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Starrett City: a home of one's own with party walls

How did a group of high-rise, unlovely brick buildings designed on the much-maligned tower-in-the-park model and built on a former landfill on the very edge of Brooklyn ever manage to become “home”?

Photo of Anne-Laure Fayard
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Here is a great story that I read on Urban Omnibus. Here are some excerpts:

"This week, Architectural League Executive Director Rosalie Genevro brings those three themes together in a historical snapshot of Starrett City, a major housing development built between 1972 and 1976 in Southeastern Brooklyn.

Starrett City’s history is singular, formed in the urban crosscurrents of race, class, housing policy and the ever-evolving idea of community. As Genevro delved deeper into this story, speaking with long-time residents and some of the people who helped create and manage the development, she found much more than an account of how a fascinating New York neighborhood got to be that way.She found a thought-provoking counter-example to trends in housing and urban policy that prioritize individualized kinds of built form and ownership over shared resources and collective aspiration.

The need to rethink shared resources is a recurring theme in innovative thinking about housing current and future urban populations. (...)

In thinking about these questions, New Yorkers have a number of rich traditions to draw on. The cooperative housing model is much more ingrained here than in other cities. The diversity of our multifamily housing stock already relies inherently on sharing — boiler systems, lobbies, hallways — and on the intensive use of our streets and other public places. Looking a little deeper into the social story that inhabits the built environment — in this case, the story behind one of the last New York City developments built on the tower-in-the-park model —can only help illuminate new thinking about the relationship between people and buildings, and just might challenge us to question some of our basic assumptions about house, home and the American landscape.-Cassim Shepard"


Here are excerpts of the essay by Rosalie Genevro:


"I have been intrigued by Starrett City for quite a while, since spending time in the neighboring district of East New York working on Architectural League projects on housing, park and community design. Starrett — renamed Spring Creek Towers in 2002 — is a community that works. It is one of the most racially integrated areas of the city; it is safe; and if the buildings themselves seem uninspired on the exterior, they nevertheless provide accommodating, affordable housing for moderate income New Yorkers in a well-tended landscape. There is a large group of residents who feel deeply connected to Starrett/Spring Creek Towers and who feel that it provides all they are looking for in a place to live. So the question is: How did a group of high-rise, unlovely brick buildings designed on the much-maligned tower-in-the-park model and built on a former landfill on the very edge of Brooklyn ever manage to become “home”?

(...) something significant — a community — had been established at Starrett City. Whether because of Rosenberg’s skillful marketing, or the fact that he and his tenant relations staff had an ample budget to fund tenant clubs and activities, or something about the self-selection of the tenants, or whether it was the aspiration to integration itself, Starrett residents seem, from the start, to have perceived their development as something particular and appealing. (...)
Solomon Peeples, a resident of Starrett City since it opened and part of the managerial corps of the New York City health department before he retired, told me this winter that “Starrett City represented what I call the American Dream, where people of all races, ethnic groupings and incomes could live together, and I thought it would work. I figured my son would have to live in an integrated world so he might as well grow up in one…” What began as Twin Pines, and became Starrett City, and now is Spring Creek Towers, has changed, but has not lost its sense of being something distinct. Rabbi Avner German, who was one of Starrett’s original tenants, said in 2007 that Starrett is “not just another place,” that “there was a sort of — the Hebrew word for it is chavod — respect and honor that you felt that you lived at Starrett.” The history of Starrett City offers up a number of lessons about house and home, some of them often articulated but just as often ignored. They are worth thinking about.

Management is more important to creating successful places than architectural form. Form can be supportive, but it is not determinative. Starrett City was under construction while St. Louis was dynamiting Pruitt-Igoe.

Towers-in-the-park can be great places to live, if they are well managed and the promise of the name is delivered in the site and landscaping. New York has plenty of examples of towers in the park that work, including Stuyvesant Town and Penn South and Fordham Hill in the Bronx.

Government participation in the housing market can produce important collective benefits. Starrett City was made possible by support from a number of sources: federal tax credits to encourage production of housing; state benefits via financing through the Mitchell-Lama program; and city help including the provision of the site. A number of years after it opened, Starrett City and its tenants became a major beneficiary of the Section 8 subsidy program. Starrett is the largest federally subsidized rental project in the country; and it has provided more than 5,800 accommodating, decent apartments, housing many, many thousands of residents, for decades.

Home is where the heart is. Mr. Peeples’ American Dream — the mixture of cultures, classes and incomes — and his and his neighbors’ embrace of their high-rise, red-brick apartment towers as home stands in vivid, provocative contrast to the imagery commonly associated with the supposedly all-encompassing American Dream of pastoral landscapes, single family houses and white picket fences. Cities, and density, and living together, are likely to be a big part of our collective future. It is good to know that there are models that work.

Home can have party walls."

What we might keep is the idea of a sense of community "right from the beginning", services,  management (formal and informal) and government participation.

Cassim's comment about shared resources is also worth reflecting upon:

"The cooperative housing model is much more ingrained here than in other cities. The diversity of our multifamily housing stock already relies inherently on sharing — boiler systems, lobbies, hallways — and on the intensive use of our streets and other public places."

I also like the comment by Rosalie Genevro about house vs. home and apartment:

"Some months ago I was asked to take part in a series of lectures on the reverberations of the idea of “house” in American culture. Being a New Yorker, I immediately moved away from “house” and towards “home” and “apartment.” To my mind, American mythmaking has given far too much weight to “house.” What interests me more is the idea of home and the many, many different ways Americans construct that. If the idea of “house” didn’t wield so much influence, what might that mean for public policy?:


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Photo of Vincent Cheng

Interesting inspiration Anne-Laure, especially in relation the traditional American Dream of a house in the suburbs. I've noticed among my generation, or at least among my friends & acquaintance, we're seeking "homes" with more convenience, amenities, flexibility, & reasonable affordability, which are often found in more urban areas & communal living arrangements.

Photo of Anne-Laure Fayard

Hi Vincent, I think that the idea of a house vs. home is indeed an interesting one. On this distinction the work of McKendree Key is interesting: http://www.mckendreekey.com/Projects/ProjectMenu/ProjectMenu.html#

check paintings, 176 clifton place and spare keys under photos, videos and work on paper.

Photo of Vincent Cheng

Quite interesting work. Thanks for sharing Anne-Laure! Interesting take from "Paintings" on how suburban homes might have deep cultural roots from the frontier/pioneer/colonist days. Also "Spare Keys" reminds me of how my wife (whose always lived in city apartments and dorms) finds freestanding homes to be very unsafe because they're so easy to break into (so many ways in), especially without close neighbors/floormates around to keep an eye out.

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