If you’ve ever lived in New York City, you know exactly what a “pre-war building” is. First and foremost, it’s better than a “post-war building.” Why, you might ask, is that so?
Well part of the reason has to do with wartime and post-war “urban renewal,” that is, the process by which the Washington, big city governments, big city banks, and big city developers came together to clear “slums” and erect modern (really “modernist”) apartment blocks and complexes of apartment blocks. Think “the projects” (or, more generally, “public housing“). In the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, the New York City Housing Authority supervised the construction of a lot of them. Today roughly 500,000 New Yorkers live in them. And many of them, I would guess, probably wish they lived in “pre-war buildings.”
Sandy Zipp does a wonderful job of telling the story of this re-making of New York in his fascinating book Manhattan Projects: The Rise and Fall of Urban Renewal in Cold War New York (Oxford UP, 2010). Along the way, myths are busted (“the projects” were not built for poor folks), villains are redeemed (Robert Moses wasn’t really such a bad guy), and ugly buildings are explained (many serious people really thought tower blocks were beautiful). The book makes plain why large chunks of Manhattan (and many other cities) look the way they do and why they are thought of the way they are. Read it and find out.