Brooklyn Heights Blows It:
by Lorna Salzman
The Untold Story of Cadman Plaza
Sometime around 1950, “February House,” the famous boarding house for writers and artists at 7 Middagh Street in Brooklyn Heights, was bulldozed along with its neighbors to make way for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. As Carson McCullers, one of the residents, pointed out, the block housed an old public school, a firehouse, a blacksmith, a Catholic rectory, and a nunnery; all but the blacksmith and rectory are still there. Along with McCullers, residents of the now-demolished house, owned by editor George Davis (second husband of Lotte Lenya), included W.H. Auden, Gypsy Rose Lee (stripper and aspiring writer), Benjamin Britten, and Peter Pears. Some gossiped, with snickers and raised eyes, that the location suited some of the house’s closeted tenants, who could skip down the Columbia Heights hill and greet sailors on leave.
This was before my time, politically speaking, but when my time came in the late 1950s, yet another urban temblor was felt, with more dire consequences: the raised hammer of Robert Moses descending for his final blitzkrieg of “slum clearance” in the Cadman Plaza area of Brooklyn Heights. An earlier plot by Moses to run the BQE smack down the middle of the Heights on Hicks Street had luckily been derailed by an angry Heights aristocrat, Mrs. Darwin James; a simultaneous lesser blitzkrieg planned for another part of the Heights was also tabled.
Using the 1949 Federal Housing Act, or Title 1, dealing with urban renewal, Moses took aim at four square blocks of prime real estate in Brooklyn Heights for what was to be his final “urban removal” plot. Somehow prime real estate, as opposed to decaying areas like East New York, always manages to be designated as slums requiring clearance.
Like earlier Title 1 projects, such as Lincoln Square Towers and Washington Square Village, no slums were involved but removal most assuredly was. In the case of the Cadman Plaza battle, about 1200 residents, mostly low-income minorities, small businesses, and sound 20th-century apartment houses, were declared a blight and rewarded with eviction and total demolition to make way for luxury high-rise apartments. Complicit in this were the elite of the Brooklyn Heights Association (BHA), the local Democrats, and the righteous “good government” paleoliberals, “progressive” city planners, and academics—i.e. liberals still asleep at the social justice wheel when it came to applying the principle of property rights to anyone but the middle and upper classes.
Anyone reading the history of this project, and of Brooklyn Heights, most egregiously the largely fictitious article by Heights resident Martin Schneider, would never know what really happened. Today no one on our block but my husband and I are alive to carry the institutional memory and tell the truth. The only benefit was the launching of my political and environmental career. Power abusers like Moses are very effective at creating resistors and revolutionaries.
It was 1959, one year after I had returned from a two-year stay in Rome with my husband Eric, then a composer and New York Times music critic. I was pregnant with twins, politically detached, uninvolved in community affairs, and thinking mainly about motherhood. My in-laws, both teachers, lived on Cranberry Street one block away from our Middagh Street home, which they had bought in 1949. Upon our return we moved into the third-floor apartment just vacated by the journalist Charles Kuralt, and when the other tenants vacated the lower duplex we moved in. We still live there today and now own the house.
From late 1958 on I attended concerts with my husband, met interesting composers and performers, including Shostakovich and other Russian musicians, and dressed to the hilt with white leather gloves and silks for the Metropolitan Opera, where we sat in the critics’ seats on the aisle in row L. In the final weeks of my pregnancy I managed to sit through Wagner’s Parsifal. I knew many of the Heights residents I ran into on my shopping trips in the neighborhood. Most famous of all was Norman Mailer, who lived on Columbia Heights, overlooking New York Harbor and the East River. I later became friendly with Brooklyn’s poet laureate, Norman Rosten (the “other” Norman), with whom I had regular sidewalk conversations about the parlous state of the world and who years later took my poet daughter Eva to lunch at the local Polish diner, Teresa’s, on Montague Street—the regular Sunday brunch venue for writers and political pundits.
After my twins were born I joined the local baby-sitting pool and spent many evenings at the sitters’ homes playing bridge. Our summers were spent at our rustic home in East Quogue, the “un-Hamptons,” with my in-laws, who enjoyed two-month summer vacations. In our time abroad we had driven all over western Europe in our VW Beetle, bought for $900 at the factory in Wolfsburg, Germany with wedding gift money, and driven back to Rome in mid-winter over the snow-covered Alps. It was the carefree ’50s. No advanced hotel reservations were needed; just arrive in a town and ask around for a pension. I had never heard about the House Un-American Activities Committee and knew little about the Korean war. I had travelled around Europe without a care, learned to speak Italian, and, on our return, I prepared to be a mother.
