History of World War Two Told Through Letters
When I first began this blog I was working as a researcher at the Brooklyn Navy Yard for a museum that will open in September. There I was, working right next to the place where my grandmother had lived and written these letters. It was also my job to research topics that directly impacted her life. She and I were both 24 when our New York lives took place in that geographical location.
I went with my dad and my Aunt Adrienne (Cookie) to see the building they had lived in. The community was a close one. Parents could let their children play outside and watch from the window. When the ice cream truck came by, my dad recalls, parents could wrap a coin in a napkin and toss it down to their child below.
133 Navy Walk, where these siblings grew up.
P.S. 67 and the local branch of the Brooklyn Public Library – Walt Whitman Library- are located right next to the projects and students could, and can, walk easily from their homes to the building without crossing any big streets.
Public housing in New York became a major part of city life after World War II. As Joshua Freeman points out in Working Class New York, “Many GIs left for war still living with their parents, but returned seeking homes of their own in which to begin families.” (Freeman, The New Press, NY, 2000, pg. 105) This was absolutely the case for Alex and Sylvia who rarely had privacy while living with their families on the Lower East Side and in Brownsville, respectively. Unlike other housing shortages that New York had faced before, the people who needed housing (veterans) held political, social, and moral weight that served as a catalyst for the development of public housing.
After World War II the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act (a.k.a. the GI Bill) helped veterans enroll in college, receive unemployment compensation and obtain loans to buy houses. America had just triumphed over Fascism and its national identity was inherently tied to modern, national consumer culture. Additionally, privately owned homes represented a capitalist alternative to the communist Soviet ideology of government ownership.
Brief Musical Interlude:
“Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky-tacky
Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes all the same.
There’s a green one and a pink one and a blue one and a yellow one
And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky and they all look just the same.” –Malvina Reynolds
So while there was a lot of housing built in a small time frame in New York, many white families concurrently began leaving the city for single family houses in the suburbs. These developments would become symbolic of the 1950s. Since tens of thousands of people were applying for a small number of apartments, Alex and Sylvia counted themselves among the lucky few.
Fort Greene Houses in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, with the Myrtle Avenue El in the foreground, March 13, 1958. The project contains 35 buildings covering 41 acres, and houses up to 13,000 people. It is now called Whitman Houses and Ingersoll Houses. ID# 02.003.26873 (http://www.laguardiawagnerarchive.lagcc.cuny.edu/PhotosVirtualExhibit/TourPhotosDetails.asp?TourPhoto=02.003.26873&TourPage=1)