gate are white, 7.4 percent are black and 9.4 percent Hispanic. "In Breezy Point more than 99 percent of the residents are white. In Edgewater Park and Silver Beach Gardens, white residents make up 82 percent of residents. The neighborhood is 12 percent Hispanic, but only 1 percent black."

We visited Sea Gate (or anyway, Sea Gate's perimeter) on a very warm, sunny, August Sunday, when, presumably, the guards are on high alert from insurgent sunbathers. We were surprised at how militaristic it looked and felt

Sunday, August 8, 2010


Hollander Ridge's PERIMETER FENCE--which I wrote about in the previous post--is only one chapter in the former housing project's amazing story. Another crucial chapter has to do with its SITE SELECTION. What you first notice about the site is that it is totally separated from its surroundings. Here's how a HUD consultant described it in 1996: “Hollander Ridge is located on the far northeast edge of the City of Baltimore on a parcel of land bounded by expressways on two sides and a major arterial road (Route 40) to the south. . . .The property is approximately four miles from downtown Baltimore, but effectively cut off from the rest of the city by Interstate 95.

Take a look at a Google aerial of the site:

Hollander Ridge's isolation isn't (or wasn't) coincidental. On the contrary, it was the result of a compromise of sorts. In the 1970s, HABC was under pressure to site public housing in "non-impacted" areas: areas that weren't overwhelmingly African-American and poor. In fact HUD decided that it would not grant approval for new public housing units in impacted areas unless those units were balanced by units in
white neighborhoods. A HABC official put it this way: "As our urban renewal effort is presently devoted almost exclusively to inner city areas where our city’s worst housing is located, and as we try to provide housing for the same economic group which is being displaced . . ., there is a great need for new public housing units in these areas. Because of the HUD’s requirement, it was necessary . . . to find a site in a White neighborhood for a large number of units to balance the significant amount of housing to be built on urban renewal lots."

Hollander Ridge, which is in a white census tract in a non-impacted area, was conceived of from the start as a development of "balance units" that would win HABC favor with HUD. But again, a compromise was made. Here's the HUD consultant again: "Although technically a non-impacted site, it is an extremely isolated location that is inconvenient to schools, churches, shopping, laundry facilities, or other services, especially for those without cars. Vehicular access to the site is provided by a guarded checkpoint on the north side of Pulaski Highway (Route 40). Originally, the property was also accessible through residential streets that served the Rosedale community to the northeast. However, because of crime problems over the years, these access points have been blocked by barricades."

I don't want to come down too hard on HABC here, for whom siting public housing in non-impacted, white areas was virtually impossible, and who had to make the sorts of compromises alluded to above. Clearly, the real enemy here is home-rule, which gives racists the ability to exclude in the first place. Still, Hollander Ridge was a terrible, terrible place to site public housing, a fact perhaps best evidenced by the fact that it was imploded at the ripe old age of 24.


Today, I rode my bike to Hollander Ridge, or anyway what used to be Hollander Ridge (it was demolished on July 9, 2000). Hollander Ridge was a 1,000-unit public housing development built in 1976 by the Housing Authority of Baltimore City on a 60-acre parcel at the city / county line. Hollander Ridge was virtually 100% African-American when it was demolished.

I biked to Hollander Ridge to see this wrought iron perimeter fence:

I learned about this fence while reading Judge Marvin Garvis’s Thompson v. HUD decision, which devotes 12 pages (out of 322) to its remarkable story.

In 1998, HABC, with the approval and financial support of HUD, Senator Barbara M ccluskey, then Mayor Kurt Schmoke, the Rosedale Community, and a few Hollander Ridge residents constructed the 8-foot tall, spiked, wrought iron fence around the perimeter of Hollander Ridge to separate it from the adjacent, predominantly white suburban community of Rosedale. The result was something very strange and perhaps unprecedented: a gated community created by outsiders to keep insiders in (well, I suppose a prison is a precedent for this).

The fence is the product of a HUD pilot project to seek solutions for crime in HUD-supported public housing. HUD, with feedback from HABC, selected Hollander Ridge as the focus of the pilot, and the Department of the Treasury deployed a Secret Service team to study the site and make suggestions for improving public safety. By that time, crime was rampant at Hollander Ridge. Garvis describes "check days" (days when elderly residents would receive their monthly social security checks), when “the high-rise area was, in effect, an open air drug and sex market.” The Secret Service Team’s report, entitled “Operation Safe Home," confirmed the existence of serious public safety problems at Hollander Ridge, and recommended, among other things, that “A fence perimeter [be established] around the community limiting pedestrian access.” It was built in 1998.

But the fence—which cost as much as $1.7 million according to a Baltimore Sun article—wouldn’t have been built had the white Rosedale residents not organized and complained that the city-county line was too porous, and that the crime from Hollander Ridge was lowering Rosedale property values, and making Rosedale less safe. As Garvis notes, while some were motivated by legitimate concerns (in 1996 an elderly Rosedale woman was slain in her home), “certainly, some of these Baltimore
County residents were motivated by racial animus directed against the African-American residents of Hollander Ridge."

And how. Thinking about it, I'm reminded of John Carpenter's 1981 anti-urban classic Escape from New York, which posits New York City as giant, maximum-security prison, complete with fortified bridges and tunnels to keep the riff-raff out of the suburbs on the other side. (Remember the scene when The Duke, played by Isaac Hayes, gets sprayed with bullets trying to climb the border wall?) It also makes me think of Kenneth Jackson's essay “Gentleman’s Agreement,” where Jackson writes that although they are not physical boundaries, “the boundaries between our cities and our suburbs are as real and effective as both the fortifications of medieval Europe or the gated communities of our own time.” This 8-foot tall, spiked, $1.7 million wrought-iron perimeter fence built along Baltimore’s city-county line is a surreal landmark that--like Detroit's infamous HOLC wall--speaks volumes about race relations in metropolitan America.

Sunday, August 1, 2010


Interboro just received the new issue of Reclaim, the magazine we get for being members of Transportation Alternatives. After reading the issue's depressing story about the MTA's dire financial situation, and getting mad all over again at the State Legislature for nixing congestion pricing, voting "no" on east river tolls, and stealing $143 million from the MTA to plug budget gaps, we came across a story about a town in Colorado (Black Rock) that banned bicycle riding because it is in "the best interest of its citizens, its businesses." The latter are primarily casinos (the town's population is 118).

Is this even legal? Is there a precedent for it? A quick Google search turns up a handful of bike bans and proposed bike bans: In Missouri, St. Charles County Council member Joe Brazil proposed banning bicycles from several roads around the town of Defiance. In Kansas, the community of De Soto banned bicycles from 83rd Street in their town, citing safety issues on a two-lane road with no shoulders. A article thinks that the Black Hawk ordinance is not enforceable, and that if it is not addressed, it could create a frightening legal precedent. The article concludes that in Colorado, where local authorities are authorized to regulate the operation of bicycles, cities do not have the authority to regulate whether you can operate your bicycle.

The good news is that it looks like the lawyer of good are fighting back against the lawyers of evil. There's even a "boycott Black Hawk" Facebook page (1,705 likes!).

In the meantime, "BICYCLE BAN" wins a place in our Arsenal of Exclusion.