The Last Detached Victorians of New York Proper? Cont’d.

Detached Victorians on Woodycrest Avenue, around W 164th St., New York City.

Earlier this year, I wrote about a cluster detached Victorian houses along Woodycrest Avenue, around 164th Street, in the High Bridge section of the Bronx.  In doing so, I explained why I thought they might be the last significant group of this type of architecture that remains in the Manhattan-Bronx street grid– a geography that roughly corresponds to the pre-1898 City of New York.  Tonight, I found a graphic at Big Map Blog that adds some context to the Woodycrest houses: an 1897 bird’s-eye view of the urban fabric that surrounded the then-developing Grand Concourse:

It’s an unusual perspective.  The core of Manhattan, to the south, would lie far to the left of the framed perspective.  The land in the foreground is what’s now called the Bronx, and the narrow, horizontal strip of water that runs behind it is the Harlem River.  Beyond that are the bluffs of upper Manhattan, and in the far background, the New Jersey Palisades rise above the Hudson River.  Basically, this image shows the northern frontier of New York City’s urban growth at the end of the Victorian period.

It’s hard to know how accurate the details are.  It would take a good amount of work to determine, for instance, just how precisely they depicted what was on the ground in 1897.  Based on the presence of a number of landmarks (viz., the Croton Aqueduct, the Broadway Bridge, the tower in High Bridge Park), and the accuracy of its major-streets pattern, it would be fair to conclude that this is a relatively faithful snapshot of the city.  On the other hand, I don’t think there was ever a suspension bridge that connected Inwood Hill with Spuyten Duyvil.  So, you have to take the given visual data with a fair degree of skepticism.

Look at Harlem: the gridded blocks on the far left, beyond the Harlem River.  You can see that the boxy, attached row houses and apartment buildings are beginning to fill in the landscape.  Rapid development may be indicated by the completely vacant land that is being gobbled up by sudden density.  That is, it doesn’t look as if there was ever a phase of detached house development in these blocks– they just went straight from greenfields to urban density.  For example, here’s a close-up of Seventh Avenue at 145th Street:

In another three decades, this level of density would come to cover nearly the entire scene of this drawing.  But moving right, circa 1897, you see trees, fields, and detached houses with traditional pitched roofs.  Did these all exist?  Probably, in some form.  Most of the components of this low-density scene are gone today, but at the end of the 19th century they were still, apparently, typical of the uptown landscape, on either side of the Harlem River.  Even if this image were ambitiously forward-looking, it wouldn’t present any less density than what actually existed at its time.  So this close-up view of development along the Concourse near Tremont Avenue is illustrative:

If this depiction is accurate, it provides an interesting context.  A lot of these houses, especially those in the foreground along East 177th Street and Mount Hope Place, appear to have been ornate, turreted, large homes.  The low density of these blocks at that point in time fits with some research I did in grad school which indicated that most of the large apartment buildings above City College (Broadway/137th) were built after 1900.  Of course, the entire uptown scene depicted in this image might have been an ideal setting for the construction of many spacious, airy Victorian houses, if the rapid march of tenements hadn’t borne down on the new lots as quickly and persistently as it did.  But we do see a scattering of detached Victorians in the snapshot of 1897, including the ones that still survive on Woodycrest Avenue:

This is a reverse perspective of the modern one, above, but it’s absolutely the same block, in spite of the fact that the old map, interestingly, calls the street Bremer Avenue, rather than Woodycrest.  And if you look around the rest of the image, you’ll see other houses here and there that are either clearly detached Victorians, or possibly detached Victorians.  Some even have details, like wraparound porches, mansard roofs, and conic towers.  (Significant clusters can be found in the blocks around Claremont Park, around 183rd Street west of Aqueduct Avenue, and along the steep bluffs that rise above the Harlem River.)  Again, the accuracy of the specific details would take a good amount of legwork to verify, but their very presence suggests that they were representative of at least some portion of the area’s architecture.  Today, the vast majority of these types of houses are gone from the blocks of uptown New York City, long since replaced by the large apartment buildings that are now, themselves, becoming historic.

I think maybe the most interesting aspect of this image is its suggestion that such houses in New York City may even have been rare in their own time.  That is, only a handful were built, before they went out of style, before the rapid march of dense apartments filled in the empty canvases of the newly platted blocks.  They are rarer still, today, since so many of the original detached structures of all types in the Bronx and upper Manhattan have been demolished.  It would be reasonable to think that the presence of a Euclidean zoning scheme in 1897 might have saved more of these houses, and encouraged the development of others like them in the upper part of the city.  But such laws would also have prevented the development of the apartments on the same blocks that have since served as homes for generations of immigrants and working-class New Yorkers.  Land use decisions are often trade offs– another reason to take note of the houses that remain on Woodycrest Avenue.  These structures are relics of a New York City that might have been, but never was: a city, visually, more like San Francisco, Boston, or even New Orleans.

