East HarlemIntroduction: 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.