Just City: Grow­ing Up on the Upper West Side When Hous­ing Was a Human Right

  • Review
By – July 22, 2024

Just City recalls Saul Steinberg’s famous March 29, 1976 New York­er illus­tra­tion, View of the World from 9th Avenue,” oth­er­wise known as A Parochial New Yorker’s View of the World.” In Jen­nifer Baum’s case, the world is viewed from West 96th Street in Man­hat­tan — where, begin­ning in 1967, she was raised in the sub­si­dized and inte­grat­ed coop­er­a­tive RNA House, a pub­lic hous­ing project, through her high school years. Baum, who grew up in an assim­i­lat­ed Jew­ish fam­i­ly and cher­ish­es sec­u­lar Jew­ish val­ues,” relates that she was fas­ci­nat­ed by RNA’s social­ist sys­tem and how it shaped my fam­i­ly, neigh­bors, and friends,” and her book con­veys how blessed she was to have grown up in such a neigh­bor­hood. Van­cou­ver, Cana­da, Phoenix, Ari­zona, and the oth­er places where she sub­se­quent­ly lived sim­ply paled in com­par­i­son. They lacked the sense of com­mu­ni­ty, grit­ty street life, eth­nic and racial het­ero­gene­ity, left-wing polit­i­cal activism, and muse­ums, the­aters, and oth­er cul­tur­al venues that were so impor­tant to Baum, an aspir­ing film documentarian.

Read­ers who grew up in one of New York’s many coop­er­a­tive hous­ing projects and share Baum’s polit­i­cal out­look will be stirred by her mem­oir and will lament along­side her the trans­for­ma­tion of the city dur­ing the last sev­er­al decades. There is lit­tle left to remind us of the time dur­ing the mid-twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry when there were five major coop­er­a­tive projects in the Bronx cater­ing to Jews of var­i­ous ide­o­log­i­cal out­looks, includ­ing Labor Zion­ists, social­ists, and com­mu­nists. Baum believes that the recent pri­va­ti­za­tion of the city’s pub­lic ser­vices has adverse­ly affect­ed the less well-off, increased gen­tri­fi­ca­tion and income inequal­i­ty, under­mined the col­lec­tive ethos at the cen­ter of New York City’s pub­lic hous­ing, and trans­formed the city into a play­ground for the rich.” She par­tic­u­lar­ly abhors Michael Bloomberg, the city’s may­or from 2002 through 2013, who steered the city’s eco­nom­ic recov­ery after the Sep­tem­ber 11, 2001 attacks.

Just Citys sub­ti­tle reflects Baum’s argu­ment: There must be a con­sen­sus, by the pub­lic and politi­cians,” she writes, that hous­ing is a human right, that ear­li­er leg­is­la­tion fund­ing afford­able hous­ing was ben­e­fi­cial to the com­mon good and that we need sim­i­lar leg­is­la­tion today.” Many New York­ers would agree, but, as Baum notes glum­ly, The unseen hand of cap­i­tal­ism is mighty strong.” Her book is an elo­quent ele­gy for a gold­en age unlike­ly to return.

Edward Shapiro is pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry emer­i­tus at Seton Hall Uni­ver­si­ty and the author of A Time for Heal­ing: Amer­i­can Jew­ry Since World War II (1992), We Are Many: Reflec­tions on Amer­i­can Jew­ish His­to­ry and Iden­ti­ty (2005), and Crown Heights: Blacks, Jews, and the 1991 Brook­lyn Riot (2006).

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