MCNY Blog: New York Stories

Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org

Affordable New York: Harlem River Houses

Samuel H. (Samuel Herman) Gottscho (1875-1971), [Harlem River Houses] Some of the 576 apartments for colored people, 1936. Museum of the City of New York. 41.239.3

Samuel H. (Samuel Herman) Gottscho (1875-1971), [Harlem River Houses] Some of the 576 apartments for colored people, 1936. Museum of the City of New York. 41.239.3

The Harlem River Houses complex, located along the Harlem River Drive between 151st and 153rd Streets, is a site full of firsts. It was the first public housing development in New York City funded by the federal government (along with its sister development in Williamsburg). One of its contributing architects, John Louis Wilson, Jr., was the first black graduate of Columbia University’s School of Architecture and one of the first African American architects registered in New York. It was the first public housing development to be designated a New York City landmark and placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Samuel H. (Samuel Herman) Gottscho (1875-1971), [Harlem River Houses] General view of Great Court, with sunken play areas, 1936. Museum of the City of New York. 41.239.6

Samuel H. (Samuel Herman) Gottscho (1875-1971), [Harlem River Houses] General view of Great Court, with sunken play areas, 1936. Museum of the City of New York. 41.239.6

Completed in 1937 and intended for a segregated population of African Americans, the seven buildings that make up the complex contain 571 apartments that currently house over 1,000 people. More than 11,000 people applied for spots when it initially opened. Rent was $21 per month. The courtyards provided community space and a safe place for children to play, and there were child care and health care programs housed in the buildings. Apartments featured electrical lighting, steam heat, and fully equipped private bathrooms and kitchens, all things frequently missing from the substandard tenement housing that was often the only choice of black tenants in a highly discriminatory housing market. Harold Ickes of the Public Works Administration wrote, about conditions the development was intended to alleviate, “The record of the great mass of Negroes in Harlem is one of pitiless exploitation, abetted by inelastic supply within narrowly circumscribed limits, and a relentlessly ballooning demand.”

Samuel H. (Samuel Herman) Gottscho (1875-1971), Colored Concrete Statue "Motherhood", flanking passages to Great Court [at Harlem River Houses], 1936. Museum of the City of New York. 41.239.4

Samuel H. (Samuel Herman) Gottscho (1875-1971), Colored Concrete Statue “Motherhood”, flanking passages to Great Court [at Harlem River Houses], 1936. Museum of the City of New York. 41.239.4

James Richmond Barthe, a black sculptor, worked on a team led by Jewish emigre sculptor Heinz Warneke to create an eighty foot bas relief frieze that celebrated African American culture and represented a Biblical exodus that equated the Promised Land with the Harlem River Houses. Unfortunately, the piece was never installed in Harlem and instead went to the Kingsborough Houses in Brooklyn, disappointing Barthe greatly. Other sculptures can be found throughout the complex, including one of John Henry and another of a woman representing motherhood.

Despite the fact that the Harlem River Houses were explicitly segregated, like all public housing at the time, the complex for many represented a move toward racial equality in the city. The inclusion of a black architect and a black sculptor on the project reinforced the idealism reflected in the thoughtful, elevated design of the complex. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, president of the NAACP Walter N. White, and Ickes all attended the bricklaying ceremony.

New York City Housing Authority, Nursery, Harlem River Houses, 1939. Museum of the City of New York. 41.277.50

New York City Housing Authority, Nursery, Harlem River Houses, 1939. Museum of the City of New York. 41.277.50

When the Harlem River Houses marked the 50th anniversary of their opening in 1987, the New York Times noted that three dozen original tenants were still living there. John Louis Wilson, Jr. returned to the complex he’d helped design and led a tour for the Mayor of Chicago, the chairman of the Housing Authority, and David N. Dinkins, who was then the Manhattan borough president but would go on to become the first (and so far only) African American Mayor of New York City.

In recent years, the Harlem River Houses have begun to show their age and work is underway to repair leaking roofs that have plagued top floor residents, and address vacant apartments have been a magnet for squatters.

Samuel H. (Samuel Herman) Gottscho (1875-1971), [Harlem River Houses] Court facing Harlem River, 1936. Museum of the City of New York. 41.239.2

Samuel H. (Samuel Herman) Gottscho (1875-1971), [Harlem River Houses] Court facing Harlem River, 1936. Museum of the City of New York. 41.239.2

You can learn more about the Harlem River Houses by visiting the LaGuardia and Wagner Archives’ online exhibition about the Harlem River Houses, which includes photographs, drawings, and documents from their collections.

This blog post is presented in conjunction with the City Museum’s exhibition, Affordable New York: A Housing Legacy, on view until February 16, 2016. If you or a family member lives or lived in the Harlem River Houses, please share your memories in the comments section. We look forward to hearing from you!

–Lacy Schutz, Chief Administrative Officer, Exhibitions & Collections

8 comments on “Affordable New York: Harlem River Houses

  1. Marvin
    November 28, 2015

    Great read while doing research on Harlem real estate for Harlem Local http://harlemlocal. Definitely enlighten and will include footnotes for Harlem community affordable housing. Thanks.

