Housing to Remember: The Paul Laurence Dunbar Apartments

By Matthew Gordon Lasner


Harlem's Paul Laurence Dunbar Apartments, a limited-equity cooperative built for African Americans in 1926 by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., set new standards for affordable, or below-market, urban housing in the United States. Occupying the entire block bounded by West 149th and 150th Streets, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Frederick Douglass Boulevards, and Macombs Place, Dunbar Apartments offered well-built apartments at modest prices to one of the most poorly housed groups in the city: Black families. The long-term fate of the complex, however, reveals the limits of private philanthropy in housing. Without government subsidies, Dunbar Apartments faced significant challenges as the city’s economy and social landscape changed.

Dunbar Apartments was one of half a dozen large-scale below-market apartment complexes, some rental, some owner-occupied, created by Rockefeller in and around New York City in the mid-1920s.[1] He initiated it after the New York Urban League approached him about what they believed to be a dearth of high-quality housing for "reputable" Black families, and responsible landlords.[2] A staunch conservative, Rockefeller pursued projects like Dunbar in part as an argument against mounting calls by reformers in the 1920s for government intervention in housing, including subsidized public housing. For this reason, Rockefeller refused to allow Dunbar to take advantage of New York State's landmark housing law of 1926, the Limited Dividend Housing Companies Act, which was the nation's first major program offering public assistance to low-cost housing, in the form of partial property tax abatements. He nevertheless achieved lower prices and better conditions than the market could, through a combination of the nonprofit format and construction efficiencies enabled by the project's large size. After down payments of $50 a room, which could be made by installments over three years, apartments at Dunbar cost about $14.50 per month per room in monthly maintenance charges, which covered taxes, upkeep, and utilities. In practice this meant $250 down for a five-room apartment with $72.50 a month in maintenance, or approximately $11,500 and $3,300 in 2015 dollars.[3]

Apart from providing up to date, owner-occupied housing for African American families and refuting the case for publicly subsidized housing, one of the goals of Dunbar was to create a social and physical environment that might be less susceptible to decay than was ordinary speculative housing. To help do this, architect Andrew Jackson Thomas’s design emphasized control, surveillance, and intimacy, despite the vast and unprecedented size of 511 apartments (later increased to 536 by dividing up some units). Thomas was a socially conscious designer who had pioneered a new apartment-complex type, or physical form, in the late 1910s at Jackson Heights, Queens, which had come to be known as simply "garden apartment."[4] His design for Dunbar expressed Rockefeller's goals in two ways. First, it broke up the complex into six separate buildings, each served by multiple entryways leading to semi-private enclosed stairwells. (Typically only two or three units shared a landing at each floor.) Second, he reversed the orientation of the complex so that these entries faced the landscaped (and patrolled) garden courtyard rather than the street, creating a cloistered effect that recalled a college quadrangle. Access to the court was through a series of archways. This feature, which tenants continue to appreciate today, especially helped to distinguish Dunbar from surrounding buildings.

Rockefeller’s impulse to control Dunbar was also evident in the system of governance his staff devised. Unlike in market-rate co-ops (or, in later eras, condominiums and other common-interest developments), where the homeowners control their buildings through an elected board of directors or managers, Rockefeller remained firmly in charge of Dunbar. In this respect he followed the precedent of early co-ownership schemes devised by middle-class housing reformers to improve the living conditions of the working class in Britain in the nineteenth century (examples that also inspired Ebenezer Howard in his conceptualization of the Garden City). Rockefeller effected this paternalism by retaining preferred shares of stock in Dunbar’s cooperative corporation, with plans to retire them, and cede control of the board, only once the tenants had collectively repaid all construction loans, after thirty years. In practice Rockefeller kept a tight grip by imposing rules at whim and selecting property managers who reported directly to his office. This meant no ability to profit from resales (rather than listing apartments on the market, tenants had to sell them back to the cooperative corporation), no playing on courtyard lawns, no taking in boarders, and a Harvard-educated resident manager who, despite being African American, treated the owners more as wards than clients.

