Foreseeing a severe housing shortage after WWII, the City of New York and Metropolitan Life, then the world’s richest corporation, form the first public-private partnership for cleaning up blighted urban areas. The City condemns “the Gas House district,” creating the largest forced migration in its history. This gives Met Life a site on which to build Stuyvesant Town, providing affordable housing for thousands of returning war veterans and their families. A viable middle class is thus kept from fleeing to the suburbs.
The stated goal of Met Life’s Chairman, Frederick Esker, was “that families of moderate means might live in health, comfort and dignity in park-like communities, and that a pattern might be set of private enterprise productively devoted to public service.” Such beneficence had its limitations. Esker believed that “negroes and whites don’t mix”. Esker, along with Robert Moses, got the New York State legislature to pass a law effectively allowing racial discrimination in a publicly supported private housing complex. This original sin of Stuyvesant Town leads to years of court challenges, legislative battles, and direct action, all in the context of Cold War politics.
Stuyvesant Town’s “whites only” policy did not sit well with returning veterans who had just fought alongside African-American soldiers and had seen the results of racism in Nazi Germany. A bitter, epic struggle to end the exclusionary policy results in the New York City Council passing the Brown Isaacs bill, the first fair housing law in the nation. A precedent for the direct actions of the 1960s civil rights movement is set.