That New York is one of the most expensive cities in the United States is not news. What may be surprising is that the city reportedly has the most extensive network of affordable housing in the country. This may not seem to be the case when one is looking to rent or buy an apartment, but the current exhibit at Hunter College’s East Harlem Gallery, Affordable Housing in New York, provides a historical overview of the development of the system that now, according to the exhibition flier, provides spaces for 1.5 million New Yorkers. The exhibition broaches many significant questions: How was affordable housing initially conceived? What government agencies or private individuals assisted in developing the current system, and through what mechanisms? What communities were they hoping to serve and assist? Through an intelligent combination of explanatory text, architectural models, maps, and photographs in the gallery itself, plus an associated series of walking tours, film screenings, and symposia, the history of this program is recounted and its future assessed. It’s a rich story, as well as an essential one for understanding life in the city of New York.
Affordable housing begins as a riches-to-rags tale. The exhibit’s wall text explains that 19th-century philanthropists such as John D. Rockefeller were moved by the squalid conditions of tenements, which were concentrated in poorer neighborhoods, had little light or ventilation, and were ground zero for epidemics such as the 1849 cholera outbreak that killed 5,000 people. In 1926, these wealthy individuals initiated a housing reform movement that ultimately succeeded in introducing subsidies into state law to help build low-income housing. About a decade later, pressure on the federal government helped to expand the social umbrella to include middle-income families as beneficiaries of building subsidies.
The exhibition is divided into two discrete sections. The main gallery lays out a text-based chronology from the inception of the idea of affordable housing through to its current manifestations. As gallery curator Arden Sherman (who did not actually curate this exhibition; that was done by Matthew Lasner, Nicholas Bloom, and Matthias Altwicker) described it to me, the exhibition “is really trying to show how [the program] was first imagined, and how it was meant to be.” In this room, a substantial map details the location of a range of affordable housing schemes within the five boroughs, including New York City Housing Authority apartments, Mitchell-Lama housing, FHA limited-dividend projects, and subsidized and rent-controlled spaces. In the middle of the space, carefully designed white architectural models display the layouts of some of the more famous complexes, such as Queensbridge Houses, Sunnyside Gardens, Penn Station South, Williamsburg Houses, Nehemiah Houses, and River Bend. On the wall opposite the narrative text are printed theorized ideas for affordable housing in this century, as devised by students at a range of colleges, including Columbia, Parsons, Pratt, City College, and Fachhocschule Potsdam in Germany. The scale models and maps astutely make the connection between historical accounts of protest and activism, between what was meant to be and what was actually constructed.
Just outside, in the hallway that connects the gallery to the rest of Hunter College’s Silberman School of Social Work, is another section of the exhibit, comprising two bodies of photographs. One is a salon-style hang of a slew of photographs taken by public housing residents, who were supplied with cameras in a visual self-documentation project sponsored by Project Lives, directed by George Carrano, Chelsea Davis, and Jonathan Fisher. Matthew Gordon Lasner and Nicholas Dagen Bloom produced a book as a companion publication to Affordable Housing in New York and were invited by Sherman to contribute a selection of photographs not included in the book.
As Sherman explained it, adding Project Lives makes the exhibition about moving between outside-in and inside-out views. There are many genuinely lovely images of people inhabiting their apartments: resting on their sofas, playing with their children, showing off their furniture and knickknacks. There are no images of violence or its effects, nor images of poverty or the loss of self-respect (which are often associated with low-income housing complexes); the residents seem proud of their own corner of the world. On an adjacent wall is the other set of photographs, these taken by professional photographer David Schalliol, who also documents the residents’ lives.
Through these visual studies, we are given a human story to extend and deepen our understanding of how vitalizing below-market housing is to city inhabitants. This show could easily have wound up being sentimental or overly academic, but the movement from inside to outside makes it remarkably clear-eyed.
Partly due to the paucity of publicly available information, and partly due to the gallery’s visibility and location in Hunter’s graduate social work school, many people have come into the gallery seeking information about finding and securing affordable housing. Sherman welcomes this. She was brought in almost two years ago with the understanding that she would shape the gallery’s program into one that is “socially minded” (a term she prefers to what she sees as the overused and imprecise “social engagement”). Indeed, the show suits this mission.
Affordable Housing in New York is not just an informative and enlightening show; it’s also an important one, one that gets us to look at what, for some of us, is necessary to live in this particular time and place.
Affordable Housing in New York continues at Hunter College’s East Harlem Gallery (2180 Third Avenue) until May 15.