The Untold Story of Cadman Plaza: Brooklyn Heights Blows It
Sometime around 1950 the famous artist and writer boarding house ("February House") at 7 Middagh St. in Brooklyn Heights, was bulldozed along with its neighbors to make way for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. As Carson McCullers, one of the house residents, pointed out, this block housed an old public school, a firehouse, a blacksmith, a Catholic rectory and a nunnery; all but the blacksmith are still there. In the now-demolished house owned by editor George Davis (second husband of Lotty Lenya), residents included W.H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Gypsy Rose Lee (stripper and aspiring writer), Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears. It is, with some snickers and raised eyes, rumored that the location suited some of the house's closeted tenants who could skip down the Columbia Heights hill and greet sailors on leave.
This was before my time, politically speaking, but when my time came in the late 1950s, yet another urban tremblor was felt, with more dire consequences: the raised hammer of Robert Moses descending for his final blitzkrieg of "slum clearance" in the Cadman Plaza area of Brooklyn Heights. An earlier plot by Moses to run the BQE smack down the middle of the Heights on Hicks St. had luckily been derailed by angry Heights aristocrat Mrs. Darwin James; a simultaneous lesser blitzkrieg planned for another part of the Heights was also tabled.
Using the 1949 Federal Housing Act, or Title 1, urban renewal, Moses took aim at four square prime real estate blocks of Brooklyn Heights for what was to be his final "urban removal" plot. Somehow prime real estate as opposed to decaying areas like East New York always manages to be designated as slums requiring clearance.
Like earlier Title 1 projects such as Lincoln Square Towers and Washington Square Village, no slums were involved but removal most assuredly was. In the case of the Cadman Plaza battle in Brooklyn Heights, about 1200 residents, mostly low-income minorities, small businesses and sound 20th century apartment houses, were declared a blight and rewarded with eviction and total demolition to make way for luxury high-rise apartments. Complicit in this were the elite of the Brooklyn Heights Association (BHA), the local Democrats and the righteous "good government" paleo-liberals, "progresssive" city planners and academics, i.e. liberals still asleep at the social justice wheel when it came to applying the principle of property rights to anyone but the middle and upper classes.
Anyone reading the history of this project, and of Brooklyn Heights, most egregiously the largely fictitious article by Heights resident Martin Schneider, would never know what really happened. Today no one on our block but I and my husband are alive to be the institutional memory and tell the truth. The only benefit was the launching of my political and environmental career. Power Abusers like Moses are very effective at creating resistors and revolutionaries.
It was 1959, one year after I and my husband Eric, a NY Times music critic, had returned from a two-year stay in Rome. I was pregnant with twins, politically detached, uninvolved in community affairs and thinking mainly about motherhood. My in-laws, both teachers, lived on Cranberry St., one block away from our Middagh St.home (which they had bought in 1949) and during our two-year absence they had rented out the Middagh St. house. Upon our return we moved into the third floor apartment just vacated by journalist Charles Kuralt, and shortly after the other tenants vacated the lower duplex we moved in. We still live there today and now own the house.
From late 1958 on I attended concerts and operas with my husband, met interesting composers and performers, including Shostakovich and a contingent of other Russian musicians, and dressed to the hilt with white leather gloves and silks for the Metropolitan Opera, where we sat in the critics' seats on the aisle in row L. In the final weeks of my pregnancy I managed to sit through Wagner's Parsifal. On my shopping trips in the Heights, I knew many of the Heights residents. Most famous of all was Norman Mailer who lived on Columbia Heights overlooking NY Harbor and the East River. I later became friendly with Brooklyn poet laureate Norman Rosten, (the "other" Norman) with whom I had regular sidewalk conversations and who years later took my poet daughter Eva to lunch at the local Polish diner, Teresa's, on Montague St., the venue for regular Sunday writer/political pundit brunches.
After my twins were born I joined the local baby-sitting pool and spent many evenings at the sitters' homes playing bridge. Our summers were spent at our rustic home in East Quogue, the "un-Hamptons", with my in-laws, who enjoyed two-month summer vacations. In our time abroad we had driven all over western Europe in our VW Beetle, bought for $900 at the factory in Wolfsburg, Germany with wedding gift money and driven back to Rome in mid-winter over the snow-covered Alps. It was the carefree fifties. No advance hotel reservations were needed; just arrive in a town and ask around for a pension. I had never heard about the House UnAmerican Activities Committee and knew little about the Korean war. I had travelled around Europe without a care, learned to speak Italian, and on our return I prepared to be a mother.
