Good Design Alone Can’t Change Society: Marcus Garvey Village (Brownsville, Brooklyn) after Thirty Years

By Kym Liebman, Lauren Tenney and Susan Saegert

In 1968, Martin Luther King was murdered, the nation’s cities and campuses were torn by riots and all the conventional approaches to cities were being questioned. Every modern approach to social reform, planning and architecture was under scrutiny. The door was open for experimentation and new approaches. In this environment, the New York State legislature created the Urban Development Corporation (UDC) with a reform agenda to:

  • Increase the supply of livable, secure and well-designed urban housing at a time when housing was being lost to arson and abandonment;
  • Produce integrated mixed-income and mixed-race communities in new developments;
  • Create housing that stabilized at-risk communities;
  • Respond to the context of the area surrounding a development;
  • Provide multi-family housing and open space that would support family and community life and child supervision, creating developments with a sense of community; and
  • Learn from the housing prototypes of European housing developments.

One of UDC’s most unique projects was Marcus Garvey Village (MGV), located in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn. Members of the environmental psychology program at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York recently conducted research to understand what residents think of the project. Our study utilized photography, ethnography, surveys and interviews and served as background to a retrospective exhibit on the legacy of UDC sponsored by the American Institute of Architecture (AIA). The results of our study were mixed, calling into question the idea that good design alone can change society.

The Design of MGV

MGV exemplifies a number of UDC’s central beliefs about housing design and its social consequences. After visiting over a dozen European social housing models, Ted Liebman, chief architect of UDC, recommended a low-rise, high-density prototype that adhered to the reform agenda of the UDC.

Built as part of the Model Cities Urban Renewal Initiative for Central Brooklyn, MGV was first occupied in 1976. Elements of the design included duplex apartments with private backyards or terraces; mews and street units where the mews were designed to better meet the needs of families with children; and the inclusion of substantial space for non-residential uses such as a community center, a day care facility, commercial shops and parking. In addition, throughout the development there is a minimal use of shared entrances and stairwells. Most apartments, rather, have private front doors that open onto a stoop or mews.

The AIA Guide to New York City describes MGV as “UDC’s pretentious experiment… more a scholastic architectural thesis than a prototype for urban redevelopment” (2000, p. 794). Although the socially motivated design may appear scholastic, it demonstrates UDC’s ability to provide large quantities of affordable housing of unusually high architectural quality. With its innovative structuring, MGV still has fifty-five units per square acre compared to the fifty units per square acre common in the still-ubiquitous high-rise elevator tower in the park model for affordable housing.

Does Design Matter?

More than twenty years after its first residents moved in, we asked, “Does the design matter?” The answer was, “Yes, but…”

In speaking with residents of MGV, it became clear that they perceive and value the amenities built into the design. When asked what they thought the designers of MGV wanted it to be like, they described the vision as “like a village where people would know their neighbors” and “convenient for tenants.” They thought the mews and backyards were “something nice for the kids” and recognized that the designers were “looking towards peoples’ privacy.” In fact, these aspects of the development’s design are so unique and contradictory to most housing available to low-and moderate-income New Yorkers that some of the same residents said that “ Marcus Garvey Village was made for rich people.” In particular, we found the hallmark feature of this design, the mews and courtyards, was successful in achieving a number of UDC’s goals. These semi-public spaces promote interaction and community development among neighbors and consequently provide a milieu of safety, affording children greater autonomy to play outside of their homes.

Twenty years ago, however, the mews served as a vector, bringing New York City ‘s drug epidemic into this community. A press release from the Department of Justice states, “The insular nature of Marcus Garvey Village made the investigation particularly challenging—and dangerous. The apartment buildings open into private courtyard areas, shielded from public access and view, where the defendants routinely conducted their business.”

Although this innovative design has had many successes, social history trumped the architecture. A resident succinctly captured the problem, stating that the designers thought there would be “no crimes, no illegal transactions, they [the designers] never thought people would do that.” This history reveals that UDC’s exuberant idealism was not without disadvantages.

The socially motivated plan for MGV contained a vision of urban living that in reality would require something more than just good design. UDC’s planners and designers were correct in building non-residential community spaces. These spaces are emblematic of their intentions to promote social integration. But time, the challenging social history of Brownsville and a lack of well-managed and sustained social infrastructure hampered the realization of their long-term goals. For example, today very few residents participate in the tenants’ association or use the day care facility. The community center has restricted resident access and is not in use. The parking lots have been turned into revenue-producing land rented to a local church and not available to residents. Most residents never have had cars and appreciate the convenience of the subway, which makes an ugly crack in the designed fabric of UDC.