In the post-war period, the cheap, rundown 19th- and early-20th-century Brooklyn Heights houses attracted artists, architects, and writers who renovated the lovely old buildings one subway stop from lower Manhattan, loafed on its famous Promenade along the waterfront and walked over the Brooklyn Bridge. (It was from the Heights that the bridge’s ultimate builder, Washington Roebling, son of the original designer John A. Roebling, suffering from the bends, oversaw its construction.)
Outside of the long-time Heights aristocracy of brokers and attorneys (who lived in the more elegant brownstones in Columbia Heights—Willow Street, Remsen Street, and Pierrepont Street in the mid-Heights), arguably the most interesting people lived on our Middagh Street block: noted translator of Latin American literature Gregory Rabassa; 8th Street Book Shop proprietor Eli Wilentz; Jack Biblo, co-owner of the famous Biblo & Tannen used book store on 4th Avenue in Manhattan; Abstract Expressionist-turned-neorealist painter Charles Schucker, whose giant canvases barely fit through his doors; Dr. Virginia Travell Weeks, straight-talking, house-calling doctor to Heights children and sister of JFK’s physician Janet Travell; an exalted neighbor named Knickerbocker; Elizabeth Dutcher, at 25 Middagh Street, who attended the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge as a child and had the invitation framed on her wall and headed a settlement house in Brooklyn to which she was driven each morning by a chauffeur; and architect Harry Holtzman, executor of the Mondrian estate, whose College Place loft walls were covered with Mondrian paintings. On Cranberry Street, one block away, sculptor John Rhoden and his painter-wife Richanda lived, worked, and hosted Christmas parties every year for nearby neighbors (she gave these parties until 2014, when she was in her mid-nineties). Actor Paul Hecht lived on Willow Street near Middagh for a short time. And at 11 Cranberry Street, next door to my in-laws, resided old lefty composer Earl Robinson, who wrote “Ballad for Americans,” “Joe Hill,” “Lonesome Train,” and “The House I Live In.” While my husband and I were in Rome, my in-laws rented out rooms on the top floor of our home; its most famous tenant was Lee Hays of The Weavers.
Some other smaller battles and debates were also taking place at this time. Moses had his eye on the southwestern part of the Heights, called Willowtown, as part of his grand urban renewal scheme, but miraculously this was beaten back. A discussion about the purportedly segregated nature of the local school, P.S. 8, was taking place, resulting in one of the earliest busing schemes in the city, whereby black children from the nearby Farragut housing project were bused into and out of the school every day. And Otis Pratt Pearsall spearheaded the successful move to designate the Heights as a historic landmark district, though not in time to save many lovely brownstones from the clutches of Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose world headquarters were on Columbia Heights overlooking the East River. (They have since sold their valuable real estate and moved elsewhere).
It is important to understand that the 1950s were the postwar period, when urban planning and “progress” were intended to improve the lives and living conditions of city dwellers through new construction of homes, roads, and infrastructure. It was probably for this reason that Robert Moses, the “power broker” of Robert Caro’s book, was able to consolidate and wield tremendous power, with the help of Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and the construction unions, which embraced the jobs produced by urban renewal projects without any sense of justice or empathy for the displaced poor people removed from the Heights, the Bronx, and Greenwich Village and shunted to the slums of east New York.
The scales fell from my eyes in 1959 when Moses’s plan for a high-rise luxury housing project bounded by Fulton, Henry, and Clark Streets was announced. These four crime-free blocks contained old, moderate-income housing for hundreds of families, low-rise apartment houses, small businesses, a line-up of antique stores on Fulton St. facing Cadman Plaza Park, and one flophouse that offended the WASP sensibilities of the Brooklyn Heights Association. And there was more.