Update: The New York Public Library has a 1909 insurance map, shown below, which corroborates the presence of a large collection of detached Victorian houses in the vicinity of Woodycrest Avenue and West 164th Street, including the extant structures and a number that are now gone.  A similar map, dating from 1900, confirms that there was once a similar cluster of architecture in the vicinity of Mount Hope Place and the Grand Concourse: These houses have nearly all been replaced.  Note that the building footprints seen in both maps include wraparound porches, rounded turrets or towers, and other distinctive features of this type of architecture.

Image ID: 1993380  Bronx, V. 10, Plate No. 19 [Map bounded by W. 165th St., Anderson Ave., W. 162nd St., Ogden Ave.] (1909)

Woodycrest/164, 1909.

Concourse/Mount Hope, 1900.

The ‘Champs-Élysées of the Bronx’

A Deco doorway on the Concourse. Source: NYC Landmarks Comm.

Let’s hear it for the Grand Concourse, one of America’s greatest concentrations of Art Deco and Late Victorian apartment buildings.  Truly, some of New York City’s most amazing apartments are located there.  The Concourse, itself, also has the potential to become a great public space.  (At present, it has largely been paved over and is very underutilized.)  A large swath of the southern Concourse (between East 153rd and 167th Streets) has just been designated as a new historic district by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.

And, yes, it’s true: There’s been a lot of the Bronx on this page.

Rebuilding the South Bronx

The Times‘ Michael Kimmelman takes a walking tour of the Melrose section with Amanda Burden, director of New York City’s Department of City Planning, and a video of their interview highlights some striking examples of new development that is ongoing in the South Bronx.  Some of these blocks are the same ones that were infamously devastated by arson, property abandonment, and street crime in the 1970s and ’80s.  Among my earliest memories of New York City, I remember riding through parts of the city that looked like scenes from a war zone: shells of buildings, flame-scorched, hollow, scattered among vacant lots, and defaced with neon-colored graffiti.  And, of course, people on the streets reflected a human version of the same desolation.  Fortunately, most of that Dante-esque nightmare is now gone, but the vacant parcels have persisted for a long time.  Notably, the Bloomberg administration’s strategic focus, according to Ms. Burden, is centered on the construction of high-density affordable housing, and on rebuilding the area’s traditional fabric of standard blocks and mid-rise, mixed-use buildings.

Limited Equity: An Idea That Still Matters

Amalgamated Co-op, Bronx, NY.

If the single-family house has become a dog of an investment, what should communities do?  I’d say this trend makes the case for developing a new generation of limited-equity (LE) neighborhoods, where the commitment benefits of ownership are separated from the mad lottery of house prices.  Neighborhoods need stakeholders, not just tenants.  (Hold your fire: I still rent.)  Healthy communities require a critical mass of residents who have made temporal, legal, and financial commitments to remain.  They require the political landscape that comes with the presence of enough people for whom it would be more trouble to move than it would be to notice and address local problems.

LE offers this: Cooperators buy shares in a stock company, and the company holds title to the real estate.  Typically, starting prices for units are scaled to the pro rata costs of sinking the initial investment: basically, land and construction loans.  When a cooperator moves out, he sells his unit to a new cooperator for roughly the same amount that he initially paid.  And so, you have a cycle where cooperators who move out will recover their limited equity, and new residents will purchase housing at an affordable price.  At the same time, ongoing maintenance costs are used to cover, well, maintenance costs.  And taxes.  Construction on cheap farmland or (clean) former industrial sites can significantly reduce property costs, making an LE venture an affordable possibility for cooperators with modest incomes.  And so, you have a community of stakeholders that overlaps with a community of affordable housing.

The essence of the LE model can be traced back to the Principles of the Rochdale Weavers.  In 1898, Ebenezer Howard proposed an LE model for his Garden Cities as a viable solution to the crowding and poverty that characterized the East End industrial slums of Victorian London.  In 1902, Theodor Herzl advocated a similar financial model to pay for the founding of Israel.  In the United States, labor-sponsored co-ops in New York City became the most ambitious examples of the limited-equity arrangement.  But over the last generation, LE has faded out.  In the only American locality where the ownership structure had ever gained a foothold, the build-out of affordable land in New York City, combined with the infamous dysfunction of Co-op City, effectively killed the prospect of further LE developments by the mid-1970s.  (The 1971 death of Abraham Kazan simultaneously cost the concept its greatest advocate.)  Presumably, most of the rest of the US was either too conservative, or too affordable during the post-war period, for such an idea to catch fire without a good sales pitch.

But limited equity housing remains a decent and practical idea, and the present flight of capital from urban land could open a new window for its economic viability.  Politically, although LE is unquestionably a creature of the labor-left, it inherently dovetails with a number of fundamental conservative priorities, making it potentially palatable in non-left political landscapes.  For example:

1. LE facilitates a broader base of private property ownership.

2. LE does not require any direct involvement by the State.

3. The LE entity is typically entirely local; by-laws can reflect local customs.

This is because LE was envisioned to work within the conservative, common-law legal system of the British Empire in the latter half of the 19th century.  Rather than being a plank of a political program, it was and is a simple legal strategy.  And because of its origin as a private law device, the LE model remains perfectly compatible with even the most conservative visions of the role of the State, as  relates to property and economics.  At the same time, the LE model can effectively advance the interests of those who require a degree of shelter from the vagaries of capital, by allowing individuals to enjoy a stable ownership stake in their homes and neighborhoods while maintaining a perpetual stock of affordable units in a fixed location.  That is to say, in addition to its direct benefits as a business model, LE offers an approach that can avoid some of the triggers of political hostility while delivering a reliably equitable, even progressive social result.  This quality would make LE a promising strategy for these uncertain political and economic times.

