Preserving a Democratic Vision
The Tenants Association of the Riverside Apartments in 2011 received the Brooklyn Heights Association’s “Outstanding Community Service” award for that year. Following is the statement that went with the award:
Anyone who lives in a designated historic district...knows that there’s not a building within its boundaries that does not deserve the protection of historic preservation. Still, some buildings are, well, more historic than others. Not because they’re older, or because someone famous lived in them, but because they have actually had an impact on the life of the city.
You couldn’t find a better example than the Riverside Buildings on Columbia Place. This remarkable six-story apartment complex, constructed 120 years ago by Alfred T. White, a Brooklyn Heights philanthropist, was designed specifically to make life pleasant, safe and healthy for the working poor. Amazing idea! It was our great good fortune that Mr. White’s good intentions were expressed in wonderful architecture.
Because the worst aspect of turn-of-the-century tenements were their filthy, dangerous stairways and putrid air shafts, Riverside put its stairways on the outside of the building–graceful iron stairways, strong yet elegant. Instead of dark, airless air shafts, Riverside was built around a vast park-like courtyard. There was light. There was fresh air. There was space.
Sooner or later a remarkable achievement like Riverside was bound to be threatened. In 1950 “Moses the Hun” [Robert Moses, 1888-1981] descended on Furman Street, sword in hand. In order to create our beloved Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, he amputated the western arm of the complex. Astonishingly, the central courtyard was scarcely damaged. Now a half-century later the current owner of Riverside is trying to compete with Moses’ callousness with plans for a parking garage right in the courtyard.
That’s when the Riverside tenants took up arms. With limited resources–this is, after all, a rent-controlled building–they valiantly and, so far, successfully challenged the landlord. The owner responded with significant changes, but Alfred T. White’s original intent would be gone. The 14 75-year-old trees would be gone. The protection from BQE noise and emissions would be gone. There would no longer be a park-like courtyard but a serviceable, utilitarian space.
You need stamina, conviction and a good pro bono lawyer to take on a challenge like this. Consider what the Riverside tenants had to go through to get what they rightfully demanded. Warning: do not try to decipher what follows.
First, they had to fight the landlord’s ACM [Application for Courtyard Modification] with the RA [Rent Administrator], then the PAR [Petition for Administrative Review] with the DHCR’s DC [Division of Housing and Community Renewal’s Deputy Commissioner], and after that there was RFR [Request for Reconsideration] at the DHCR. Not to mention the LPC [Landmarks Preservation Commission] hearing and appeal, side by side with the BHA. Even with the pro bono legal help of Heights resident Frank Ciaccio, an army of lawyers and preservation and housing advocates, it was the Riverside tenants who supplied the courage and tenacity that are carrying the day. Although the final decision has not been handed down, the Brooklyn Heights Association honors these tough, principled folk right now. We are proud to have such valiant neighbors. They are proving that fresh air, trees and wide open space are worth preserving. And so is Alfred T. White’s democratic vision.
The Riverside Apartments at 24 and 32 Joralemon Street and 10, 20 and 30 Columbia Place were built in 1889-90 on the site of the brewery/distillery. Considered “a masterpiece of late Victorian design,” they are an early model of better housing for the urban poor. The original U-shaped, nine-unit complex with an interior courtyard had 280 two- to four-room apartments and 19 stores. In 1890 the rent was $8-$11 a month. Bathing was communal in the basement. The bathrooms, a first for a tenement, were described as “nicely fitted up.” The courtyard’s amenities included a bandstand where concerts were held on weekends, a children’s playground and a fountain. The west section along Furman Street was also lost to the BQE. However, the courtyard with some fine old trees remains largely intact although neglected by the landlord. Archaeological remains of the early industries on the site may well be preserved under the garden.
Alfred T. White, 1846-1921, known as “the great heart and mastermind of Brooklyn’s better self” and a lifelong resident of Brooklyn Heights, was the figure behind the construction of the Riverside Houses. He was a founder and major benefactor of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and of the Brooklyn Heights Association, among his many other interests.