An Accidental Utopia in Stuyvesant Town

Monday, November 20, 2000 - 12:00

This Op-ed ran in the New York Times on November 19, 2000.

WHEN I was a child, growing up in Stuyvesant Town, I did not know any women who live as I do now, in a house in the woods, miles from any city. I am a stranger even to my imagination then. Now, the trees dwarf my house, fight for sky space. They've provided fuel for the wood stove, shelves for my study. There's a pond in my distant view, beyond the clearing we call a lawn. Dark as well-brewed tea, it teems with life.

In Stuyvesant Town, the red-brick complex just north of the East Village, the trees are decorative creatures, shade-givers at most. My old windows, 11 stories up, looked out across the Oval, the perfect lawn, and the fountains, where three spires of water rose high as the masts on sailing ships. When I was a child we longed to wade there, but the guards wouldn't allow that. Nothing lived in that antiseptic water; even an errant leaf was immediately plucked out. On a windy day, we'd hold our faces out to the spray from the fountains, catch the water on our tongues, imagine ourselves by a real pond.

It took decades of distance for me to form any notion of Stuyvesant Town's identity. Stuyvesant Town was as familiar and unremarkable to me as my own face. It wasn't until I began thinking about my children's childhoods that I began to note what was distinctive about my own, growing up in a community that racially and economically hardly mirrored the diverse population of New York. And I came to see that Stuyvesant Town was not just a place where I happened to grow up, but a way of life.

Outside the city, a New York childhood is hard to imagine. The idiosyncrasies of Stuyvesant Town—urban, but with bucolic aspirations—are all the more amazing.

Stuyvesant Town, which opened in 1947, stretches from 14th Street to 20th Street, from First Avenue to Avenue C and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive. It was modern in concept, in design, in execution. In a place like Manhattan, a complex of three dozen buildings on 18 square blocks, financed by a corporation (Metropolitan Life) and housing 25,000 middle-class citizens was unique. Remarkable, the 8,755 apartments developed into a true community, with a sense of its history and a loyal (though not uncritical) population.

The complex is set apart by its timelessness. In a city that is perpetually in flux, Stuyvesant Town has been a rare constant, assiduously maintained but not substantially renovated. It has not deteriorated, nor has it been gentrified. On a visit last month, I felt as if some sentimental curator had preserved my childhood habitat intact. But it wasn't just the buildings and the grounds that so closely resembled the place I had known. Its character, too, had endured.

I came back to Stuyvesant Town to read from my memoir about growing up there. The event was held in the senior lounge, a space that didn't exist when I was a child. Seniors were rare then; now they're a sizable presence. Some in the audience had spent their entire adult lives in Stuyvesant Town. Some were born here, and now live here with their own children. Others moved away, only to find themselves drawn back.

After the reading, residents traded memories and Stuy Town trivia. In this city, often accused of impersonality, what I witnessed was an uncommon reunion: people celebrating their shared past. They are more than mere neighbors; they seem like kin. They've given this battalion of brick buildings the feel of a small town.

The afternoon of my return is unusually warm for fall. On the roof of my old building, I stand in the spot where as a little girl I had once posed for a snapshot for my family's album. In the background of the original picture, the Empire State building is a lone skyscraper against an unmarked sky. Now, 45 years later, the skyline is cluttered with buildings that hadn't even been dreamed then, and the sky is alive with jets that invoke the drawing of "The Future" I produced in elementary school.

When I look beyond the secret landscape of Stuyvesant Town roofs I see a new city, but as I walk within the sanctuary of Stuyvesant Town itself, it is easy to imagine myself transported back in time. The trees, saplings in my childhood, are now substantial presences. There are air-conditioners, but not much else has changed. Even the playground equipment is intact, the monkey bars' metal still cold and slippery, familiar to my hand. When I sit by the fountains, the view is identical: the Oval, the buildings rising around it. I give in to temptation, slip off my shoes and dip my toes in that clear water. This time the guard only smiles.

One characteristic of Stuyvesant Town is its military ambiance. The critic Lewis Mumford called it "the architecture of the Police State." Everything was regulated, manicured and bland. The playgrounds, surrounded by metal fences too high to climb over, were locked at night, although it wasn't clear why. During the day the children playing looked like zoo animals.

We children enjoyed most playing outside the spaces allotted to us. We dug in the narrow dirt strips between the cobblestones around the benches. We chalked messages on the stone bases of the flagpoles. We were lured by the unpaved areas behind the thigh-high chain fences. We saw the guards who were paid to protect us as the enemy.

Only when it snowed did we fearlessly challenge the boundaries. Early on a snowy day, my friends and I, our snowsuits over our pajamas, stamped out our names in the snow in the center of the Oval lawn in letters so big we could read them from my apartment windows. If it stayed cold, they'd remain for days. As it warmed, tufts of green would start showing through, our names would grow illegible, and finally they'd disappear so completely into the lawn it was hard to believe they had ever been there.

I have described the Stuyvesant Town of my youth as a utopia of the 50's. It was certainly an accidental utopia. When the builders planned this formidable enterprise, they were thinking about practical housing for families, not the kind of cooperative community envisioned by 19th-century idealists. But Stuyvesant Town became more than a place to live.

In the 50's, the dream of the American families was the suburbs. For city dwellers, Stuyvesant Town was the next best thing. For some it was a compromise, a limited utopia. For others it was the best of worlds: a green oasis in the middle of the metropolis. They were spared commuting as well as mowing lawns. Proximity to Midtown, along with insular tranquility, is still the draw.