Notwithstanding concerns that management was "autocratic," for years "Dunbar Gardens," as some called it, was among the best housing open to African Americans in the United States.[5] The buildings became an important center of African American life at a time when racial discrimination in housing left Black people with few options for high-quality accommodation. In addition to well-laid-out apartments with modern kitchens and bathrooms, Dunbar offered a nursery, recreation room, playground, and private security. The most frequent occupation among tenants was clerks, but it was also home to many black notables, including W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Robeson, Bojangles (Bill Robinson), and A. Philip Randolph. In the early years, median household income was $1,800 a year (equivalent to $80,000 in 2015 dollars using the unskilled wage index), although a study by NYCHA in 1937 found seventy percent of tenants eligible for public housing.[6] Retail tenants included a large Madam C. J. Walker salon billed in advertisements as "the race’s finest beauty shoppe," and the Dunbar National Bank, set up by Rockefeller to serve, and employ, Black people.[7] By 1932, after five years in operation, more than three-quarters of Dunbar’s original families were still in residence.[8] Many remained for the rest of their lives.

Like many co-ops, however, Dunbar did not survive the Great Depression. It suffered a comparatively modest vacancy rate but many owners fell behind on maintenance payments and the project began operating at a deep loss. To maintain cash flow Rockefeller began allowing new tenants to rent rather than buy. Eventually he foreclosed on it, buying it back from himself at auction to operate as a rental. Meanwhile, when the first federal New Deal funds became available for public housing, in 1935, he realized his argument against government intervention in housing was lost and began divesting himself of all his below-market housing. A plan was devised to sell an unbuilt Harlem parcel, where an addition to Dunbar had been planned, to the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), along with Dunbar for conversion to low-income public housing. Many at the housing authority and in Dunbar supported the idea, but Rockefeller and authority leaders could never agree on terms and he ended up selling to an investment group comprised of several of his associates, retaining the mortgage. In 1942, he agreed to a second sale, to the New York Society of the Methodist-Episcopal Church, on condition that any operating profits be used to minister to the city’s African American community.[9]

Dunbar’s community life remained remarkably stable throughout this period of transition. The Dunbar Housewives’ League, established in 1931, continued to sponsor Harlem’s Own Co-operative, Inc., a consumers’ cooperative for at-cost sale of dairy, and by the late thirties had organized a powerful Tenants’ League. Meanwhile, the Methodists maintained high standards with plenty of heat, hot water, and fresh paint, and the press continued to describe the complex as "swanky." After the Second World War, its many five- and six-room apartments ensured it remained a hub of black middle-class life, complete with Boy Scout troops.[10] As late as in 1965, in a book about African Americans' struggles to escape the ghetto, Edward Wakin and photographer Edward Lettau presented Dunbar as an island apart from its increasingly distressed neighborhood. Called At the Edge of Harlem, the study, which followed a companion television documentary, explored the everyday home life of one second-generation Dunbar couple, the Crearys, and their six children. Wakin described them as "middle-class holdout[s] resisting deprivation" at the "edge of Harlem — both physically and psychologically."[11]

As the building aged and Harlem decayed, however, Dunbar struggled to keep at bay the ravages of the so-called urban crisis. Already by 1965, reported Wakin, Dunbar had become "more respectable than stylish . . . straining to keep up appearances." As the open, for fair, housing movement advanced, many of the more stable tenants, including the Crearys, sought alternatives. "Unlike the downtrodden Negro who has become a well-known statistic," the Crearys, with their Rambler station wagon and weekend trips to suburban parks and supermarkets, "are ready to leave."[12] Meanwhile, with a majority of the apartments under rent control (a 1942 program that in practice kept rents frozen at Depression-era rates), it was difficult for the owners to make the complex pay while maintaining decent standards. In the mid-sixties, after years of losses, the Methodists were forced to sell. Dunbar was bought by the first in a series of speculative operators who also failed to make the place work financially.[13]
In the seventies, Dunbar earned protection through its placement on the city’s list of landmarks and on the National Park Service’s Register of Historic Places. Yet by the end of the decade another lender had foreclosed and it was run down, with more than a hundred vacancies. The tenants who remained were struggling, with many qualifying for federal Section 8 rent vouchers. To stabilize the building the lender secured city financing for a costly renovation and launched a plan to convert to co-op. Conversion had allowed thousands of buildings in New York and other cities to pay their way while forestalling, even reversing, decay. At Dunbar the plan was to employ a low-cost, limited-equity format that required down payments of just $2,000 to $3,000 from existing tenants (approximately $5,000 to $7,500 in 2015 dollars). The proposal enjoyed the support of the federal government, private lenders, and many tenants. Others, however, resisted and the plan provoked so much controversy that the bank gave up and sold Dunbar to yet another investor in the mid-eighties.[14]

