Upon those who step into the same rivers, different and again different waters flow.
Last Sunday, I went to the Grove Street Cemetery to look for the resting place of Louis Danzig. With a cemetery administrator’s instructions, I found only five, perhaps unrelated, Danzig’s. However, I was captured by the aura of hundreds of past Jewish lives, with Downtown Newark in the distance under the dim winter sun. I could hear Louis Danzig (“Lou” to his friends), a visionary who died in 1982, telling his dreams, sorrows, and regrets in his life-long battle for Newark’s revitalization.
In 1911, Harry and Rebecca Danzig brought three-year-old Louis to Newark from Lithuania. Starting from Oriental Street at the northern edge of the thriving city, America was a dream of democratic socialism for the Danzig family and thousands of Jews who escaped from the oppressive Tsar and the Old World discrimination. Their countryman Abraham Cahan founded Forward, the most popular Yiddish newspaper with the motto: Workers all Over the World Unite. Graduating from Central High and New Jersey Law School, Louis started his legal practice in 1930. In the evenings, he went to Columbia and NYU to study housing issues, his life-long passion.
In August 1941, Danzig joined the Newark Housing Authority’s Tenant Relation Bureau as an interviewer. On February 25, 1942, he was named the manager of John W. Hyatt Court, a new public housing project in the Ironbound. He immediately closed his law office, saying, “I don’t believe you can do justice to two jobs at the same time.” In addition to Newark residents, Hyatt Court was peopled by migrant war workers from 26 states. A Star-Ledger report on May 27, 1947 summarized Danzig’s work, “He is policeman, caretaker, rent collector, administrator and complaint department. It takes a spirited social worker like Danzig, manager of Hyatt Court, for the post.” His tenant entertainment program was modeled by public housing nationwide. In April 1948, he became the Executive Director of the NHA and effectively calmed its ten-year bitter infighting.
Slum clearance was the consensus of the time, formed in the previous three decades under a variety of influences, among which was Le Corbusier’s urbanism design, with the precious amenities of “sun, space, and green.” In 1947, President Truman addressed the nation to create the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) to build “a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American family.” The president called on the nation, “No lesser objective is commensurate with the productive capacity and resources of the country or with the dignity which a true democracy accords the individual citizen.” Danzig foresaw a new era coming, with his role as not only a public housing man, but also as an ambitious planner and general contractor to rescue his beloved city from dying. Among the first in the nation, he prepared all organizational, legal, and planning work for massive construction even before the landmark 1949 Housing Act. However, with influence from the real estate lobby and the coming Cold War, the Act fatally and contradictorily relied heavily on private development. It enabled a local authority to purchase slum land, clear it, and resell it to a private developer at a much lower price, with the Fed covering two-thirds of the loss. In addition, the FHA would insure mortgages for the construction to follow.
Danzig’s initial redevelopment site was the area around the Broad Street Station. (Mayor Booker announced the same area as one of the city’s three development centers in his recent State of the City speech.) The Lackawanna-Broad Street site in the old First Ward was located on the edge of an area marked for clearance by the Central Planning Board’s Master Plan. However, it was not so heavily blighted or inter-racial that it would repel private redevelopers or the FHA’s stringent mortgage insurance. The contours of the site were effectively defined by the natural boundaries of a railroad (no I-280 yet), a park, and the major thoroughfare of Broad Street, all located near the Central Business District, the best bet for a successful first move of Newark’s urban renewal. Danzig had no choice but to carefully avoid all 16 “hardcore” slums for developing middle-income housing, the key of urban renewal. Danzig believed that the future of American cities depended on stopping middle class families’ flee to the suburbs.
After 1949, Danzig led an all-out effort against the federal government’s withdraw of its urban housing commitment. He lobbied to expand the renewal coverage beyond strictly housing to include urban commercial and institutional construction. From his many testimonies in Congress, he developed a national reputation on housing issues and even drafted some federal urban renewal legislation. To expand the development in the Lackawanna-Broad Street project, he planned a unified Rutgers campus, which later evolved together with the Newark College of Engineering (NJIT) into University Heights. He initiated the vision of an arts and entertainment district, with a performing arts center in the James Street Commons. Later, he called the nation’s top developers for a three day conference at the Robert Treat Hotel on the Meadowlands industrial park to restore the city’s eroding economical and industrial base. (Another of Mayor Booker’s economic development emphasis is the exact airport and seaport area.) Through lobbying for amendments to the 1949 Act, Danzig made the development of Penn Plaza (the Gateway Center) possible.
