Bell Park Gardens is a large-scale garden apartment complex in Bayside, Queens, with more than 800 units in 39 two-story, wood-frame buildings. The project was conceived of by a consortium of civic leaders under the guidance of New York State’s Housing Division to offer an up-to-date, leafy alternative to other kinds of available city housing. It was organized as a limited-equity cooperative, open exclusively to veterans and their families, and financed with loans insured by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA).
In every sense Bell Park Gardens was a hybrid. It was a multifamily complex in New York City, yet in many crucial respects it looked, felt, and functioned as “suburban.” Geographically, it sat at the eastern edge of an arc of low-slung, mainly single-family, neighborhoods running along Long Island Sound from the transit and retail hub at Flushing out to Long Island’s North Shore. It was served by city buses but subway and commuter rail were remote. Physically, it was defined by its 40-acre campus of shade trees, grassy courtyards (including 13 playgrounds), and surface parking (for 560 cars), more so than its buildings. Socially, tenants came, and stayed, for distance from city problems and for what they perceived as good public schools. Life for most homeowners was intensely focused on the rearing of children.
Bell Park Gardens’ conception, design, and organization reflect a mixture of housing-reform optimism and FHA pragmatism. Historically, housing reformers had been concerned with the living conditions of very poor. Over time, however, attention turned to a broader range of households, including those whom housing activists came to call “middle-income,” an elastic category invented to describe families too financially secure under government policy to merit publicly owned units but nevertheless unable to afford well-equipped apartments or houses in up-to-date neighborhoods.
The most robust of the new programs created to cater to this group was FHA’s “rental” housing program, which also supported owned complexes. The federal government is not widely thought of in connection with middle-income apartments. Its best known housing programs targeted the low-income working poor (public housing) and working- and lower-middle-class suburban families (FHA’s small-house program). Yet thanks to support from progressive reformers, FHA also leant great support between the 1930s and 1960s to alternative community types including limited-dividend rental housing and limited-equity co-ops.
Bell Park Gardens’ physical form strongly reflected this mixed heritage. Since the first philanthropic housing experiments in the United States in the nineteenth century, reformers had embraced decentralization. For decades this meant mid-rise courtyard buildings in outer sections. With improved transit, mass automobile ownership, and the popularization of suburban living in the 1910s and 1920s, reformers pioneered complexes with ample green space for privacy and recreation. Apartments clustered in small buildings of one to three stories with each unit, including those on upper floors, accessed by private entry, eliminating the need for shared spaces of circulation, including lobbies. When FHA’s Rental Housing Division got underway, its staff embraced this model. Bell Park Gardens’ design by William M. Dowling, who had previously served as the New York State Housing Division’s senior designer, was exemplary of this mode.
If its design emphasized privacy and its Colonial Revival architecture—gable-roofed buildings clad in alternating mixtures of clapboard and red brick—spoke to conservatism, the organization as a limited-equity co-op betrayed an equally strong commitment to communalism.
The idea for the project originated in an effort by New York State’s housing commissioner to heed New York City reformers’ call to subsidize housing for middle-income families. To develop it, the state worked with the Foreign Legion of Brooklyn and Queens and labor groups to create a sponsoring corporation, United Veterans Mutual Housing, which operated as a non-profit. The limited-equity model, which labor had embraced for decades, promised to ensure long-term affordability by restricting profits, re-sale prices, and income levels. Selling the units to tenants, mostly in advance of construction, had further advantages: it provided the capital FHA required, offered prospective tenants the promise of homeownership (a first, and welcome, change for nearly all), and promised the state a longer return on its efforts since it was widely believed that owner-occupied communities enjoyed greater stability than rented ones.
Thanks to the low cost of land in northeastern Queens, the construction economies of the FHA-type garden-apartment design and favorable financial arrangements, including abatements on city property taxes and monthly maintenance charges (which covered utilities, upkeep, administration, and capital reserves), ran just $14 per room.
Life in Bell Park Gardens was also characterized by a tension between privacy and community. Well before groundbreaking, the state cultivated an active community of prospective families who fought with the contractor for better fixtures and appliances and formed committees to negotiate favorable contracts for everything from laundry equipment to health insurance for the homeowners. As they moved in beginning in 1949, the “cooperators” set out to create community with equal vigor. They asked the city government for a new elementary school, established a credit union, and began operating an eight-week summer camp. They also organized group outings, staged blood drives, and engaged in lively debates about how to racially integrate the complex.
At the same time, Bell Park Gardeners could be as focused on nuclear-family domesticity as in any stereotypical sitcom suburb. The apartments were mostly configured as 4.5-room stacked flats, with two bedrooms, living room, kitchen, and dining alcove, or as 5-room, two-story duplexes, with a full dining room. In all configurations, front doors opened onto living rooms (or, for second-floor units, private stairs that led to living rooms), with kitchen and dining area at the rear. In the flats, which were approximately 27 feet wide, a small foyer off the living room at the center of the apartment led to the bathroom and children’s bedroom at the back, and master bedroom at the front. In the duplexes, which were 14 feet wide, the bathroom and bedrooms were upstairs. Equipment was modest: strip oak flooring (asphalt tiles in kitchens), gas ranges, and electric refrigerators, with room in each building for coin-operated washing machines and storage for baby carriages.
Tenants were mainly second-generation Jews reared in older working-class sections of Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx, who chose Bell Park Gardens for a new and different experience, one that they perceived as being more American than traditional apartment buildings and tenements. Fathers endured long commutes (90 minutes to Manhattan by bus and then subway or train), children spent most of their free time outside playing games, and mothers—who generally left the paid workforce upon moving to Bayside—customized their apartments and prepared TV dinners.
With the passing of time and changing tastes in housing, life at Bell Park Gardens transformed. Physically, it remained intact save for interior renovations made by individual homeowners. Socially, however, it became more diverse, at least in terms of age, drawing more seniors than young families. After original loans were paid off, in the 1980s, the complex severed ties to the state government and abandoned the limited-equity format. Then, in the early twenty-first century, the complex entered a third phase, drawing hundreds of first-generation Chinese and Korean families. Despite the half-century gap, they chose to live there for the same reasons as the original tenants: Bell Park remained an affordable, green, and cloistered environment, a testament to the ideas that shaped its design.
Bloom, Nicholas Dagen, and Matthew Gordon Lasner, eds. Affordable Housing in New York: The People, Places, and Policies That Transformed a City. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016.
Lasner, Matthew Gordon. High Life: Condo Living in the Suburban Century. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012.