My Escape From New York: Stuy Town

From where I sit in Manhattan’s largest and most inscrutable apartment complex, Stuyvesant Town, the start of each day seems like it could be scripted from a sweet, 1930’s Hollywood comedy, something directed by Frank Capra. As the early sunlight slants over the East River, I look north out my window at one of the largest chunks of privately held land in the city. From First Avenue to the F.D.R. Drive, from 14th Street to 23rd Street, Stuyvesant Town and its slightly more plush cousin, Peter Cooper Village, cover 18 square blocks, with acres of twisting walkways, tulip beds, tended trees and fountains-a beautiful parkscape out of which rise 35 nearly identical 13-to-14-story buildings, erected more than 50 years ago by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company.

As I look out my window, into the new morning comes a couple of uniformed members of the grounds-keeping and maintenance crew. A little blue-and-white S.U.V., guided by a member of the complex’s private security force, lifts itself gently over a curb. From the tiled foyers emerge some of the earliest risers among the 20,000 residents, who by design and tradition are relentlessly middle-class.

Some days, it’s all I can do to keep myself from launching into a kind of Capra-esque voice-over: This is a swell little town with a lot of good folks. Yes, sir, this place suits me fine.

Corinne Demas has felt a similar saccharine feeling recently. After she read from her new memoir, Eleven Stories High: Growing Up in Stuyvesant Town, 1948 – 1968 , to a crowd of summer residents in Wellfleet, Mass., she found she had company. “There was a number of people who’d had Stuy Town childhoods,” she said. “It was wonderful.… I tapped into something, and everyone was enjoying the sweetness of their childhoods.”

Who could blame them? A child raised in Stuyvesant Town in the years between World War II and Vietnam was able to have a big-city upbringing in an urban oasis. Ms. Demas readily admits that her tale is “free of hardship,” set in a place “that was a comfortable, middle-class community, a utopia of the 50’s.”

For some, Stuyvesant Town is an unlikely utopia. An architecture writer I know who has lived in Russia told me: “Let’s face it, Stuy Town looks like a housing project.” So why do so many people wait so long to get an apartment here? I imagine that my story is fairly typical of today’s residents. I discovered Stuy Town in the early 1990’s, after having driven by it many times, always assuming it was public housing. Then I met a decidedly middle-class fellow who lived there, and he invited me to his Saint Patrick’s Day party. I remember feeling hopelessly lost inside the maze-like complex. But once inside the clean, well-maintained and spacious apartment, hearing those magic words-rent-stabilized!-I thought: How can I get in?

The official way in is to fill out an application and submit it to MetLife. The wait these days for a one-bedroom apartment (where average rents have climbed to about $1,200 a month after recent capital improvements) is supposed to be about three years. I waited nearly five. The waiting list for two-bedroom apartments is closed at the moment. I know a woman who lives in a cheap two-bedroom on a high floor with river views, who claims that her husband’s parents put him on the list when he started college, and that the apartment serendipitously came open 12 years later, when he was starting a family.

Because Stuy Town and Peter Cooper Village are run by a giant insurance company, the bureaucracy is rather Kremlin-like. As a supplicant, you assume that it will be greatly to your advantage to know somebody. Being a cop, or dating one, is said to help. When Lee Brown arrived in town to become David Dinkins’ Police Commissioner, his name magically went to the top of the list at Peter Cooper Village. There are tales of an Irish Mafia that somehow has infiltrated the selection process. Frank McCourt once assured me that his last name was the secret to gaining a space years ago, long before Angela’s Ashes .

Even with no strings to pull, I got a letter one day saying that my turn was coming and that I should submit detailed financial information. Again some months went by, then somebody called to offer me an apartment. You don’t get a look at it-all you get is an address. You have 24 hours to accept or reject, but if you turn down two apartments, you go back to the bottom of the list. I wound up with something less than a choice location: a low floor, northern exposure, near a noisy service road.

Still, the week I moved in I was riding in an elevator with a middle-aged resident who helped me push a box into the hall. “I swore to myself that I’d never move again,” I told him.

“Well,” he said, “this will be the last time.”

Corinne Demas dealt with none of these peculiarities. Her parents were in the first wave of Stuy Town residents, but even then a cut had to be made. Twenty-five thousand people were picked from 200,000 applicants. MetLife inspectors visited prospective tenants to make sure their lives were sufficiently clean and well-kept. “In Stuyvesant Town,” Ms. Demas writes, “everything was homogeneous, symmetrical and orderly.”

But behind the orderliness was institutional racism. “Negroes and whites don’t mix,” the chairman of MetLife said in 1943. “Perhaps they will in a hundred years, but not now.” As a sop to protests, MetLife built a much smaller, 1,232-unit complex in Harlem. But activists worked to desegregate Stuy Town, subletting their apartments to blacks. (MetLife would return the rent checks uncashed.)

In 1950, three black families moved in by order of the City Council. The 1960 census counted 22,405 residents in Stuy Town, of whom 47 were black and 16 Puerto Rican. Today, according to Stuy Town officials, there is an absolute color-blind rental policy-of course, by law they have no choice. Still, the complex is predominantly white. Then again, so is the tonier Upper East Side, and most white Stuy Town residents couldn’t afford to live there.

“One may ask,” a liberal minister named Arthur R. Simon wrote in the mid-60’s, “what price Stuyvesant Town residents ultimately pay in moral currency for living in a middle-class ghetto.” We have other things to worry about. The middle class is under siege in today’s real estate market. Speaking to a group of builders not long ago, Public Advocate Mark Green said, “We must build the Stuyvesant Towns of the future.” But who will live in them?

According to Alvin Doyle, president of the Stuyvesant Town–Peter Cooper Village Tenants Association, the main issue around the Complex these days is escalating rents. Mr. Doyle recently heard a rumor that management hopes to raise rents above the $2,000 ceiling that would remove them from rent regulations. In the current Manhattan real estate market, that may not seem like much-but for a family with kids in school, the end of regulation will threaten their unlikely middle-class-Manhattan existence.

For the time being, however, the peaceful urban idyll of Corinne Demas’ book still exists. On warm days, I look out my window to a playground full of kids swinging, kicking balls and hanging on a jungle gym. Their memories of Stuy Town may be as sweet as Ms. Demas’ memories.

But those loud kids make me nuts sometimes. I’m thinking of getting on the waiting list to transfer to a quieter apartment.