The past three decades have seen many different owners, many schemes for refinancing, many failed plans for conversion to co-op or condominium, and more incomplete renovations. The buildings have also seen more neglect, crime (drugs, parties, and prostitution in vacant apartments), and conflict between landlord and tenant. The most recent such struggle was been between residents and Pinnacle Group, which bought Dunbar in 2005. Dunbar still had seventy-four rent-controlled units, with the balance rent stabilized (introduced in the early 1970s and which covered units that had fallen out of rent control as tenants left); Pinnacle specialized in renovating down-at-heels complexes with many rent-regulated units in gentrifying areas. In a series of moves perfected at other buildings, Pinnacle enhanced security while trying to evict nearly half the tenants, including anyone behind on rent or whose name was not on his or her lease (typically heirs claiming successor rights). Although very few of the evictions went through, the Dunbar Tenants Association worked with residents of other Pinnacle buildings to voice concerns, and together filed a class-action lawsuit in 2007 that was settled in the tenants’ favor in 2011. By then, however, Pinnacle had defaulted on its loans and the complex had been foreclosed on again; it was sold at auction in 2013 to yet another new investor.[15]

Despite these struggles, many tenants remain happy with Dunbar and the complex retains a special mystique: what one tenant calls Harlem "renaissance magic."[16] When Pinnacle bought it, the New York Amsterdam News reported that the "apartment fortress ha[d] crumbled into a dingy maze" with vermin, graffiti, drug dealing, and broken windows.[17] Today, disruptive households are gone, maintenance requests are handled (at least for new tenants), and the courtyard, thanks to the efforts of many volunteers, blooms every spring. Socially, Dunbar has come to house a greater mixture of New Yorkers than ever before, including many Latinos; new immigrants, especially from Africa; and artists, musicians, actors, and students, some of whom are white (whites now make up about fourteen percent of the larger census tract, up from four percent in 2000, while the share of African Americans declined from eight-four percent to sixty-six percent). Like the many old-guard and second-generation families who remain, they appreciate the low rents — despite recent increases — and the well-laid-out apartments "designed for people."[18] And they love the sense of community, security, and serenity afforded by Thomas’s design. As tenant Ramona explains, "The design of the building is phenomenal. We live in a two bedroom that has light, exposure on all four sides. When have you heard of that?" Moreover, "the gardens are so gorgeous" and, in the words of a neighbor, full of "peacefulness."[19]

As yet another tenant, Barbara, explains, "this building has far more of a hold on people than your average apartment building. . . . The greatest thing is that you do know your neighbors and you do stop and chat in the courtyard." The challenge now is to improve the complex without displacing tenants. She, at least, "remain[s] ever optimistic that it will return to its former glory, and not make people homeless in the process."[20]

Matthew Gordon Lasner is Associate Professor of Urban Planning at Hunter College. This post is adapted from his book, co-edited with Nicholas Dagen Bloom, Affordable Housing in New York: The People, Places, and Policies That Transformed a City (2016), with permission from Princeton University Press.

[1] Other projects were in in Sunset Park, the Bronx, the East Side, Westchester County, and Bayonne, New Jersey.

[2] Touré F. Reed, Not Alms but Opportunity: The Urban League and the Politics of Racial Uplift, 1910-1950 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), chapter 2, especially 31, 45-57.

[3] On the early history of Dunbar and on Rockefeller's housing program see Matthew Gordon Lasner, High Life: Condo Living in the Suburban Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), 99-106, 108-109.

[4] On Thomas see Lasner, High Life, 67-74, 98-101, 143-46.

[5] On "autocratic" see Kenneth W. Rose, "Partners in Housing Reform: The Apartment Developments of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Charles O. Heydt, and Andrew J. Thomas," The Conference on New York State History, New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, N.Y., 8 June 2007, typescript, Rockefeller Archive Center, www.rockarchive.org, 16.