  2. Alvin R. Moe
    January 20, 2016

    The backdrop of all my fondest childhood memories is The Harlem River Houses. In 1962 at the age of 5, me, and my 2 sisters grew up in Harlem River Houses at our Grandmother’s apartment # 4C Bldg.210-S. Our parents worked, so our Grandmother Mrs. Stella Edghill would pick us up from school everyday. I remember all the fun I had running in the rain there, tasting the salt water running down my face. The very first time girls chased me because, they had a crush. I remember my Grandfather coming home at the same time everyday, and we would meet him in front of the building to get our Hersey Chocolate Bars as our treat. The Play pit as we would call it was the meeting place for us to meet all of our friends. The Play pit had a concrete Turtle, Monkey Bars? 3 swing bars,concrete barrels and a thing we called a saddle which was concrete also. We also had 3 large trees in there.The ground was black tar. We had the best of times there playing Russian Bulldog, Ringling Choco 1,2,3, Red light Green Light, Hide and, Seek, Stick Ball and many other sports games including skating. Not only did we play, we fought in the Play Pit too. In the Summer all the Parents would sit around the Play Pit on the benches that were directly facing the Pit on the outside of it. In those days everyone was friendly, and knew each others children. In the absence of a parent, or grandparent, no problem. If you needed scolding you would get it from someone else. Everyone looked out for each other. Strangers rarely passed through because of the close knit families that lived in Harlem River Houses. We could always count on the children’s water shower being on in the Summer. We could always count on Caterpillars hanging, and falling from the trees in the Spring. If you walked through that Tunnel to go to your building at the time of the caterpillars, for sure you would get some in your hair, somewhere on your clothes; WOW!!! I don’t miss that. Speaking of the “Tunnels” the entrance ways into the projects. I remember my Father, and his friends practicing singing “Doo Wop” in the Tunnels. They were really good. By the way my Father sang the Bass Parts. So many friends, girlfriends,so many memories. Even my Mother has memories growing up in Harlem River Houses. She tells me my Grandparents moved in Harlem River Houses in 1940. Growing up at that time”60s-70s” was so safe, that our Grandmother use to walk us home to 159th St. and 8th avenue; then walk back by herself even when it was dark. No one bothered her. She walked up to her 4th floor apt never complaining. When she reached her mid 80s she moved too the 211 side on the second floor.Our wonderful Grandmother (Mrs. Stella Edghill) aka Mommy Edghill went on to be with Her Lord, and Savior 1988. She was 92 years of age. I still cry when I think of her. To me she was the best of the best. I take my children through Harlem River Houses. I talk to them about my history there with their Great Grandmother and Father. I let them play in the Play pit so they can breathe some of the aroma of the past into their souls. I am so glad that Harlem River Houses still exist. Some of my childhood friends still live there. Their children, and their children’s children are growing up in Harlem River Houses. We keep the memories alive by having a “Family Day” celebration for Harlem River Houses past, and present residents. I really enjoy going to see all my friends, and families I grew up to know; but its nothing like taking a stroll through Harlem River Houses any day of any Month hearing echoes of the past, feeling the energy, plus the lingering perceptions in my mind;my childhood Love Harlem River Houses. Alvin Rodney Moe

    • Dorene Moe
      January 20, 2016

      All I could say is amen because you covered it all except hies in throw we played handball in the tunnel and scullies in the pit…Best of the Best memories. If I was able to go back,it would be to that time…sitting on the bench patiently waiting for my chocolate or jaw breakers to arrive…

    • Dorene Moe
      January 20, 2016

      All I can say to that is amen because you covered everything except scullies in the pit, handball in the tunnel, and races around the pit. The Best of the Best. If I could go back in time it would to that time of sitting on the bench waiting for my chocolate or jaw breakers to arrive…What an awesome time we had!!!

    • Lord Byron
      February 23, 2016

      Hey everybody I bet you I know all of your I grew up in 2651 7th Avenue hi everybody
      And you forgot subtag

  3. Sheila Phillips
    January 20, 2016

    I grew up in 2850 8th Avenue in apt 10-C. My dad was President of the Tenant Patrol. We lived there for more than 35 years, until my dad moved to Co-Op City in the Bronx.

  4. Annette
    January 21, 2016

    Annette, from 1958 till 1992 I grew up in 234 (just took a picture of my old building in January 2016 while visiting NYC. My mom moved to 211 when we all grew up and left home. My fond memories; my my my where do I start. Everybody was family and Harlem River was a community, you didn’t have to leave for anything. We had an egg man, a milk lady, a laundromat with Ms Baron making sure our machines where alway clean, a drug store (Docs) a candy store ( Mr. Peters) a mini super market (Sauls) a barber shop, a photography studio, a nursery and preschool a community center, a pool (well a sprinkler) lol but when your little and can actually wade when the water filled up it felt like a pool, a park on the riverside with basket ball courts and swings and tennis courts. The pit where we played rushing bulldog, ran relay races around the pit. Played Lottie’s and hop scotch. Playing on the barrels and monkey bars, Jump rope or just sitting on the bench laughing with friends Had picnics in the play street. And during Christmas the court yard was decorated with lights and it was beautiful. I could go on and on and I always smile when I think of home where I grew up. A wonderful place to live

    • Annette
      January 21, 2016

      I forgot to mention the library that is still in operation. Aww Harlem River Houses

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This entry was posted on November 10, 2015 by in Photography Collection and tagged , , .

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