Land Use

New York Times Revisits "Negroes Filling Up 99th Street" (And Features's Recent Documentary)


The New York Times has a story today about the historic black enclave on Manhattan's Upper West Side that was destroyed by the government in the 1950s, and my recent documentary on the topic, The Tragedy of Urban Renewal:

From about 1905 until the 1950s, West 98th and 99th Streets constituted a vibrant, predominantly African-American community that was something of a miniature Harlem, with its own Renaissance.

Philip A. Payton Jr., a real estate entrepreneur who wanted to end housing segregation, owned or managed most of the buildings on those blocks. The singer Billie Holiday lived there for a time, as did Arthur A. Schomburg, the historian and writer whose collection of art, manuscripts and photographs became the foundation for the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Other residents included the author Rosa Guy and the actor Robert Earl Jones, the father of James Earl Jones. The actress Butterfly McQueen lived there for a time, and later in Park West Village.

"You could not imagine the talented people who lived in the old neighborhood," said Jim Torain, 69, who for the past decade has organized the reunions of what he calls the Old Community; the words were written in green frosting on the cake.

Title I of the Housing Act of 1949 set in motion the obliteration of the neighborhood. Robert Moses, in his position as chairman of the New York City Slum Clearance Committee, condemned the area, largely on the basis of median household income. It was razed piecemeal through the 1950s, and much of it sat as rubble until the early 1960s when the Park West Village apartments were built for middle-income residents.

The last time the Times wrote an article about the 99th and 98th Street community was 1905 in a piece headlined Negroes Filling up 99th Street:

A constant stream of furniture trucks loaded with the household efects of a new colony of colored people who are invading the choice locality is pouring into the street…Meanwhile some rich colored men had held a meeting and decided that there was no reason why the people of their race who could afford it should not live in the aristocratic sections of the city…

Philip Payton and his investors are the unnamed "rich colored men" in the article. Payton probably wanted to end residential segregation for moral and principled reasons. But he had other motives, too. His company prospectus states: "The very prejudice which has heretofore worked against us can be turned and used to our profit."

Payton understood that in a free economy, the larger your customer base the more money you can make. As economist Thomas Sowell puts it in Basic Economics, "when a landlord refuses to rent an apartment to people from the 'wrong' group, that can mean leaving the apartment vacant longer. Clearly this means a loss of rent—if this is a free market."

For more, check out the video on Payton and the West 99th and 98th Street community: