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Apt. for Rent in Stench City

Bennett Baumer Dec 16

Hell’s Kitchen and the Battle for Urban Space
By Joseph Varga
Monthly Review Press, 2013

The Great Rent Wars: New York, 1917–1929
By Robert Fogelson
Yale University Press, 2013


Cities are car-clogged streets, high-rise buildings of concrete, steel and glass, subways, bridges, parks — the infrastructure of our spatial practice and daily routine. Our commutes are marked by the physical structure of the city. We emerge from an apartment house to briskly navigate a cracked sidewalk past a canyon of other buildings along the street and down the stairs into the subway.

Embedded in the daily commute, however, are a set of social relations that govern how the infrastructure functions in the lives of the city’s citizens. The apartment building where you awoke was built either by turn-of-the-century Tammany Hall-supporting stone masons or a foreign-based private equity firm employing undocumented Mexican immigrants that installed glass panels 20 floors above street level. The subway booth worker is a unionized public sector employee who struck in 2005 and lives with three generations in the Queens bungalow she grew up in. 

Power dynamics determine the social relations that decide rent due, wages and even citizenship. So who determines social relations and controls New York City? Hell’s Kitchen and the Battle for Urban Space by Joseph Varga offers lessons for today by exploring who the power brokers were and how residents of Manhattan’s West Side lived during the Progressive Era (1890s­–1920s) — a period of social and political reform that sought to rid government of corruption and assimilate the unwashed immigrant masses in dominant Protestant middle-class values. While Varga’s Hell’s Kitchen is set 100 years in the past, he writes a spatial history of the neighborhood that reframes political reform, crime, urban planning and citizenship. 

The “stench of manure [and] offal” from slaughterhouse byproducts, dangerous low-paid dock work, overcrowded housing conditions and the threat of police and criminal violence marked life in Hell’s Kitchen at the beginning of the 20th century. Varga writes that Progressive reformers and actual Hell’s Kitchen residents (who were predominantly Irish immigrants and their offspring, as well as some African-Americans) both attempted to improve living conditions through economic and political activity. Progressive reformers straddled both the Republican and Democratic parties and emphasized an active public and private sector prescribing social remedies as public policy. Progressives utilized the newly “scientific” social sciences to bolster their efforts to make decent citizens out of impoverished immigrants packed in substandard tenement ghettos reminiscent of their homelands. 

The Rockefeller family, for example, funded Hell’s Kitchen settlement houses and reformist New York Governor Al Smith, originally a Tammany stalwart, supported early rent control. The streets in Hell’s Kitchen were paved with good intentions but many residents resented the settlement houses because of their restrictive rules and intrusive social services, and were lukewarm to the parks that spruced up the dock area. While Rockefeller pulled funding from his settlement house due to lack of interest, post-World War I rent control measures proved to be popular policies in the 1920s. 

Hell’s Kitchen provides a theoretical framework to understand the modern city, but Robert Fogelson’s The Great Rent Wars: New York, 1917–1929 delivers the realpolitik.

It seems New Yorkers have always complained about the rent and it has always been difficult to find a decent apartment. In Fogelson’s narrative some tenants resorted to sleeping in acrid boiler rooms and dank cellars. Those that found apartments huddled into them and feared exorbitant rent increases, a situation that eventually sparked the formation of tenant leagues and rent strikes. At protest marches, striking tenants declared they would maintain the buildings themselves, crying out, “the Bolsheviki are in control.”

Tenant concerns about soaring rents were matched by landlords’ fear of creeping socialism. Tenant leagues proliferated, advocating rent control (and winning the first rent control laws in 1920), and the Socialist Party gained seats in the State Assembly. In addition to overcrowded apartments, tenants filled housing courts to capacity, hoping to get a tenant-friendly judge to ward off rent hikes and evictions. Rent Wars prominently features the law, as judges largely were the arbiters of rental disputes and though the book painstakingly lays out the constitutional battles over rent control, there are amusing tales of courtroom and apartment house donnybrooks. 

Rent control expired in 1929 but reappeared as price controls during World War II and still covers almost one million city apartments. Rent laws — which are set by the state legislature — have been greatly weakened in the past two decades and many New Yorkers now fork over more than half their monthly income in rent. Fogelson’s book reminds us that rent control is a remedy to a chronic housing shortage but laws that are made can be unmade. Like in the 1920s, the city’s population is set to increase further, compounding the housing shortage all the while Albany seems content to allow rent regulations to phase out.


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