Regarded as “Brooklyn’s first citizen,” Alfred Tredway White was one of the nation’s most influential turn-of-the-century philanthropists and social reformers. His lifelong work on behalf of New York’s urban poor was driven by his strong conviction that a community’s health, happiness, and their physical environment were fundamentally interrelated, and that investing in the living conditions of the working poor could be both transformative and profitable.
Alfred Tredway White was born in Brooklyn in 1846 to Elizabeth Tredway and Alexander White, a wealthy importer. In addition to working in his family’s firm, White was deeply involved in Brooklyn’s First Unitarian Church. When his minister asked him to superintend the church’s new settlement school in 1869, it sparked his lifelong involvement in the education and betterment of the city’s working poor.
During his time teaching at the Settlement School, White became very close to the families of his students. During home visits, he witnessed the deplorable conditions in which many of these families were living. After studying housing reform projects in England, White used his family’s capital to support the development of affordable homes for more than a thousand Brooklyn families. With their attention to architectural beauty, open space, sunlight, ventilation, fire-safety, and separate rooms, White’s buildings — such as the Home Buildings (1877), Warren Place (1878), the Tower buildings (1879), and the Riverside Buildings (1890) — set new quality standards for tenement housing. Through his buildings and advocacy, White demonstrated that investing in the urban poor could be both profitable and socially beneficial, and his examples paved the way for some of the country’s first housing reform laws.
White is credited with cutting Brooklyn‘s infant mortality rate in half: in 1876 he built the Sea-Side Home on Coney Island to provide medical care to poor children, and he founded the Brooklyn Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. His generous contributions to the Hampton and Tuskeegee Institutes helped sustain those two schools, and his Harvard endowment made possible a new course in social ethics. The course’s unique combination of economics and ethics was unprecedented, and it was widely adopted at other institutions, earning White an honorary doctorate from Harvard in 1890.
White died in 1921 in a skating accident. His legacy lives on not only in his buildings (most of which are still standing as cherished historical landmarks that sell for millions of dollars), but also in his profound contributions to housing reform, education, and a salient model of social philanthropy that is relevant even to this day.
A Holistic View of Housing. From his work with the settlement school, White was a deep believer in the connection between the quality of people’s housing and their health and prosperity. He believed that the crowded single-room model of the typical tenement housing was particularly detrimental. Each of the thousand homes he developed provided residents with access to bathrooms, storage, ventilation, and open space — none of his buildings occupied more than 52 percent of its lot.
Places to Gather. An early pioneer of Placemaking, White prioritized the creation of places for people to gather, both in his individual housing developments and in the larger neighborhood. His nine Riverside buildings had their own park, playground, bathhouse, and music pavilion. At Warren Place, common points of entry encourage meetings between neighbors, while its inner gardens, fountain, and fishpond also serve as central meeting sites. In his later years, White’s creation and financial support of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden brought free access to green space, gardens, and community to the neighborhood’s poor.
The Power of 5%. Alfred T. White’s motto was “philanthropy plus 5%,” referring to the return that he aimed to generate for himself and fellow investors on the housing developments they built. Although lower than the profits attainable by speculators who could make up to 40% a year from poorly constructed tenements, White’s model was the first in the country to prove that housing could be simultaneously high quality, affordable to its poor tenants, and a profitable investment.
“I hold that not 10% of the people now living in tenements would refuse to avail themselves of the best improved conditions offered, and come fully up to the use of them, properly instructed; but they cannot get them. They are up to them now, fully, if the chances were only offered. They don’t have to come up. It is all a gigantic mistake on the part of the public, of which these poor people are the victims.”
“How are these men and women to understand the love of God you speak of, when they see only the greed of men?”
“Well it is to build hospitals for the cure of disease, but better to build homes which will prevent it.”
“[No] subject touches more closely the interests of all classes of society than the conditions of life among the laboring classes in great cities. The badly constructed, unventilated, dark and foul tenement houses of New York, in which our laboring classes are forced to live, are the nurseries of the epidemics which spread with certain destructiveness into the fairest homes; they are the hiding-places of the local banditti; they are the cradles of the insane who fill the asylums and of the paupers who throng the almshouses; in fact they produce these noxious and unhappy elements of society as surely as the harvest follows the sowing, and by these, punish the carelessness of those who own no responsibility as keepers of their brethren.”
“I don‘t know any other one in all that six million of New York City who would leave such a void as he does. If there ever was a just man made perfect he was… His poise, his quiet effectiveness, his self-suppression, his sweetness, his fellowship, his grasp of things, his sense of justice all made association with him inspiring…” – William Howard Taft
“Mr. White never has any trouble with his tenants, though he gathers in the poorest; nor do his tenements have anything of the ‘institution character’ that occasionally attaches to ventures of this sort, to their damage. They are like a big village of contented people, who live in peace with one another because they have elbowroom even under one big roof.” – Jacob A. Riis, How the Other Half Lives