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4. Tenant Power in the Liberal City 1943-1971
Rent Strikes and Community Power, 1962 - 1971
As the 1950s receded, tenant groups around the city had inched to the brink of mass action. Several forces had brought them to this point. American Labor party radicals found their organizational energies released by the political thaw. Title I, a profound mobilizing experience, had goaded entire neighborhoods into angry coherence. Churches and social settlements had contributed their sense of Christian witness and parish democracy. But most important was an impatience with the tenement environment and a weakening of those institutions that had siphoned off radicalism in the slums. Democratic Reform, which had consigned Tammany to oblivion, wrecked the clubhouse system that had given poor people considerable access to city rent offices and the Housing Authority. More fundamental still was the obstruction in the Housing Authority itself, as social breakdown in the projects undermined public housing's function as a safety valve for the pressures of Title I. Nevertheless, radicals hesitated to tread on the unfamiliar ground of direct action and mass mobilization until the civil rights movement swept them up in its intensity. This force finally brought tenants into the streets, on rent strike, and ultimately to the euphoria of community power. But the mass strike would prove a cumbersome weapon. It would intimidate landlords, but not necessarily to invest in new housing. It would stampede politicians to adopt cosmetic repairs, but not constrain them to approve bond issues or let building contracts. When the strike spasm ended, it would fail to improve the housing of the poor, but it would greatly stimulate the idea that poor people could take hold of their housing environment. As such, the strikes would be a formidable mobilizing force for the next stage of social action.
In the late 1950s, social work activists across the city, driven by a moral outrage against the slums and perhaps a growing sense of despair, had edged toward mass tenant mobilization. Most still operated, of course, within a liberal consensus, which in practice meant helping neighbors bear the stress of site clearance for Title I. As we have seen, Chelsea's Hudson Guild and the Upper East Side's Lenox Hill Neighborhood Association had pioneered tenant work effective enough to arouse the envy of nearby ALP clubs. In East Harlem, the Union Settlement worked through PTAs and tenant councils "to approach and then work with such authoritarian figures as school principles and housing managers." The Community Service Society's East Harlem Demonstration, which hoped to foster "neighborhood identification, self-esteem, and community action," even contained a harbinger of the 1960s, the search for "indigenous" leaders to rally neighbors into effective self-help groups. But like the others, the Community Service Society's efforts still centered on cooperative ventures with city planning agencies.
The best known of these initiatives, Mobilization for Youth, Inc. (MFY), a self-proclaimed vehicle for radical change, found itself mired in conventional tenant casework. Launched in 1961 as an innovative attack on gang delinquency on the Lower East Side, MFY planned to reach "unaffiliated" lower-class teenagers by sending youth workers to stimulate PTAs, block associations, and tenant councils. At their storefront on Stanton Street, MFY community organizers longed to become wholesale advocates for a steady stream of welfare and tenant clients. But rhetoric aside, Stanton Street handled housing clients in classic casework style -- forwarding individual tenant complaints to the Rent and Rehabilitation Administration (RRA). MFY staffers saw themselves consumed by endless paper work, tedious often fruitless meetings with tenants, and the monumental inefficiency of city agencies.
Even Harlem maverick Jesse Gray remained caught in these traditional channels. An ex-ALP radical, Gray had organized a series of local protest groups (at times called the Harlem Tenants Council or Harlem Tenant and Welfare Council) and delighted ghetto rallies with his tilts against landlords. But his activities, expediting applications for reduced rent at the Harlem rent office, stayed within the rent control system. No evidence shows that Gray resorted to rent strikes beyond the occasional withholdings sanctioned by section 755 of the New York State Real Property Actions and Proceedings Law (sec. 1446(a) recodified in 1962). His forte was the vivid publicity event, such as a 1954 protest against the eviction of a woman confined to a wheelchair. He often boasted of a network of block committees, run by two, three, or four hundred "house leaders." But these were the posturings of a political adventurer in a Harlem no-man's land -- the Fourteenth Assembly District, whose crumbling tenements were overshadowed by the Housing Authority's Stephen Foster Houses (menaced by teenage gangs and "problem families"). The Fourteenth's political clubs, torn by factional revolt against Tammany, could no longer provide effective services for constituents at the rent office or the Housing Authority. In 1959, Gray, already with contacts in the Foster Houses, led his Harlem Tenants Council to organize housewives in the six-story walk-ups on nearby 116th Street. They picketed four tenements and handed out leaflets that announced they had gone "on strike" against rat infestation, while Gray told the Amsterdam News that six thousand more stood ready to join the rebellion. But as the city responded with squads of health inspectors, the flare-up receded to the back pages of Harlem's tabloids.
What ended tenant work-as-usual for Gray, ALP clubs, social settlements, and MFY alike was the accelerating civil rights movement, unwittingly reinforced by the Wagner administration. Harlem's Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) chapter typified the drastic change. Caught in the crosscurrents of civil rights and Muslim nationalism, New York (Harlem) CORE was forced to supplement its liberal open-occupancy campaigns with sharp attacks on ghetto slums. In late 1962 the chapter opened a housing clinic on West 125th Street and announced that "CORE investigation teams will visit the buildings, call on residents, inform them of their rights." By mid-1963 the clinic was helping to organize tenant associations. Although it still continued to assist tenants at the rent office, it was now ready to challenge landlords with "direct action," including pickets and rent strikes. The chapter's aggressive minority talked excitedly about organizing "street people' into a network of building and block councils that would mobilize Harlem. Drawn along, national CORE secretary James Farmer unveiled pilot projects for Newark and Bedford-Stuyvesant, where CORE organizers would confront landlords. When national CORE subsequently extended its "roving picket line" to Harlem, the City Buildings Department quickly responded with its first mass inspection of slums since the mid-1930s. While Mayor Wagner vowed to "press the attack" on slumlords, inspectors, accompanied by curious tenants, prowled through Bedford-Stuyvesant and Harlem.
At MFY this direct action radicalized what remained of traditional social work. Cooperating aggressively with tenant groups, Stanton Street resorted to pickets, demanded meetings with city commissioners, and advised on withholding rent to get needed services. The summer crisis also hastened the creation of the MFY Legal Services Unit and the Tenement Housing Program, the brainchild of political scientist and MFY advisor Frances Fox Piven. Legal Services was envisioned as a network of clinics where volunteer attorneys would dispense advice on welfare and tenant problems such as unfair evictions from public housing. The Tenement Housing Program, on the other hand, revealed MFY's impatience with storefront casework and near despair about building code enforcement. The program's heart was to be a central file of housing violations, arranged by address and owner, to enable MFY to target the worst landlords. By October 1963 the Housing Program had taken on a professional coordinator, three Hispanic community workers, and seven student volunteers to work with the clinics and the central file. But MFY insiders still complained that direct action was used only "sporadically" and that the housing program had "no overall plan."
