Jameela Hammond: Hey, it’s Jameela, the host of Plot of Land. We’re going to spend the next two episodes in New York City.
And if you know New York, you know Manhattan and Queens. But tucked between those two boroughs is a lesser-known place. It’s an island. Next time you look at a map, look in the middle of the East River, squint your eyes, see it there? Sandwiched between the Upper East Side in Manhattan and Astoria in Queens? That’s it: Roosevelt Island.
MTA F Train Announcer: This is Roosevelt Island
Ted Liebman: Okay. So we'll be here for about 5 minutes and there will be some latecomers because getting here is really it's now half the fun…
Hammond: On a late spring morning, Ted Liebman was standing outside the visitor center of the Roosevelt Island Historical Society. Above him was the steady hum of traffic on the Queensboro Bridge. For more than 50 years now, Liebman’s been involved with Roosevelt Island, and every year he helps lead a walking tour.
Liebman: So it was called Welfare Island when we got here in ‘68, Blackwell's Island before and then it was changed to Roosevelt Island.
Hammond: Roosevelt Island stands on the traditional lands of the Lenape. They called this island Minnehanonck, which, depending on your sources, either translates to “Long Island”… or “It’s nice to be on the island.” After European colonization, it changed hands several times and it was called many things before the City of New York purchased it for $32,000 in 1838. Liebman says the island spent much of the 19th and early-20th century as a place where New York City sent people it considered undesirable: inmates, smallpox victims, patients at the New York City Lunatic Asylum. And from 1921 to 1973, the island was actually called Welfare Island. But then in ‘73 it was renamed Roosevelt Island. And to understand that simple renaming is to also understand exactly what this great experiment of Roosevelt Island really was.
Liebman: Very interesting about the island that actually nobody knew is that when the plan was created, all of these things were going to happen: A car-free island, and we would have electric buses for free that would take you to your home on the island. 50% low income…
Hammond: Wait, wait, wait. Electric buses? 50% low income? You’re like, why have I not heard of Roosevelt Island before, right?
See, in the late 60’s/early 70’s, Roosevelt Island was being designed to do something that had never before been done. It was being constructed from the ground up with true equity at its heart. Not just in word, but in dollars. With policy and government support. And here’s the thing…it worked.
But then, the same powers that made it possible, withdrew funding, rolled back legislation, pushed it out onto the private market, and made the Roosevelt Island experiment a shell of what it was, fracturing the community in the process.
Andrew Kerr: In some ways the sad part is that it was a successful experiment that was then abandoned and was then, you know, like it couldn't last. Like God, why didn't it hold up? Why isn't it still there? You know? What happened?
Courtney Francis: I never really understood why Roosevelt Island was never replicated. I know it's not like that now, but there had to be a certain percentage of each race and ethnicity, of disabled [people], of senior citizens. In some ways, it was a perfect existence for a child.
Lionel Fundira: I'll never forget seeing flags up on the main street that said 'Welcome' in several languages, alright?...’Vilkommen’ that must be ‘Welcome’ in German or something, and ‘Bienvenido’ - ‘Bienvenue’. So that kind of, that was kind of the spirit of the place, you know?
It makes sense that they got rid of it [laughs].
Melissa Fundira: Why?
Lionel Fundira: Well, it's not the same type of community.
[Plot of Land theme music]
Hammond: Over the course of ten episodes, I’m joining our team of five reporters throughout the U.S. as we pull back the curtain to look at how our history with land has shaped every aspect of our lives. How exactly did we get to this moment in time? In Plot of Land we’ll break down how race, class, and power have been used to build and maintain unfair systems that determine how land is used. These systems harm nearly everyone, and create so many inequities that they might seem normal, unavoidable, or even natural. But these are the products of deliberate choices made by real people. It's time to reckon with these decisions. It’s time to understand this history so we can help build a just future for everybody. This is a Monument Lab production with funding from the Ford Foundation and music by Blue Dot Sessions.
Hammond: For this episode we’re going to join Plot of Land reporter Melissa Fundira. Melissa actually grew up on Roosevelt Island. Her family moved there from Gabon in 1999, when she was just 6 years old. Here’s Melissa.
Fundira: I don’t think it was a typical New York City upbringing for a kid. We had so much freedom to just roam. Some of my fondest memories were summers spent playing with other kids on the island. As young as 7 years old, 6 even, we’d leave the house around 10 AM, wouldn’t come back ‘til 6 PM for dinner. None of us had cell phones at that time of course, but we just knew there would always be someone to hang with if we showed up at Blackwell Park, or at the courtyard between 20 and 30 River Road, or any number of playgrounds and other public spaces. Our parents didn’t really have any reasons to worry about us.
My family’s originally from Rwanda, but my parents raised my brother and I mostly in Gabon before we moved to Roosevelt Island, so moving here was our first time living outside of Africa. And I can’t say that I really remember experiencing much of any sort of culture shock. There were so many other families from Africa on the island, so many other kids whose parents worked for the United Nations like my mom did.
It was such a dreamy place to grow up. As I got older, I started realizing that all the things I love about Roosevelt Island were really by design. And that we were all subjects in a grand social experiment. An experiment that wanted to prove that the government was capable of building quality housing for New Yorkers of all racial and economic backgrounds.
And like Jameela was saying earlier, this vision, one in which U.S. tax dollars go towards providing housing for all, this vision is closely tied to the island’s namesake: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Franklin D. Roosevelt: In our day, certain economic truths have become accepted as self-evident…A second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all—regardless of station, or race, or creed.
Fundira: This is FDR giving his State of the Union address to Congress; January 11, 1944. He’s outlining his idea for a second Bill of Rights… one that would ensure lasting peace and economic prosperity in the aftermath of the ongoing Second World War.
President Roosevelt: … The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom. Freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad; The right of every family to a decent home; The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health…..
Fundira: He said, quote, The right of every family to a decent home. Some analysts have called this one of the most radical Presidential speeches ever given, one that today would quickly be dismissed as socialism or far-left ideology. But in many ways, this speech laid the political foundation in the U.S. for the fundamental right to housing.