In its prime, UDC closely oversaw the management of its projects to ensure that the social intentions of its design and planning could come to life. Maintaining a mixed-income and mixed-use development requires careful selection of tenants to fill residential, commercial and community-use vacancies. MGV is no longer owned and managed by UDC, today under the supervision of the New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal. Residents had mixed responses to the overall quality and timeliness of maintenance, but long-term residents agreed that the standards for selecting tenants have changed—for the worse. Management, reacting to crime in the development that is perceived to be committed by outsiders, has installed turnstiles, gates and security cameras in open spaces that border the high-rise public housing on one side of MGV. Residents don’t seem to feel violated, but protected. But the role of management has shifted from supporting community development and maintaining the physical structures of MGV to its current focus: securing and sustaining the development against external criminal influence and simply patching, but not fixing, the physical deterioration of the development.

By building MGV, UDC substantially improved the community of Brownsville. Despite MGV’s many social challenges and some wear-and-tear over the years, residents of the development report high levels of satisfaction with their living conditions. In comparison to alternative housing options for low- and moderate-income New Yorkers, the house-like units and amenities such as the mews make MGV a desirable place to live.

Better Housing, More Poverty

Using Census data from 1970 and from 2000, we can see that housing in the area has improved over time. Most striking, in 1970 all of the 187 households living in this census tract were renters. There were no owner-occupied units. The housing available was old: 79 percent of the housing stock was built in 1939 or earlier. MGV’s 600 newly built dwelling units nearly doubled and modernized the housing stock of the area. By 2000 there was a significant increase in homeownership, with 22 percent of the available units in the tract being owner-occupied. MGV sits squarely between Marcus Garvey Houses, a high-rise public housing project, and a recently completed cluster of privately-owned single-family homes supported by Nehemiah Houses, a faith-based low-income housing initiative. Although there is not a strong sense of community between the residents of MGV, Marcus Garvey Houses and the Nehemiah houses, UDC did help change the housing conditions in the wider neighborhood.

While the housing infrastructure has improved, in other ways the community is worse off today than it was in 1970, before MGV was built. For example, the percentage of families living below the poverty level has gone up from 29.2 percent in 1970 to 42.3 percent in 2000. The tract has become less ethnically diverse, with the percentage of African-American residents going from 58.5 percent in 1970 to 90 percent in 2000. Similarly, education statistics have not changed that much over thirty years. In 1970, 20 percent of residents in the area graduated from high school and in 2000 only 33 percent had done so.

Following Through on the Plans

With MGV, UDC had mixed success in meeting the goals of its social experiment. It contributed to stabilizing housing conditions in the neighborhood but not to stabilizing the community at-large. Within MGV there is a sense of community among groups of neighbors but not throughout the development. As a result of the unforeseen challenges of the citywide drug epidemic, spaces that were originally meant to increase safety and community life were hijacked by criminals and took on a role antithetical to their intention.

On our first visit to MGV, a resident who has been living there for over twenty-five years told us, “I love this place, this is not the projects.” Yet, just a few weeks later someone else said, “Let’s face it, this is the projects.” While our data can support both sides of this contradiction, a pragmatic analysis clearly points to successes in the design as well as lessons to be learned for the future.

While design matters, it also requires ongoing management, social programming and community organizing to support growing communities. No single development can live outside the context of institutions and public policies that reproduce social inequality. For MGV, the scale of what was built was not large enough to overcome history, poor management and neighborhood crime. But people still enjoy their homes. MGV fulfilled the mission of providing better housing for low- and moderate-income people, although the mixed-income, mixed-race ideal could not be realized. You can change housing conditions and improve people’s lives, but housing alone does not change society. Development does not end when developments open. This is when the real work begins.

While our study highlights both the successes and the limitations of small-scale planning, it begs the question of what would have happened if UDC had been allowed to fulfill its mandate on a much larger scale. In Wyandanch, Long Island, for example, UDC was blocked from building affordable housing. In 1971 the city of Wyandanch, a poor, largely minority community surrounded by wealthier and whiter suburbs, entered into an agreement with UDC to plan and construct much needed housing. UDC planned a mixed-income development, one that nearby white communities feared would become a mixed-race development. To curtail UDC’s powers and keep it out of the suburbs, New York State passed legislation in the spring of 1973 allowing towns and villages to veto UDC projects. By mid-summer of the same year, the Wyandanch development was vetoed by conservative town officials. Today, Wyandanch is still struggling. In 1973 Wyandanch had no sewers and today it is still without sewers, an underdeveloped suburban ghetto. Long Island, too, remains divided on the need for affordable housing for poorer, minority populations.

Susan Saegert is a professor of environmental psychology and director of the Center for Human Environments at the City University of New York Graduate School, where Kim Liebman and Lauren J. Tenney are doctoral students. They wish to recognize the contributions to this research made by Grace Campagna, Jennifer Gieseking and Dorian Luey, as well as the helpful suggestions on earlier drafts from Ron Shiffman. The work would never had been undertaken without the persistent prodding of Nina Liebman and the interest and information supplied by Ted Liebman and Allan Melting.

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