In the post war period, the cheap rundown 19th and early 20th century Brooklyn Heights houses attracted artists, architects and writers, who renovated the lovely old houses one subway stop from lower Manhattan, loafing on its famous Promenade along the waterfront and walking over the Brooklyn Bridge. It was from the Heights that the bridge's ultimate builder, Washington Roebling (son of the original designer John Roebling), suffering from the bends, oversaw its construction.
Besides the long-time Heights aristocracy of brokers and attorneys who lived in the more elegant brownstones on Columbia Heights, Willow St., Remsen St. and Pierrepont St. in the mid-Heights, arguably the most interesting people lived on our Middagh St. block: noted translator of Latin American literature Gregory Rabassa, 8th St. Book Shop proprietor Eli Wilentz, Jack Biblo, co-owner of the famous Biblo & Tannen used book store on 4th Ave. in Manhattan, abstract expressionist turned neorealist painter Charles Schucker whose giant canvasses barely fit through his doors, Dr. Virginia Travell Weeks, straight-talking, house-calling doctor to Heights children and sister of JFK's physician Janet Travell, an exalted neighbor named Knickerbocker, Elizabeth Dutcher at 25 Middagh St., who attended the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge as a child and had the invitation framed on her wall, and now headed a settlement house in Brooklyn to which she was driven each morning by a chauffeur, and architect Harry Holtzman, executor of the Mondrian estate whose College Place loft walls were covered with Mondrian paintings. On Cranberry St. one block away, sculptor John Rhoden and his painter-wife Richanda lived, worked and hosted Christmas parties every year for nearby neighbors (she still does, at 91). Actor Paul Hecht lived on Willow St. near Middagh for a short time. And at 11 Cranberry St., next door to my in-laws, resided old lefty composer Earl Robinson, who wrote "Ballad for Americans", "Joe Hill", "Lonesome Train" and "The House I Live In". While my husband and I were in Rome, my in-laws rented out rooms on the top floor of our Middagh St. home; its most famous tenant was Lee Hayes of The Weavers, a famous folk music group.
Some other smaller battles and debates were also taking place at this time. Moses had his eye on the southwestern part of the Heights, called Willowtown, as part of his grand urban renewal scheme but miraculously this was beaten back. A discussion about the purportedly segregated nature of the local school, P.S. 8 was taking place, resulting in one of the earliest busing schemes in the city whereby black children from the nearby Farragut housing project were bused into and out of the school every day. And Otis Pratt Pearsall spearheaded the successful move to designate the Heights as an historic landmark district, though not in time to save many lovely brownstones from the clutches of Jehovah's Witnesses, whose world headquarters were on Columbia Heights overlooking the East River.
It is important to understand that the 1950s were the postwar period, when urban planning and "progress" were intended to improve the lives and living conditions of city dwellers through new construction of homes, roads and infrastructure. It was probably for this reason that Robert Moses, the Power Broker of Robert Caro's book, was able to consolidate and wield tremendous power, with the help of Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and the construction unions, which embraced the jobs produced by urban renewal projects without any sense of justice or empathy for the displaced poor urbanly removed from the Heights, the Bronx and Greenwich Village and shunted to the slums of east New York.
The scales fell from my eyes in 1959 when Moses' plan for a high-rise luxury housing project bounded by Fulton, Henry and Clark Sts. in the Heights was announced. These four square crime-free blocks contained old, moderate -income housing for hundreds of families, low-rise apartment houses, small businesses, a line-up of antique stores on Fulton St. facing Cadman Plaza Park, and one flophouse that offended the WASP sensibilities of the Brooklyn Heights Association. And there was more.