The right to housing is the basic principle that all humans have a right to decent and affordable shelter. Today, it’s recognized in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in a few constitutions. But in reality, the right to housing in the U.S. is an unfulfilled political project. At least in most of the U.S.
So in 1944 President Roosevelt delivered this call for housing to be treated as a human right. And remember, this is coming a decade after the Great Depression and five years after the New Deal. The New Deal, which dramatically expanded the role of the federal government, giving Americans social programs still used today; programs like unemployment assistance, agriculture subsidies, and Social Security.
But the New Deal did more than that. It also ushered in major changes to the country’s housing landscape. Kim Phillips-Fein is a professor of 20th-century American Politics and Political Economy at Columbia University.
Kim Phillips-Fein: So I think it's actually important to realize that prior to the New Deal, there really wasn't any federal or state commitment to actually intervening in the housing sector to construct homes for people.
Fundira: Prior to that, efforts at housing Americans mostly happened at the municipal level without any standard housing codes. So with the New Deal, the federal government became heavily involved in building more housing for working-class Americans both public and private.
Phillips-Fein: So on the one hand, there's public housing. On the other hand, there are a range of supports for the purchase of homes in mostly suburbs, of single-family homes, federally-subsidized mortgages, mortgage interest deductions.
Fundira: But crucially, the federal government failed to ensure that the benefits of public and subsidized housing were shared by all.
In 1934, when the New Deal set up the Federal Housing Administration, it essentially backed mortgages to make it easier for working-class families to afford single-family homes in the suburbs. But it systematically refused to insure mortgages in and around Black neighborhoods, and it encouraged other financial lending institutions to do the same. This meant that Black Americans and other minorities were routinely shut out of homeownership, a process more commonly known as redlining.
Racial covenants were also used in housing deeds to prohibit Black people, or Jewish people, or whichever group was considered a threat to white suburbs, from buying a home there. And again, these were homes subsidized by public money. Here’s Rosemary Ndubuizu, a professor of African American Studies at Georgetown University.
Rosemary Ndubuizu: And so the state ends up working hand-in-hand with private capital, and then private capital and the state enlist everyday workers – overwhelmingly white homeowner families – to then police the color line in neighborhoods. And so that ends up resulting in the fact that most of the homeownership and the mortgages that went out overwhelmingly went to white, working-class families. It didn't mean that Black families didn't get them. But overwhelmingly, Black families were excluded and overrepresented.
Fundira: Overrepresented in urban areas, and specifically in urban public housing. Initially, public housing wasn’t intended just for the very poor, but for higher-income earners too. But just like suburban homes, the federal government began funding the racial segregation of public housing as well. Here’s Professor Phillips-Fein.
Phillips-Fein: The whole framework of equal accommodations was not established at that point or enforced – the 14th Amendment wasn't really enforced in that way. So many of the early housing projects were also racially segregated. And finally, some of the early middle-income housing developments in New York, like Stuyvesant Town, for example, was also very explicitly segregated from the outset. So the first wave of subsidized housing is far more available to working-class and middle-class white people.
Fundira: As a result, Black families had the hardest time finding affordable housing that didn’t discriminate against them. So they doubled up, tripled up, and overcrowding became very real very fast, often in housing that wasn’t well maintained by landlords, and didn’t meet housing codes. Here’s Professor Ndubuizu.
Ndubuizu: Particularly Black folks in a lot of these urban spaces, needed to scramble to find other people who were willing to take them in. And the private housing market continued to exploit many of these families who were unable to be reabsorbed. So, single Black mothers, large families are overrepresented in the private housing market in either boarding rooms, so they’re subdividing apartment complexes or even turning hotels over in speculative capital, either through developers or landlords are taking charge, still charging higher rents.
Fundira: This is where urban renewal found its foothold. It’s a federal program that required local tax dollars to destroy, quote, ‘slummed’ or ‘blighted’ homes—meaning homes in neighborhoods where primarily Black and low-income households had been pushed to live—neighborhoods that, in the years prior, had experienced first-hand government disinvestment, but which had created their own, often prosperous, economies.
Urban renewal was carried out in more than 600 cities, shuttering thousands of Black-owned businesses and forcing hundreds of thousands of people from their homes, often into newly-built and segregated public housing.
And then there was the national construction of highways, which bisected and decimated even more communities. And what communities were disproportionately impacted? Poor communities, immigrant communities, Black communities.
So by the 1960s, the rise of white suburbs was fully underway, along with segregated public housing, overcrowding, unmaintained housing, and the destruction of historically Black neighborhoods. All of which was deeply informing the growing Civil Rights Movement.
And one housing authority in New York State was getting ready to enter the scene to try and address all of these challenges, all at once. And against all odds, its project on Roosevelt Island was born and it got the opportunity to show the world what’s possible when the government puts its weight behind building quality housing for all.
ROOSEVELT ISLAND, A SUCCESSFUL SOCIAL EXPERIMENT
Fundira: A few months before he helped lead the walking tour on Roosevelt Island, I met Ted Liebman in his office.
Building Receptionist: Hi, can I help you?
Fundira: Hi, how are you? I have a meeting with Ted Liebman…
Building Receptionist: Do you know where you’re going? …
Fundira: Um, not sure…
Building Receptionist: I think he’s to the left.
Fundira: To the left? Thank you.
Building Receptionist: You’re welcome.
Fundira: Liebman’s an architect, and a principal at Perkins Eastman. It’s an architecture firm located in one of those classic cast iron buildings in Chelsea, Manhattan.
Liebman: So we’re gonna sit up front here
Liebman: ...close to the screen…
Fundira: ...sounds good…
Liebman has a white handlebar mustache, he’s wearing a blue and orange bowtie with a matching pocket square neatly tucked into his blazer. And after meeting him a couple times and seeing a picture of him from the ‘70s, I realize that the ‘stache and the bowtie are kind of his trademark look. There’s just generally something whimsical and youthful about him.
