In 1975, I interviewed I. D. Robbins, the founder of Nehemiah Houses, at the organization’s first project in East New York, Brooklyn. Nehemiah, named after the Old Testament prophet who rebuilt Jerusalem, had just delivered new homes to the neighborhood’s working-class residents for the astonishingly low price of $40,000. At that time, the neighborhood was a place of “stunning devastation, glaring needs, abandonment, and rubble,” according to local community organizer Michael Gecan, and Nehemiah played a major role in making it a thriving community.
The organization achieved this transformation by replicating the mass-produced building techniques of the postwar suburb, bringing, as Robbins put it, “Levittown to the city.” The Nehemiah formula included partnering with community-based religious organizations as co-developers, and convincing the city to offer free land on which to build. A continuous concrete foundation slab would be poured, and topped by freestanding, two-story residences. Robbins insisted on building only low-density neighborhoods. “Single-family is the way to go,” as he said, “because families take pride in their homes.”
Using this successful strategy, the group has built thousands of homes in New York, and admirably transformed neighborhoods around the city. But the architecture of the Nehemiah houses—replicas of medieval half-timbered residences marching uniformly down the block—is less than desirable. The historian Richard Plunz claimed that they “harken back to 19th-century mill housing,” and I asked Robbins about this in my interview. I pointed to Sunnyside Gardens in Queens, which had been created in the 1920s with more modern architecture and thoughtful landscaping. Robbins was furious with the comparison, calling Sunnyside’s builders out of touch with the aspirations of working New Yorkers for the pleasures of middle-class life. I told him I thought that was precisely what Sunnyside had achieved, and Robbins asked me to leave his office.
Now Nehemiah has finally created a large new project inspired as much by the housing tradition of Holland as by the streetscapes of Brooklyn. Designed by Alexander Gorlin Architects, the development Spring Creek is built on a 45-acre former landfill in East New York. It will eventually contain more than 800 homes that have little in common with the flat brick facades of earlier Nehemiah housing.
The commission came about after Gorlin wrote The New American Townhouse in 1999 and wanted to work on larger-scale, socially responsible housing. He wrote to HPD commissioner Richard Roberts, who suggested that he contact Nehemiah, and the group’s general manager Ron Walters was not un-receptive to a new direction for the organization. Gorlin took him on an architecture tour of Dutch housing estates, including MVRDV’s Eastern Docklands and J.J.P. Oud’s 1927 Hoek of Holland project, and it convinced Walters to embrace the idea of a modern housing estate.
But Gorlin, who is best known for his luxury homes, was told that every plumbing turn would cost $75, and this mattered greatly to the final cost of the house. Despite these constraints, Gorlin has designed several different house types that sell for an average of $153,000. The two-story, single-family unit is composed of two, 80-square-foot modules prefabricated by Capsys in the Brooklyn Navy Yard and then covered with 4-foot-by-8-foot sheets of colorful HardiPlank. The somewhat flat facades do have small protruding bays, indentations with vestibules, attached canopies, and metal stairs.
Through this economical use of prefabricated components and clipped-on elements, Gorlin has achieved something very important in New York. He has respected the Nehemiah mandate that its houses convey the notion of homeownership to first-time buyers—but not at the cost of importing an ersatz identity to the streets of Brooklyn. And he has done this with perhaps the freshest approach to affordable housing in the city today, showing that urbanity and community need not be mutually exclusive.