WEEKEND EDITION

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

| October 18, 2011 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.

WATCH VIDEO:

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.

  • Jim Torain

    I think it is a great article and thank you for the detailed information. I will be mailing a copy of our journal from reunion ’11

  • Marietta Bussey

    Words cannot express what the tearing down of our neighborhood did to each of us (young & old). Whenever we pass by this area there is a deep hurt – a feeling of what was and what was done to us. But we thank each of the groups that kept the Association going that allowed us to stay in touch with each other – this is history and should be publicized more and eventually written as a book. Thank you.

  • Marietta Bussey

    Thank you for sharing this very informative article on your website.

  • Marilyn Carpenter France Torain

    I am in total agreement with the posts of Mr. Torain and Ms. Bussey. As the last youngsters on West 98th & West 99th Street, each time I am in that neighborhood or, passing through, I am overwhelmed with sadness at the loss of our “village.” I too, thank you for this informative article. Thank you for sharing.

  • Jim

    I’m not from New York and have no connection to that area, but I found this to be a very good article. By the way, Robert Caro’s book about Robert Moses (mentioned in the 2nd paragraph) is not an autobiography — it’s a biography. That minor error can probably be easily corrected online.

  • Gwen. Torain

    I agee with everything that was said,it makes me sad everytime I think about the old
    neighborhood.Great article. Thanks Jim Epstein for everything you did.

  • JEAN

    VERY INFORMATIVE ARTICLE. SO SAD WHAT CORRUPTION AND THE CORRUPTED CAN DO AND GET AWAY WITH . LET’S HOPE WE NEVER SEE THE LIKES OF ROBERT MOSES AGAIN. PROBLEM IS THERE ARE THOUSANDS WHO HAAVE TAKEN HIS PLACE.

  • DARLENE BISHOP

    I started my life on 99th st. I left 99th st when I was 4 1/2 I still remember the railroad apartment we lived in and some of the neighbors, Central Park, the smelly Horse Stables on 98th st, the iceman and knife sharipng man. When I found out there was a reunion I went not knowing what I would find but to my surprise I did know some folks that were there. I am so proud that people like Jim Torain kept up the memories of our neighborhood, and that Jim Epstein recorded all the facts of our legacy . This article was very well done. I would like more people to know about these blocks. Thank you Sam Lewis and Metro Focus for contributing to our history.

  • Mary Cooper EvansBrunson

    Thanks for keeping the legacy alive. It is a great article. Viewing the video brought back many childhood happy memories. Now at 77 years of age I cherrish the old neighborhood for all of the togetherness that sorrounded us. I lived in 99th street not knowing that we were poor until I went to college and took a economics course. Thanksgiving Day parade on Central Park West, movies the Park West and the Arden, our Church(St. Luke Baptist), the ice man, Amsterdam News man,Watkins products person, hanging out on the fire escape, jumping rope, playing Jacks ,stick and box ball,hanging up clothes on a outside line are some of the unforgetable experiences of youth. LIFE BEGAN IN 99TH STREET AND WAS RICHLY LIVED TO THE HIGHEST.

  • Judith (Bowman) Price

    Three cheers to Jim Torain and Jim Epstein for their tenacity and graciousness. I had the distinction of being born in 99th Street and raised in 98th Street. My father and his father were part of a former migration from San Juan Hill (now known as Lincoln
    Center). Our two blocks were firmly planted and although we had a unique and tightly knit community, it is only now in our senior years we recognize how strong we were. Our families, places of worship, schools, local businesses and every other aspect were safeguarded until we were dispossessed. But…we’re still here Mr. Moses. Thank you to everyone who has helped to remember our past with dignity.

  • ira allen

    A story that seems to epitomize your mission of truly being “Metro Focused”.We have seen WNET stories about “Czar Moses’s” impact on Bronx neighborhoods.It is nice to see one about Manhattan.This is a quite a story about the unbridled quest of Moses to “gentrify” and destroy the diversity of Manhattan, the heart of “The Big Apple”.

  • joseph Turner

    The story is very nicely presented and very informative, as well as having been researched and the subject addressed with care and candor.

  • marian anderson

    i was a resident of both blocks born on 99th st and grew up on 98th until we had to move my sisters and i cried when told we were moving but let us not forget the 99th st association’or the youngsters who also kept us together all thes years I tell my children and grands all about the closness we had on those two blocks which was taken from us

  • Clint

    Worth mentioning is the rampant corruption connected to this Moses project: cronies were permitted to snatch up housing stock and bleed residents of rents with limited services while the actual construction project hovered in limbo for years…

  • Jim Torain

    Clint is so right. My parents managed two building and became so fustrated with Manhattantown they gave up and we moved to the laGuardia Houses on the Lowere Eastside.

    • Carmen Phillips Garrigia

      Hello I came down to your house years ago with Gwen. I’m on Facebook

  • APRIL DAWSON

    I WANT TO THANK YOU ALL FOR EVERYTHING U HAVE DONE FOR ME AND MY FAMILY AT THE TIME OF OUR LOST OF MY MOTHER AND FOR BEING THERE FOR THE FAMILY. MY PARENTS SPOKE HIGHLY OF 99STREET FAMILY I AM SO GLAD THAT I CAN BE AT THE FUNCTIONS BE APART OF THE FAMILY OF THE 99STREET FAMILY I WILL BE THERE TO REPRESENT MY FAMILY AND THE LEGACY OF THE 99 STREET FAMILY. MAY GOD KEEP US SAFE AND WATCH OVER OUR FAMILY.