By fall 1963, in the growing glare of the civil rights campaign, this impatience finally ignited. On one level it flared in impromptu rebellion against summary eviction proceedings in the magistrate's courts. Scores of tenants, most without legal counsel but inspired by black protest, claimed that they no longer owed rents for rat-infested rooms or that "Welfare" told them they did not have to pay. Judges indulged only a few of these defenses. On another level, however, organized groups soon vied to be the first to apply the new advocacy, with New York University CORE jumping the gun on the Lower East Side. In early 1963 the NYU student chapter had tried to act against code violations in old law tenements on Eldridge Street, but was frustrated by city agencies that sat idle for months. Concluding that the city was "incapable of fast, decisive action," chapter radicals called for an immediate rent strike. They got pledges from 94 Puerto Rican and black tenants for a November 1 withholding and reassured the one-third on welfare that they could refuse to pay rent for apartments with Multiple Dwellings Law violations. CORE volunteers from prestigious liberal Democratic law firms arranged with city officials for a tough prosecution, which dragged on and resulted in a mere $300 fine. But the owner had had enough, and he pleaded with CORE to take over his tenements. The exhausted chapter had stumbled on the remarkable prospect of unnerving a whole class of "slumlords" on the Lower East Side. The radicals urged CORE to send property owners a message that "we do not mean to pick on just one or two of their buildings, letting them do as they please with the rest." These were heady days, particularly with the news of strikes spreading through Harlem.
During the early 1960s, Jesse Gray had restyled his Harlem Tenants Council into the Community Council on Housing (CCH), but only the name had changed. It was still Gray and a few unpaid, part-time organizers, working those same blocks in the Fourteenth Assembly District -- an operation, Mark Naison found, "that teetered on the edge of bankruptcy." After a mid-October 1963 protest at city hall, Gray decided to lead sixteen of "his" buildings on strike. Tenants, reporters, and the curious soon converged on the CCH storefront; at a mass rally in early December Gray claimed fifty-two buildings, with three thousand tenants, ready to Join the movement While city leaders rushed inspectors to the scene and arranged for drastic rent reductions, Gray was assembling a Rent Strike Coordinating Committee of Harlem religious and political VIPs. From time to time he held rallies, set up more paper coalitions, and got token support from New York CORE and local labor leaders. But his pickets, his eviction protests, and his confrontation with the police remained media events. On December 30, eviction proceedings against thirteen tenants on East 117th Street were heard in court, accompanied by Gray's raucous entourage and eager reporters. When the city magistrate, at the urging of Gray's attorney, accepted the applicability of section 755 and ordered rents paid in escrow, Gray jubilantly announced the support of three hundred more buildings, with one thousand joining by January 15.
Gray spent early 1964 juggling these claims, while chiding the Wagner administration to come up with substantive reforms. Regarding the Harlem strikes as the most explosive episodes in a wave of civil rights demonstrations, Mayor Wagner virtually endorsed "legal" rent withholding. He rushed to the state legislature an agenda for more inspections, more housing courts, stiff Multiple Dwellings Law penalties, and a bill to transfer escrow rents from the courts to the Department of Real Estate to pay for repairs. Gray emerged the hero among tenant leaders and at city rent-control hearings (having staged the day before one of his vintage stunts to dramatize Albany's responsibility for ghetto housing -- a Rats to Rockefeller campaign). But his claims about the "spreading" strike soon jaded his media contacts. At the same time, the Wagner administration was applying what Michael Lipsky has characterized as deft, symbolic gestures toward the slums. When Gray demanded action, city hall obliged by jailing the landlord and invoking the Receivership Law to take over the tenements that had touched off Gray's strike. By then, Gray was also caught up in name-calling feuds with the police commissioner and in a controversy over alleged radicals in the city antipoverty program. By spring 1964 the Community Council on Housing was sorting through court papers that liquidated the last strikes.
Nevertheless, Gray's example inspired direct action throughout Harlem. For the radicals who left New York (Harlem) CORE to start their own East River CORE chapter, this meant plans for disciplined community organization. They envisioned "group area teams" of ten workers per block to stir grass roots issues and contact "gangs, street people, numbers runners, and anyone else whose presence on the block is conspicuous." By late March 1964 the chapter claimed to have brought fourteen tenements to rent strike and to have organized tenant councils in another eleven. But its great success came at the twenty-one-hundred-unit Robert F. Wagner, Sr., Houses, where the chapter's pickets won stays against "unfair" evictions and attracted tenants already mobilized by local school boycotts. In the East Harlem barrio, Ted Velez, a young social worker, claimed that his contacts with Jesse Gray had helped set up the East Harlem Tenants Council in 1962. Boasting a network of building captains, in early 1964, Velez resorted to section 755 rent strikes on East 123d Street to force landlords to make repairs. Gray's influence also helped push Reverend Norman Eddy's East Harlem group, the Metro-North Citizens Committee (MNCC), from tenant counseling to street demonstrations and rent strikes. During 1963 MNCC had attracted a modest dues-paying membership, with its weekly rent clinic and volunteers to scout tenements for building violations. In early 1964 Eddy met with Jesse Gray and other tenant radicals to bone up on the section 755 defense.
Gray's apparent triumph also ended Brooklyn CORE's ambivalence toward ghetto organization. Until 1962 the chapter's middle-class blacks, concentrating on open-occupancy pickets, had nagging doubts about their failure to "reach the Negro masses." But in late 1962 and early 1963, members staged noisy demonstrations about garbage pickup along Gates Avenue and job discrimination at the Downstate Medical Center. By September 1963 a CORE "task force" began canvasing Bedford-Stuyvesant and found tenants cynical about the Buildings Department's new inspections and ready to withhold rent. The chapter began to organize buildings and negotiate with landlords. "We had reached the point where we did it systematically," recalled Major R. Owens, head of Brooklyn CORE's Housing Committee. "We'd move into an area -- a whole block, and canvas the block, distributing leaflets, explaining what the program was all about." To get quick referrals from the Buildings Department, Brooklyn CORE lived up to its "well-known reputation for taking direct action against city agencies." After the first spontaneous strikes on Rochester Avenue, CORE quickly got the Buildings Department to document "horrid" conditions, and in court, Brooklyn CORES's attorney successfully gained a section 755 rent diversion. With that, CORE, dispatched volunteers equipped with interviewer sheets, city rent-reduction forms, and membership blanks for a community tenants council. When landlords served dispossess notices, organizers distributed applications for rent reduction, requested immediate "cellar-to-roof" inspections from the city, and even scheduled a photographer's visit to individual apartments. Yet, by late January 1964, CORE's tenant council had less than fifty members, although it claimed that fifty-one buildings (four hundred families) had gone on strike the following month.
On the Lower East Side, MFY's Community Organization staff seized on the rent strike as the instrument to arouse the neighborhood -- and to placate local radicals who had sniped at MFY "paternalism." Goaded by NYU and downtown CORE and by militants from Met Council and Progressive Labor, MFY's rent clinics on January 11, 1964, launched the Lower East Side Rent Strike. Organizers agreed to deploy a few Trotskyites, Progressive Laborites, and MFY staffers, perhaps thirty in all, to the tenements north of Houston Street, from Third to Fifth streets. NYU CORE, reinforced by the University Settlement and Esther Rand's East Side Tenants Council, would send twenty-six regular organizers and five more on weekends to Eldridge and Forsythe streets, from Delancey to Houston. The Puertorriquenos Unidos and the Stanton Street clinic would "work" Seward Park Extension. Some leaders expected the strike to force beefed-up inspections, fines, and jail sentences for landlords. Others spoke of foreclosing on private ownership altogether, with tenements taken over by city receivers and the Housing Authority. These divergent goals, however, were forgotten amid the euphoria, during which MFY pledged twelve volunteer lawyers coordinated by a young antipoverty attorney, Richard Levenson. A broad tenant uprising seemed imminent.