There was a humble Latino luncheonette at the corner of Cranberry and Fulton Sts., which was to be demolished as part of the Moses plan. We had always assumed it was owned by a Puerto Rican. It had a plaque on its outside wall noting that Walt Whitman had set the type for Leaves of Grass in the building. One day my husband, who had set Whitman poems to music, and neighbor Eli Wilentz, thought this might be a potent weapon against Moses and bulldozers. They noticed that the plaque was gone so they went inside and sought out the owner, who turned out to be Nicaraguan. When asked about the plaque, he said that "You Americans don't appreciate your national poet...everyone in Nicaragua knows Whitman because he was the main influence on our national poet Ruben Dario, who was the founder of Modernism in Spanish poetry". And he pointed to a sign above the lunch counter which read: O Capitan, mi Capitan, a Spanish translation of the Whitman poem written on the assassination of Lincoln.On learning that his building was to be demolished, and thus not being able to renovate or refinance it, he had removed the plaque and given it to the Nicaraguan consulate. He was personally appalled at the notion of destroying his building....not only because of his personal loss but because this was the very building where Whitman set type for the first edition of "Leaves of Grass". Both Eric and Eli tried valiantly to get this story published but with no success. Eric went straight to the city desk at the NY Times but given the close relations of Moses and the Sulzburgers, the paper's owners, it was a fool's errand. The building is gone as are all the others. The final irony was the naming of the low-rise town houses on the site: Whitman Close.
Incensed and activated by the impending loss of Heights families and small businesses, my husband and I formed the North Heights Community Group. Later, we were joined by the Central Heights Community Group. The core of our group included most of the people mentioned above. We enrolled dozens of north Heights residents and marched straight ahead to derail the Moses project. We established liaison with Jane Jacobs who was fighting developers in the west Village and induced architect Percival Goodman to prepare an alternate plan for the site that would retain all its residents and build new in-fill housing, with no demolition of sound structures. We obtained 25,000 signatures on a petition opposing Moses and supporting the Goodman plan. We testified at City Hall before the City Planning Commission, Housing & Redevelopment Board, Board of Estimate and the City Council. Actor Paul Hecht bowled them over with a dramatic presentation of our plan.
Why did we lose the battle? Recently I learned that we had come closer to victory than we suspected and that the city was on the verge of dropping its urban renewal plan entirely because of the swell of support for the Goodman plan. But the elite Brooklyn Heights Association and the local Democrats and paleo-liberals worked behind our backs with the city, with the latter hopeful that its payoff for their support of the urban renewal project would be a public housing project in the north Heights that they assumed no one would dare oppose for fear of being called a racist. Dorothy Jessup, a leading Democrat and daughter-in-law of the ambassador to the UK, once came to see Middagh St. As we stood at the head of the street, she waved her hand and said: They should demolish all of this and put a public housing project here instead. I imagine the BHA sentiments were not too far away from this; that flophouse must have given them the shivers. In the end, the city compromised by including one subsidized Mitchell-Lama apartment house in the four-block luxury project.
Falsified history was the result, mostly through the writings of Heights resident and BHA member Martin Schneider, who with some reluctance admitted that there had been local opposition to the Moses project. But he never mentioned the North Heights Community Group or the new opposition group, Central Heights Community Group, nor did he mention the 25,000 signed supporters of the Goodman plan. He abridged the opposition to a grand total of four individuals (unnamed) and accused the Goodman plan supporters of opening the door to public housing in the Heights, something our group opposed on principle. He exquisitely distorted our position in favor of economically mixed housing to claim that this really stood for low income public housing. He blasted the Goodman plan as "undoable and undesired". Neither he nor the BHA nor any of the paleo-liberals who undercut us secretly by colluding with the city ever mentioned, much less deplored, the fact that they were throwing 1200 low -income residents to the wolves. In its desire to appear liberal, the BHA professed to support the need for sound middle income housing and good urban planning (spare us from what the wealthy define as "good") as well as landmark preservation, but nowhere in any of the annals of the BHA or notably Martin Schneider's revisionist history is there any mention of, much less regret about, the eviction of the low-income and minority families and their businesses from the site.
Our local elected representatives, including our respected state assemblyman, the late Joe Dowd (later a judge), acted sympathetic but in fact their hands were tied because they had no jurisdiction on these issues. After our twins were born in the spring of 1960, Eric took the reins of the NHCG. But this was literally the start of my political education and consciousness and my eventual career as editor of a community newspaper, The Township; this led in subsequent years to a long professional environmental career and my Green Party candidacies for congress and the party's presidential nomination, and it was a jolt to confront "the insolence of office" and discover how the collusion of government and developers could be lined up against communities and property rights....rights granted to the rich and politically connected but never to, perish the thought, the poor. Aside from Jane Jacobs (blessings be on her), no other tough uncompromising leadership to defend communities, such as that of Saul Alinsky in Chicago, appeared.