    LOVE PEACE AND HAPPINESS LEONORA AND QUAILEY CHILDRENS…

  • Pearl

    I did not live on 99St.but through the years heard of it thru you Jim and Mel. The same thing happen to our close knit neighborhood 135th St.between Lenox and fifth Aves.we were moved out so they could build the Lenox Terrace and inlarge Harlem hospital, we lived across the street in front of the Lincoln theater. IT is Great to see how ALL these years you 99ers kept in touch with each other.

  • Carlett Jones

    I am not from Harlem and know very little regarding Harlem’s history but I was very pleased with the documentary and article about Harlem. I show how black people had to preserve through hard times but stood together as friends, family and neighbors in which you do not see anymore. This document should open our eyes for we are never too old to learn something new. I thank Mr. Jim Torain for his continous efforts in keeping the community and history of Harlem alive and for those who lives in that area should be proud of such vital information. Once again Well done Mr. Torain and Mel.

  • Gilbert Tauber

    The documentary is a reminder to the present generation of what can happen when elected officials delegate too much power to supposed experts. It is also a reminder of the flip side of economies of scale: large-scale projects create opportunities for large-scale corruption.

  • Jeff Dermksian

    Mr. Torain, thank you for sharing this with me yesterday. It was very informative and interesting. Having been born and raised on the West side of Manhattan and passing these buildings almost everyday, this was so eye opening. Just brillant!

  • Lorraine Guinn Bussey

    I was born at 11-A West 99th Street in 1938, the youngest of eight children. My family moved to New York in 1929 from New Bedford, Mass. I have fond memories of growing up near Central Park and playing there as well as in the block. We had a strong close knit community. At that time parents felt safe to let their children play outside. The unspoken rule was that you be home when the street lights came on. We felt secure in the belief that not only our parents were looking out for us but all parents were watching over us. I look forward to the reunion each year and rekindling old friendships. I met my oldest and dearest friend in St. Jude’s nursery school and Sunday school and to this day we talk almost daily. I can’t thank Jim Torain enough for safeguarding our memories and Jim Epstein for bringing our story to the attention of the media.

  • marian anderson

    Their not much more i can add to the many wonderful comments.that have already been said/. I was born at 54w 99th st where me an my four siibblings lost our mother at a early age It was very comforiting to have both blocks of caring people to help fill that void during,those time .[that what made the blocks unique] most off us recived our start by atteniding P.S.179 which was the stepping stone for what was to come in all of or furture 99th and 98th st will always be a part of my life.

  • marian anderson

    this is from gene jones there’s not much more i could add to the many wonderful comments thats been said about 98& 99 streets. i was born at 54 west 99th st were me and my four siblings lost our mother at an early age. IT was very comforting to have both blocks of careing people to help fill that void. [thats what made 98&99st so unique] most of us got our start in life at p.s. 179 which was the stepping stone for what was to come in our furtures.98&99 st will always be the happest time in my life.

  • jessica montanez

    What a resilient and tight knit community. This article was informative and was very inspirational the fact that every year they reunite and keep in touch with each other shows how they still have no given up on the neighborhood.

  • William Cardwell-Campos

    My thanks to Jim Torain and all the others who have kept the spirit and vitality of of our lost community alive through the years. West 99th/98th Street was a unique experience of a “Small Town” in the very heart of a very “Big City”. The fierceness of sport competition…Basketball, stickball, etc…rivaled “Friday Night Lights” here in Texas. The “Small Town/Village” raised us. Members of the “Old Community” spread out, not only through out the city, but through out the country. Many became productive and sucessful and never forgot their roots in the “Block”. It is a shame that our neighborhood was labeled a slum, unproductive, an urban blight, and the people uprooted so callusly. However, they could not destroy the ties that bind or spirt that lives on until this very day.

  • John Hedges

    I always knew Jim Torain was a remarkable man. I now have a stunning glimpse into what shaped him into the person he is today. His humanity comes shining through the recounting of these events and his work to keep his village from never being forgotten. Bravo!

  • Carmen Phillips Garrigia

    I was born on 98th street right over the horse stables. please let me know when you have another reunion etc.

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  • Lola Keyes

    I grew up on west 90th in a building that was my village. Without that love, support and encouragement my life would not be what it is today. I cant imagine displacing families with a simple stroke of a pen and no regard for the institution of family. I never knew about Manhattanville though I knew about Moses and the Brooklyn/suburban plight. Thank you for this story. It make me want to find all the kids I grew up with at 200 West 90th. That was a special life that I am thankful for. Thanks Jim Torrain for being a good mentor and friend.

  • Lori

    Didn’t Robert Moses run for Governor of NY in 1934 as a Republican candidate? And wasn’t he appointed to run the NY Park Commission by Mayor LaGuardia, who was also a Republican? That makes me question whether Moses truly funneled all of those lucrative 98-99th Street building contracts over to Democratic political operatives as is stated in the film…

  • Harry P. Miller

    My family moved into a ground floor flat at 169 W 99th on Aug 19, 1926 on the north side of the street.  It was across the street from the Garvey Mansion, the only wooden single family dwelling in the area.  This was between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues.  We retained the apartment until 1952.  When I returned for a visit, the only building still standing, in ruins, was 169-171 W 99th.  While our block was not integrated, all of us took pride in what we thought was a great neighborhood.  The El station at 99th and Columbus was one of the few in the city that had an escalator for passengers to ride up to the platform.  The El was demolished in the 1940′s when I was in high school. 

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