Growing up in Philadelphia, Shira Smillie, ’18, was always curious about housing. “I didn’t have the language for it, but I knew there was some outside force causing impoverished areas to exist,” she said.
When she arrived at Richmond, Smillie chose an American studies major and found that her coursework helped her understand concepts, make connections, and find the words to explain systemic problems, all of which increased her desire to research public housing in America.
With help from her advisor, history and American studies professor Eric Yellin, Smillie narrowed her focus to look at real estate issues in Harlem. “I’m specifically looking at public housing development, and I’m looking to tell a story of what it was like to be a black renter in Harlem in the 1950s,” she said.
Smillie and Yellin found a collection of documents at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City that outlined the activities of the Harlem Neighborhood Association. “It was essentially a service organization that was formed to help African-Americans deal with the aftermath of the Great Depression,” she said. “The most substantive of their documents were the housing documents, which documented what it was like to be a black Harlemite, what it was like to live there, or not have a home, or be displaced from your home.”
Through those documents, Smillie was able to think about the bigger picture, which included city officials, real estate developers, and the backhanded deals that allowed city officials to benefit from real estate deals that caused displacement and homelessness of black residents.
Smillie found that in the 1940s, there was a major housing shortage, particularly in large cities. The 1949 Housing Act was passed to try and address the issue, and gave way to urban renewal. “Part of that process was to clear some buildings that were dilapidated and in poor condition; the federal government subsidized the cost for city governments to rebuild those slums,” Smillie said.
The challenge for residents was that if their building was tagged for slum clearance, they had to move. Under the law, the real estate developers were supposed to pay for relocation, but as Smillie discovered, in Harlem many did not and most citizens did not know their rights. “The people who were responsible for rebuilding buildings misled residents, telling them they had to relocate themselves, when instead, they were supposed to provide support for that,” she said. The Harlem Neighborhood Association was trying to advocate for these individuals and provide support to get them in a better spot. They weren’t very successful, though, because by the time they became involved, most of the development had already occurred.
“According to the documents I looked at, most black renters in Harlem relocated themselves; they became roomers in other housing, with family members. Some qualified for public housing. A very small portion of the total number of people who were displaced, were actually relocated,” Smillie said. “Even when they were relocated, many wound up searching for living quarters elsewhere because the spaces they were in were not livable.”
When she considers public housing today, Smillie sees a lot of correlations with her research. “I think that public housing conditions are still abysmal; I’m seeing policies from 50 or 60 years ago still having an impact today,” she said.
For Smillie, the most powerful part of her research experience was the two weeks she got to spend in the Schomberg Center archives, looking at the Harlem Neighborhood Association documents. “The documents were found under a building, under rubble, so many of them had been destroyed,” she said.
“Reading the lists of the tenants, their names and the grievances they had, I really wanted to know their stories,” Smillie said. “These concrete examples teach me so much; it puts a face to everything theoretical.”