While specific groups and individuals were responsible for the Heights debacle, they were abetted by the prevalence of "progressive" planners and academic theorists such as Richard Netzer, who stroked their beards and talked about the middle class and its values. Small wonder that in 1971, even lauded liberal/Republican Mayor John Lindsay proposed demolishing an Italian-American community in Corona to build a school. He was shored up by blustering self-styled populist journalist Jimmy Breslin and a then-unknown lawyer named Mario Cuomo. When I published a scathing attack in The Township on this plan and on Cuomo, who pretended to be a friend of the Corona homeowners, I got a phone call from Cuomo who office then was on Court St. in the Heights, inviting me to come speak with him.
I went up in the elevator, rang the bell of his office, and he answered the door. His office was fairly dark; no one else seemed to be around. As I recall, it seemed to be a one-room, one-person office, with his desk opposite the entrance door. I entered and sat down, and he began pacing the floor and griping about my criticism of his role in the Corona scandal. I was stunned. Me, a puny housewife, editor of a free monthly community newspaper, was a threat to a well-connected lawyer? Talk about thin skins.Years later, when he was governor, I attended a meeting in his downtown office of all the NYC environmental groups who were making him hot under the collar about Westway, the proposed highway replacement for the West Side Highway, and protecting the striped bass. He revealed his ignorance of (and disdain for) environmental matters and actually charged us all with dishonesty when we mentioned the striped bass and other concerns. He said: You just want to stop Westway. In other words, he dismissed the notion that that there might actually BE problems. Soon after I got a signed note from him, praising my commitment and saying that he hoped we could stay in touch. He still hasn't phoned me.
The NHCG fought back, attending and testifying before the Housing & Redevelopment Board, the City Planning Commission, the City Council, the Board of Estimate and other agencies. Sociology professor Martin James wrote a socio-economic report on the viability and need for the Goodman plan. But we were ten years too early; by the end of the sixties the notion of opposing bureaucracy, city planners and real estate pirates was commonplace thanks to the vigilant leadership of Jane Jacobs. For the north Heights, the battle came too soon and we lost, due to the complicity of the local liberals and elites.
(In 1970, to vex Donald Elliott, who lived on Pierrepont St. and had headed the City Planning Commission during the Cadman Plaza battle, I wrote an April Fool's article for The Township, the monthly paper I edited for three or four years. It was in the form of a news story from NYC announcing that the entire block that included his home was going to be condemned and demolished for a low income housing project. I received an anxious phone call from him; apparently he completely believed my story. And why not? )
Now, only the super-rich families live in most of the Heights one-family homes. Most of them have been subdivided into smaller apartments and charge astronomical rents to their group rentals of single professionals. Once I knew half the people I met on the street; today I know almost no one. Most of Montague St., the main commercial street (along with upper Henry St.) is bloated with real estate agencies, shoe stores and restaurants to serve the workers in the downtown government buildings. The two book stores are gone. There are almost no stores providing the things that real people and real families need on a daily basis. I do most of my shopping on Atlantic Ave., the near eastern street, primarily at New York's greatest store, Sahadi's. The kids in the playgrounds or being taken to or from school are accompanied by nannies because both their parents work. The shopping is poor because few people cook, preferring take-out or Fresh Direct home delivery or the pricey Garden of Eden's prepared foods. Modest frame houses in the north Heights now sell for over $3 million, resulting in a huge escalation of the city's property assessment and taxes. Purchase and flipping of these homes every two years for profit is routine.
Today there is wide opposition to the misuse of eminent domain for supposedly "public purposes", and support for the inherent right of people to live in their homes without fear of totalitarian confiscation. It's hard to connect the lost Cadman Plaza battle to what the Heights is today. Tsunami-strength economic forces have been at work. But it is even harder to understand why so many people lacked any conscience and why the Moses tyranny and abuse of power was allowed to ride roughshod over communities for so long. The only consolation is that people today do not consider resistance to be futile but fertile. We owe Jane Jacobs and her followers a huge debt for sparking a new way of thinking about urban and civic life. I and my husband feel proud that we played a small role in this change.
(Note: a quite complete and accurate account by Eric Meyer from 1963 is available in volume 2, #2 of the Pratt Institute archives. Martin Schneider's article for the BHA should be filed in the Fiction shelf, if retained at all.)