The construction of Lebanon’s first public housing projects (Webster Manor and Stevens Towers) coincided with a decade of urban redevelopment efforts and policies aimed at alleviating poverty, and in 1960s Lebanon, the area known as “Little Hollywood” was one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in the city.
Over the latter half of the decade, the area (north of Maple Street and between 9th and 11th Streets) underwent a transformation spearheaded by a newly formed local agency: the Lebanon County Housing Authority. Thanks to a massive planning effort and financial backing in the millions, the redevelopment of Little Hollywood into 100 units of low-income family housing became a “stellar achievement” for the Authority and the City of Lebanon.
Poverty in the northwest corner of Lebanon
Little Hollywood, part of the city’s Tenth Ward, was not a well-liked area of the city. Described by the Lebanon Daily News as “30 acres of Lebanon’s blight” in a 1964 caption, the area was comprised of a collection of 16 “former garages converted into apartments,” though photographs reveal that at least one trailer was also set up in the area.
The area was formerly the site of a tailings dam used by a concentrator operation, according to a 1966 edition of the Lebanon Daily News. It also passed through periods of use as a baseball field and carnival grounds before it became known as Little Hollywood.
The name was in use as early as 1949, with a report of an attempted arson in the neighborhood marking one of its first appearances in the print record. It’s unclear how it got the ironic moniker. In any case, the area was a major source of concern for the city. “A tour of the blighted areas generally calls for a stout automobile, sturdy legs, a strong constitution and an ear familiar with waterfront language,” advised a contemporary report in the Lebanon Daily News.
“Waterfront language” was perhaps too apt. The area was often afflicted with severe, weeks-long flooding that impacted not only the residents of Little Hollywood but surrounding neighborhoods as well, frequently requiring surveys, pumps, financial aid, and temporary channel construction to divert the water away from homes.
Living conditions were often described as “deplorable.” Newspaper reports of the time found that the dwellings lacked plumbing, adequate heating, and many other basic utilities, and that trash and debris were common both inside and out. Residents were typically retired or in public assistance programs. For these residents, the rent was far from a guarantee that landlords would fix the frequent issues with their properties.
In February of 1965, Mayor J. Gordon Smith introduced a plan to construct new sewer systems in the neighborhood at a City Council meeting. The Tenth Ward project was the largest of four sewer projects begun that year as part of a city capital improvements plan, and it was planned in order to extend sewer service to over 100 homes in the area.
Little Hollywood transforms into public housing
Beyond the sewer project, the city was eager to do something about the area. At one point, it was considered as a possible site for the new Lebanon High School campus, although this idea was ultimately rejected by the school board. Ultimately, the city decided to transform the area into a 100-unit public housing project for low-income families, following a selection process in the spring of 1967.
Public housing in America underwent major changes in the 1960s. The 1965 creation of the Department of Housing and Urban Development under the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson was one of many new developments aimed at tackling poverty in American cities — the “Great Society” programs that Johnson’s presidency is remembered for today in domestic policy.
The two closely related organizations of the Lebanon County Housing & Redevelopment Authorities were at the forefront of the project. It was among the Housing Authority’s first major projects, as the organization had been established just a year earlier in 1966. Just months after its creation, the early plans for public housing were announced.
The older of the two organizations, the Redevelopment Authority, was established in 1959 following a vote of the Lebanon County Commissioners, and its executive director at the time, William Hawkins, also served in the Housing Authority along with all of the other Redevelopment officials. Hawkins resigned from both organizations in late 1967 with appreciative recognition for his “aggressive work” on the projects.
“There is a shortage of safe and sanitary dwelling accommodations in the County of Lebanon available to families of low income at rentals they can afford, resulting in conditions prejudicial to the welfare of the people of the Commonwealth described in the Housing Authorities Law.”The resolution establishing the Housing Authority, 22 Sept. 1966.
In August of 1967, the Department of Housing and Urban Development approved a grant loan of over $3.2 million for the Little Hollywood project and the related project of Stevens Towers at 10th and Willow Streets. This loan was to be paid back through the selling of bonds over an amortization period of several decades; it covered about 90% of the projects’ combined costs.
The Towers project was an 11-story 100-unit complex planned to be constructed over the Stevens School building for retired or elderly citizens on fixed income. Both projects were designed by architect Hugh Moore Jr. of Allentown.
The first order of business was to buy up more land in the neighborhood. According to a 1970 edition of the Lebanon Daily News, there had been 18 people living in the area at the time of the redevelopment project. The plots ranged in size from 5.4 to 0.06 acres. The city already owned about 13 acres of the neighborhood but still needed eight or so plots to begin working in the area. Seven of the shacks were to be razed, with only one described as “fairly substantial.”
Sales of land in Little Hollywood to the Lebanon County Housing Authority took place in spring of 1968. Around the same time, construction bids were held and Moore’s finished designs were unveiled to the public.
Condemnation proceedings also took place around this time, which Housing Authortiy executive director James Stuchell described as “routine policy.” Three shacks and the burnt ruins of a fourth had already been demolished and cleared out in 1966, and the rest were soon to be cleared out as well.
Late in 1968, construction began. The Little Hollywood project, dubbed Webster Manor, was expected to be completed in about nine months.
By January of 1970, the 49-building Webster Manor development was ready to be moved in to, having cost approximately $1.8 million altogether (Stevens Towers cost around $1.6 million and opened the same year). A new storm sewer running by the development was also put in place around the same time. A full-page open house notice appeared in the Lebanon Daily News, boasting of the Sears Roebuck-designed interiors and the community center.
For several years after the Little Hollywood shacks were condemned and demolished, its reputation remained. A 1971 letter to the editor in the Lebanon Daily News lamented naysayers “running down” on the Webster Manor development, and declared, “This isn’t going to be another Little Hollywood. The Housing Authority works hard to keep it a nice place.”
By the early 1970s, the Housing & Redevelopment Authorities were already in the midst of several other major projects, including an $18 million Capital Improvements Program and a Neighborhood Development Program in the north side of the city, but Webster Manor and Stevens Towers were still being lauded as impressive accomplishments for a young agency.
The public opinion on public housing has been and will remain complex, but one would be hard-pressed to deny that Lebanon’s first public housing projects were a major improvement over the severe poverty of Little Hollywood.
When reflecting on the history of a community, the problem of poverty must be addressed, no matter how difficult it may be. Without doing so, the picture of the past is fundamentally incomplete.
Do you know a piece of Lebanon County history we should share? Give us advice on what to feature next!
Give the gift of local journalism.
If you are thankful for what LebTown brings to the community, consider joining our cause as a member. Members get an inside look at our publishing schedule each week, plus invites to our members-only Facebook group and happy hours.
Sign up for an annual membership using the link below, and we’ll give you a free LebTown mug at the next happy hour.
Learn more and join now here.