Kicked off with an evening street rally and publicity releases claiming that seventy-five buildings would soon "go out," the movement was compromised from the start. It soon became clear that on their rounds, organizers had made far more contacts than actual commitments among tenants. For their part, Levenson's attorneys faced serious difficulties obtaining posted Multiple Dwellings Law violations on which the section 755 defense depended. Three weeks after the rally, strike leaders voted to take on no new buildings unless 50 percent of the tenants were already withholding rent. One organizer conceded that the strike had begun with "a splash" of claims, and his force was only "now going back to do the detailed work" among tenants. But that did not help Levenson's attorneys, already overwhelmed by the need to transport tenants, request inspections, subpoena Multiple Dwellings Law records, gather photographic evidence, and keep track of endless adjournments. The defense pleaded for a paid legal coordinator and a great increase in volunteer lawyers. "This panel is insufficient to handle the volume of rent strike cases," Levenson concluded. "One or two out of five cases are won by tenants (pay rent into court or dismissal). Three of five cases lost (rent paid to the landlord)." By the first week in April, the legal staff served notice that it could no longer continue without more volunteers, particularly from national CORE. During that week, only two evictions were dismissed and one settled, compared to nearly fifteen decided for the landlords. Levenson could report no successful section 755 defenses.
The fervor also ended at downtown CORE, where the strikes first took root on the Lower East Side. By May 1964 the camaraderie was gone at the tenements on Eldridge Street; the "people got scared off." The chapter, in any case, was consumed by work for Mississippi Freedom Summer (an obsession after the murders of three Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) workers, including Michael Schwerner, a downtown CORE founder) and by a Lower East Side voter registration drive. Later that summer, downtown CORE did launch another tenant campaign, Operation Eastside, with pep talks to an eager team of twenty. Like the decentralized SNCC effort in Mississippi, volunteers were told to fan out on designated blocks, "work" assigned buildings, and act "on his own initiative . . . towards solving the individual problems of the building." At this juncture, an organizer's question, "What was meant by 'organizing' a building?" elicited farther confusion. "Was the Purpose of CORE merely to get the landlord to make repairs, the city to inspect, and possibly to have the rent reduced or were the people being organized for something more?" An MFY observer was appalled. Another mid-August session at the (,ORE loft seemed equally aimless, as "people drifted in and out, new faces and familiar ones, chaos, disorganization, fine talk about the way CORE, was going to organize itself, and the neighborhood, and nothing really happens." By late August, downtown CORE's tenement activities came to a halt.
Despite the glib talk that radicals need only move in among the poor and ignite their solidarity, tenant unions proved monumentally difficult to organize. The Stanton Street Tenants Association, prominent in Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward's account of the welfare rights movement on the Lower East Side, failed to gain much hold on the neighborhood. It depended on the wits of MFY organizer Luisa Montes who tried, but never managed, to get the association going as a real participant group. With a few trusted subordinates, Montes ended up running a tough, no-nonsense operation in the MFY storefront. She would take on only major cases with landlords and never lost her illusions about the need to "goose" tenants to collective action. During a typical day, she might see nine walk-in clients, who asked for help on anything from union pensions to getting rid of junkies lounging on a tenement roof. In between, she was on the telephone bargaining with landlords, encouraging tenants, and prodding the RRA. Major victories never occurred, nor did tenants rush to join. Montes's own data indicate that from January through June 1964 (during the Lower East Side Rent Strike), the Stanton Street Association dealt with 170 tenants in 82 buildings, but could claim an active membership of only 20.
Radicals thought they would have little trouble mobilizing the poor against greedy landlords and callous city agencies. But they managed precious little mobilization because the poor swamped them with routine requests -- usually for access to those very agencies. The Stanton Street Association became less a union than a one-stop convenience center for community services. During summer 1966, 45 percent of the cases involved applications for public housing, compared with 26 percent for building violations and rent overcharges. The association also dispensed welfare advice, sponsored English and sewing classes, and filled an obvious social void. Militant East River CORE, which took up tenant councils as a tool to mobilize Harlem, concluded with dismay, "Tenant councils have not proved to be long-lasting because their only reason for existence has been redress of grievances. Consequently, when the immediate grievance is removed or compensated for, the councils collapse."
Certainly, few tenant leaders anticipated the extent to which they became the local agents of the New York City Housing Authority. By the mid-1960s the Housing Authority was landlord to more than one-half million in over one hundred projects, and the waiting list for coveted apartments was one hundred thousand families, a vast undertow of the city's poor. While radicals carped at the Authority's "sterile," "institutional" facade, the sheer magnitude guaranteed a wide variety of apartments, locales, and neighborhoods, an alternative housing mobility within its domain. No wonder a large proportion of inquiries at MFY storefronts concerned help with Housing Authority application forms and with Welfare Department payments of project security deposits and rent. MFY's proudest achievement in indigenous organization, the block action group Puertorriquenos Unidos, was overwhelmed by such requests. Its best-known mobilization was not a rent strike, but a sit-in at Housing Authority offices to demand a speedup in the process of applications for apartments. Such dependence weakened tenant militance everywhere. Gray's early influence in the Fourteenth Assembly District rested on an organizational base in the Stephen Foster Houses. Compared with the drudgery of canvasing dreary, six-story walk-ups, East Harlem CORE preferred the easier gains that came from negotiating with the project manager at the Robert F. Wagner, Sr., Houses.
Membership in a tenant council rarely signified a determination to withhold rent, even under the "legal" strikes made possible by section 755. On the Lower East Side, MFY confronted a pervasive timidity, particularly among the elderly and those who sublet. Major Owens commented that Brooklyn CORE's work was inhibited by the tenant belief in the "myth of the landlord's invincibility." The Stanton Street Tenants Association struggled through the summer against an ingrained wariness hardly affected by the rent strike fervor. The strike's most salient characteristic, in fact, was the disproportion between exhaustive effort and meager outcome. The brief united front among the adjoining tenements on Eldridge Street was the product of NYU CORE's ten months of intensive organization and the stubbornness of one landlord. For at least twenty months, Gray had picketed across the Fourteenth Assembly District, particularly 117th Street, and produced few solid buildings and fewer strikers. Brooklyn CORE had marched along Gates Avenue for half a year, but the major response came from tenants already excited by the chapter's demonstrations for jobs at Downstate Medical Center. Whether Gray's opportunists, NYU CORE's impulsive students, Brooklyn's older, methodical professionals, East River's militants, or MFY's social work radicals, organizers mobilized few strikers, probably no more than 2 percent of tenants in those blocks.
Meager success at grass roots mobilization reflected pervasive confusion at the top. Tenant leaders could not decide, much less act, on the merits of what might be called the "structural" versus the "territorial" approach to organizing the tenement poor, and they never overcame the fallacies of both. Groups like Brooklyn CORE and the Lower East Side organizers were confident that all they had to do was dispatch young volunteers to "work" specific blocks into an angry consciousness, then call a strike. This territorial approach not only romanticized the rebellious potential of the poor, it overlooked the complexities behind the stereotypical "slum" -- the differences in tenement dilapidation, between lease holders and subletters, between families and single occupants, between the working poor and welfare recipients, between those resigned to substandard walk-ups and those aspiring to enter city projects. The typical Lower East Side neighborhood contained no great monopoly landlord against whom tenants could be organized like an industrial local or against whom judges could order some kind of class-action relief. These complexities produced infinite mischief when tenant leaders sought the standard section 755 redress. Bewildering patterns of property ownership, compounded by decentralized municipal courts and idiosyncratic judges, produced the legal chaos -- bureaucratic delays, endless adjournments, and uncertain decrees -- that embittered those who expected decisive justice.