Liebman: Okay, my name is Theodore Liebman, Ted Liebman. I'm an architect and urbanist, and I am eighty-two-and-a-half years old…
At this point, Ted’s been working in his field for over half a century, and you can tell he’s never lost his passion for all things housing and urban design. He constantly attends world urban forums and leads walking tours, but the main reason I wanted to talk with him is because you know how we said that Roosevelt Island was thoughtfully designed and developed? Well that developer was the Urban Development Corporation, or the UDC. And from 1969 to 1975, Liebman was the UDC’s Chief Architect.
The UDC was created in 1968 by New York State Governor Nelson Rockefeller of the ultra-wealthy Rockefeller family. And Rockefeller was a Republican, which in the ‘50s and ‘60s was quite different from how you might imagine a Republican today. He believed in big government spending and a fluid public-private partnership. Here’s Professor Kim Phillips-Fein.
Phillips-Fein: There was a great belief in, on his part, in the sense of using the power of government to further some version, some vision of the collective good, and also that you could do so in a partnership with the private sector. Rockefeller’s brother, of course, was David Rockefeller at Chase Manhattan Bank. So…it's a particular openness to the use of debt and of this private-public synthesis to get things done.
Fundira: Rockefeller vastly expanded the state’s university system. He built schools and hospitals. He created the MTA, which runs New York City’s public transit system to this day, and which he funded by stripping power and money away from New York’s urban renewal czar, Robert Moses.
This domestically liberal form of Republicanism was so tied to Nelson Rockefeller that his GOP backers came to be known as Rockefeller Republicans. Today, it’s somewhat of a pejorative term in Republican circles.
Rockefeller took office in 1959, as the Civil Rights Movement was continuing to build. Black communities in Watts, Detroit, cities all across the country began speaking what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously described as the language of the unheard – they started rioting, protesting unchecked racist policing and anti–Black discrimination in everything from education and employment, to, of course, housing. Here’s Phillips-Fein.
Phillips-Fein: People in New York begin to call attention to the deep presence of racial discrimination in the city at a structural level in the school system, in terms of the City University system, certainly in terms of the police. This is a few years after the uprising in Harlem in 1964, following a police officer who killed a young teenager in the morning before summer school began. It's a moment of intense conflict.
Fundira: So, as African Americans put their lives on the line to call attention to this injustice, with the reality of protests and riots fresh in his mind, Rockefeller pushed to create a state authority to address New York’s housing needs. He decided that this new agency needed unprecedented powers. But in order to get those powers, Rockefeller had to get the State Legislature to approve it. For a while, it wasn’t looking good. Over and over he failed to get his bill passed. Legislators feared the UDC’s proposed authority would undermine their power back home, making it harder to control developments, and demographics, in their own districts.
Walter Cronkite: Good Evening; Dr. Martin Luther King, the apostle of nonviolence in the Civil Rights Movement, has been shot to death in Memphis, Tennessee. Police have issued and All Points Bulletin for a well-dressed young white man seen running from the scene…
Fundira: On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, triggering protests in more than 150 cities across the U.S. And Ted Liebman said the murder triggered something else too.
Liebman: And that weekend, Rockefeller got on the phone with every legislator, even the more conservative ones upstate and said, This is something that our state should do. It will help in the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. and help to make our state a better state.
Fundira: The vote to create the UDC passed the senate… then it failed the assembly. But then, just 5 days later, after Dr. King’s assassination, New York legislators reconsidered the bill… and on April 9, 1968 the Urban Development Corporation was born. Two days later, President Lyndon B. Johnson used Dr. King’s assassination to finally pass the much-contested Fair Housing Act, the latest – and last – expansion of the Civil Rights Act.
In its 50-plus year history, the Fair Housing Act has failed to meaningfully address housing discrimination, but the UDC… The UDC made major moves to provide quality housing for New Yorkers of all backgrounds; in part because this wasn’t just any type of state agency. It was a super-agency. And Phillips-Fein says its goals were just as huge as the power it had secured to achieve them. For one, the UDC had the ability to finance its own projects.
Phillips-Fein: And it did so using this instrument, Moral Obligation Bonds, which were not backed by any legally-guaranteed stream of state revenues. This meant they didn't have to seek public approval for those bond issues.
Fundira: The UDC also had the power of eminent domain, the power to grant tax exemptions, and the ability to hire its own contractors. And crucially, the UDC had the power to skirt local zoning laws. Here’s Yonah Freemark. He’s a senior research associate at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C.
Yonah Freemark: Rockefeller… put into the state law that was eventually passed an allowance for the UDC to ignore local zoning law. They basically said that, any project that the UDC wants to do in any part of New York State can be built, whatever the local zoning says, whatever the local stakeholders say. And the goal here was essentially to say that, like, you know, we can't allow suburban property owners or suburban city councils or things of that sort to overpower the fundamental housing needs that we have in our community.
Fundira: The UDC was essentially designed to allow for the construction of new housing as quickly as possible. And the result was that, in just 7 years, the UDC built 33,000 units, which housed about 100,000 people all across New York state. And most of those homes were subsidized for low-to-middle-income households.
Freemark: So when it was created in 1968, the Urban Development Corporation was different. It was a different sort of urban renewal agency, and there are a few reasons for that. Most of them having to do with Ed Logue, who was the head of UDC.
Fundira: Logue was an urban planner who cut his teeth doing major urban renewal projects in New Haven and Boston. In his earlier days, especially in New Haven, Logue was very much of the Robert Moses school of urbanism. And by that, I mean he used his powers to demolish existing neighborhoods, erect expressways that cut through communities, and displace the city’s poorest.
And Logue wasn’t alone. After World War II, powerful urbanists, usually white men like Logue and Moses, approached building subsidized housing with a strong hand; seizing land, bulldozing, and manipulating the existing landscape to meet their desires. As chairman of the New York City Slum Clearance Committee, Moses used federal Title I funding to demolish entire neighborhoods in favor of what was called “tower-in-the-park” public housing.
Freemark: If you look at a lot of the public housing complexes in New York City, you'll often find that you'll just have rows of public housing towers located sort of in a park-like setting with no services, no retail, just residential towers.
