Forest Hills Diary

The Book of the Week is “Forest Hills Diary” by Mario Cuomo, published in 1974.  In 1972, New York City Mayor John Lindsay chose Mario Cuomo to embark on a fact-finding mission to collect public opinion data on a proposed low-income housing project on 108th Street in Forest Hills near Corona, Queens, to consist of African American tenants, three towers of 24 stories each.

There was much emotionally charged public debate due to the very nature of the undertaking (housing projects in general, have a bad reputation– for crime, for bringing down property values, etc.).  Cuomo could have proposed reducing the planned apartment sizes to that of studios or 1 bedrooms– a compromise in order to push the project through. Regardless, he could not please anyone because Forest Hills residents were against the project altogether, while African Americans wanted apartments of at least 2 bedrooms.

Another option was to make one of the three towers a “Mitchell-Lama” which would allow tax breaks, but reduce the number of low-income units, and reserve 40% of the units for the elderly. The reason for favoring the elderly was to minimize the public sentiment that the apartments would be crime-ridden. Cuomo visited projects in the Bronx and had seen this phenomenon himself.

The Jewish neighborhood of Crown Heights had gone downhill due to low-income housing. The African Americans with whom Cuomo spoke were against the project.  One black leader admitted to him in confidence that a way to spur upward mobility among African Americans was to have a mix of middle-income and low-income tenants.

The “scatter-site” legislation was passed allowing the project proposed originally, to be built.  However, raucous public hearings prompted the developers to compromise by building three towers of 12 stories each (instead of 24), 40% of which were to house seniors. All sides of the controversy roundly criticized a report released by Cuomo, although few people had actually read the whole thing.  This book provided an engaging analysis of political and urban issues with respect to race, housing and human nature.

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