From time to time, rent strike leaders professed the disciplined "structural" approach of organizing all the tenants in buildings controlled by a single landlord and crippling his entire rent income. While Jesse Gray flirted with the idea, radicals on the Lower East Side pursued the notion that a slumlord Gordian knot could be cut by bold measures. This myth grew with organizers' frustrations. In mid-December 1963 an NYU CORE attorney soberly assessed what his young colleagues had stumbled into on Eldridge Street. The chapter's experience showed the limits of "uncoordinated, unsupervised activities by a local group" and of street demonstrations that lacked legal follow-through with city administrators. Organizing more than a handful of tenants had proved a vast undertaking. Any realistic campaign against the slums would take "an immense, coordinate effort of National CORE chapters and every competent professional and semi-professional we can lay our hands on." The alternative to that immense mobilization was an "attack on the basic 100 landlords," but even that struggle would require persistent legal and financial resources, the involvement of "mature, National CORE people," and take "several years." But few organizers had such caution. Lured by the glamor of direct action, they plunged ahead. With little knowledge of slum residents and less understanding of their housing aspirations, they embarked on a crusade that seemed irrelevant to most poor people struggling to leave the tenements.
The strikes' profound limitations at mobilizing tenants reinforced the cautious approach of many longtime activists. ALP veterans in the East Side Tenants Council quickly reoriented their work around those few occupants disciplined to withhold rent and prepared to pay for their own litigation -- a kind of "business unionism" on the housing front. A similar withdrawal occurred at Yorkville Save Our Homes, where Jane Benedict tightened organizational lines to prevent the "premature" strikes that Jesse Gray's enthusiasm seemed to touch off. But for more distant observers, the strikes were poor people's rebellions with immense potential for radical change. They clinched the Students for a Democratic Society's commitment to action projects in working-class neighborhoods. They intoxicated many young professionals, including Columbia University law students and Pratt Institute architects, to lend their expertise to direct action in the ghetto. The New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects was roused by James Farmer and Jesse Gray to form the Architects Renewal Committee in Harlem (ARCH) to "increase the capacity for action of ghetto residents in the planning situation" with its "sense of potency, responsibility and purpose." Going the extreme, many black power advocates saw the strikes as the first step in the ghetto's foreclosure on white colonialism.
But already, Wagner administration liberals were recovering their composure with housing programs designed to accomplish all that upstart tenant power had intended. The mayor's office hastily improvised the Emergency Repair Program, after MFY and East Harlem activists presented the idea to city housing experts. Emergency Repair relied on municipal "police power" to contract for the elimination of hazardous Multiple Dwellings Law violations, with costs recovered from liens on the property. Tenant activists assumed that they would initiate most complaints. A companion measure, article 7-A of the Real Property Actions and Proceedings Law, authorized tenants in a seriously dilapidated multiple dwelling to petition the courts to appoint a public administrator to collect rent and order repairs. Although article 7-A required tenants to furnish detailed violations and estimated costs, it seemed to hand them an important instrument for self-determination. The city also revitalized the Receivership Program, which allowed the courts to appoint a receiver to take over a decrepit building and make repairs paid for with rents and a prior lien. Local tenant and community groups expected to play a prominent role in the recommendation of appropriate buildings and receivers.
These programs gave an invaluable boost to the Wagner administration's tattered image, but had little impact on the tenements. Their operations also failed to allow for significant tenant involvement in the long run. Emergency Repair proved an administrative nightmare, soon taken up by the Model Cities bureaucracy, when it expired due to lagging reimbursement by landlords. From the beginning, article 7-A proved far too technical and cumbersome for most tenant groups to handle without outside professional help. Under the Receivership Program, the city took over 117 buildings by 1965, when arrears in rents and soaring repair costs convinced the new John V. Lindsay administration to halt acquisitions. By then the city had switched its emphasis from legal withholdings to landlord-tenant mediation, exemplified by the RRA's Housing Repair and Maintenance Program. Landlords, whose building violations normally meant punitive RRA rent reductions, were given the chance to agree to scheduled repairs supervised by the city and paid for with restored rents. By the decade's end, cases were coming from the district rent office, the mayor's office, and city councilmen. A landlord-tenant conference presided over by an RRA ombudsman worked toward an agreement on escrow rents and repairs to ward off abandonment. In 1968 the RRA supervised cases in 303 buildings, which led just 44 landlords to compliance.
While the strike fervor cooled noticeably by 1965, it left a residue of tenant militance that continued rent strikes on an isolated, almost experimental, basis. On the Lower East Side, young radicals at the University Settlement started an MFY-type housing drive called Action for Progress. Director Paul DeBrul, plunging into tenant work, organized the city's first building to petition successfully for a 7-A administrator. DeBrul admitted his basic strategy was to "make it so tough for the landlords as to make them sell out cheap." Similarly inspired, David Borden, an East Harlem community worker, proposed that Massive Economic Neighborhood Development (MEND), the local antipoverty committee, sponsor a block development program to send workers from storefronts to organize food and housing coops. Nearby, Reverend Norman Eddy's Christian witness at the Metro-North Community Council was driven leftward by a faction pledged to continued direct action. Meanwhile, ARCH's young professionals envisioned Harlem as the place to conduct a massive tutorial in people's architecture that could turn out pamphlets on tenant action, code violations, and slumlord economics. An ARCH Housing Action Training Institute would graduate scores of young community organizers with a fluency ranging from rent control and urban renewal to strikes and 7-A sponsorship.
As it turned out, grandiose strategies and militant rhetoric proved just another distraction from the frustrating reality of organizing ghetto tenants. University Settlement's Action for Progress always attracted a greater response from middle-class Jewish cooperators along Grand Street than from Puerto Rican welfare tenants on Rutgers. DeBrul conceded that his tenant organizing got nowhere compared to the media impact of lead poisoning, an issue he hit upon in 1969. At Metro-North, radicals briefly took over, but could not alter what had become their stewardship over a dwindling housing stock. Beset by a wave of building abandonment, Metro-North's activists found relocation aid their foremost function. Anticipating the needs of seven hundred families, Reverend Eddy drafted a 1966 grant proposal, "A Humane Relocation Program for the Poor," and used antipoverty funds to train a small cadre to work with city relocation officials. Despite the dreams, the ARCH Training Institute amounted to a one-time 1966 summer project where twenty-one students worked on a program for rehousing the elderly and prepared a tenant handbook. ARCH mustered far greater enthusiasm, if less success, by supporting the last hurrah of the Harlem strikes, particularly article 7-A proceedings, which seemed tailored to its technical expertise. An ARCH task force of twenty architects, lawyers, and VISTA workers submitted forty rent-withholding petitions based on section 755 and article 7-A (over half the 7-A petitions presented since the law's inception), but after endless litigation, only seven brought essential repairs. ARCH expected real breakthroughs with the city's new "rent-impairing violations law," which permitted tenants to withhold rent where specific, hazardous building violations went unrepaired for seven months. With typical enthusiasm, ARCH envisioned the prospect of one million organized slum residents: "The net effect of such a massive, simple, legal rent strike would probably be to drive many marginal slumlords to abandon their buildings -- and we are back at the Neighborhood Housing Corporation which would be created to take over the properties."
