[Table of Contents]


Ronald Lawson

For Larry Lipnik

In introducing this book it seems pertinent to discuss its genesis. I arrived in New York City from Australia in September 1971 to pursue postdoctoral work at Columbia University's Bureau of Applied Social Research. While finding my bearings I became involved in a graduate field methods course that focused on Washington Heights, Manhattan, because the bureau was preparing to conduct a major study of that neighborhood. I focused my research on two tenant organizations in different parts of the Heights.

Both organizations proved to be abuzz with activity. Vacancy decontrol had taken effect less than two months earlier, beginning what was seen as a gradual dismantling of New York's twenty-eight-year-old system of rent control. The dire predictions of tenant leaders appeared to be confirmed as their meetings were swamped by tenants telling tales of landlord subterfuge aimed at driving them from their rent-controlled apartments. It seemed to me that the movement at that time showed considerable growth potential: tenants were angry and open to mobilization, tenant organizers were harnessing the anger with innovative strategies, and new young organizers -- often veterans of the movements of the sixties -- were readily available.

My own interest in collective protest dated from my involvement in the antiwar movement in Australia during the 1960s and from my coverage, in my dissertation, of the early labor movement and of religious movements there. By the early 1970s criticism of the then dominant sociological approach to movements -- which interpreted them as aberrant acts of "collective behavior" whose very occurrence needed to be explained -- was beginning to emerge. Such criticism was initiated by persons whose experience in movements during the 1960s had led them to view the movements as normal, rational parts of the political process. This perspective, in my view, required a historical approach to the study of a movement: an approach that encompassed the life cycle of a movement and saw it in historical context.

Since I held such a view of movements, and had been trained as a historical sociologist, my new interest in contemporary tenant activism in New York led me to inquire into its precursors. Questions to tenant leaders found that they knew little of any early activity. However, my own preliminary exploration suggested that there had been several periods of considerable mobilization by New York tenants, and I guessed that the tenant movement had considerable continuity. I reported these findings to a seminar at Columbia University, where I expressed interest in following up on what I had discovered.

When Amitai Etzioni, professor and head of the Center for Policy Research (the archrival of Columbia's Bureau of Applied Social Science), heard about my seminar presentation, he suggested that I write a proposal to the Center for Metropolitan Studies at the National Institute of Mental Health in an endeavor to fund my research idea. I realized that funding would provide me with the opportunity to trace the development of the tenant movement in a key location across time, and in so doing gather an unparalleled body of data that would bear directly on the questions that sociologists were asking about movements. My proposal envisioned two research thrusts: one tracing the emergence and evolution of the tenant movement over time, the other studying the dynamics of tenant mobilization, strategies, and impact during the period of the grant. NIMH responded with a grant of $200,000; however, the award specifically excluded the historical section of the proposed study -- I was told to concentrate on the 1970s. Expressing great reluctance to carry out such a restricted project, I argued that much sociological research was of limited value because it was ahistorical and that such a danger was particularly pertinent to the study of a movement. Consequently, NIHM agreed to allow me to divert some of the grant to a study of the history of the tenant movement as I had proposed originally.

The research was carried out by two teams. One researched the period from the mid-nineteenth century until 1970; the other gathered and processed participant observation, in-depth interview, and survey data from the tenant organizations active in the 1970s. Two very different books were planned, each drawing upon the research of both teams. In the first, this history of tenant activism in New York, I would edit the work of the historians and write the post-1970 chapters myself. In the second, I would use the wealth of data collected to test and clarify the competing sociological theories that attempt to generalize about social movements.

We did not rush to complete the book manuscripts after the NIMH grant expired in 1976. In part this was because of funding problems experienced near the end of the grant, which left the research incomplete. Also, my inexperience, at that time, in leading a large research project had no doubt allowed the jubilant pursuit of data to get somewhat out of control. However, the researchers engaged in the historical study committed themselves to complete their research and writing in their own time.

Another important reason for the postponement of publication was that by this time it was obvious that the tenant movement had entered a period of rapid change. Housing abandonment had been recognized as a serious problem, and tenant activists had been responding with new strategies: spending monies withheld in rent strikes on services and repairs, exploiting ordinances that could allow tenants to gain control of their buildings if they were poorly maintained, rehabilitating abandoned buildings through "sweat equity," and setting up low-income cooperatives. By 1976 government housing agencies, desperate to slow abandonment, were beginning to fund strategies where tenants managed or rehabilitated buildings. These initiatives developed rapidly into large programs following a 1977 visit by President Jimmy Carter to a building being rehabilitated by tenants in the Bronx and after the election of Mayor Edward Koch in 1978 allowed the diversion of Community Development funds to housing programs. It was obvious to me that these developments were significant and exciting, and I was unwilling to publish research on the tenant movement that did not include analysis of the evolution and impact of the new strategies. Consequently, I proposed a study of "the impact of tenant strategies on the social process of housing abandonment" to allow me to follow these developments closely and obtained funding to pursue this research. I also carried out studies of the political face of the real estate industry in order to have a better grasp of the context in which the tenant movement was working, and of the track records of the low-income cooperatives formed in the early and mid-1970s. Meanwhile, I had to find and fund two new historians to complete the historical research and remain on top of developments in the traditional wing of the movement myself. I also took the opportunity to return after eight years to the 153 buildings studied originally in 1975, when all had been in the midst of some type of tenant action, to discover the outcomes of both tenant grievances and organization. The extended time, then, allowed for a broadening of the study's data in important ways.

Finally, it is important to describe the division of responsibilities between Mark Naison and myself. I conceived of the project, found the funding, supervised the research, wrote several sections and somehow kept the whole thing together. However, when the book contract came through from Rutgers University Press -- together with some excellent suggestions from reviewers -- I was about to leave New York for most of two years to work on a research fellowship on another topic. Mark Naison agreed to take responsibility for working with the contributors, including me, in their revisions. That is, he filled the role of manuscript editor.

The analysis upon which the second, theoretical, book is to be based is far advanced. However, it is dependent on the data summarized in this history of the tenant movement. The completion of this history prepares the way for its writing to be finished.

Ronald Lawson

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