Fundira: But by the early 1960s, people began to express concern that the government’s approach to public housing was creating really bad life outcomes for people who lived there.
Freemark: You had people who were living in apartments that were not well maintained. You had places like Chicago where the units weren't really built for children, but the vast majority of people who lived in public housing was people under 18. You had high rates of poverty, of people living in public housing communities, people who didn't have jobs, didn't have a place to go and didn't have access to good education.
Fundira: Tearing down neighborhoods on the grounds of slum conditions, just to build new, vertical slum conditions like these added fuel to the Civil Rights Movement and rebellions across the country. Ted Liebman says that by the time Rockefeller tapped Logue to head the UDC in 1968, in the thick of these various political movements, urbanists and architects were starting to enter a more progressive and innovative era.
Liebman: You know, the ‘60s were an activist period, you know. There was a lot of “new think” going on and Civil Rights was part of it. We were like a housing think tank.
Fundira: One of the crucial ways that Logue evolved as an urban planner past the typical bulldozer approach was in how he decided where to build new housing. Yonah Freemark.
Freemark: He did not want to use UDC to engage in wide-scale clearance of neighborhoods. He wanted to focus on areas, specific parcels that had been underdeveloped, that had been left empty for whatever reason.
Fundira: At this point, Lyndon B. Johnson was still president, and the “tower-in-the-park” public housing era started to lose popularity. But another urban planning concept was beginning to emerge.
Freemark: So there was a movement among people in the Johnson Administration to promote what were called New Towns. And the idea was, let's make sure that our land development is occurring in a way that is environmentally sustainable, that allows people options in terms of the transportation that is developed in a thoughtful way, rather than just allowing continuous expanses of suburbs.
Fundira: And so Roosevelt Island would become a, quote New-Town-in-town – meaning, a self-sufficient community within New York City. Logue was also determined to make these new communities for people with different income levels, racial backgrounds, as well as for the elderly and disabled folks.
Freemark: So when he came into the UDC, he was very explicit in saying, I don't want to do just low-income communities, I want to do communities that are by intention from the beginning, a mix of people coming from different racial backgrounds and coming from different income backgrounds. So I think that that, combined with his resistance to urban land clearance, were really these two big factors that were motivating what he was thinking about doing in New York City, in upstate cities and, you know, throughout the state.
Fundira: One of the most comprehensive sources I was able to find on the history of the UDC and on Ed Logue himself is Lizabeth Cohen, an American Studies professor at Harvard University. Cohen wrote a book on the UDC and Logue called Saving America’s Cities. The UDC’s main goal, Cohen writes, was to address the gap in affordable housing. Cohen also said that when the UDC sat down to figure out the magic formula for a mixed community, they settled on 70-20-10 - meaning that 70% of the homes were subsidized for moderate- and middle-income tenants, 20% for low-income tenants, and the remaining 10% were for elderly tenants, who were often low-income themselves. But the UDC’s goals weren’t purely altruistic. In the 1960s, cities like New York City were losing money and jobs because of white flight. With the federal government subsidizing the rapid rise of suburban homeownership, primarily for white working- and middle-class families, the cities they left behind wanted their white tax base back.
Freemark: By the late 1960s, there were a number of corporations that left New York City that said, we don't feel comfortable in this urban environment where there are people protesting and where, you know, frankly, white dominance is being contested. At the same time, you had a growing interest in thinking differently about racial relations. I think that some of that had to do with, of course, the rise in the Black Power movement and others who were contesting white dominance at the time.
Fundira: So the UDC wanted to do both – answer the demands of the Civil Rights Movement by building decent housing for those who needed it most, and at the same time, make it attractive enough for the white middle class to stay in the city. Of all of the UDC’s projects, no development exemplified these goals more than Roosevelt Island.
Fundira: But here’s the thing—by the time the UDC got permission to build on Roosevelt Island in the late 60’s, the island had been more or less deserted since the New York City Mental Health Hospital closed its doors, leaving behind just two hospitals. In 1969 there was literally a Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit about the UDC’s Masterplan for Roosevelt Island and it was called The Island Nobody Knows. The island was hard to get to. The only way in was to drive from Queens over the Roosevelt Island Bridge. And the subway…well, there wasn’t even a subway until 1989. So what did the UDC do? They built a Swiss-style cable car to take you from Roosevelt Island, over the East River, and into Manhattan in 5 minutes. It opened in 1976 as a temporary measure, but it still exists today, and it’s called the Roosevelt Island Tram. Here’s longtime-resident Baraba Spiegel.
Barbara Spiegel: I came here one day because I was curious, what's that thing over there? What's that tram thing over there? And I never left [laughter] I mean literally the day that I came here, I fell in love with this place and I said, Let's go and apply for an apartment.
Fundira: And it wasn’t just the tram. The UDC pulled all kinds of stunts to get people to move to the island. Ads in the newspaper? Sure. But there were rumors that the UDC struck a deal with the United Nations to set aside a certain number of apartments for employees, which would explain why there were so many UN families on the island. But there’s one story that resident Nikki Leopold told me that blew my mind.
Nikki Leopold: From what I remember, we lived in Canarsie, Brooklyn, with my grandparents, and they picked us up in a limousine because they were trying to sell the island and they took us to the island in a limousine to visit like the apartment.
Fundira: When that limo picked Nikki and her family up in 1976, coming over the Roosevelt Island Bridge there would have been four large apartment buildings. They’re named Westview, Island House, Rivercross, and Eastwood, or the WIRE buildings, after their initials. They were Roosevelt Island’s 4 original buildings. Westview and Island House were middle-income buildings, about 760 units altogether. Rivercross was a ritzier co-op building with 377 units. And Eastwood, the largest of them all at about 1,000 units, was for low- and moderate-income tenants, some of which were set aside for elderly and disabled folks.
While some of the higher-income units had Manhattan views and more amenities, like a pool, the UDC was diligent about making every unit as suited to tenants as possible, even going so far as to encourage architects to live in the units they designed. Here’s Ted Liebman.
