Rhoden papers discovery: Penn Station South development

Contributed by Kelin Baldridge, Project Archivist for the John Rhoden papers

John and Richenda Rhoden’s studio and home at 23 Cranberry Street in Brooklyn, NY played a major role in their artistic and personal lives. It was their home base, as well as their work space. It was where they held social events, community gatherings, and even a wedding. It housed most of their artwork and decades of memories.

Richmond Barthé’s 1952 lease for the apartment he shared with John.

But before the Rhodens settled into their Brooklyn townhome, John and Richenda lived and worked in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. They occupied the fourth floor of 285 8th Avenue in Manhattan, NY. John first moved into this home and studio space in the late 1930s with fellow artist and mentor, Richmond Barthé. 

In 1956, the area surrounding the Rhoden’s home in Chelsea was subjected to Title I of the Housing Act of 1949 – a slum clearance project widely criticized for being discriminatory against minorities. This project, known as Penn Station South, cleared the vast majority of the structures between 8th and 9th Avenues and West 23rd and 29th Streets, displacing around 2,600 families. 

The project for a cooperative housing development was sponsored by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union and was first proposed in 1956. The project was endorsed by the state of New York in June of 1956 and was recommended for federal funding by August of that same year. In June of 1959, the New York Times reported that the residents would have to be fully relocated by July 1960. The project came to a total cost of $34,000,000 and $500,000 of the sum was allocated for relocation of the original tenants. Tenants relocating themselves would receive $275 when vacating a 1-3 room unit and up to $500 when vacating a 6+ room unit. 

Many of the original residents of the Penn Station South/Chelsea area organized to protest the I.L.G.W.U. project. The development was slated to displace roughly 7,500 people and the Title I relocation measures were deemed to be inadequate. Many of those subjected to Title I relocation reported that they were relocated to inferior dwellings or that they were relocated to other sites already scheduled for demolition by the Housing Act and were subsequently forced to move again. 

The original Chelsea residents withheld their rents from their new landlord, the I.L.G.W.U. and demanded that the project be halted until enough low-income housing was made for them to relocate to. Despite early success on the part of the residents, which saw the project leaders conceding to the community and agreeing to preserve two (ultimately four) churches that were to be demolished, the community organizations were ultimately unable to stop the project. The Citizens Watchdog Committee was rife with tension and ultimately dissolved and other vocal community supporters were accused of being influenced by communism. 

Draft of John’s letter to David Dubinsky from 1959.

During this time of unrest in the neighborhood, John was travelling the world. As the project was announced, John was just completing a world tour with the State Department, and by the time it was announced that the residents were going to be displaced, he was halfway through a tour of the Soviet Union with the State Department. This worldly perspective led John to advocate for promotion of and assistance for artists. 

Despite facing struggles in finding his own housing to relocate to, in December of 1959, John wrote to David Dubinsky, the president of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, requesting that he consider providing housing and workspace for artists in the cooperative development (above). 

John and Richenda received compensation for their relocation due to the Penn Station South project in 1960.

Ultimately, John and Richenda relocated to their forever home at 23 Cranberry Street by 1960 and there is no evidence that Dubinsky ever even acknowledged John’s request for artist housing. Regardless of the role he played, it is interesting to note John’s involvement in these interesting moments in history. We will be sure to highlight more of these connections between John Rhoden and historic moments for your entertainment as we are all laying low during this difficult time. 

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