How Queens became segregated : Code Switch In the early 1970s, Forest Hills, Queens, became a national symbol of white, middle class resistance to integration. Instead of public schools, this fight was over public housing. A fight that got so intense the press called it "The Battle of Forest Hills." How did a famously liberal neighborhood become a hotbed of reaction and backlash? And how did a small group of angry homeowners change housing policy for the entire country?

School Colors Episode 3: 'The Battle of Forest Hills'

School Colors Episode 3: 'The Battle of Forest Hills'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1100253582/1100387232" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
LA Johnson
School Colors Episode 3: "The Battle of Forest Hills"
LA Johnson

In the early 1970s, Forest Hills, Queens, became a national symbol of white, middle class resistance to integration. Instead of public schools, this fight was over public housing. It was a fight that got so intense the press called it "The Battle of Forest Hills."

How did a famously liberal neighborhood become a hotbed of reaction and backlash? And how did a small group of angry homeowners change housing policy for the entire country?

Forest Hills Gardens: The model neighborhood

The story of housing within Forest Hills begins in an enclave within the neighborhood called Forest Hills Gardens. The Gardens looks like an American's imagination of an English village: most of the houses are Tudor-style, instead of a grid, the streets are curved and unlike most of New York City, you need to have a permit to park here.

Station Square in Forest Hills Gardens, Queens. Cassandra Giraldo hide caption

toggle caption
Cassandra Giraldo

Forest Hills Gardens was built in the first decade of the 20th century as an urban oasis – to prove that you could live the good life within the city limits, away from the chaos and the "riff raff." It was designed by city planners not just for the people who were going to live here, but to serve as an example of a model neighborhood for the rest of the country.

The Gardens had always been an intentionally exclusive community. You had to go through a background check and an interview to get in, and everyone who got in was white

Around the time the Gardens was created, the field of city planning was beginning to take off in the United States. One of these early city planners was a man named Clarence Perry, who lived in Forest Hills Gardens – and was inspired by the Gardens to create something called the Neighborhood Unit.

Clarence Perry's neighborhood unit. Regional Plan of New York and Its Environs (New York: Regional Plan Association, 1929), Vol. VII, 88. hide caption

toggle caption
Regional Plan of New York and Its Environs (New York: Regional Plan Association, 1929), Vol. VII, 88.

The Neighborhood Unit was a little map of what Perry believed was the ideal neighborhood. It certainly looked like Forest Hills Gardens: curved streets, clear boundaries on the outside and a school at the center.

The central idea of the diagram was that the school is the thing that sets the geographic parameters for the neighborhood. Additionally, Perry also advocated for a high degree of "sameness" in communities. He claimed that "the great foe to community life is heterogeneity. The new method to which I refer produces homogeneity. Put like people together and give them common facilities to care for and associations among them are bound to spring into existence."

P.S. 101 in Forest Hills Gardens, Queens. Cassandra Giraldo hide caption

toggle caption
Cassandra Giraldo

The Neighborhood Unit turned out to be so successful that one planning historian called it "The most influential diagram in American city planning." Over the following decades, hundreds of cities and towns across the U.S. used the Neighborhood Unit as a template to define neighborhood boundaries in relation to schools, then use those boundaries to preserve racial separation.

John Lindsay shakes things up in Forest Hills

The homogeneity of Forest Hills Gardens was not only about race. For decades, Forest Hills Gardens remained elite, white, and Christian. But the Gardens was only one part of Forest Hills. Ironically, as the rest of Forest Hills grew up around the Gardens, it became famously Jewish.

A treelined street in Forest Hills Gardens, Queens. Cassandra Giraldo hide caption

toggle caption
Cassandra Giraldo

Like other groups of so-called "ethnic whites," many Jewish New Yorkers saw higher incomes after World War II and started to leave their old neighborhoods in Brooklyn and the Bronx. If you couldn't yet afford the suburbs, you moved to Queens. And for many Jews, that meant Forest Hills. By 1970, the neighborhood was estimated to be two-thirds Jewish and 97 percent white.

It's not that all Jews were like the anarchists and labor organizers who moved to Rochdale Village (as described in episode two), but there was a connotation of liberalism associated with American Jews at the time. This put Forest Hills on the city's radar when they went looking for places to build new public housing.

Previously, the New York City Housing Authority had gotten into a pattern of building almost exclusively in neighborhoods that were in the throes of white flight and disinvestment, places like South Jamaica. However, when John Lindsay became the mayor in 1966, he wanted to change things up. In his first year in office, Lindsay announced his intention to build 11 "scatter-site" housing projects – essentially build projects in neighborhoods scattered throughout the city, which didn't yet have public housing. One of them would be in Forest Hills.

Although the program had good intentions, to break down the walls of racial and social segregation in the city through housing, it wasn't very popular with the neighbors.

The landlord takes on the champion of public housing

The initial plan for Forest Hills was that NYCHA would build 840 apartments, with 40 percent of them reserved for the elderly. Once word got out, the resistance started. At the forefront of the opposition was a man named Jerry Birbach.

Jerry Birbach. Eddie Hausner/The New York Tim​es/Redux hide caption

toggle caption
Eddie Hausner/The New York Tim​es/Redux

Birbach worked in real estate. One journalist back in the day described his business like this: "He buys old tenement buildings, evicts the tenants, renovates the buildings and rents them at a higher rate. He says that he is thereby helping to improve the city's housing stock." His enemies called him a "slumlord."

Galvanizing his fellow middle class, tax paying neighbors, Birbach headed the Forest Hills Residents Association. Not a week went by without his Association putting on some kind of protest or parade. They would interrupt public meetings, shouting and chanting and marching around. They'd storm the stage, commandeer the microphone.