Liebman: Ed Logue started a live-in program for every person who worked at UDC could live for one week in a housing development that we did to understand what we were doing for poor people, and to allow them to learn. And then we would have debriefing sessions where we would then learn how to change what we were doing to make them better.
Fundira: And these homes were built in part thanks to the expanded federal role in public and subsidized housing. So the UDC benefited from public funding tools like Section 236, which is a subsidy that made building low- and middle-income housing easier for states and municipalities by reducing mortgage interest rates to 1%. And then there was the juggernaut of a program, the Mitchell-Lama program, named after two New York state lawmakers. As Professor Phillips-Fein explains it, the state created it in 1955 to build a massive influx of affordable housing for middle-income tenants.
Phillips-Fein: And in Mitchell-Lama residential, private developers would receive a set of tax abatements while they were in the program. They were guaranteed a certain return on their investment. And through Mitchell-Lama, about 100,000, a little bit more than 100,000 apartments were built in the postwar years. There were some co-op apartments, so people actually becoming able to own the homes, but also a lot of rental housing.
Fundira: The Masterplan for the island, designed by Philip Johnson and John Burgee, also made it clear that the UDC wasn’t only in the business of building housing on the island. As Ted Liebman told us on his tour of the island, the UDC was also in the business of building a community.
Liebman: We created a mini school system, small schools within the housing units, so that the second-grader would graduate to third grade and also see their friends from other buildings as they went from school to school.
Fundira: Most of the buildings were designed to foster this kind of interaction between neighbors. Eastwood, for example, had three courtyards, a community center, a senior center, and an outdoor amphitheater.
The island was initially designed to be car-free, with all vehicles parked by the Roosevelt Island Bridge at the Motorgate. Residents would get around the island by foot or by electric bus. We call it, quote, the red bus because, well…it’s red. Actually, Ted Liebman chose the color. And there was this little stretch where it cost a whopping 25 cents, but now it’s back to being free…
Liebman: There's public access to the waterfront, so if you wanted to jog or take a bike, you could go all around the island and it would be public use.
Fundira: Even the trash system – which is still in use today – was quite innovative. On the island, when you throw your trash down your building’s chute, an AVAC system vacuums the garbage at 65 miles an hour through a network of underground pipes and hauls it to a centralized collection facility near the bridge. No garbage bags lining the sidewalk. No stinky trash in the summer months. And no diesel garbage trucks on the streets. The only other similar system in the U.S. at the time was located at Disney World.
Liebman: It's almost as if we had a 40-year advanced warning about sustainability.
Fundira: So what was it like to live on Roosevelt Island? I can tell you from my point of view as someone who grew up there, it was idyllic; it was a dream. We knew our neighbors. We could play outside without adult supervision. We mingled with other Africans on the island, and we made friends with former Brooklynites and Eastern Europeans. Disability and old age was quite normalized. We had access to Queens and Manhattan for anything we couldn’t find on the island. And most importantly, we had decent housing at a fraction of the market rate. But I wondered, maybe I just had a happy childhood. Maybe this utopia was something I projected onto the island. Maybe it’s just nostalgia. So I reached out to some folks who’ve lived on the island over the years.
Courtney Francis: Basically the parents were absent. Kind of like on the Peanuts. Charlie Brown. No one saw the parents. Parents were off at work.
Fundira: That’s Courtney Francis. Her family owned a home in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Queens. But they moved to the island in 1977 the summer before Courtney was starting the seventh grade so her parents could be closer to work in the city. She wasn’t a fan of the move at first…
Francis: They were uprooting us to move to an apartment, and my sister and I would be sharing a bedroom, you know, and I had a little boyfriend on the block.
Fundira: Again, this was the summer before seventh grade…But then she noticed that her school was more diverse. And she got more independence, even as a kid. The island started to grow on her. Now she’s a professor in Chicago, but she still visits family in Queens. And on one of those trips, she took her youngest children to the island.
Francis: I took them to Roosevelt Island and, they were mad at me, like, why didn't you raise us here? [laughs]. I said, I'm sorry!
Fundira: Then there’s Ludi Nsimba. Raised on the island, still on the island. She’s like an older sister to me and she knows everyone. We call her the unofficial mayor of Roosevelt Island.
Ludi Nsimba: So the nickname is that. Yeah. [laughs]
Fundira: Ludi’s family is Congolese and Angolan. Her family moved to the island in 1989 and eventually ended up at Island House. The island, as I mentioned, was full of United Nations families, like mine and Ludi’s. Families who were stationed at the UN's New York headquarters. That meant that – on top of having lots of class, racial, and age diversity – the island was also extremely international.
Nsimba: So a lot of my friends came from different nations, different countries. I think my father found his long-lost cousin there. It was really interesting.
I had so many aunties and uncles and fake cousins on this island.
Fundira: I mean you're one of mine also...
Nsimba: Right! Right! Listen. You call it ugali. Some call it fufu [laughs]. Nsima! Pap! You know?
As long as we know, like, where’d you get it? Okay, cool. I'm a go there with you and we would share a meal and party. Oh yeah, and the parties! At the time, there was a lot of African parties.
Fundira: I mean, even Kofi Annan used to live on the island. And it wasn’t just UN bureaucrats who earned decent salaries who lived there. It was the broad spectrum of low- and middle-income folks. Longtime resident Morgan Elinson remembers having a filmmaker and his Russian wife living next door to him on one side.
Morgan Elinson: On the other side, I had a family who was a single mom, she worked the register at a nearby store and that financed their entire apartment. And then I also had friends down the hallway whose parents were either teachers or they were also pursuing acting. And I think just from what I have experienced since I've had to explore other neighborhoods as I grew up, was there really wasn't that remarkable, like just variety and variation in experiences, all in just one spot.
Fundira: Ultimately, all of these experiences were facilitated by the fact that the island offered subsidized housing. This was high-quality housing that Roosevelt Island’s tenants wouldn’t be able to live in at market rate.
On a sunny day in September as I got off the tram, I saw Judith Berdy trimming some hedges outside the Roosevelt Island Historical Society. She’s been the President of the Society since the 1980s and she knows the island inside and out. In fact she’s lived in every WIRE building except Westview and can remember back to 1977 when she moved into her first place on Roosevelt Island.
Judith Berdy: It was new. It was clean. It was affordable. It was 3 minutes from Manhattan. And it was a different kind of place because if I lived in the city, I'd be on the fifth floor, walkup in one of those buildings where you smelled the cat pee in the hall. [laughs] You know what I mean? When they would show me an apartment would be, well, it's just a few floors up and never being an Olympic athlete, I really did not want to live in a walkup apartment in an old building facing a brick wall.
Fundira: Her first apartment was a one-bedroom with a backyard on the ground floor of Eastwood. And she moved to her current studio in Rivercross in 2005. That’s the higher end of all the WIRE buildings and it was a Mitchell-Lama co-op. It includes a pool, gorgeous modernist architecture, and unobstructed views of Manhattan. I was curious to know: how much did it cost to buy a studio in Rivercross in 2005?
Fundira: How much did a studio cost in 2005?
Berdy: Are you sitting down? 26 Five. $26,500. I mean, I didn't even have to go get a mortgage. I mean, first of all, no one would give us a mortgage because it was such a low amount. And I just luckily, you know, I could afford it and it was a good deal. So an apartment now, my apartment would sell for somewhere between five and $600,000.
Fundira: By the looks of things, the UDC achieved what Rockefeller wanted it to. It honored Dr. King’s legacy by building decent housing for all. Its residents represented the city’s racial and economic diversity, while also supporting its identity as a sanctuary for immigrants — a major departure, I might add, from the early public and subsidized housing projects of the postwar years. And it managed to create a cohesive community from scratch, using a powerful blend of intentional design, and public-private partnership with a social imperative, rather than an economic one. One urban design and architecture critic, Jane Holtz Kay, wrote, quote: “Nowhere in America have we built anything like this place for a non-elite.” Once the WIRE buildings were complete, the UDC was ready to expand its experiment on the island…but the country, the country was on the verge of a major ideological shift that would challenge the political feasibility of a place like Roosevelt Island, and change the housing landscape for decades to come.
BUT THEN IT ALL ENDED…
Berdy: This is Manhattan Park, the second development that was finally built by Starrett and Grenadier, way late. It was supposed to be built in the early eighties. It opened in '87, '89. And it's nothing as creative at all as the original buildings.
Fundira: A few months before I ran into Judith Berdy outside the Roosevelt Island Historical Society, she was helping Ted Liebman lead the walking tour of the island. At this point in the tour we were running a bit behind schedule, so we’re on the red bus, and the island is just whizzing by. The guides are calling our attention to a cluster of 4 buildings wrapped around a rectangular park. It’s called Manhattan Park. This is actually where my family and I landed when we moved to New York in 1999. Like a lot of families on the island, we lived there for a few years while we were on the waitlist for a home in one of the Mitchell-Lama subsidized WIRE buildings.
Manhattan Park is not subsidized housing. In fact, it's the island’s first market-rate housing development. The first of many. And by market-rate, I mean that Manhattan Park wasn’t subject to any affordability limits, like under Mitchell-Lama. The landlord could charge whatever renters on the housing market were willing to pay. But this wasn’t always the vision for this patch of land just across from the Roosevelt Island Bridge.
Liebman: This site…was supposed to be the winner of the Roosevelt Island Design Competition, which was done in 1974, and four winners for the first phase were announced. But none of those was built because the funds had gone away.
Fundira: I want to pause here and take a moment to tell you a little bit about this competition that Ted’s referring to, because it’s actually quite a pivotal moment. I’d even say that this is where the original vision for Roosevelt Island meets its first fork in the road. The first time I ever heard of this competition was in Ted’s office a few months before the tour…
Liebman: So a year-and-a-half after our intention, this is Ed Logue writing this, to build low-rise, high-density housing as opposed to high-rise housing throughout New York state…
Fundira: As the UDC’s chief architect, Liebman created this architect competition. The criteria was to design a plan for 1,000 units of high-density housing. Liebman said they wanted designs that promoted social interaction, and had a ‘neighborhood’-type feeling.
Liebman: There was upper-income, mixed middle-income, lower- and moderate-income and elderly.
Fundira: When this design competition was announced in 1974, the UDC was in the process of building those WIRE buildings. With the design competition, Logue and the UDC wanted to take their mixed-community housing project to the next level.
Back in his office, Ted read from Ed Logue’s design brief for the competition…
Liebman: It's our genuine desire to go beyond conventional housing solutions to find ways in which families can be well-housed…
Fundira: There were two things that stayed with me as Ted read the competition brief to me.
In New York City today, a typical mixed-income building has about 20 percent of its units set aside for low- to middle-income tenants, with the rest renting at market rate. In the WIRE buildings, that math is reversed. And the same goes for the units the UDC wanted to build through this competition. Out of the 1,000 proposed new units, nearly 50 percent would be for low- and middle-income tenants, 20 percent would be for middle-income residents, and another 20 percent for upper-income residents, 10 percent for elderly residents. Rosemary Ndubuizu from Georgetown University, said what was notable about this was just how intentional the low- and moderate-income targets were.
Rosemary Ndubuizu: And that intentionality was a hallmark of the urban liberalism pre-1960s, or at least pre-1970s, where there was an intentionality to ensuring that the state played a critical role in addressing a spectrum of need and not only focusing on certain subpopulations they thought would give them political expediency.
Fundira: The second thing that stayed with me was that the Roosevelt Island competition was about so much more than simply increasing the number of subsidized housing units. The competition brief specifically called for, quote, “state of the art housing” that made life easier for everyone, whether they were in a large family or a single adult and regardless of income…
Liebman: The little spaces with the lower buildings were where you might have younger children play areas…single people and old people could all share and meet each other. And yet the lower levels, even in the high rise, would be the larger families.
Fundira: Much of the design brief’s philosophy, that all residents deserve well-designed housing, was inspired by a trip Ted took to Europe in between stints working for the UDC.