Across the city, radical initiatives were being systematically absorbed by another legacy of the civil rights upsurge -- the War on Poverty's Community Action Program and, ultimately, the U.S. Model Cities Administration. Everywhere, radicals found their visions overwhelmed by tedious code enforcement, relocation services, and public housing applications, which transformed their indigenous groups into outreach service for the Housing Authority and the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity. If the rent strikes had been ignited by sweating, shouting young black men in Harlem, they were soon defused by cool, sleeves-rolled-up technicians on the housing staffs of John V. Lindsay or Robert F. Kennedy.
Brooklyn's foremost antipoverty agency, the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation (BSRC), deployed its small staff to organize tenant and block associations. Its major work, however, came as a counselor and supplier of teenage job trainees to the spruce-up campaigns of local brownstoners' associations. BSRC also ran a small mortgage pool for limited rehabilitation projects and helped line up applications with participating downtown banks. But like the MFY storefronts, the greatest daily activity remained housing referral, chiefly of applicants for the public projects. By 1968 BSRC had spurred only a modest amount of new construction. With help from Pratt Institute and other outside consultants, BSRC advised on article 7-A conversions at two tenements and provided technical aid for the co-op conversion of two others. While vying for an ambitious, federally funded, scatter-site, housing rehabilitation program, BSRC had actually completed work on six buildings containing fifty-three apartment units. By far, its greatest impact occurred through code enforcement and civic pressure in support of middle-class block associations worried about the spread of the Central Brooklyn ghetto.
In the Bronx, the techniques of tenant organizing also came to serve the needs of conservative block associations and antipoverty corporations. Like Bedford-Stuyvesant, Morrisania's black middle-class churches and small homeowners provided support for the New York CORE's and the Urban League's provision of local community services to expedite housing complaints to the Buildings Department and sponsor tenement spruce-up campaigns. Black homeowners on Union, Prospect, and Fulton avenues were appalled that the Department of Relocation had chosen Morrisania as a dumping ground for hapless relocatees. In 1966 the Union-Prospect Block Association and several churches formed the League of Autonomous Bronx Organizations (LABOR) to demand city code enforcement and guide preservation policies of the Morrisania Community Planning Board. LABOR was apprehensive about the ferment in the Hispanic South Bronx, a center of the expansive Hunt's Point Community Progress Corporation (HPCPC). In 1966 HPCPC claimed a force of 50 block workers, who visited 3,000 buildings and started 350 tenant councils and 9 block associations. It had also lodged block workers and social service trainees at outposts, like the Concerned Parents of Fox Street, the Trinity, Kelly, Cauldwell, and Simpson Street block associations, and an HPCPC "satellite" storefront on Prospect Avenue. The leaders claimed fluency in section 755, article 7-A, and Penal Code 2040 proceedings, with twenty buildings on rent strike and another ten already paying rent to the courts. Nevertheless, HPCPC, operating as just another, although the busiest, Bronx ghetto service center, shunted complaints to the rent office, Department of Buildings, Department of Health, and Emergency Repair Service at the rate of some 510 cases per month.
Ironically, such efforts made the least headway in Harlem. With little patience for the legal mechanisms of rent withholding, Jesse Gray had absolutely none for the tedious litigation of article 7-A or receivership. Furthermore, he left behind no institutional apparatus after he quit tenant organizing to pursue his political ambitions in the state assembly. Elsewhere in Harlem, ARCH faced increased difficulty scrounging up volunteer professionals to work on projects beside rent strikes. ARCH's most successful liaison was with the Community Association of the East Harlem Triangle and MEND, which drew up a plan for staged renewal, which the city agreed to add to its ''housing opportunity studies." In the barrio, getting new housing on the official agenda proved a pyrrhic victory for other activists. In 1965, with substantial city aid, Ted Velez's East Harlem Tenants Council prepared elaborate plans for 448 low-income units in four high rises on 122d Street. The Tenants Council also proposed to ease relocation by dividing the block for phased demolition. Negotiating for city tax subsidies and FHA mortgage insurance, Velez had come a long way from section 755 withholdings. The proposals, however, neglected detailed analysis of the housing needs and income levels of site tenants and revealed an attention to physical and zoning specifications reminiscent of the CSC's glossy Title I reports. The plan faltered, later to be taken up by the state Urban Development Corporation, a more likely sponsor of such ambitious blueprints.
Large-scale rehousing plans, which seemed to lead back to the sterile monoliths of the 1950s, drove many tenant groups to the vogue in small-scale rehabilitation and "vest pocket" housing. Rehabilitation of existing tenements promised lower development costs and minimum displacement of site residents as well as maximum involvement by local residents in neighborhood planning. In reality, sponsors tended to be nonprofit foundations or national corporations (usually manufacturers of builders' supplies), run by professional, centralized staffs, responsive to technical design criteria impenetrable to lay influence. Such outfits, with their established contacts with antipoverty funding, readily overshadowed storefront groups. One study of 1,283 units, rehabilitated with FHA below-market-interest-rate (BMIR) mortgages, found that two-thirds were sponsored by a handful of philanthropic foundations only tenuously connected to localities. Even with city tax abatements and BMIR mortgages, rents on completed units were twice the previous levels, well beyond the reach of site residents. Projects required a "gut" rehabilitation that meant a tenant removal "no different . . . than what occurs in any clearance project," while on-site coordination between architects and contractors precluded all but the most passive tenant involvement. The greatest disillusion came with the stiff costs of remodeling old law tenements and the difficulty in obtaining steady rents from low-income tenants. A rare success, the Upper Park Avenue Community Association's thirty-five units on East 117th Street, solved the problem by subjecting tenants to an orientation course and draconian management. "The energetic neighborhood ladies who ran UPACA inspected every apartment every month," noted journalist Martin Mayer, "and anyone who flunked the inspection had a chance of taking the course again or getting out."
By 1968 such housing endeavors fell under the aegis of Model Cities, whose housing component was the Lindsay administration's eight-thousand unit Vest Pocket Program. Model Cities' attack on ghetto dilapidation began with guarded rhetoric about community involvement, together with meticulous documentation of every community meeting held and every citizen who approached a microphone. But Vest Pocket was controlled by the Lindsay appointed Model Cities Policy Committee, which deployed planning initiatives, prepackaged by the City Planning Commission and Housing and Development Administration, for use in the three Model Neighborhoods. Each neighborhood had an elected planning committee, which tended to defer to paid planning directors, who usually contracted detailed studies out to minority architects credentialed with the Urban League or the Urban Coalition. Observers noted that the Harlem and South Bronx Model Cities committees "had only a limited idea of what they were supposed to do." In Mott Haven, this citizen participation deteriorated so markedly that the planning committee finally staged a sit-in at city headquarters to force convenient relocation schedules.