On the other side of this fight was the chairman of the New York City Housing Authority: Simeon Golar. When Golar's father lost his job, his family came to New York – part of the Great Migration of Black people moving north, looking for opportunity. One of the opportunities they found there was public housing. In fact, Simeon Golar was the first person ever to run the Housing Authority who had actually lived in public housing.

Simeon Golar. Neal Boenzi/The New York Times/Redux hide caption

toggle caption
Neal Boenzi/The New York Times/Redux

Golar took his job seriously. If NYCHA had been its own city, it would have been bigger than Pittsburgh — and Golar was like the mayor. When he took over the agency in 1970, there were 600,000 people living in public housing. And 150,000 more trying to get in.

The scatter-site housing program may have started with Mayor Lindsay, but Simeon Golar became its public face. So it was up to Golar to take the heat from the press, counter all the misinformation flying around and try to make some friends in Forest Hills.

But Jerry Birbach and his constituents made things pretty difficult for Golar. On November 18, 1971, the Housing Authority announced that construction of public housing in Forest Hills would begin. That night, Birbach rallied hundreds of his followers in a march through the neighborhood. They blocked traffic in the streets and on the highway, armed with picket signs and flaming torches.

Forest Hills residents protest Mayor John Lindsay's administration's plans to put three 24-story towers for mostly Black and Puerto Rican residents in their largely white, Jewish enclave in Queens, Dec. 19, 1971. Michael Evans/The New York Times/Redux hide caption

toggle caption
Michael Evans/The New York Times/Redux

One of their signs read, "Lindsay is trying to destroy Queens. Now Queens will destroy Lindsay." When they got to the project site, they started throwing rocks and bricks and even hurled their torches over the chain link fence. The next day, Jerry's Torchlight Parade was on the front page of the New York Times.

Mayor Lindsay called the demonstrators "deplorable." Forest Hills was now, officially, a national story.

Forest Hills becomes a national story

This was a national story because it had national stakes. If New York City gave into these protests, Forest Hills could become a template for other middle-class communities who wanted to stop any use of government housing for the purpose of integration.

Birbach and his allies swore this had nothing to do with racism. It wasn't Black people they were afraid of; it was poor people. As one demonstrator put it, "I want to live with decent people, whether they be Black, white, yellow or what have you. But I don't want to live with welfare recipients that are leeches that live from decent, hard working people. And I don't want to live here, so I'm moving."

This was a constant theme: people talked about public housing like an infection. So-called "welfare people" move in, everybody else moves out. There goes the neighborhood. Just like in South Jamaica after World War II, there were vultures circling in the sky over Forest Hills, ready to profit off of people's fears. In late 1971, it was reported that "blockbusting" had already begun in Forest Hills. That is, real estate agents were going around the neighborhood, trying to scare people into selling their property for cheap.

Even so, that doesn't fully explain the intensity of these protests. You just can't separate all this talk about welfare and crime from race.

Where were all the liberals?

Jews were supposed to be synonymous with liberalism and Forest Hills was supposed to be a liberal neighborhood. So where were all the liberals?

In fact, there were some people in the neighborhood who supported the plan, but the opposition had stifled their voices. Some local Jewish leaders claimed that Forest Hills was proof that the Mayor was targeting Jewish communities for destruction – that hardworking, middle class Jews were under attack by what might now be called the "woke" liberal establishment. Picket signs referred to the mayor as "Adolf Lindsay."

Mario Cuomo comes onto the scene

At seemingly the final moment before the project would begin, Mayor Lyndsay shifted. Facing increasing opposition, Lyndsay had called in Mario Cuomo, who was then a lawyer in private practice, to negotiate in Forest Hills. When Cuomo finally published his report, he called for cutting the size of the project in half. Twelve-story towers instead of 24; 400 apartments instead of 800.

"Forest Hills Diary: The Crisis of Low-Income Housing," a published account of the diary Mario Cuomo kept while working in Forest Hills. N/A hide caption

toggle caption
N/A

Cuomo made a lot of different arguments for reducing the size of the project, but one was strategic: if the Housing Authority didn't cut the number of units in Forest Hills, the backlash might, "jeopardize scatter-site housing in this city for many years to come."

After a 10-hour public hearing, the "Cuomo compromise" was finally approved.

The end of public housing as we knew it

Policy dictated by fear has consequences. Sure, those buildings went up in Forest Hills, but the devil's in the details. After 10,000 people applied for 432 apartments, they found ways to cherry-pick the first crop of tenants such that 70 percent of them were white.

And the example of Forest Hills had ripple effects across the country – just as many civil rights leaders had feared. At the end of 1972, President Nixon froze all federal funds for new public housing construction – which brought the scatter-site program in New York to a grinding halt.

Then he announced that in the future, instead of building homes for poor people, the federal government would give them subsidies, and let them find housing for themselves. Nixon's top housing official in New York said this would allow for integration at a more "gradual" pace, and prevent battles like the one in Forest Hills.

Forest Hills didn't just mark the end of attempts to use public housing to integrate neighborhoods. It marked the beginning of the end of large scale public housing, period. In the 30 years before Forest Hills, 150,000 units of public housing had been built in New York City. In the 30 years after Forest Hills, only about 30,000 units were added – and most of those were renovations or reserved for the elderly.

Listen to Code Switch on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

Correction: School Colors would like to credit Andrew Highsmith for his research contributions to this episode. Highsmith is the co-author, with Ansley Erickson, of "The Neighborhood Unit: Schools, Segregation, and the Shaping of the Modern Metropolitan Landscape."