Liebman: 10 different countries, 36 different cities and 80 housing projects living for a week or two in some of those projects to better understand the life within the communities. And came back and created criteria for our future housing and how they would be reviewed and designed.
Fundira: For Liebman, HUD – that’s the federal government’s Department of Housing and Urban Development – was doing a great job on the housing front in the ‘50s and ‘60s…
Liebman: But it was basic.
Fundira: And really lacking on the urban development front, you know, as advertised in the department’s name…
Liebman: Always what's important in housing is number of units. A mayor wants to build 100,000 units this next 10 years, so the number of units is important. But the wealth of a living environment and community is not thought of very seriously.
Fundira: Today, mixed-income developments do provide much needed housing for lower-income residents, but they’ve also come under fire for doing the bare minimum when it comes to both the quantity and quality of affordable housing units. And honestly, basic decency. Take this 2014 segment from The Colbert Report…
News Reporter: The idea sparking backlash because it requires affordable-living tenants to enter the building using a separate door through a back alley.
Stephen Colbert: Yes, a “poor door” - because if I don’t see something I don’t want to know about, it doesn’t exist and that makes me happy. [laughs]
News Reporter: The idea sparking backlash because it requires affordable-living tenants to enter the building using a separate door through a back alley. Stephen Colbert: Yes, a “poor door” - because if I don’t see something I don’t want to know about, it doesn’t exist and that makes me happy. [laughs]
For many developers, building lower-income housing is a means to an end. To incentivize developers to build more low-income housing, the government created financial incentives like the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program. First enacted with the 1986 Tax Reform Act, it works by a developer applying to their state’s housing agency for federal tax credits. And if the developer gets those tax credits, they then sell them to private companies, using the money to fund their development. As Professor Ndubuizu explains, these types of programs gained popularity during President Reagan’s administration.
Ndubuizu: And so that is actually now the primary way in which we get the construction of what we call affordable housing. But the problem is, the definition of affordability for this type of housing is oftentimes out of reach with many of these urban centers that are undergoing gentrification right now.
Fundira: But on Roosevelt Island in the 1970s, that logic was flipped on its head. The UDC used market-rate housing and federal grants as a means to build as much low- and moderate-income housing as possible, not the bare minimum. The UDC, after all, was a public authority, and the overarching goal was to provide decent, subsidized housing for those who needed it most, not to turn a profit.
Liebman: So it might be a tiny bit more expensive to create housing like this that addresses families like that, different families. But frankly, I saw a lot of that kind of housing in Europe because people realized what people need, and you have to think of the flexibility of that, that if a building is going to last for 80 or 100 years, if it costs one or two percent and it made everyone who lived there happier and more productive, that's worth it.
Fundira: The design competition was a massive success. Architects and firms submitted more than 250 entries. In 1975 the New York Times wrote that the jury was so overwhelmed by the number of high-quality submissions that they selected, not one, not two, not three, but four finalists.
But something else happened in 1975…
As New York City’s middle class had continued to move to the suburbs, the city had lost a significant piece of its tax base. And by 1975, the city had run out of money and wasn’t able to borrow more. It had an operating deficit of at least $600 million and was rapidly becoming the butt of the nation’s jokes.
Celebrity Cabaret Announcer: Direct from New York, welcome to Celebrity Cabaret….
Fundira: There’s this clip on YouTube of comedian Jerry Seinfeld.
Jerry Seinfeld: And Manhattan is where I live. Manhattan, as you know, is the site of the tramway.
Fundira: It’s from his very first national TV appearance on a show called Celebrity Cabaret. It’s 1977, a national audience, and what’s Seinfield talking about?
Seinfeld: The tramway is this new thing that they have on Roosevelt Island. It’s a cable car that goes back and forth between Manhattan and Roosevelt Island. I think that this is a terrific thing. The city’s on the verge of bankruptcy, they’re putting rides for us and [laughter] next thing you know we’ll have a rollercoaster through the ghetto [laughter]
Fundira: It’s a crude joke… and I saw a recent clip where Seinfeld is kinda second-guessing whether he’d say that joke today…
But still, it’s a really interesting snapshot of what’s happening in New York City around that time. The city was dealing with a very precarious financial situation. Here’s Professor Phillips-Fein.
Phillips-Fein: The number of jobs in the city is falling. New York is obviously facing difficult economic times, and there is increased anxiety at this very moment among many banks that handle municipal bonds and investors that hold municipal bonds, about the future of the city's finances overall.
Fundira: So to deal with the fiscal crisis, the City of New York went into full austerity mode. It cut social services and jobs, which caused sanitation workers to go on strike. Garbage began piling up in the streets. Unemployment increased. Those who could afford it, mostly white upper and middle class New Yorkers, moved out of the city. It’s estimated that more than 800,000 people left. And for those who couldn’t afford to leave the city, mostly Black and brown folks, mostly low-income, things just got worse. The tax base was down, and there were fewer and fewer social services available. Rates of crime and violence rose. And the UDC’s fiscal situation was intertwined with that of the city’s. Professor Phillips Fein.
Phillips-Fein: Well, the UDC ran into some difficulties in the early seventies, it defaulted on its debt early in 1975, which means that it wasn't able to repay the bondholders, the banks and individual investors who had purchased its bonds as they came due.
Fundira: And this was only made worse by the fact that inflation was on the rise across the country. Everything was more expensive, including construction. And then came January 8, 1973. That’s when President Richard Nixon put a federal moratorium on all public housing funds. Funds that the UDC desperately needed. According to Lizabeth Cohen, the Harvard historian who wrote the book on Ed Logue, the UDC had relied on Section 236 subsidies for 90% of its projects. Professor Phillips Fein again.
Phillips-Fein: The problem with it for UDC was that it had been counting on a set of revenue streams that then didn't, weren't going to materialize. And because it had been financed through private banks and private streams of money, it really didn't have any leverage when bankers and bondholders and creditors wanted to be repaid.
Fundira: Just as the 1960s saw a push for Civil Rights legislation, the 1970s saw a push for neoliberal policy. The federal government under Nixon began to disinvest from public spending and social programs, especially housing. This massive loss in federal funding, accounted for more than half of the UDC’s funds.
