When Tenants Claimed the City: The Struggle for Citizenship in New York City Housing
(University of Illinois Press, $55
Published as part of the “Women in American History” series of the University of Illinois Press, Roberta Gold’s When Tenants Claimed the City is a history of tenant movements and organizations in New York City in the postwar era—roughly the late 1940s through the early 1970s. It owes its dual focus—both women’s history and housing—to the extraordinary women who made up much of the leadership of tenant organizing in that period. They included founders of the Metropolitan Council on Housing and others whose names are still familiar to New York housing activists today: Jane Benedict, Hortense Gabel, Frances Goldin, Esther Rand, Marie Runyon, Yolanda Sánchez, Cleo Silvers, Bess Stevenson, and Jane Wood
These women, along with a host of others throughout the city, fought to keep rent control in place after the end of World War II and stave off the “slum clearance” that targeted both communities of color and integrated communities. They organized rent strikes for better conditions, and pressed for legislation to protect tenants. Men, of course, were also involved in these struggles, and have not been slighted here; men were especially prominent in tenant organizing in Harlem and Brooklyn. But overall, the force of women in the movement had an impact not only on housing struggles, but also on the development of a “pragmatic,” unself-conscious feminism before what is commonly thought of as the feminist movement.
The book is arranged chronologically, more or less struggle by struggle. Some — the preservation of rent control after the war, the stymieing of wholesale redevelopment on the Lower East Side, the building of tenant-controlled co-ops — were at least partially successful, while others were losing battles, particularly where the interests of low-income tenants of color and their white neighbors (if they lived in integrated neighborhoods) were concerned. The steady assaults on affordable housing by an increasingly neoliberal (and racist) establishment is documented here, as well as what tenants of varied histories and backgrounds have done to push back. Throughout, tenants asserting their rights as citizens, and thus as actors in their own destinies, have challenged the prevailing vision of citizenship as tied to ownership, and of the sense and value of community as necessarily having anything to do with what the people who live in that community look like—though having very much to do with how they are housed.
This is a scholarly work, but readers will be delighted to discover that it is also gracefully written and tells a fascinating story. Roberta Gold has deftly woven together the strands of the Old and New Left, the Black and Latino Power movements of the sixties, and, of course, a hitherto unsuspected kind of feminism, in a series of riveting tales of courageous champions of the people who unhesitatingly took on the political and economic powers of their time and, if they didn’t always agree about the how, had a very clear vision of the why.