Today’s urban historians often sloppily mix a failed national urban renewal policy with Louis Danzig’s character. He was called “notorious Danzig” (Kevin Mumford) and the man with a stronger iron fist than Robert Moses (Kenneth Jackson). However, to many government officials and even rival business leaders, Danzig was a surprisingly persistent yet patient, convincing yet flexible, city builder, rather than a bureaucratic housing man. In a violently scared city, the Housing Authority director became a sinister symbol of racial discrimination and government corruption. Through his long career of public service, Danzig received many awards and much recognition from organizations such as the NAACP and the League of Woman Voters. In 1951, he even collaborated with Professor Morton Deutch, the world’s most respected scholar on conflict resolution, to study racial integration in public housing. For most of his life, his family lived in modest rental apartments, such as 525 Elizabeth Street and 330 Hobson Street. Managing millions of public funds, he was never once accused of impropriety. In 1952, his doctor ordered him to take a Florida vacation, his only one in his entire career. In those two weeks, he sent postcards to his staff, “I should make everyone take a break.”
The carefully planned Lackawanna-Broad Street project, however, quickly fell into disarray. After a crude slum clearance, an entire Italian neighborhood was uprooted, while not many private speculators dared to purchase the land. Then, the FHA attempted to force Danzig to reduce the project size, threatening the integrity and viability of the plan. To compromise, he put the eight high-rises of Columbus Homes in the center of the middle-income housing project. He had no choice but to delay the market-rate housing, and advance the public housing first, contrary to his original judgment. Against politicians’ pressure and society’s prejudice, he integrated Columbus Homes’ tenants in 1954, by first introducing 600 white families and, then, sending in some 500 black families. However, many high-rise tenants came directly from the deep rural South, without any urban experience. Some were even reported to defrost refrigerators by lighting a fire in the freezer. Few of the original 99 various local businesses were relocated along Broad Street. Hundreds of removed Italian families could never resettle locally, but moved to Belleville and beyond.
The most damaging crisis was the planned middle-income housing. After months’ negotiation, Danzig secured a developer. However, the FHA refused to provide adequate mortgage insurance and left a gap of only $2 million, even after Danzig’s many trips to Washington D.C. In 1958, he lost the developer, holding the useless land and delaying renewal efforts of the entire city. With the help of Milford Vieser, Mutual Benefit’s Financial Vice-President, he found the energetic Chicago developer Herbert Greenwald, whose better Fed connections led to a better mortgage insurance. Greenwald brought the world’s most famous modern architect, Mies van der Rohe, to Newark to design three sleek buildings on the shrinking site. Unfortunately, a few months later, in a trip to New York City to meet Robert Moses, Greenwald’s jet crashed into the East River, further delaying Danzig’s dream. He found himself loosing his once thick hairs crisis after crisis. When the Colonnade and Pavilion buildings finally stood tall in 1961, the urban condition had further deteriorated and a small window of opportunity for Newark had all but closed. By 1969, he had built 5,674 public housing units, 2,500 senior citizens’ units and market-rate apartment buildings such as the Hallmark House, Brick Towers, Mount Calvary Homes, and High Park Gardens. However, the 62-year-old Danzig was a tired and broken man, seeing the riots, the steadily dwindling Newark population, and the fast deteriorating housing conditions. On May 9 in his last official trip to Washington D.C., he angrily blasted the federal policies, holding nothing back, “Should the government have helped cities like it did to suburbs, we would not be in such a difficult situation.” He said that Newark had hundreds of acres of land lying fallow because of the red tape and, more importantly, of “the FHA’s negative philosophy.” He called for the agency’s abolition. On June 19, Danzig retired from the NHA with only a $17,000 annual pension. Before his early death in 1984, he anguishly watched most of his work in jeopardy. The implosion of St. Louis’s Pruitt-Igoe Homes symbolized the end of urban renewal and the moral failure of the country.
In 2008, the country’s moral standing as a true democracy for every individual citizen has not improved, at least by observing this city. However, environmental devastation and economic bankruptcy for the country and the state have made revitalization of urban centers even more urgent. The lingering American dream, with automobiles on ever extending highways to suburban and ex-urban McMansions, will soon end. Danzig would be very happy to see Mayor Booker back to the Broad Street Station area:
The timing for the city’s revival is finally coming. The Broad Street Station area has options far beyond Danzig’s dilemma of public housing vs. privately developed middle-income housing. As Danzig envisioned 58 years ago, a university and cultural community finally takes the stand as the pillar of the area.
The timing is critical. Any feasible residential development can only happen after a clear solution to the cancerous Baxter Terrace. Fortunately, with the city’s timely full support, initiatives by the Newark Museum and NJIT will significantly improve the development environment and strengthen these institutions.
The timing is everything. The improved mass transit system makes the area more competitive if the city could decisively catch up with other cities, such as Elizabeth and Harrison, with uncompromised higher design standards. The world will not wait forever for Newark, which does not monopolize the region’s transportation advantages.
Finally, as Danzig planned but ran out of time for implementation, only the open land along Broad Street, with a better road connection, has a large capacity for regional commercial development.
Danzig would say, “Lucky you, same river twice. But no more thrice.”