And with less federal money, the gap grew between the UDC’s social goals, and the financial sector’s incentives to fund those goals. One day, as Professor Philipps-Fein describes, Ed Logue and the private sector duked it out over this inherent tension at the State Legislature in Albany. Ed Logue, on one side, argued that important public policy issues, like housing, shouldn’t be decided in corporate boardrooms.
Phillips-Fein: And some of the bankers responded, with frustration, saying that this was a Panglossian view of the world. Everything would be okay if the banks just put up more money. And his banker said social goals are funded one way in this country, economic goals another way. And so in a way, part of what happened to UDC is that these two imperatives came into conflict. And the absence of a more robust public commitment to financing this type of housing, it wasn't able to attract the support of the private sector indefinitely.
Fundira: It was also around this time that the UDC suffered another blow. They tried to build subsidized housing in the suburbs. It was called the Fair Share program and the plan was to build 100 units of subsidized housing in ten towns in Westchester County, one of the wealthiest counties in New York state. Up until that point, Westchester had relied on zoning laws to prevent high-density resident housing there.
Phillips-Fein: They had long been designed to privilege single-family housing in order to preserve the class, and also racial, segregation of the communities. And this is in the rhetoric, of course, of talking about maintaining property values and everything. But I think there is a strong sense that the type of community that they are invested in protecting is a wealthy, white residential community.
Fundira: And that community responded with uproar. Heated town hall meetings. Ed Logue even got death threats. Opponents of the Fair Share program – mainly suburbanites and their political representatives – argued that it ignored local voices.
But the program had plenty of supporters too. Local groups like the Coalition of Black Westchester Residents, the League of Women Voters, as well as clergy and local businesses, and many unions. In the end though, Fair Share’s opponents won out, and got a major political concession that would put yet another nail in the UDC’s coffin. Here’s Yonah Freemark again.
Freemark: In 1973…the state legislature said…we actually take back the power that we gave you, because you're causing too much trouble trying to go into Westchester County and forcing affordable housing on communities that don't want affordable housing.
Fundira: And so the UDC had its power to override local zoning laws outside of New York City stripped. It had been a tool the UDC had used to quickly build thousands of subsidized homes all across New York State. Ed Logue had seen this coming. Years before, Logue had thought about building low- and middle-income housing in Westchester County, but he reconsidered, telling the New York Times “I feel that if I went into Scarsdale and started changing zoning laws, all my power would be stripped away.” Logue saw that using his powers to build affordable housing in the suburbs would come with fierce backlash.
The loss of this power impacted subsidized housing projects all across the state. In Long Island, for example, a Black architect put together a plan to build 182 units of subsidized housing for low-to-moderate-income residents in a Hamlet called Wyandanch, where more than two-thirds of its Black population lived on public assistance. With the UDC stripped of its local zoning powers, in 1972 the local town board killed the plan. They argued that the plan would have a negative impact on Wyandanch’s high water table but Logue was quoted as saying that it was “white bigots'' who killed the plan.
Fundira: By the mid 1970s, the UDC had taken too many hits. Inflation. Defaulted loans. The rise of austerity measures. The disproportionate powers of white suburbanites and the subsequent loss of the UDC’s own powers. It was too much to handle.
Liebman: Ed Logue was fired and my unit was fired. All of those things happened, and that's why it was an eight year UDC and not longer.
Fundira: But the UDC went down swinging. As Ted tells it, a contact at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, tipped them off that a spending freeze was on the way, but that any submitted proposals would be given the green light. So they burned the midnight oil before funding dried up. They had three weeks.
Liebman: And during those three weeks, 45 new HUD applications were done throughout the state, 35 were approved, and are affordable housing in the state of New York now.
Fundira: The UDC was born because of political will, and died because of political will. And just like that, after eight years, and constructing tens of thousands of new high-quality and affordable homes, the UDC as it had existed, ceased to be. And of course, with no more UDC, there was no more design competition. As one architect put it, the end of the Roosevelt Island Design Competition, “marked an abrupt end to a decade of ambitious urban renewal on Roosevelt Island, but also signified the end of ‘large scale’ public-housing competitions in the United States.”
More than a competition, more than the UDC, this was the beginning of the end of a way of approaching housing as a human right.
Hammond: Hey, it’s Jameela again. The UDC did so much in such a short period of time. By 1975, when all was said and done, the UDC had built 33,000 units of housing all across New York State, which made it the largest developer of subsidized housing in the country.
The UDC wouldn’t get another chance to build on that legacy. Instead, it underwent major ideological changes and became the Empire State Development Corporation. Here’s Yonah Freemark.
Freemark: The state essentially decided to cancel the UDC’s role as a housing developer at that point and switched over to really focusing on what it calls economic development, which includes things like investing in convention centers. And that's been the primary role of the Urban Development Corporation in the years since. It’s now called Empire State Development.
Hammond: A year after the UDC was defunded, its crown jewel – Roosevelt Island, which had already been in the works – was completed. More than 2,000 units of housing for low- and middle-income people, for elderly and disabled people, were finally opened. It was proof that a public authority could build decent housing and well-designed neighborhoods for residents of all socioeconomic backgrounds.
But in the decades that followed, as multiple generations grew up calling Roosevelt Island home, the impact of the government’s disinvestment became more and more apparent.
Sasha Ross: As new buildings came in, as rents go up. It's becoming a haves versus have-nots. You have temporary people making permanent decisions.
Rita Ombele: I literally avoided the island for so long after moving, ‘cause it just made me like, so…it was very sentimental to me. Like I would even, like, not want to take the F train and like, hear, like, Roosevelt Island's like the next stop. Like literally, we would get invited for like, barbeques and stuff, and I wasn’t mentally prepared, to like, to go back there, so I avoided it for a lot of, many years.
Hammond: That’s next time on Plot of Land.
Plot of Land is a Monument Lab production with funding from the Ford Foundation and music from Blue Dot Sessions. Thank you for joining us. And please, share these stories. Rate and review Plot of Land wherever you get your podcasts.