In South Bronx Model Cities, Vest Pocket Housing became the object of a power struggle between the mayor's Model Cities Policy Committee and the War on Poverty-funded Hunt's Point Multi-Service Corporation (HPMSC), which operated as Ramon Velez's political club. Sheer caudillismo and low voter turnout in Model Cities elections allowed Velez to control South Bronx Model Cities, although control meant deference to prepackaged blueprints from the Housing and Development Administration. Velez's dominance also extended to hastily contrived block organizations, which sponsored most of the South Bronx Vest Pocket housing, and to the planning contracts aggrandized by a few architectural firms. Managing to absorb the few indigenous tenant organizations extant in the Bronx barrio, Velez's HPMSC monopolized what passed for neighborhood involvement. Rare exceptions, such as the South Bronx NAACP and the South Bronx Housing Association, were local church groups, brokered by outsiders, who represented citywide Protestant charities and foundations. The South Bronx's largest Vest Pocket project, the Bronx-Chester Urban Renewal, was hammered out by HPMSC and the Third Avenue Merchants Association.
In Brooklyn, Bedford-Stuyvesant's middle-class block associations controlled early community participation in the 1966 Vest Pocket Program via their seats on the Central Brooklyn Coordinating Council (CBCC). While a few tenant groups were accepted on the CBCC, planning sessions were dominated by the block associations, supported by the Brooklyn Democratic organization. Vest Pocket sites were chosen with a middle-class concern to "help eliminate eye-sores in the midst of many of Bedford-Stuyvesant's residential neighborhoods." Technical studies were then contracted out to the Housing Authority and the firm of Raymond & May Associates, although active contributions came from churches and block associations, who later vied as sponsors of middle-income housing. Generally, sites were first delineated by community advisory groups and Housing Authority consultants, then presented to a series of community meetings, and finally confirmed by the Housing Authority staff. In Bedford-Stuyvesant, intrenched homeowners' associations backed by local political clubs could at times hold their own in hard bargaining with city agencies.
The clubhouse-homeowners' dominance grew stronger when the Vest Pocket Program was absorbed into the Central Brooklyn Model Neighborhood in 1968. Throughout Bedford-Stuyvesant and East New York, local civic and church groups came forward as housing sponsors, but usually in denominational consortiums or with neighborhood fraternal lodges or Youth in Action community boards. Tenant councils proved too weak to participate, except in one instance as part of a local church consortium. In any case, decisive control gravitated to the few indispensable professionals -- a black, Harvard-educated architect and his favorite collaborator, a downtown, white attorney -- and to a few favored contractors, including one reputed to be Brownsville's largest "slumlord." This pattern of community projects taken up by a handful of professionals, nominally "indigenous," and by local "povertycrats," was repeated throughout Bedford-Stuyvesant. In Brownsville, a disciplined clubhouse, controlled by the state senator, made a mockery of citizen participation that was "weak and pathetic" and an outright scandal of the rehabilitation program.
If the antipoverty and Model Cities programs had shown the sharp limits of community-controlled housing, optimistic claims came from other nonprofit local sponsors, particularly church consortiums lured into the field by the federal BMIR subsidies. In sheer numbers, these denominational efforts were a spectacular success. By 1971 eighty-one church-related, nonprofit corporations had sponsored over 32,O00 units of low- and moderate-income housing. But again, the crucial role belonged to professional developers, accompanied by the scantiest local involvement. In the Bronx, 63 percent of 4,724 units were taken up by just four sponsors, brokered by the law firm of emerging Bronx Democratic leader Patrick Cunningham and prominent builder Richard Ravitch. Of Manhattan's 14,889 units, four consortiums organized by such institutions as Roosevelt Hospital and Columbia University took up one-third. Only one Manhattan tenant group, the Tenants Association of 107th Street, participated in a 300-unit rehab, again as part of a local church consortium.
Two projects, heralded as models of extensive community control, provided better examples of liberal agencies' dominance of vague community aspirations. When the mixed Italian, Jewish, and Puerto Rican West Tremont block associations and churches rejected a Housing Authority proposal for a low-income project, Bronx borough president Herman Badillo and the Catholic archdiocese twisted arms to incorporate the lower-middle-class Italians and Puerto Ricans into an amenable group, the Twin Parks Association. Later, advocacy planners with the City Planning Commission suggested their own design, revised again by experts from the state Urban Development Corporation. The result was the twenty-two-hundred-unit Twin Parks, which a sympathetic observer called "massive structures thrust" into the neighborhood. Behind East Harlem's Upper Park Avenue Community Association (UPACA) were two local black women, former luncheonette partners, whose ambitions were discovered by the New York Federation of Reform Synagogues and a succession of overpowering city agencies. Housing and Development Administration officials hit upon the duo as the instrument for their vision of large-scale rehabs with BMIR subsidies. Making these neighbors a community force, the agencies granted them management of city-owned tenements and made it clear to the community that the UPACA women controlled waiting lists for new units to be built by the city. Once established, UPACA became the recipient of mortgages from the Bowery Savings Bank, guarantees from the Urban Development Corporation, and grants from the Ford Foundation. Its massive, thirty-two-story apartment towers, coveted waiting lists, and conservative management combined to make UPACA indistinguishable from the huge Housing Authority projects further east.
Amid ebbing tenant initiatives, the spring 1970 "squatters" movement echoed earlier failures. Inspired by the last gasp of 1960s' direct action, local radicals, seizing vacant apartments slated for demolition, proclaimed the community's moral right to possession. Ad hoc move-ins occurred on West 15th Street in Greenwich Village and on 111th and 122d streets in the Morningside Urban Renewal Area. But squatting became systematic on West 87th Street and along Columbus Avenue, where buildings awaited luxury conversion or demolition for middle-income high rises as part of the West Side Urban Renewal. At night, blacks and Puerto Ricans, prying open boarded-up entrances and rigging makeshift living arrangements, presented the city with a fait accompli -- either recognize their "ownership" or evict whole families in front of press photographers. Eventually, the Columbus Avenue Operation Move-In claimed one hundred participating families and, like an alternative housing authority, a "waiting list" of three hundred. They were supported by elaborate networks, including several West Side antipoverty agencies, and, in Morningside Heights, a solicitous Episcopal bishop 
Nevertheless, the squatters could not shake off a basic ambivalence about their purpose. Some radicals envisioned the break-ins as a sustainable housing policy and sought city mortgage and rehabilitation commitments. Others, bitter at the advancing edge of tax-supported luxury conversions (which housing critics dubbed gentrification), tried to use the squatters as bargaining leverage to increase low-income units earmarked for the West Side. Many squatters evidently hoped the Housing and Development Administration would redesignate their occupied homes for low-income rehabilitation (some even offered a "moral" rent of 25 percent of their incomes), but others apparently expected to gain priority on Housing Authority waiting lists. The few Columbus Avenue menages were soon cleared away for the detested Mitchell-Lama projects. Those on 111th and 122d streets, really middle-income protests against expansion by Columbia University, remained longer thanks to the sufferance of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and the new militant Columbia Tenants Union. The squatters, however, did dramatize the notion of community sovereignty over abandoned units, an idea made plausible by the application of tenants' "sweat equity" to reclaim them. At a time when the Richard M. Nixon administration seemed bent on ending traditional and costly federal subsidies to low-income housing, this people's rehabilitation lived on in feisty organizations, such as the People's Development Corporation (founded in 1974) and the Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association (1977) in the South Bronx.
