Feasible Ideas and Ideals for Our Time

The following talk about Willowtown’s "saint," Alfred T. White, 1846-1921, was given by Bradley Smith, a resident of White’s progressive Riverside Apartments in Willowtown for nearly 50 years, at a rally opening Willowtown’s annual spring fair May 16, 2009. My friends, we are here today to honor Alfred Tredway White and to take a look at his life and legacy.

What was the world like when Alfred White was born in 1846? Our United States was scarcely 60 years old. Still America offered the prospect of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to the poverty stricken and to the persecuted. In the cities of Brooklyn and New York entrepreneurs were pursuing their particular brand of happiness with a vengeance. The rich got richer, while the poor....

Well, the Whites were rich. Alfred White’s childhood home, a palatial mansion, still stands at No. 2 Pierrepont Place in Brooklyn Heights.

There were those individuals and families like the Whites who firmly believed that with wealth comes responsibility. These Unitarians took to heart the biblical admonition that from those to whom much is given, much is required.

We’ll only mention in passing White’s work with the Children’s Aid Society, the Brooklyn Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the Brooklyn Bureau of Charities and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. We’ll also only mention in passing White’s putting up the Willow Place Chapel in 1876 and its Columbia House addition in 1906.

We will focus on White’s pioneering work in the field of housing for the working poor. There were settlement houses, settlement schools, sanitariums and hospitals set up specifically for the poor. The poor desperately needed some sort of schooling and training for some sort of work, some place to live and some place to die. And die they did–of cholera, tuberculosis, typhoid fever and yellow fever.

The filthy, feckless poor were crammed together in filthy, rate-infested tenements. We do well to recall that it was not until 1901 that a New York City law was passed mandating one indoor water closet for every two families in any given tenement building. The constitutionality of this law was questioned by unscrupulous building owners who insisted they were entitled to a minimum 40 percent return on their investments. Hopefully they could collect an exorbitant 100 percent return or even more to be squeezed out of the unfortunate, unwashed, unworthy, underclass tenants.

But Alfred T. White, buttressed by his firm religious convictions and his direct contacts with the hard-working, hard-pressed poor, realized there simply had to be decent housing provided for them.

There were model tenements in London, England. White reasoned that there could and should also be model tenements in Brooklyn. White invested his own money, anticipating a reasonable return of 5 percent–philanthropy plus 5 percent.

In 1877 White’s Home Buildings opened in Cobble Hill. In 1878 and 1879 White’s Tower Buildings were erected, also in Cobble Hill. And in 1890 White’s Riverside Buildings were completed in Brooklyn Heights. Philanthropy plus 5 percent proved entirely feasible.

These sturdy brick buildings had outside, fireproof staircases. Inside each apartment had its own sink, its own wash tray and its own water closet. And the innovative idea that sunlight, fresh air, green trees and park space should be incorporated into the very fabric of tenements was nothing short of shocking to some.

More than 100 years later we all realize the tremendous importance of sensible civic planning–planning for affordable public as well as private housing, housing projects with park space and playgrounds, such as were pioneered by Alfred T. White.

Today we ask ourselves how in our time we can preserve and promote the ideas and ideals initiated in his time by Alfred T. White.