A history of land speculation, real estate, and gentrification, as seen through Harper’s Weekly

By Jeffrey V. Moy, North Jersey History and Genealogy Center

“Transformation of the West Side of New York”, Harper’s Weekly, January 26,1889.

Northeast American land use has a rich history dating back thousands of years to the earliest indigenous settlers, to the displacement of native people and non-landowning European squatters, as well as the border skirmishes and wars among nations that eventually led to the founding of the Untied States.

Since the most valuable real estate tended to exist in direct proximity to thriving towns and metropolitan centers, a long and complex relationship formed among land owners, speculators, and developers.

Far from being a modern phenomenon, these past traces of gentrification are clearly visible to everyone who has explored the living archaeological sites of our major cities.

Even New York City – a relatively young 393 years old compared to the ancient metropolises of Asia, Africa, Europe  and the Middle East – contains numerous visible layers of settlement, displacement, and re-development to those trained to see its history.

“The Original Apartment House” — detail of Harper’s Weekly illustration depicting the less desirable Eastern European and African American squatters and small land owners who lived in Manhattan’s West Side through the mid-19th century.

This 1889 Harper’s Weekly article describes rapid development of West Side real estate, which was previously unsellable for the past quarter century except between other land speculators.

The author describes the current residents as squatters and small land owners who anxiously perceived the coming wave of new ownership and development: “Once sanguine, but now saddened with hope deferred, [they] were seriously concerned about the disposition of the lawless and warlike squatters, when the advancing wave of civilization broke over the west side, and the squatters villa is now in as rapid progress of extinction as the North American Bison.”

Major contributing factors to the sudden uptown building boon were the City’s creation of Central Park to provide residents used to cramped and congested living areas with an open air space for leisure, as well as the growing subway network that made it possible for affluent and middle class residents to build larger homes and apartments uptown where land was cheaper and more plentiful.

“Façade Treatment on 72nd” – detail showing new residential development during the 1880s.

Rapid development on Manhattan’s West Side took off around 1884, which the author of this 1889 article viewed as fortuitous because it halted the spread of the generic town homes that he described as “roofless rows of arid brown that border the residential streets from Washington Square to Central Park.” 

Rather, the new style of housing shunned this standardized design aesthetic and focused on building homes for “the normal New York family, but it did not suit any particular family exactly.”

That is to say, developers chose architectural styles that would appeal to a wide array of educated clients who preferred a tasteful but not ostentatious home that they could make their own. “He knew there was a steady demand for the kind of house that he knew how to plan and build and he knew that variation was dangerous.”

“A Skyline on 73rd” – inset depicting a row of separate but tastefully distinctive apartment buildings and homes on the West Side.

Some today criticize the over-reliance on reused designs for mixed-use residential units with condos or apartments above and retail at the ground floor, which creates an aesthetic that blends into the existing neighborhood but offers no distinct character of its own; thereby detracting from a neighborhood’s character.

However, in 1889, visually unobtrusive developments, such as the Dakota and its neighboring apartments, were held up as an example of “domestic architecture that has attained animation and variety without losing sobriety and repose.”

Today, these very buildings are viewed as some of New York’s most distinguished landmarks.

“Exterior and Interior of 75th”. The main lobby and exterior architectural details of homes built along 75th Street during the 1880s.

So enamored was Harper’s to the goals of late 19th developers that the author ascribes the builders with providing a philanthropic solution to the perennial problem of cheap housing out of a capitalistic desire that had previously eluded actual philanthropists.

Whether any of the displaced “lawless and warlike squatters” found refuge and uplift in the newly constructed towers remained unsaid, but the pattern of developers, political leaders, and owners directing the trajectory and growth of neighborhoods remains a strong factor in American life to this day.

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