Our Town

Tuesday, September 19, 2006 - 15:49
This opinion piece ran in the New York Times on Sunday, September 3, 2006.

By Corinne Demas

I have always been a Stuyvesant Town kid and proud of it. When people heard I grew up in Manhattan I was quick to establish my pedigree. I didn't want anyone to mistake me for someone who had been reared in an apartment on Park Avenue or a penthouse on the Upper West Side or a town house on Sutton Place. I was a Stuyvesant Town snob: splendidly middle class, admirably unpretentious.

When I told people that I grew up in Stuyvesant Town they knew not only the scene of my childhood, but my family's values, as well. They knew we were clean and orderly (Stuyvesant Town applicants had to pass inspection in their previous dwellings); frugal (Stuyvesant Town was a remarkable bargain); child-centered (there was no fitness center for the grown-ups, but there were 12 playgrounds for the children.)

They also knew we felt ourselves to be among the elect. You couldn't just walk in and rent an apartment in Stuyvesant Town, you submitted yourself to an arduous application process. If you passed muster, your name was added to the waiting list. It could take years. A three-bedroom apartment like ours was so coveted that only people who had spent years of model tenancy in a two-bedroom apartment could ever hope to acquire one.

Stuyvesant Town wasn't just an address, it was an achievement. Most important, it was a community and a way of life.

Now when I say Stuyvesant Town, people will look at me differently. It's not that I've changed, but that Stuyvesant Town itself is about to change. Metropolitan Life is putting Stuyvesant Town and its sister housing complex, Peter Cooper Village, on the auction block. It will certainly be entirely revamped and repackaged as an altogether different kind of place. Not only will it have a face lift, but its character will be redefined.

A taste of this altered persona occurred when Rose Associates took over management of Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper several years ago. They gussied up whatever apartments they could lay claim to and made them available at market rates. A sign was hung up over the management office announcing luxury rentals. Some of the old timers joked about the sign, others just looked away. London plane trees - trees that were planted when I was a baby and grew many stories high - were felled, over the protests of residents.

"Luxury" means granite countertops and microwaves for the kitchen and marble tile for the bathroom. Outdoor amenities include jogging trails (what we used to call sidewalks). And playgrounds that used to house swings, slides and basic sprinklers now offer not only new equipment, like computer-sequenced water jets, but also themes, like a "pirate ship" to free children from the burden of imagining things for themselves.

A certain amount of the transformation was merely verbal hype. Although the floor plans of the renovated apartments are identical to the old ones, they became "spacious," and although the closets couldn't have magically grown in size, either, by some sleight of hand they were now advertised as "colossal."

These new market rate apartments were aggressively advertised and available to anyone ready to pay the higher rents. Stuyvesant Town became a two-class community, divided between the old residents and the new tenants who didn't have to put in their time on a waiting list.

The coming sale of Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper spells the dismantlement of what's left of the original vibrant community - one based on shared values and priorities. Luxury apartments can provide renters with a host of amenities (both real and imagined) but community is one amenity money can't buy.

The transformation of these two complexes with their 110 apartment buildings is unfortunate for the thousands of residents who will eventually lose their apartments, and for the thousands of young families who will lose their dream of ever living there. But the implications are also sad for the City of New York. Stuyvesant Town was the middle-class heart of the city, a utopia from the 1950's that exists nowhere else.

Now when people ask me where I'm from, I'll tell them Stuyvesant Town, but I'll quickly add, that I'm from the real place, not the one that steals its name.

Corinne Demas, a professor of English at Mount Holyoke College, is the author of Eleven Stories High: Growing Up in Stuyvesant Town, 1948-1968.