[6] Memorandum from Charles Abrams, Consultant, and Wilfred S. Lewis, Secretary, New York City Housing Authority to Members of the New York City Housing Authority, Subject: Acquisition of Dunbar Apartments, June 18, 1937, New York City Housing Authority Records, LaGuardia and Wagner Archive, LaGuardia Community College. On the unskilled wage index see "Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount — 1774 to Present," Measuring Worth, www.measuringworth.com.

[7] Display advertisement, New York Amsterdam News, April 11, 1928, 5; “Rockefeller Jr. Forms Negro Bank in Harlem; To Be in Dunbar Apartments, Which He Built,” New York Times, August 15, 1928, 1

[8] Nannie H. Burroughs, The President’s Conference on Home Building and Home Ownership Called by President Hoover, Final Reports of Committees, VI: Negro Housing, John M. Gries and James Ford, eds. (Washington, D.C.: President’s Conference on Home Building and Home Ownership, 1932), 247.

[9] "Dunbar Apts. Hit," New York Amsterdam News, October 10, 1936, 1; "Company Purchases Dunbar Apartments," New York Amsterdam News, November 6, 1937, 1; "Church’s Part in Community Told at Meet," New York Amsterdam News, July 28, 1945, 6.

[10] "Dunbar Housewives’ League to Hold Exhibit," New York Amsterdam News, April 4, 1936, 6; "Tenants’ League Fights Eviction of George W. Streator," New York Amsterdam News, May 13, 1939, 4; "Survey Shows Need for Better Housing," New York Amsterdam News, January 13, 1940, 4; Bill Chase, "All Ears," New York Amsterdam News, September 21, 1946, 8; "The Exotic Girls Score," New York Amsterdam News, April 3, 1948, 13.

[11] Edward Wakin with photographs by Edward Letteau, At the Edge of Harlem: Portrait of a Middle-class Negro Family (New York: William Morrow, 1965), 15, 17.

[12] Wakin and Lettau, At the Edge of Harlem, 11, 17, 25.

[13] "Dunbar Apartments Sold," New York Amsterdam News, March 16, 1963, 1.

[14] Dee Wedemeyer, "A Troubled Harlem Project," New York Times, February 19, 1978, R1; Lee A. Daniels, "Harlem Co-op Conversion Plan Falters," New York Times, December 2, 1983, B13; Selvin Michael, "Dunbar Apartments to Get a Facelift," New York Amsterdam News, September 1, 1984, 37; Jill Nelson-Ricks, "The Bank Knows Best for Harlem’s Dunbar Houses," City Limits 9, no. 2 (February-March 1984), 8-11.

[15] Alan S. Oser, "Switching to the Rental Track in Harlem," New York Times, January 21, 1990, R7; J. Zamgba Browne, "Dunbar Apartments Get $7.5M for Renovations," New York Amsterdam News, December 21, 1996, 38; Heather Haddon, "Housing Wars," The Independent [New York] 87, May 21, 2006; Timothy Williams, "In Suit against Landlord, Tenants Make Unusual Accusation: Racketeering," New York Times, July 12, 2007, B5; Eliot Brown, "Property: Pinnacle May Lose Harlem Site," Wall Street Journal, March 23, 2011, A20; Mireya Navarro, "Court Upholds a Settlement Affecting 20,000 City Renters," New York Times, October 1, 2013, A21.

[16] Personal interview with tenant Gina, April 19, 2013, conducted for the author by Allison Blanchette and Marlon Willie.

[17] Tanangachi Mfuni, "Dangers at Dunbar: Development Still Plagued by Problems Under New Ownership," New York Amsterdam News, November 3 - 9, 2005), 1.

[18] Personal interview with tenant Karen, May 12, 2013, conducted for the author by Michael Fivis and Allison Blanchette.

[19] Personal interview with tenant Ramona Ponce, May 8, 2013, conducted for the author by Oksana Mironova; personal interview with tenant Gina.

[20] Personal interview with tenant Barbara Nienaltowski, April 28, 2013, conducted for the author by Oksana Mironova.