For all their direct action, West Side squatters exemplified the central dilemma that had plagued tenant councils and community groups since the rent strike upsurge of the early 1960s. They could mobilize tenant anger, but for how long? To what ends? Undoubtedly on the block level they could play a powerful role in building-code enforcement. With their area teams they could become tenement vigilantes, meting out a popular justice against unscrupulous landlords. Certainly the thicket of tenant councils, block associations, and antipoverty groups on the housing front engendered a new level of code enforcement, or at least the posting of code violations. One planner may have exaggerated that code violations "were issued with a vengeance" by the mid-1960s, but she was right to point out that they reached an unprecedented volume. While the city's inspection force doubled during the mid-1960s, the number of building code complaints nearly quadrupled, as did the number of posted violations -- to an incredible backlog of 781,000.
But this was a housing policy that went only as far as the Buildings Department wished to take it, as the Emergency Repair Program and other enforcement efforts showed. Tenant leaders could rally support around alternative housing programs, but these usually required a technical command beyond the resources of most community groups. Those few that acquired them ended up bestriding their communities like the landlords they had detested. Otherwise, to raise the prospects of alternative housing was to stimulate powerful community aspirations that could only be fulfilled by established city agencies. Community groups soon discovered that they could maintain a standing among their neighbors only insofar as they could negotiate with these professional city staffs. Inevitably this meant deals at downtown city offices, over Housing Authority blueprints, and within mortgage-bank estimates.
By the end of the 1960s, the remnants of the tenant movement had become disembodied from its radical tradition. Its chief asset, rent control, had become an embarrassing, decayed relic, which few had the political courage to inter. Despite its inflammatory rhetoric and progressive self-image, Met Council was living off old crusades, in danger of becoming the tool of the city's new privileged upper middle class. Standing firm on vigilant rent enforcement through the usual city agencies, Met Council never made more than a peripheral connection with a decade of rent strikers and squatters. It remained stubbornly distant from the rehabilitation and tax-abatement programs, which it viewed as landlord grabs. In the meantime, its ranks swelled with new middle-class recruits living in Manhattan and Brooklyn Heights Title I and Mitchell-Lama projects, where tenants tried to gain some leverage over their middle-income rents. Understandably, Met Council worked hard and took credit for the 1969 Rent Stabilization Law which for the first time imposed annual ceilings on rent increases in post-1947 housing. Adding a rent-stabilized to the already rent-controlled sector in this housing economy was no small accomplishment, although it stemmed from Met Council's ability to conjure up a fearsome tenant vote than from its ability to deploy organized tenant councils.
Met Council's focus on the single issue of rent control, moreover, forfeited its influence on the most important housing debate of the new decade, touched off by the scare word abandonment. The number of landlords who simply walked away from their tenements probably reached epidemic proportions by 1966, but the phenomenon remained a technical consideration, even as late as the 1969 municipal elections. It surfaced, only briefly when Mayor Lindsay and his opponents traded charges about the city's failure to expand the low-income housing supply. A week after Mayor Lindsay's reelection, his political ally, state senator Roy M. Goodman, convened Manhattan hearings of his Senate Committee on Housing and Urban Development and heard the problem described for the first time as a dire emergency. Frank S. Kristof, chief economist of the state Urban Development Corporation, startled the inquiry with an estimate that thirty-three thousand units had been lost annually in the last three years. Roger Starr, executive director of the Citizens Housing and Planning Council, and Jason R. Nathan, outgoing head of the Housing and Development Administration, depicted spreading devastation that could only be stemmed by a drastic reversal of postwar housing policy. Citing a yet-to-be-released study by the New York Rand Institute, which showed that rents in the controlled sector failed to provide for even normal maintenance costs, these witnesses called for an end to the city's punitive rent reductions and code enforcement and to that "destructive" anachronism, rent control.
Miscalculating the issue's potency, Met Council responded with ritual exorcism of this "Frankenstein monster" created by landlords and their stooges at Rand and the CHPC. But this no longer sufficed in an atmosphere charged by ghetto riots, black power demands, and Harlem school wars. Met Council notwithstanding, the city, already switching sympathies from the slum tenant to the tenement landlord, regarded him less a rapacious owner than an endangered entrepreneur, hounded out of neighborhoods that could not afford to lose his housing managerial skills, such as they were. With the New York Times leading the media, abandonment tales peaked in spring 1970, with a new focus on the psychology of the beleaguered landlord. With Kristof's estimate now an obsession, public fears were heightened by stories about neighborhoods like Hunt's Point in the Bronx, where drug addicts foraged in empty, arson-torched tenements and civic order ceased to exist. At this juncture, the release of reports by the Rand Institute, the Citizens Budget Committee, and Rutgers University economist George Sternlieb crystallized public dissatisfaction with current housing policies. Marshaling new data on tenement operations, Sternlieb characterized the typical rent control landlord as a small owner, overwhelmed by rising costs, ignorant of his rights under the complicated city rent formula, and fearful of renting his property to blacks and Hispanics. While Sternlieb urged a ten-year phased system of rent increases, he cautioned that lifting controls might only save those post-1929 structures still not too far gone.
Met Council could take only limited comfort in the outcome. Obviously, rent control still gripped the city. It could only be challenged by outsiders, like Kristof and Sternlieb. Moreover, the Lindsay administration had to muster all this prestigious opinion behind its May 1970 proposal for a 15 percent, across-the-board rent increase and its Maximum Base Rent Program (MBR), which would have scrapped controls for a complex, computerized cost-of-operations formula (that approached the Rand concept of an economic rent). Met Council and liberals in the city council nearly derailed the plan, had not a fissure opened up in their traditional coalition of support. Local 32B of the Building Services Employees, predominantly black and Hispanic, was bargaining for higher wages and threatened an apartment house strike that spring. Landlords on the Metropolitan Fair Rent Committee shrewdly understood that 32B would more likely join the breakthrough of ceilings on rents and wages than side with Manhattan liberals to preserve anachronistic rent levels. With some last minute city council bargaining that delayed the 15 percent increase to August 1 and added a fig leaf requirement that landlords certify they had repaired building violations, MBR was passed in July. What began as an attempt to impose rational order and profit incentives on the housing industry ended up with chaos, as MBR rent calculations got bogged down and the district rent offices had to divert their own scarce manpower. MBR enforcement and appeals were paralyzed. Reminiscent of 1947, tenants found themselves largely on their own and began organizing Met Council affiliates with a vengeance. But accelerating inflation and the continued gentrification of Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn rendered the old tenant coalition badly frayed. Beset by landlords, by organized labor, and by the new ownership vogue among middle-class cooperators, the tenant movement faced the 1970s with less certainty and less legitimacy than ever before.
What did the tenant movement accomplish after a quarter century of mimeographed leaflets, marches, pickets, and legislative lobbies? Perhaps most remarkable, its survival in the liberal city may have been achievement enough. Along the way, it could also count some important triumphs, some maneuvers that bought time for thousands in their apartments, and a good deal of consciousness-raising that eventually changed the political landscape of the city. Tenant groups had maintained the cause of rent control, a political orphan as late as 1942, at the center of New York's political agenda for the next thirty years. By the late 1940s the tenants' politics of preemption had made it impossible for realtors to dismantle controls as they had done in the 1920s and suicidal for politicians to try. In many communities, they elaborated a neighborhood enforcement that amounted to vigilanteism. ALP clubs, which constituted the tenant vanguard, kept this shred of radicalism alive, and maintained a community-service tradition that would become the heart of Reform Democratic politics. It is not too much to say that these sometimes lonely activists, these beleaguered ALP clubs, shaped the awareness of the dignity and integrity of neighborhoods that would become the most significant ingredient of the community-power movement of the 1960s.
