When I was asked by preservationist Marie Beirne to make a short promotional video for a campaign to attain landmark status for Stuyvesant Town, like most people, I’d only known the complex to be an expansive housing “project” for the middle class, albeit a successful one— apartments had a ten year waiting list. For over fourteen years I lived only three short blocks south of Stuyvesant Town and would walk past it everyday, thinking how regimented and off-putting it looked from 14th street. Not once in those fourteen years, did I venture inside the complex. Then, one very hot summer morning, I found myself running late on my way back home from mid-town. The possibility of a shortcut from 16th Street to Ave A prompted me to take my first step inside. it took only two minutes to realize how wrong my perception of Stuyvesant Town had been. I sensed immediate relief from a drop of nearly ten degrees in the temperature offered by the surrounding forest of trees. So much green I’d never imagined to exist beyond the brick walls! And the sudden quiet: a genuine removal from the Manhattan din. The next day I requested an application. Even after I moved into Stuyvesant Town, however, I still had no clue about its rich history and significance. So when I began to do research and to interview people for the short video, I found myself in a near, constant state of wonder. I experienced one epiphany after another about the critical roles Stuyvesant Town played in post-WWII politics, urban planning, the civil rights movement, and architectural design.
Beyond the sheer physical immensity of the complex and all the numbers that entails, Stuyvesant Town’s significance is to be found in its claim to a number of “Firsts.” It was the first public-private venture in urban renewal whereby the government acquired the 16 acres of Manhattan real estate for the Metropolitan Insurance Company, the richest corporation in the country at the time, to build the massive complex with the understanding it would keep rents at an affordable middle class level. It was the first instance of a post modernist European design conceit that sought to utilize hi-rise building technology to achieve more space and light, an approach the French architect, Le Corbusier termed, “Towers In the Park.” And, most significantly, the nation’s first fair housing law resulted from a bitter fight to desegregate Met Life’s Whites Only complex. This struggle not only resulted in historic legislation, but set a precedent for direct collective action.
More recently, of course, Stuyvesant Town has become a prime object of speculative real estate interests (“Largest Real Estate Transaction in World History”) and a stage on which the struggle to maintain the middle class in Manhattan plays out.
What started out as a short video promo for landmarking the complex has developed into the film, The Burden of Eden, which tells some of the stories of these critical firsts through the voices of those who were there and of those who have been keen observers. Along with Marie Beirne, who is now my co-producer, we’ve had the privilege of being invited into the homes of many first, second and third generation tenants for interviews to help construct these stories. Further, The Burden of Eden underscores how the future of a unique and important complex born of the ideal of “private enterprise productively devoted to public service” remains vulnerable to predatory capitalism.