There was a humble Latino luncheonette at the corner of Cranberry and Fulton Streets which was to be demolished as part of the Moses plan. We had always assumed it was owned by a Puerto Rican. It had a plaque on its outside wall noting that Walt Whitman had worked and published in the building. One day my husband, who had set Whitman poems to music, and our neighbor Eli Wilentz, a Whitman aficionado, thought this might be a potent weapon against Moses and bulldozers. They noticed that the plaque was gone so they went inside and sought out the owner, who turned out to be Nicaraguan. When asked about the plaque, he said, “You Americans don’t appreciate your national poet […] Everyone in Nicaragua knows Whitman, because he was the main influence on our national poet Rubén Darío, who was the founder of Modernism in Spanish poetry.” And he pointed to a sign above the lunch counter that read: O Capitán, mi Capitán, a Spanish translation of the Whitman poem written on the assassination of Lincoln. On learning that his building was to be demolished, and thus not being able to renovate or refinance it, he had removed the plaque and given it to the Nicaraguan consulate. He was personally appalled at the notion of destroying his building, not only because of his personal loss but because this was the very building where Whitman set type for the first edition of “Leaves of Grass.” Both Eric and Eli tried valiantly to get this story published but with no success. Eric went straight to the city desk at the New York Times, but given the close relationship between Moses and the Sulzburgers, the paper’s owners, it was a fool’s errand. The building is gone, as are all the others. The final irony was the naming of the low-rise town houses on the site: Whitman Close.
Incensed and activated by the impending loss of Heights families and small businesses, my husband and I formed the North Heights Community Group. Later, our battle was reinforced by the founding of the Central Heights Community Group. The core of our group included most of the people mentioned above. We enrolled dozens of north Heights residents and marched straight ahead to fight the Moses project. We established a liaison with Jane Jacobs, who was fighting developers in the West Village, and induced architect Percival Goodman to prepare an alternate plan for the site that would retain all its residents and build new in-fill housing, with no demolition of sound structures. We obtained 25,000 signatures on a petition opposing Moses and supporting the Goodman plan. We testified at City Hall before the City Planning Commission, Housing & Redevelopment Board, Board of Estimate, and the City Council. Actor Paul Hecht bowled them over with a dramatic presentation of our plan.
Why did we lose the battle? Recently I learned that we had come closer to victory than we suspected and that the city was on the verge of dropping its urban renewal plan entirely because of the swell of support for the Goodman plan. But the elite Brooklyn Heights Association, the local Democratic club, and paleoliberals worked behind our backs with the city, with the latter hopeful that its payoff for their support of the urban renewal project would be a public housing project in the north Heights that they assumed no one would dare oppose for fear of being called a racist. Dorothy Jessup, a leading Democrat, once came to Middagh Street. As we stood at the head of the street, she waved her hand and said, “They should demolish all of this and put a public housing project here instead.” I imagine the BHA sentiments were not far from this; that flophouse must have given them the shivers. In the end, the city compromised by including one subsidized Mitchell-Lama apartment house in the four-block luxury project.
Falsified history was the result, mostly through the writings of Heights resident and BHA member Martin Schneider, who with some reluctance admitted that there had been local opposition to the Moses project. But he never mentioned the North Heights Community Group or the new opposition group, Central Heights Community Group, nor did he mention the 25,000 signed supporters of the Goodman plan. He abridged the opposition to a grand total of four individuals (unnamed) and accused the Goodman plan supporters of opening the door to public housing in the Heights, something our group opposed on principle. He exquisitely distorted our position in favor of economically mixed housing to claim that this really stood for low-income public housing. He blasted the Goodman plan as “undoable and undesired.” Neither he nor the BHA nor any of the paleoliberals who undercut us secretly by colluding with the city ever mentioned, much less deplored, the fact that they were throwing 1200 low -income residents to the wolves. In its desire to appear liberal, the BHA professed to support the need for sound middle income housing and good urban planning (spare us from what the wealthy define as “good”) as well as landmark preservation, but nowhere in any of the annals of the BHA or Martin Schneider’s revisionist history is there any mention of, much less regret about, the eviction of the low-income and minority families and their businesses from the site.*
Our local elected representatives, including our respected state assemblyman, the late Joseph Dowd (later a judge), acted sympathetic but in fact their hands were tied, because they had no jurisdiction on these issues. After our twins were born in the spring of 1960, Eric took the reins of the NHCG. But this was literally the start of my political education and consciousness and my eventual career as editor of a community newspaper, The Township; this led in subsequent years to a long professional environmental career and my Green Party candidacies for congress and the party’s presidential nomination, and it was a jolt to confront “the insolence of office” and discover how the collusion of government and developers could be lined up against communities and property rights—rights granted to the rich and the politically connected but never to (perish the thought) the poor. Aside from Jane Jacobs (blessings be on her), no other tough uncompromising leadership to defend communities, such as that of Saul Alinsky in Chicago, appeared.
