Producing Precarity: NYC Histories of Tenant Displacement from the Ground Up, 1945–1990

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Business and Economy; Social and Cultural; Urban and Suburban


This panel reconsiders New York City’s history of tenant displacement in the second half of the twentieth century. Each of the panel’s three papers revisits well-known flashpoints in the city’s history of displacement—postwar urban renewal, the 1970s Bronx arson wave, and the 1980s HIV/AIDS crisis—approaching them from new angles and with a new set of questions. At the center of the panel is the issue of state- and market-driven precarity, which has defined the constraints of urban life for marginalized communities in the second half of the twentieth century. The papers proceed from this central concern, asking, What was historically distinct about patterns of displacement at a time of unprecedented housing financialization? How did race shape these new patterns of displacement in an era of what Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor calls “predatory inclusion”? What were the affective dimensions of displacement, and what were its long-term outcomes for physical and mental health, community cohesion, and the city’s built environment? Finally, in what ways did this precarity reinforce or disrupt gender and sexual ideologies? In order to answer these questions, the papers in this panel take up the challenge of reading histories of displacement not from the perspective of city planners or housing agencies, but rather from the displaced themselves. Pedro Regalado’s paper breaks from the historiography by centering on business—rather than residential—displacement. Focusing on the postwar urban renewal period, which was notorious for its effects on the city’s renters, Regalado asks what impact it had on small Latinx commercial firms. The paper zeroes in on Latinx manufacturing and retail firms, questioning the efficacy of existing paradigms like postindustrialism in explaining the experience of these businesses. Bench Ansfield’s paper traces the chronic displacement inflicted by the arson wave that ravaged the 1970s Bronx. Landlord arson took an enormous toll on the borough, making eviction-by-fire a routine and often recurrent facet of Bronx life. With their neighborhoods burning down on a block-by-block basis, Bronxites often had warning of the impending fires. This paper examines how Bronxites were forced to maintain a bruising vigilance in order to survive. Finally, Salonee Bhaman’s paper asks how anti-poverty and gay-rights activists worked in coalition to reframe HIV/AIDS as an economic and racial justice issue that reshaped the city’s housing landscape. Bhaman’s focus is on the city’s ballooning homeless population during the 1980s, which faced a greater risk of contracting HIV. She shows how the city’s lack of safe and affordable housing emerged as a significant obstacle in the fight for humane and effective HIV/AIDS care. Together, these papers unearth a new landscape of tenant precarity in New York City, taking care to chronicle how ordinary New Yorkers responded, resisted, and survived.

Papers Presented

Confronting “Blue-Collar Blight”: Urban Renewal and Latinx Business Tenants in Postwar New York

Enacted through the Housing Act of 1949, urban renewal funneled immense financial resources toward public housing and urban redevelopment, instilling politicians and city planners with the power to reshape neighborhoods across the country. Between 1949 and 1959 alone, sixteen Title I projects were constructed in New York City replacing tenements occupied by 100,000 low-income people, nearly half of whom were African American and Latinx. Although urban renewal displacement is typically associated with uprooting tenants from their homes, the program also helped to transform New York city’s economy just as Latinx migrants comprised an increasing share of the city’s population. This paper explores economic tenant displacement in two prominent sectors of Latinx employment, manufacturing and small-scale retail, and the ways in which it produced precarity for the city’s Latinxs during the “postindustrial” era. Postwar manufacturing zoning policy generally positioned factories as a nuisance while local Title I administrators failed to record urban renewal’s impact on the industry and its employment. In the case of small-scale retail space, housing project after housing project cleared so-called “slums” that housed several hundred commercial structures that included Puerto Rican-run business tenants represented by groups such as the Small Grocers Association in East Harlem as well as the Puerto Rican Merchants Association in Brooklyn. This paper illustrates how renewed attention to the intersections of postwar migration, urban renewal, and New York’s shifting economy might better inform historians’ understanding of postwar New York and the racial precarity that came to characterize it during the 1970s and 1980s.