UNLIKE most of Manhattan, Stuyvesant Town and its more expensive cousin on its north flank, Peter Cooper Village, were designed for families. There were acres of playgrounds and organized activities. There were 13 children on my floor. None were exactly my age, but we played together, as kids in a small village do. We roamed among our apartments (in the 50's, doors were unlocked during the day). We played ball and roller-skated down the exquisitely smooth rubber tile floor. We ran elevator races. We made do with the games that came in easy-to-store cardboard boxes. The layouts of Clue and Candy Land and Monopoly were as familiar as our apartments.

Like all New York apartment dwellers, we lived intimately with our neighbors. We could hear them walking around and talking. We knew what they were eating for dinner and what they were watching on television. The steam pipe in the bathroom carried children's laments and mothers' nagging—over tooth brushing, flushing and washing—up and down the entire column of Apartment B's. Children practiced their instruments in the evenings, and if you were waiting for the elevator you'd be serenaded by several pianos, a violin or two, a clarinet and an occasional trombone.

We could see into each other's apartments as well. The buildings were H-shaped, so all apartments could look cater-corner into others, and some apartments looked directly into ones on the other side of the building. There were people I watched but never heard. There were people I heard whose apartments were out of sight.

In an apartment in the attached building, an older girl played the piano for hours every day, the most difficult sonatas and preludes and etudes. My father would turn off the television, my mother would come from the kitchen, dish towel in hand, and I would leave my homework half done. We'd open the window, turn off the light and lean on the windowsill and listen to her. She never noticed us. We never knew her name.

Though we lived wall to wall with our neighbors, we lived in relative harmony, a harmony brought about, or at least enhanced by, homogeneity. Nearly all the original tenants of Stuyvesant Town were young families of World War II veterans. It was a new town, and these settlers had a common vision of what they hoped for from life. It was a community where little girls took piano lessons and were expected to go to college. If our fathers weren't lawyers or school principals or doctors, or dentists like my father, they worked in offices. On hot days they wore their jackets home from work, with their ties just loosened. If our mothers worked at all, as mine did, they were teachers.

It's impossible for me to tell how much this is a view of Eden burnished by time and distance. The 50's is an era easily portrayed as a caricature of harmonious conformity, and of course no era, no community is as idyllic as the surface may suggest.

Certainly one regrettable aspect of Stuyvesant Town was that it had originally been racially segregated. The only black faces I saw there were those of the women who cleaned the apartments of neighbors or cared for their children. I suspect that any of us weren't really aware of the racial makeup until we were older, and America was a different place by then.

The schools I attended (Hunter Elementary School and Hunter High School) drew students of all races from all over New York, but few went home to truly integrated neighborhoods. A black classmate whose life seemed similar to mine- her father was a doctor, she took piano lessons and she had a party dress with a multitude of crinolines-lived at the opposite end of Manhattan. That her neighborhood was all black seemed no more peculiar to me than that everyone in my neighborhood was white. What I hadn't understood was that while my family could choose to live in her neighborhood, hers didn't have the option to live in mine. Although the first black family was admitted to Stuyvesant Town in 1950, it took the dedication of residents through lawsuits in the 1960's to force management to end its discriminatory policies.

In the 50's, when New York was a patchwork of ethnic ghettos, Stuyvesant Town had what might have been considered a relatively diverse population. Jews and Catholics, with a few protestants in the mix, lived side by side. I've been told that some playgrounds had a schism between groups of kids, but I believe it was based primarily on where they went to school: public, parochial or private.

The concept of diversity had a different meaning for a child growing up in the 50's, and for any child, even now, diversity is relative. Even though my neighbors were all white, they hardly seemed alike. Their grandparents had come from different parts of the world. Most were Jewish, but some kept kosher and others had Christmas trees. They were different sizes and shapes with different hair and eye color, not to mention different abilities and personalities. My family were Greek-Americans, among the few in Stuyvesant Town. For all I know, we were considered exotics.

While Stuyvesant Town is now racially integrated, it is still fairly uniform economically, because of MetLife's minimum income requirements. (An applicant in 1999 needed a gross annual income of more than $50,000 to qualify for a one-bedroom apartment.) A degree of homogeneity comes from self-selection: only people who subscribe to the mystique would choose to live there in the first place.

Although Stuyvesant Town apartments offered one, two, or three bedrooms, the basic uniformity reinforced the notion of equality. Wealth could not buy luxury in this utopia. Our apartments had the same layouts, the same sand-colored porcelain bathroom fixtures, and the same wooden parquet floors in one-foot squares.

A friend who grew up in Stuyvesant Town believes the sameness made people crazy. But I think for children, especially, the sameness was comforting. When you visited a friend's house, the floor plan was reassuringly familiar. The bathroom was in the same place, your friend's bathroom was the same size as yours. The layout of buildings, playgrounds and walks was predictable, once you mastered the design. As a child you grew up seeking out subtle differences. You noticed details.

If Stuyvesant Town was bland, that made the world outside more brilliant. The variety of textures of buildings and stores and restaurants in the great city beyond was dazzling to me. I'd walk along First Avenue like a tourist in a foreign bazaar. When I got home, Stuyvesant Town seemed serene. The sensory deprivations also made me acutely sensitive to my surroundings when I was in the country. The limitless variety of plants, the irregularities of terrain, were a feast for my senses. No child reared in Stuyvesant Town takes nature for granted.

Today we're distrustful of big housing projects, wary of anything that smacks of urban renewal. Yet Stuyvesant Town must be counted as a New York success story.

Whatever its future, it can still serve as a model for the possible. It reminds us that it shouldn't be remarkable for middle-class citizens to have attractive, convenient, reasonably priced hosing in New York. A place where they can raise their families, where they can imagine growing old. A place their children's children will call home as well.

Can Stuyvesant Town be replicated? Probably not, Its success owes much to its history. Those original tenants were fueled by the optimism of the era. It shaped their community. As their ranks thin, as they inevitably must, it remains to be seen if that legacy can endure.