While specific groups and individuals were responsible for the Heights debacle, they were abetted by the prevalence of “progressive” planners and academic theorists such as Richard Netzer, who stroked their beards and talked about the middle class and its values. Small wonder that in 1971, even lauded liberal-Republican Mayor John Lindsay proposed demolishing an Italian-American community in Corona to build a school. He was shored up by blustering self-styled populist journalist Jimmy Breslin and a then-unknown lawyer named Mario Cuomo. When I published a scathing attack in The Township, the monthly paper I edited for three or four years, on this plan and on Cuomo, who pretended to be a friend of the Corona homeowners, I got a phone call from Cuomo, whose office then was on Court Street in the Heights, inviting me to come speak with him.
I went up in the elevator, rang the bell of his office, and he answered the door. His office was fairly dark; no one else seemed to be around. As I recall, it seemed to be a one-room, one-person office, with his desk opposite the entrance door. I entered and sat down, and he began pacing the floor and griping about my criticism of his role in the Corona scandal. I was stunned. I, a puny housewife, editor of a free monthly community newspaper, was a threat to a well-connected lawyer? Talk about thin skins. Years later, when he was governor, I attended a meeting in his downtown office of all the New York City environmental groups that were making him hot under the collar about Westway, the proposed highway replacement for the West Side Highway, and protecting the striped bass. He revealed his ignorance of (and disdain for) environmental matters and actually charged us all with dishonesty when we mentioned the striped bass and other concerns. He said, “You just want to stop Westway.” In other words, he dismissed the notion that that there might actually be real problems. Soon after I got a signed note from him, praising my commitment and saying that he hoped we could stay in touch. He never phoned me.
The NHCG fought back, attending and testifying before the Housing and Redevelopment Board, the City Planning Commission, the City Council, the Board of Estimate, and other agencies. Sociology professor Martin James wrote a socioeconomic report on the viability of and need for the Goodman plan. But we were ten years too early; by the end of the ’60s the notion of opposing bureaucracy, city planners, and real estate pirates was commonplace thanks to the vigilant leadership of Jane Jacobs. For the north Heights, the battle came too soon and we lost, due to the complicity of the local liberals and elites.
(In 1970, to vex Donald Elliott, who lived on Pierrepont Street and had headed the City Planning Commission during the Cadman Plaza battle, I wrote an April Fool’s article for The Township. It was in the form of a news story from NYC announcing that the entire block that included his home was going to be condemned and demolished for a low-income housing project. I received an anxious phone call from him; apparently he completely believed my story. And why not?)
Now, only the super-rich live in most of the Heights’s one-family homes. Most of the buildings have been subdivided into smaller apartments and charge astronomical rents to single professionals. Once I knew half the people I met on the street; today I know almost no one. Most of Montague Street, the main commercial street (along with upper Henry Street) is bloated with real estate agencies, shoe stores, and restaurants serving the workers in the downtown government buildings. The two book stores are gone. There are almost no stores providing the things that real people need on a daily basis. I do most of my shopping on Atlantic Avenue, the near eastern street, primarily at New York’s greatest store, Sahadi’s. The kids in the playgrounds or being taken to or from school are accompanied by nannies because both their parents work. The shopping is poor because few people cook, preferring take-out or Fresh Direct home delivery or the pricey Garden of Eden’s prepared foods. Modest frame houses in the north Heights now sell for over three million dollars, resulting in a huge escalation of the city’s property assessment and taxes. Purchase and flipping of these homes every two years for profit is routine.
Today there is wide opposition to the misuse of eminent domain for supposedly “public” purposes, and support for the inherent right of people to live in their homes without fear of totalitarian confiscation. It’s hard to connect the lost Cadman Plaza battle to what the Heights is today. Tsunami-strength economic forces have been at work. But it is even harder to understand why so many people lacked any conscience and why the Moses tyranny and abuse of power was allowed to ride roughshod over communities for so long. The only consolation is that people today do not consider resistance to be futile but fertile. We owe Jane Jacobs and her followers a huge debt for sparking a new way of thinking about urban and civic life. I and my husband feel proud that we played a small role in this change.
* M. Schneider, “Battling for Brooklyn Heights,” New York Preservation Archive Project, 2010
LORNA SALZMAN received the International Earth Day Award from the Earth Society Foundation in 2000 for her environmental writing and activism. She is the author of “Politics as if Evolution Mattered,” a set of essays on the interaction of evolutionary thought with social and political issues, and “Darkness in Academia: The Shadow of Stalin” a critique of cultural determinism and post-modern anti-science attitudes published in Humanist Perspectives, 186. She is married to the composer and writer Eric Salzman.