Introduction: When the Taino Towers in East Harlem were unveiled in 1979, the community had high hopes. "Majestic" is how City Limits described the federally funded towers – “dream housing” for the poor. Thirty-five story high rises with balconies and facades of glass and white concrete, they stood in stark contrast to the brown-brick Wagner public housing projects across Second Avenue. The Towers were to feature not only unusual perks for affordable housing, such as high ceilings, but also a range of stores and services on the bottom floors. When the City Limits article was published in Feb. 1979, there were plans to include a swimming pool, an amphitheatre and classrooms for community use.
So, three decades later, has the dream been realized?
Yes and no. The Taino Towers suffer today from some of the same problems that often dog subsidized housing. Many residents complained about elevator service and maintenance, with one recalling that over the summer, when a resident died, the body had to be carried down the stairs. And some of the more ambitious projects described in the original article were never finished or have not been properly maintained.
Ellie Sanchez, CEO of the Boriken Neighborhood Health Center, which is located in the complex, laments that the planned pool and a small theatre were never completed. “The dream was there but it never materialized because of lack of funding,” she said. According to Maria Cruz, executive director of Taino Towers, the complex’s Red Carpet Theatre is also currently in need of general repairs.
In other ways, however, today’s Towers achieve what was hinted at in the 1979 article. Resident Shenette Taylor, a mother of six who lives with her husband in a three-bedroom apartment, routinely gets her teeth cleaned at the Boriken center’s dental clinic. And she recently attended a Christmas party at the Towers’ Magic Johnson Computer Learning Center, where one of her daughters received a free toy doctor’s set, complete with a stethoscope. According to Sanchez, the health center, which also provides women’s services, pediatrics and diabetes care in both Spanish and English, attracts Latino patients from as far away as Queens, New Jersey and even the Caribbean.
The Towers also house the Harlem Day Charter School, the workforce development group STRIVE, a branch of the New York School of Career and Applied Studies, a hardware store and a pizza parlor, among others. – Alex Cotton, Dec. 2008
City Limits Magazine, February 1979, Vol. 4, No. 2
Taino: “Dream” Housing For Poor Set To Open
By Susan Baldwin
“It’s like a dream, and I’m going to be in there. I just know it,” says Dorca Santiago, who, along with her husband Pedro, is the last tenant in a tinned-up, squalid building around the corner on Second Avenue from Taino Towers, the majestic 35-story glass and concrete Federal project in East Harlem that she expects to call home in a few weeks.
Born out of rent strikes and City Hall promises in the early 1960’s for better housing and health care for the poor, Taino Towers has become a reality to 656 low income families who will be vacating their substandard, often overcrowded, housing to move into this four-tower complex. Federal subsidies will keep the rents they pay at no more than one-quarter of their income.
The complex, which occupies the square block bounded by Second and Third Avenues between 122nd and 123rd Streets, has non-residential space for a supermarket, a bank, and several other shops. Future plans call for the completion of a swimming pool, greenhouse, amphitheatre, vocational space and classrooms that will be open to community use.
The first families will move into Tower I, which, except for some superficial clean-up, is ready for occupancy. The other three towers will be opened at three-month intervals until the project is fully occupied, possibly within a year’s time. Each of the four towers is named for prominent leaders of the Taino Indians, descendants of the Arawaks who first populated Puerto Rico.
First priority for the apartments goes to the 350 families that were displaced to construct the buildings. Neighborhood residents, who have been on waiting lists since the early 1970’s will also be given priority. According to Taino Tower officials, more than 7,000 people are on the list.
“If you’re going to be living here, you’ll have to learn how to sew your own curtains because of all the glass,” Carmen Cruz, director of public relations and research for the Taino Towers project, said to Dorca during a recent apartment tour, as the frail, but wiry 34-year-old woman raced through the model apartment checking out the “amenities” that many critics have called too luxurious for “poor people’s housing.”
“I don’t care,” Dorca answered. “I’m just happy that I’m going to be in here. This is just wonderful. What a big bath tub. I am just going to be very happy here. And I’m not even going to change the walls. I’ll leave them just the way they are.”
The 656 units include 113 efficiency, 130 one-, 184 two-, 201 three-, and 28 six-bedroom apartments. The “fair market” rental for equivalent housing in New York City is $560 per month for the efficiency; $646 for the one-bedroom; $779 for the two-bedroom; and $900 to $990 for the three-bedrooms and up. According to Alexander Naclerio, director of housing for HUD’s area office, “There really is no price tag for the six-bedroom apartment because this is unheard of in public housing.”
Construction on Taino Towers began in September, 1972, after the community sponsor, the East Harlem Council for Human Services (then the East Harlem Tenants Council), received a federal commitment for $39 million in the form of a FHA mortgage guarantee and a construction loan from a group of nine banks led by Chemical Bank. The project was built without the benefit of tax shelters.
