See the Patronizing Way Affordable Housing Was Pitched to “Mrs. Fort Greene” in 1942

Photo of Lena Horne in a 1940s kitchen via Wikipedia. Photo of Fort Greene Houses via CUNY

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The massive Fort Greene Houses complex was one of NYCHA’s first and largest affordable housing projects, built during World War II to house the families of Navy Yard workers. When the first residents moved in in 1942, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle dedicated an entire special section to the amenities of these revolutionary modern buildings.

The new “Mrs. Fort Greene” had more to swoon over than the mere affordability of her new abode, wrote the Brooklyn Daily Eagle at the time — namely, her kitchen. The housewifely space had “all the things that women have wanted in a kitchen” and “a lot of things they didn’t even know they wanted.”

Or, in other words, “Everything at your hand when preparing a sizzling roast for tired hubby’s dinner.”

Brooklyn History Fort Greene Houses

Floor plan from The Brooklyn Daily Eagle

At a time when women were marching off to the factory to support the war effort, this article has them firmly in the kitchen. Sounding decidedly sexist to our modern ears, the story is of a piece with its time, an era when Fort Greene was “a place where low-income families can find modern adequate homes at prices within their reach.”

For the article’s imagined one-dimensional working-class Brooklyn housewife, there was a lot to like about her new kitchen. After all, it had been “planned by experts whose job it is not only to know what women want, but to find out what they ought to have.” For instance:

1. It looked nice.

Pretty, with cream-painted walls and wide windows looking out into surrounding garden spaces.

2. It was “step saving.”

With all the tools of the housewife’s trade, range, refrigerator, work table and cabinets so placed as to cut down the amount of marching about needed to get a dinner or wash the dishes afterward.

Pop’s coming home! Mrs. Fort Greene enters the kitchen, pausing at the refrigerator, the first piece of equipment on her right, and takes out a roast with which the family is celebrating moving into the new home. She sets it on the work table, next on that side of the kitchen, and opens the cabinet just over the table, where one shelf holds the salt and pepper and other seasonings. By merely turning around she can reach the sink, a white porcelain sink tub combination. When the meat is ready she pops it into the oven of the black and white gas range, sets the thermostat and turns to the refrigerator, just opposite the range to get out the vegetables. All of this has required only a step or two in any direction.

3. No smells could escape the oven.

When Mr. Fort Greene gets home the table in the dinette is all set. He sniffs the air — no smell of cooking. The oven is well insulated and until the oven door is opened there’s no way of telling what’s for dinner. But when Mrs. Fort Greene opens the oven door — aaah!

4. The sink height was carefully calculated.

Neither Mrs. Fort Greene nor the average housewife knows that such details as the height of a sink from the floor, the height of cabinet shelves and this refrigerator, work table, sink and range routin have been the subject of study by household engineers for years.

5. The layout made it easy to keep an eye on the kids.

As Mrs. Fort Greene arranges a salad bowl she stops in sudden fear. The children! Then she remembers. This is her new home and the children are safe…Mrs. Fort Greene has only to glance over her shoulder to see that.

6. The fridge made concocting elaborate desserts a breeze.

Because it’s a celebration dinner and because cream and milk and eggs are for the children, Mrs. Fort Greene decides to whip up a chocolate mousse — a simple dessert with a refrigerator like hers. She slips it into the freezing compartment, sets the bowl of salad on the proper shelf and goes into the living room to relax.

7. It had just the right number of outlets.

Provided with sufficient electric outlets — two above the work table, where toasters and other equipment may be handily plugged in.

Brooklyn History Fort Greene Houses

Photo from Brooklyn Historical Society via Brownstone Detectives

If you want to know more about the buildings, check out the rest of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle’s special section on the opening of Fort Greene Houses from August 16, 1942.

Today, many of these apartments are undergoing major renovations as part of a multimillion-dollar NYCHA capital improvement plan. In addition to electrical upgrades and apartment enlargements, the renovators are also updating the kitchens.

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