Presented By
Pedro A. Regalado, Harvard University

Sleeping with Shoes On: Surviving the Arson Wave in the 1970s Bronx

During the 1970s, a wave of arson coursed through the Bronx, destroying up to 80% of housing in hard-hit neighborhoods. For much of the decade, the borough’s renters bore the brunt of the blame until a number of high-profile cases in the late 1970s signaled that most of the arsons were lit or commissioned by landlords in pursuit of insurance payouts. This paper examines the survival strategies and cycles of displacement endured by the tenants of the Bronx. In oral histories with Bronxites who survived the arson wave, the practice of watching the fires advance slowly—year after year—toward their neighborhoods is frequently cited as a formative and traumatic experience. Because the fires jumped in predictable patterns from block to block and seemed to push inexorably northward, tenants recall bracing themselves ahead of the blazes. Moreover, tenants often received warning of the impending fires from arsonist landlords, who sought to avoid casualties and the heightened suspicion they would attract. With little aid coming from the state in these years of fiscal crisis and fire service cutbacks, tenants were forced to maintain a bruising vigilance to survive. Bronxites got in the habit of keeping a suitcase packed near the door, and children were instructed to wear their shoes to bed. As the blazes ravaged their neighborhoods, Bronxites experienced widespread and often repeated expulsion from their homes. This paper builds on existing histories of displacement by zeroing in on what it took to survive the arson wave.

Presented By
Bench Ansfield, Yale University

A Legacy of Austerity: Housing People with AIDS in Post–Fiscal Crisis New York City

In 1988, public health officials projected that upwards of 30,000 people with AIDS (PWA) would become homeless in New York City by the end of the year. While some had become homeless due to circumstances directly stemming from their illness, HIV/AIDS was rapidly becoming a disease that disproportionately affected low-income, minority communities already at risk for displacement in a rapidly gentrifying New York City. This paper examines the efforts of anti-poverty and gay-rights activists working in coalition with one another to both advocate for the needs of PWA experiencing homelessness and reframe HIV/AIDS as a economic and racial justice issue within the social and political context of post-fiscal crisis New York City. Their efforts reveal that political struggles around matters of city policy, such as SRO conversion, public hospital funding, harm-reduction, and scatter-site and congregate shelter housing were central to the politics of HIV/AIDS treatment and advocacy. This paper argues that a lack of safe, affordable, private, and medically appropriate housing within New York City as a whole emerged as a significant obstacle to care provision by the end of the decade.

Presented By
Salonee Bhaman, Yale University

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: LaShawn Harris, Michigan State University

Presenter: Bench Ansfield, Yale University
Bench Ansfield is a PhD candidate in American Studies at Yale University. Their dissertation, "Born in Flames: Arson, Racial Capitalism, and the Reinsuring of the Bronx in the Late Twentieth Century," examines the wave of arson-for-profit that coursed through the Bronx and countless other U.S. cities in the 1970s. They worked as a researcher on the documentary Decade of Fire (2019), and their work has appeared in American Quarterly, Antipode, and the Washington Post.

Presenter: Salonee Bhaman, Yale University
Salonee Bhaman is a PhD Candidate in the History department at Yale University. Her dissertation, “The Borders of Care: Immigration, Welfare, and Intimacy in the era of AIDS” explores the political economy of the first decades of the AIDS epidemic in the United States. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Boston Review, and the CUNY Graduate Center’s Gotham Blog. She also gives historical walking tours of New York City.

Presenter: Pedro A. Regalado, Harvard University
Pedro A. Regalado is a Junior Fellow at the Society of Fellows at Harvard University. He researches the history of race, immigration, and capitalism in American cities. He is currently working on a book about Latinx work in twentieth century New York City. Regalado's writing has been featured in The Washington Post, Boston Review, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Journal of Urban History, and Planning Perspectives.