In November, 1975, construction on the project came to a halt when the general contractor, S.S. Silberblatt, refused to continue work unless HUD granted a mortgage increase.
According to Yolanda Sanchez, former chairwoman of the East Harlem Redevelopment Project, Inc., the owner of the project, the Silberblatt firm stopped work, claiming that the six per cent profit built into the original mortgage agreement with HUD did not keep up with national inflation.
The project stood vacant and work ceased until August 18, 1977, when the sponsors signed an agreement with HUD secretary Patricia Harris, who authorized an advance of $10 million to finish the project. Construction started up again in September, 1977, with Lasker Goldman Corporation, the HUD-appointed general contractor, assuming the work.
At present there are about 35 lawsuits pending on Taino Towers. According to Joseph Burstein, a HUD assistant secretary who is project manager for the Towers development, HUD has won back at least $18 million against Silberblatt and “expects to recoup everything.”
Bruce Silberblatt acknowledged that the lawsuits were continuing but refused to discuss any details of what he called “quite an interesting story.”
The total cost of building Taino Towers has still not been added up, but estimates run from about $46 million to $62 million. And estimates for the per-unit cost for the residential space, if all commercial and community space is leased, run from $22,500 to $33,000 each.
The major problem facing Taino Towers at this time is renting up the community space.
“We are not worried about the commercial space,” Julio Vasquez, administrator of the project, told City Limits recently. “I know everybody is talking about the non-residential part of the Towers, but I am not worried. We have signed up Fedco for most of the commercial space, and we expect to bring Chemical Bank, a travel agency, and possibly a franchise restaurant like Burger King.” Fedco is a minority-owned supermarket chain.
Vasquez also said that he is negotiating with the state to open a group home for mentally retarded patients and that two organizations with Headstart programs have shown interest in the day care facility, equipped to handle 260 children.
The East Harlem Council for Human Services Neighborhood Health Center has been operating its community facility in the complex since October, 1978. Its annual rent is $120,000.
The hope, Vasquez and Cruz said, is that the commercial and human resource spaces will generate enough rent to offset a significant part of the mortgage expenses. Management is seeking to revive interest in relocating to Taino Towers that was expressed prior to the two-year construction delay by the Boys Club, Ballet Hispanico, Jazz Mobile, El Museo del Barrio, and Malcolm-King College. Fiscal constraints have forced many of the programs to reconsider earlier plans for the move.
Gerard Silverman of Silverman and Cika, the architect for the project, expressed pleasure at the imminent opening of Taino Towers. “We’ve been looking forward to this housing and the joy it will bring the neighborhood people since this vision began in 1965,” he said. “A lot of community people worked very hard for this. It has been a long, hard time. I feel a certain sadness that the economy turned the way it did, but I still maintain the project would not have happened if the people hadn’t had the confidence to make it happen. It seems a very long time ago that we were talking about the rent strikes in East Harlem, but here we are. We have the health care facility, and now we have the housing.”
Asked if he ever worried that the complex would be reclassified as middle income housing or even demolished because of all the expensive litigation, Silverman said, “no, because I have confidence in people, even in bureaucracies, because they are made up of people.”
The concept of Taino Towers came under fire during the early days of the 1976 presidential campaign when Republican hopeful Ronald Reagan referred to the complex as luxury housing for the poor.
“The people here were very annoyed by his comments, but there was nothing else to do but plug along,” said Sanchez, noting that the strong will and determination of the East Harlem community outlasted Reagan’s criticism.
According to Sanchez, HUD issued a set of demands in August, 1976, that included a HUD takeover of the ownership of the project and a conversion of the Towers to middle income housing. “They tried to take the project away from us because of the default on the mortgage,” she recalled. “This is when we had to tell Washington it was ours and we wouldn’t give it up. I think they saw we really meant business. Then we had the change in the Administration. And then Secretary Harris listened to us.”
Dorca Santiago lingered with another visitor after her tour of the model apartment. “I really have to go home now, but I am hoping that after three weeks or so, I’ll never have to go back there,” she said.
“I am going to have to change my furniture and everything, but I can’t wait,” Santiago added. “Even though it’s cold in my apartment, I won’t be cold because I’ll be thinking of the new place.”
Dorca and her husband have been living in a building that has been virtually without heat since 1971. The landlord abandoned the building in 1975, and the city took title in 1976. The Santiagos became the sole tenants of the building after the city attempted to vacate the premises last summer.
“The city is trying to move us right now, but I don’t want to have two movings in three weeks,” Dorca concluded. “I have asked them to leave us alone because I am sure we’ll be moving to Taino.”
In the meantime, the Santiagos continue to pay the city $77 a month and to walk to the basement each day with gallon milk jugs to store their water supply. The water line was cut off some time ago because it was deemed unsafe.