Density’s Child: How Housing Density Shaped New York

By Katie Uva

New York is a city defined by its density. Manhattan, with its unique geographical constraints, grew rapidly over the course of the 19th century; by 1890, Jacob Riis noted in How the Other Half Lives that the borough as a whole held 73,299 people per square mile and the Tenth Ward, the densest portion of the Lower East Side, held 334,080 people per square mile. This density was visible in multiple ways; in the innovative, epoch-defining skyscrapers that began to jut out of the Battery and Midtown but also cast worrying shadows on pedestrians below; in the tenement districts with their vibrant street life and their disturbing tuberculosis and fire rates. The 20th century would prove to be a time of experimentation and contestation when it came to density. New York would grow further outwards and further upwards, and would be shaped by the tension between density and sprawl. 


Housing Density: From Tenements to Towers, on view at the Skyscraper Museum through the end of 2019, dives deeply into the questions density has raised for New York: what is the ideal residential density for a city? How can building design preserve light and open space but also a scale that supports safety and community formation? Who should be responsible for building housing in the city? How is the city shaped by the relationship between its higher and lower density areas? Co-curated by Nicholas Dagen Bloom and Matthias Altwicker, the exhibition combines thorough historical context and artifacts with a series of models and infographics that illustrate the design principles in question. The show is structured around a number of different binaries in housing: the distinction between high and low lot coverage (how much space the footprint of a building occupies), high and low residential density (how many people are housed in a building), and public or publicly-subsidized versus privately funded construction. It positions the present-day city as the legacy of a highly dense, high lot coverage period at the turn of the century and the taller, lower-density, lower lot coverage housing constructed in the 1930s-1960s as a reaction to that earlier period.

The show is, as one might expect, dense, which might make it a bit overwhelming to someone with a casual interest in the history of housing in New York. Its focus on the 20th century, however, allows the exhibit to go into useful depth about periodization and the different forms of housing that are sometimes elided in histories that are broader in scope. For instance, it offers many examples of Tower in the Park apartment design, which underscores that tall towers with low lot coverage were not only a NYCHA initiative but also the conventional wisdom for much middle-class housing in the city in the postwar period. Seeing the turn of the century housing also compels visitors to reckon with the serious health and sanitation concerns that arose in that era and highlights why there was such a strong reformist impulse for slum clearance and wholesale rebuilding rather than preservation. The models and digital images focus informatively on Chelsea and Harlem and afford visitors the opportunity to drag a slidebar across aerial maps of these neighborhoods and see their housing change over time. 

Although the show is largely cast in terms of binaries when it comes to density, it also offers some examples that complicate that idea. The exhibition highlights “Middle-Market Design” in the 1950s and the interesting design triangulation of Gordon Bunshaft’s Manhattan House (1951)--at 478 people per acre, it comes close to Jane Jacobs’ ideal urban density of 500 people per acre, but at 20 stories is notably taller than older residential areas of the city. Its 59% lot coverage strikes a middle ground between the extremely high 87% lot coverage of old tenements and the extremely low 15% lot coverage of Co-op City. The exhibition text alludes to external factors shaping middle-market design as well; while this and other sections about the postwar period remind us that there was, in fact, a demand for middle-class housing in the city in those years, it also notes that “the postwar volume of privately-developed housing was less than hoped, and minor compared to either new office towers or suburban growth,” and speculates that without suburbanization New York might have seen “a massive unsubsidized recovery that might have remade the city at a much higher density level.”

Manhattan House, 1951. New York Public Library.

Manhattan House, 1951. New York Public Library.

Manhattan House infographic. Skyscraper Museum.

Manhattan House infographic. Skyscraper Museum.

There is good reason for the show to be structured the way it is; the focus on the twentieth century and on design both allow for interesting explorations of housing density and the range of possibilities that were implemented in the city. That being said, this structure also has some limitations. The outer boroughs are occasionally implicated in the density conversation--for example, there is an advertisement for new apartments in Jackson Heights in the 1920s--but the focus is on Manhattan, and that means the exhibition doesn’t have space to consider how the boroughs were fundamentally reshaped from the 1920s onward, or how construction in the other boroughs affected Manhattan’s density. There is some mention of zoning but the show doesn’t take its story completely up to the present and so it doesn’t have the opportunity to address the city’s profound division on rezoning, supertalls, and the crisis of housing affordability in the present. Lastly, one of the major parts of the discourse about urban density right now is whether it is a liability or an asset when it comes to sustainability and dealing with climate change. It would have been interesting for this exhibition to weigh in on where the city is or should be going in the future with regard to density. 

Still, there is much to appreciate here; the detailed periodization of housing design is supported with a wealth of interesting archival images, charts, and promotional materials, and the models and infographics help ground the information and make it legible. While the show doesn’t address everything it could about connections to the present, it does implicitly raise those questions and provides a great springboard for further thought.

Katie Uva is an editor at Gotham