A Block Party Without a Block: A Community Survives Long After Its Homes Are Razed

October 18, 2011 at 4:00 am

Every October, Jim Torain mails out invitations for the annual reunion of his community, which was displaced 60 years ago by one of the first urban renewal projects in New York City. In 1951, Torain’s home and those of his neighbors on West 99th Street were destroyed as part of the Manhattantown project, which razed six blocks on the Upper West Side to build housing for middle-income residents.Title I of the 1949 Housing Act, known as the “urban renewal” program, allowed for local governments to use eminent domain to seize private property. In the 1950s and ’60s, urban renewal initiatives uprooted more than 2,000 communities in New York City.

Jim Epstein, a documentary filmmaker who grew up on 99th Street, discovered the story of Manhattantown in “The Power Broker,” Robert Caro’s biography of Robert Moses. In 2007, Epstein started digging through the archives and interviewing residents to learn more about the neighborhood that had vanished. From this work, he created a 7-minute documentary portrait of the old community, which he shared at this year’s reunion on Oct. 8.

MetroFocus recently spoke with Epstein about his research and storytelling process.


The Tragedy of Urban Renewal: The destruction and survival of a New York City neighborhood was written and produced by Jim Epstein. It was narrated by Nick Gillespie. Video courtesy of Jim Epstein.

Q: There were hundreds of urban renewal projects in New York in the ’50s and ’60s; what made you particularly interested in the story of Manhattantown?

A: Before this neighborhood was razed, volunteers of the Women’s City Club canvassed the area with surveys and interviewed the residents about their living conditions. Their findings, which Caro described in “The Power Broker,” painted a very different picture from Moses’  view of the area, which he considered to be a “slum.” The neighborhood was actually a tight-knit community or, as Jane Jacobs would say, there were “eyes on the street” — her famous metaphor for the natural surveillance that occurs in a lively urban environment.

I was very interested in the story because I thought that if I could find the original surveys, it would give me a link back to the residents and there would be a unique human side to this urban renewal story.

I never found the surveys and I was about to give up, but then I came across a short article in the Columbia Spectator about Jim Torain, a former resident of the West 99th Street community, who was organizing their annual reunion.

West 99th and 98th Street Reunion, Circa 1981. Photo courtesy of John Cornwall Collection

Q: Jim Torain plays an important role in your film…How did you manage to find the other residents?

A: Jim has a deep connection to the place he grew up; he certainly stood out and it was he who introduced me to other members of the community.

After being evicted, all of the residents were scattered throughout the city. I was surprised to learn that they had a reunion every year. They really tried to preserve the community and had researched its history; it was really a small black enclave in an otherwise all-white neighborhood.

I interviewed several people about the trauma they experienced when they were uprooted from their homes so I wanted to include their old addresses in the film. However, instead of looking through old documents, I would just call Kathryn Massengberg, who had been a resident of the neighborhood. She put together a census of every building in the blocks that were razed with the names of the people who lived in each apartment. I tried to capture her putting it together. I thought it was a metaphor for how much this old neighborhood was still present and alive in the minds of this community.

Q: Was it difficult to find historical records about this neighborhood?

Jim Torain (standing under sign with hand behind back) playing in his old neighborhood, near Central Park, circa 1954. Courtesy Jim Torain Collection/Elinor G. Black

A: I was surprised that this neighborhood, where so many famous artists and musicians had lived, was not even mentioned in the history books. Composer Will Marion Cook, opera singer Abbie Mitchell, James Weldon Johnson, Billie Holiday and so many others came from this community. I remember reading a direct reference to “all the big time negroes who lived in West 99th Street,” but it didn’t have any context.

Jim Torain and I really became partners in the process; we did a lot of research together and went through his collection of old photographs. We did find a New York Times article from 1905, headlined “Negroes Filling up 99th Street.” And the Times published  the recent story about the reunion on Oct. 8, but that piece was their only article about the 99th Street community since 1905.

Q: The city still uses eminent domain as a strategy to clear private land for development…Is your film in part a cautionary tale?

A: My piece is actually an opening short for the “The Battle for Brooklyn,” a new documentary about the Atlantic Yards Project. I think there are absolute parallels between the urban renewal programs of the ’50s and ’60s and contemporary urban development projects. In Moses’ era, city officials used the urban renewal program as a tool to prevent “white flight,” and they often built public housing or cultural institutions. Today, the city invests in large-scale projects with the mantra of “growth” and “economic development,” but we see the construction of new stadiums and shopping centers.

My favorite Robert Moses quote is, “someday you’ll thank me for these projects and forget about these people.” I’m paraphrasing his actual words, but I think it reflects how we remember this era of urban renewal. We value all these great buildings, like Lincoln Center, built after 18-blocks of tenements were torn down, or Stuyvesant Town, which used to be the Gas House District, and forget about the communities that were destroyed and displaced as part of these projects.

MetroFocus editor Sam Lewis conducted this interview, which has been edited and condensed.

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