Limited Equity: Why It Matters

Penn South, NYC.

The Times has a two-page piece on the financial challenges facing Penn South, the last of the big limited-equity (LE) co-ops remaining in Manhattan.  The LE developments– championed by local labor unions and left-wing organizers– filled a crucial gap in the New York City land economy, providing decent housing at a price-point between the public housing projects for the poor and the market-rate units whose price tags predictably soared with every boom-time economy.  The LE co-ops sold their units to middle-income buyers at reliably low prices, with two major caveats: (1) Buyers were required to meet the co-op’s household income guidelines (which tended toward union wages), and (2) co-operators who moved out were only permitted to sell their stake back to the co-op board for a comparable price to what they had paid; there were no opportunities for boom-time windfalls.

In the mid-20th century, the LE co-op model was big in NYC.  Men like Abraham Kazan, Sidney Hillman, and Herman Jessor championed the cause and built prolifically throughout the city.  In Manhattan, the LE model included Penn South, in Hell’s Kitchen, with nearly 3,000 units; a couple of large developments known together as Co-op Village, on Grand Street; and the smaller, adjacent Amalgamated Co-op.   In the boroughs, even larger LE co-ops would come to dominate the skylines of far-flung neighborhoods like Coney Island, Jamaica, and Baychester by the early 1970s.  The LE’s created large, stable, affordable communities of middle-income stakeholders in a city whose vacillating real estate landscape was anything but friendly toward middle-income workers.  In context, the LE co-ops were the vanguard of the NYC labor movement that took off in the heady years after the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, and lasted until the NYC financial crisis and the US-left meltdown of the 1970s.

Twin Pines, symbol of co-operative principles, can be found at many NYC LE complexes.

Today, with Manhattan housing having become a costlier proposition than ever, an experiment like Penn South seems almost preposterous.  And yet, it has survived for more than 40 years, representing a viable private-sector alternative to the disastrous public housing projects of the same period.  Its units– when they become available– remain priced at the unbelievable value of just $12k per room.  Much credit is due the Penn South co-operators, who (mostly in their 70s, according to the NYT article) are still refusing to convert their priceless Chelsea complex into a market-rate windfall.

Penn South and the other remaining LE co-ops of Greater New York are the legal remnants of a fading past, when middle-income Americans were able to leverage their collective clout into a meaningful economic stake.  They stand as massive, brick-and-mortar testaments to what once was possible, even in the mad real estate marketplace of 20th century New York; and to the occasionally realized ideal of the inclusive American city.  Their dwindling numbers stand as a counterpoint; a sad illustration of the economic trajectory of the US middle classes over the last two generations.

The Last Detached Victorians of New York Proper?

Houses on Woodycrest Avenue, New York City. Source: Bing Maps.

I suspect they are.  They’re a collection of about a dozen houses along Woodycrest Avenue, where it’s crossed by 164th Street, in the South Bronx.

Some NYC history: before 1898, Brooklyn was a separate city, and Queens was a collection of separate municipalities.  Staten Island was (and remains) a separate universe.  But the Bronx was the organic extension of New York City’s development beyond Manhattan: along with Manhattan, it comprised the City of New York before the greater, five-borough city was legally formed.  Evidence of the close relationship between Manhattan and the Bronx is still visible in the continuity of street and house numbering from one to the other; the continuities of Broadway, Park Avenue, and Third Avenue between the boroughs; and the fact that no ZIP code in the Bronx ends in the same two digits as any in Manhattan, due to the borough’s historic coverage by the “New York, New York” post office.

1896 Map Showing NYC lands beyond Manhattan.

So, onto detached Victorian houses.  There was probably a time when New York City proper had a large stock of detached Victorians, like those that remain in San Francisco or Boston, or the ones in the above picture.  (Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island, of course, all have their fair shares of such houses.)  But Manhattan and the Bronx grew faster in the late 19th and early 20th centuries than any of those places, and most of their formerly low-density sections were completely built up with tenements and apartment buildings by the 1920s– long before historic preservation was an urban planning concept.  As a result, the stock of detached Victorians in New York City proper is almost totally erased.

Manhattan– the heart of the city proper– has barely any detached houses remaining, at all.  (There are literally three or four on Park Terrace West and a couple on Seaman Avenue, in Inwood, and a few in Marble Hill.)  The Bronx, on the other hand, has probably tens of thousands of detached houses, but most of them are simple wood-frames, Tudors, colonials, or brick duplexes that post-date the Victorian period.  In light of the historical context, this bunch of spacious homes with turrets, gables, and wraparound porches on Woodycrest Avenue is unique.  And it may actually be the last remnant of an architectural period in the city’s history that has all but disappeared.

Will research more, and update.

Update: there is a handful of smaller detached (possible) Victorians, much less elaborate, in Marble Hill.