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When Tenants Claimed the City

The Struggle for Citizenship in New York City Housing

Roberta Gold

Publication Year: 2014

In postwar America, not everyone wanted to move out of the city and into the suburbs. For decades before World War II, New York's tenants had organized to secure renters' rights. After the war, tenant activists raised the stakes by challenging the newly-dominant ideal of homeownership in racially segregated suburbs. They insisted that renters as well as owners had rights to stable, well-maintained homes, and they proposed that racially diverse urban communities held a right to remain in place--a right that outweighed owners' rights to raise rents, redevelop properties, or exclude tenants of color. Further, the activists asserted that women could participate fully in the political arenas where these matters were decided. Grounded in archival research and oral history, When Tenants Claimed the City: The Struggle for Citizenship in New York City Housing shows that New York City's tenant movement made a significant claim to citizenship rights that came to accrue, both ideologically and legally, to homeownership in postwar America. Roberta Gold emphasizes the centrality of housing to the racial and class reorganization of the city after the war; the prominent role of women within the tenant movement; and their fostering of a concept of "community rights" grounded in their experience of living together in heterogeneous urban neighborhoods.

Published by: University of Illinois Press

Series: Women in American History


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Title Page, Copyright Page, Dedication

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pp. ix-xii

Marx’s observation that we make history under circumstances we do not choose applies verily to junior scholars struggling with slim budgets and fat teaching loads. But in my case those pressures were eased by generous institutional support. I am grateful to the American Association of University...

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pp. 1-6

One of the most-traveled roads in post–World War II America was the highway leading out of the city. Courted by realtors and dowered by Uncle Sam, millions of white- and blue-collar families moved out of their city apartments and bought single-family houses in the suburbs. Individually...


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1. "A Time of Struggle:: Holding the LIne in the 1940s

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pp. 9-30

“Peace is sure hell,” Marine Corps Captain Walter Mansfield told a reporter in 1945. The decorated war hero, just back from East Asia, explained that it was “far easier to locate a sniper in the jungles of China than to find an apartment in New York City.” At the end of World War II, New Yorkers faced their worst housing shortage...

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2. "The Right to Lease and Occupy a Home": Equality and Public Provision in Housing Development

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pp. 31-63

The rent-control statutes that tenants defended so tenaciously served to moderate prices that would otherwise be set higher by the law of supply and demand. But many tenants and housers understood rent control as a superficial fix. The underlying problem was scarcity of housing and a consequent...

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3. "So Much Life": Retrenchment in the Cold War

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pp. 64-106

Jim Torain still recalls his first neighborhood dance. The year was 1951, and the event was a rite of passage on West 99th Street in Manhattan. “Now, the annual dance, it was just an incredible thing happening. The whole neighborhood got excited about it. And it was the second Saturday of...


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Introduction to Part II

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pp. 109-112

New York City in the early 1960s was going through profound shifts in economy and population, shifts that were recasting its political order. The onetime stronghold of organized labor and working-class culture was losing its blue-collar base. Manufacturing had declined...

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4. "Out of These Ghettos, People Who Would Fight": Claiming Power in the Sixties

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pp. 113-145

On December 30, 1963, five Harlem tenants walked into Manhattan Civil Court, reached into their coats and handbags, and each pulled out a large dead rat. The judge barred the four-legged exhibits from the rent hearing that followed. But this bit of courtroom theater, captured on film by...

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5. "A Lot of Investment, a Lot of Roots": Defending Urban Community

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pp. 146-168

While ghetto strikes tested grassroots power over the rental market, two other neighborhood-based movements challenged redevelopment. Morningside Heights and Cooper Square became policy battlegrounds in the early 1960s as tenants mounted a second round of struggle against...

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6. "Territorio Libre": Upheaval in the Vietnam War Era

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pp. 169-210

Seven years after rat-wielding rent strikers made the headlines with their presentation before Judge Ribaudo, New York tenants were back in court for another major hearing. This time a full judicial panel heard testimony from scores of witnesses. “[S]tories of crumbling ceilings, broken fixtures...

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7. "To Plan Our Own Community": Government, Grassroots, and Local Development

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pp. 211-241

Months after Columbia shelved its gym-in-the-park plan, two local organizations released a new proposal for Morningside Heights. The West Harlem Community Organization and the Architects’ Renewal Committee in Harlem, both formed during the mid-sixties struggles over institutional...

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8. "A Piece of Heaven in Hell": Struggles in the Backlash Years

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pp. 242-256

In 1974, the Staple Singers released a track that showed how far urban hopes had fallen since the Great Society days. For years the gospel crossover group had served in the black freedom movement. But “City in the Sky” expressed little faith in earthly...

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pp. 257-264

In the winter of 2001, Marie Runyon’s building loomed over weeds and rubble. With Manhattan’s real estate market humming all around, 130 Morningside was a throwback, its boarded windows and graffiti reminding passersby of the fiscal crisis thirty years before...

List of Abbreviations

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pp. 265-268


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pp. 269-320


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pp. 321-330

About the Author, Publisher Notes

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E-ISBN-13: 9780252095986
E-ISBN-10: 0252095987
Print-ISBN-13: 9780252038181

Page Count: 328
Publication Year: 2014

Series Title: Women in American History
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OCLC Number: 885893182
MUSE Marc Record: Download for When Tenants Claimed the City

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Minorities -- Housing -- New York (State) -- New York -- History -- 20th century.
  • Housing -- New York (State) -- New York -- History -- 20th century.
  • Minorities -- New York (State) -- New York -- Social conditions.
  • Landlord and tenant -- New York (State) -- New York -- History -- 20th century.
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