The Public Interest

When Tenants Go to War

Louis Winnick

Summer 1987

I DID NOT find in this brimming history of eighty years of tenant activism in New York City a memorable landlord joke of the 1930s: A harried Jewish owner was encircled by tenants shouting demands and waving picket signs. Asked by a bystander why he didn’t settle, he replied, “Listen, dey vant new sinks, I’ll gif dem new sinks. Dey vant a paintink, I’ll gif dem a paintner. Dey vant a rent cut, I’ll gif dem dat, too. But I’ll be goddam if Ill free Tom Mooney.”* Lawson’s book brings the jest back to life. What stands out in this account of the war between tenants and landlords is that the blood ran hot, deep—and red. The tenant protest movement was almost always the captive of radicals who coupled their ideological freight ears to the engine of renter discontent. Thus, in the 1900s tenant strikes were used by Socialist trade unions to organize the garment workers. In the 1930s they were transformed into puissant agitprop by the Communist Party. And in our own time, the manifestoes of tenant activism have often given as much play to Black Nationhood, Nicaragua, and Nuclear Freeze as to deficient maintenance and excessive rents. Readers of The Tenant Movement in New York City will have no doubt about where the authors stand in the endless strife between tenants and landlords—arguably the longest-running war on record. The book is a one-eyed view of an economic struggle, from the left. The contributors mute their partisanship, but no one will learn here the landlord’s side of the story.  That aside, the book illuminates a dark and fascinating corner of social history from which every houser will profit. For New York City buffs, the thirty-page picture section alone repays the purchase price.

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