Tenant groups had far less success in contributing to the decisions on public housing and city planning, which were fundamental to where New Yorkers would live in the postwar city. Of course, their early involvement in public housing was important in establishing the program's foothold. In the late 1930s and through the 1940s, the project unions affiliated with the City-Wide Tenants Council and United Tenants League were the most vocal advocates for expanded public housing. Their demonstrations, indeed their very deliberations, were taken by liberals as the best evidence of the spirited new democracy being nurtured by decent housing. In the debates over the Truman administration measures that led to the Housing Act of 1949, no one provided more graphic or eloquent support for this crucial area of domestic liberalism. But to be effective, the tenants always had to operate within a larger liberal coalition, which had the decisive contacts in Albany and Washington. Furthermore, the single most influential hand behind the enormous expansion of public housing in New York may have been Robert Moses, who evidently regarded public projects as the most expedient means to "externalize" the costs of moving tenants off Title I sites and to keep the program on track. Tenants made less headway in the more important realm of postwar planning and urban redevelopment. While the war had fatally disrupted the promising relationship between the City-Wide Tenants Council and planning liberals, cold war discord kept them warily distant during the crucial start-up debates over Title 1. Even so, it remains questionable whether any kind of liheral-radical coalition could have restrained Moses at the height of his power. Under the circumstances, the tenants did well to blunt some of his initiatives, force him into tactical withdrawals, and wheedle as much relocation housing as they managed. Again, they were not able to carry this off alone, but depended upon the intervention of liberals. But this was no small accomplishment, particularly in an era of declining neighborhood newspapers and before the advent of "eyewitness" television reports The tenants' forlorn protests against Title I helped mold the sense of injustice that would eventually change the course of urban redevelopment in New York and across the nation.
Their limited accomplishments came on the most slender resources. What evidence we have indicates that for this quarter century, at least, mobilization never reached hundreds of thousands, unless we count those who signed petitions and sent letters to their representatives. In project after project, few mass organizations were ever realized or sustained for long. The most successful occurred in the middle-class limited-dividend projects, which provided the mainstay of the City-Wide Tenants Council in the late 1930s. Of course, mass defiance broke out in East Tremont in the early 1930s, but such numbers were never duplicated, not even during the Harlem and Lower East Side rent strikes of the 1960s. Moreover, the mobilization achieved had the disheartening tendency to melt away at the first prospect of relocation from Title I sponsors or the Housing Authority. And much of the time, tenant groups survived as self-styled mediators with these city agencies.
In light of these findings, it seems dubious to accord women any particular success at grass roots mobilization, nor misconstrue their function in the movement. No doubt, women were active on this domestic front. They could circulate petitions, knock on doors, and picket in front of supermarkets with an ease few men could match. On occasion, they served as movement shock troops, as in East Tremont in 1932 or Long Island City in 1943. In both instances, after housewives had badly shaken realtors and city rent officials, male tenant leaders negotiated the follow-up arrangements. The fact was that women operated within the prevailing sexual division of labor, with which radicals remained quite comfortable. The ambiguity of this gender politics was well symbolized by events at Queensbridge in 1943. The demands of two thousand project women to serve their country in war factories were telegrammed by the male Queensbridge Tenants League secretary to the female War Manpower Commissioner. Generally, few women rose beyond this rank-and-file activism to assume leadership roles in the limited dividends, Harlem's Consolidated Tenants League, or the City-Wide Tenants Council. Males dominated policy-making at the latter and shaped its transformation into the 1942 United Tenants League. Men dominated Jesse Gray's entourage, organized the sedge against landlords on the Lower East Side, and guided the earliest development of Met Council; the list could go on. When the time came to lobby at city hall or Albany, the tenants sent males. Of course, the Esther Rands and Jane Benedicts were conspicuous in the movement, but not overly so when compared to settlement house and social welfare groups or the Democratic Reform movement itself.
We should also he careful not to attribute to these tenant groups a vitalism rarely foreseen, let alone achieved, by tenant leaders themselves. There is no doubt that from time to time local groups elaborated sophisticated organizational structures and larger coalitions of considerable citywide impact. At a distance this looks something like a purposeful adaptation to the changing housing and political environment, an evolution of radical forms. But a closer look suggests that little of this had occurred. There is no evidence of an organization steadily evolving, creatively adapting to the housing environment. For one thing, there was no long-lived involvement, no long continuity in the struggle, chiefly because residential and professional mobility removed many activists from the scenes of long-term engagement. There is no evidence that the rent pageants of 1904 provided a kind of collective memory that shaped behavior on the Lower East Side in 1919, or that these earlier outbreaks influenced the tenant rebellions of 1932. Jesse Gray often acted as if he invented rent defiance, and he apparently believed this in his innocence. The activists on the Lower East Side and in CORE had only the vaguest notion that tenants had struck against landlords thirty years before -- and no knowledge that their chief weapon, section 755, had been first put on the statute books in 1930. The oral history of the 1960s strikes in Harlem and elsewhere, presumably a rich depository of a people's tradition of tenant protest, reveals genuine surprise that such tactics had been used before. In short, each tenant generation believed itself unique in confronting problems in the housing environment, generally elaborating approaches in ignorance of what had been tried before.
Above all, any conclusions about the tenant movement's successful adaptation to the housing environment must be severely questioned in light of the disastrous outcome of the housing struggle in the 1970s. It seems moot to analyze multilevels of influence when tenants could not influence the housing arbiters who really counted. In the end, they could not come to grips with landlords, could not force them to listen to their blandishments could not constrain them to continue to operate tenements when it was no longer in their interests, could not prevent them from simply walking away from their properties. In this failure, of course, tenants were no more able to deter footloose landlords than labor unions were able to deter footloose industrial employers. The abandonment of some five hundred thousand apartment units after 1965 was only the most blatant example of general disinvestment by property owners in aging northern cities. Tenant groups Could hardly stem this tide, although as the closest observers of the housing Scene, they could be faulted for refusing to face that grim reality while offering the most disingenuous solutions. By the mid-1960s, tenant leaders, alternating inflammatory words with rent strikes of growing sophistication, were putting tremendous pressure on selected landlords. Perhaps they can be excused for not realizing the consequences of their war on landlords, although that would accord them a naivete in their understanding of economic power that most would have indignantly rejected. But many tenant activists were not naive. They were "realists." They talked seriously of wholesale foreclosure of slumlords. They expected slumlords to be replaced by tenant activists, by sympathetic liberals, or by the Housing Authority or similar agency. Considering how much they railed against those liberals, the Wagner and the Rockefeller administrations, this expectancy was inconsistent at best. That the Housing Authority might enlarge its landlordship was still plausible in the early 1960s; but by 1966, after the sharp decline in public housing commitments and the negligible impact of the War on Poverty and Model Cities programs were clear, such rhetoric bordered on the irresponsible. This is not to say that tenant leaders should not have lashed out against slumlords. But what the public and the tenants themselves could have expected was for movement leaders, who professed to act with toughness and realism, to understand the limits on their ability to fasten on landlords in a property-owning society, to talk with the realization that they could only be reached by a careful mixture of incentives and sanctions, and to act in the knowledge that landlords, tenants, and city agencies had to pull together in the complicated process of providing for New York's housing stock. To do otherwise was to impose a chilling effect on housing entrepreneurship. In the end, it was hundreds of thousands of low-income tenants who found themselves out in the cold.
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