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OF EXCLUSION Public Housing Architecture, Art, and the Open City Spring 2009 Becky Slogeris


Becky Slogeris Architecture, Art, and the Open City Dan D’Oca March 5, 2009

The purpose of public housing should be to act as an inclusive tool that provides affordable options for people otherwise unable to participate in home ownership. In actuality, public housing has fared much more exclusionary. Ultimately, the lower class residents they

Otis invents the elevator


The Civil War ends

1865 1866

Tenement Act requires fire escapes and water closets for every 20 tenants

contain are isolated even further from the lifestyle and standards of the city around them. As Lawrence Vale, a professor of Urban Design and Planning at MIT, asserts, “The problem we have as a nation is that policymakers and city officials tend to be better at mixing out the poor than mixing them in.” To call this segregation a problem seems like an understatement. Can we call it just a problem when the mass majority of Americans, most often white and middle class, are completely ignorant of the conditions in these inner cities? (Even though

Jacob Riis publishes “How the Other Half Lives” to draw attention to the conditions of tenements in New York City


Baltimore’s city council passes an ordinance establishing separate white and black neighborhoods


Outbreak of WWI


Le Corbusier presents his plan for a “Contemporary City”


New Deal begins counter-depression measures


these conditions, albeit in a diluted way, impact their comfortable suburban homes?) Can we call it just a problem when the Government would rather ignore the current corruption deeply rooted in decades of de jure segregation? (Even though they have been skating by on the occasional presentation to the public of polished plans for redevelopment and have been avoiding actually getting their hands dirty and wrestling with the whole of the situation?) Moreover, can we call it a problem when the people involved have been so grossly mistreated that seemingly no solution exists to make up for it all? Within the past 10 years, the effects of government intervention in the arena of public housing have proven so catastrophic that completely clearing the slate through demolition has become the only option and a new round of solutions are already being implemented. It is here, at a critical juncture in how and where residents live in the city, that it particularly important to ask if we are doomed merely to repeat ourselves with another round of exclusionary approaches.

PAST Today, there are approximately 1.2 million households living in public housing

Home Owners Loan Corporation spurs suburbanization

units sponsored by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Of those units, an overwhelming majority are occupied by African Americans. This imbalance, surprisingly, was not always the case. “There was a time, before 1900, when blacks and whites lived side by side in American cities. Even Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and Philadelphia – cities now well known for their large black ghettos – were not segregated this way” (Massey, 17) Looking at Baltimore in particular, “… housing was not racially segregated, and even following the Civil War, blacks lived in all of Baltimore’s twenty wards.” While the majority of blacks did reside “in the city’s central, southern, and eastern sections,

Housing Division of the Public Works Administration established under Roosevelt


there was no Negro quarter or ghetto.” (Power, 290) In the early 1900’s, racial tensions began to emerge in cities. Fear among white residents manifested itself initially with violence as outright as riots and bombing, but eventually shifted to approaches more “civilized and institutionalized” (Massey, 35) like boycotts and restrictive covenants. Early on, they learned the power of using both de facto and de jure techniques to separate themselves from the influx of southern blacks that had been moving north. In 1910, Baltimore City Council passed an ordinance that, according to The Baltimore Sun, stated that “no negro can move into a block in which more than half of the residents are white, no white person can move into a black in which more than half of the residents are colored.” (Thompson, 299) In fact, the first projects in Baltimore were created to “limit the Negro ghettos’ of East and West Baltimore and stem black migration into white residential areas.” It was with this containment in mind that the McCulloh Homes were placed so precisely between Bolton Hill and the West Baltimore “ghetto”. In American Project, Sudhir Venkatesh describes the ghetto as “ a separate place – that is, a quasi-independent city” – where residents were at once removed from the rest of society, actively evading that society, and creating lifestyles at odd with that society.” (Venkatash, 8) White avoidance of these areas was made even easier with the creation of the suburbs. Federal initiatives like the 1933 Home Owners Loan Corporation during the new deal offered whites in the city a way out. The public housing that they were once a part of began to be seen as “a kind of coping mechanism rather than


The end of World War II

as a form of reward. Many upwardly mobile white families who once would have applied for public housing enjoyed new opportunities for federally guaranteed mortgages in the suburbs and no longer needed to rely on the increasingly stigmatized resource of ‘the projects’” (Vale, 5) Differences become even more pronounced after World War II, as more opportunities



U.S. Supreme Court declares restrictive covenants unenforceable

Title 1 of the 1949 Housing Act ushers in the age of Urban Renewal through a slum removal program

developed for whites outside of cities and blacks become increasingly trapped inside cities. “After racial segregation was declared illegal, the defendants simply stopped building family public housing in white neighborhoods.” (Thompson) Under the guise of Urban Renewal, the federal government started removing urban slums to make way for new housing complexes and cultural institutions in the modernist vein. Although slum clearance meant to benefit those living in the unsanitary conditions of the slums, a new beast was born with their replacement, the high-rise housing complex. “Public housing was now meant to collect the ghetto residents left homeless by the urban renewal bulldozers.” (Venkatesh, X) While these replacement structures are being built in the 1960’s, the switch from a predominately white middle class population to a predominately black lower class population in our cities becomes complete. We see the spaces that should be inclusive to all limited to stark pockets of homogeneity. While this transformation is mystifying, it is not impossible to identify how exactly it all happened. Probing the history of public housing, the role of the government is obvious. For instance, in

1969, just one year after the Fair Housing Act prohibited discrimination in housing, Congress enacted the Brook Amendment to cap public housing rates at 25% of income. While this intended to protect low-income tenants, the results were much more devastating, pushing the economic diversity (and inextricable racial diversity) out with any residents whose income exceeded the new limit. In “Building Walls,” Gerald Frug writes about how “every level of government has helped make city boundary lines a central ingredient in peoples lives. These boundaries lines,” he asserts, “ not only determine which public resources are ours and which are theirs, but help to define who “we” and “they” are.” In the case of public housing, fear of the other, with the poor black population as the primary target, has influenced all government

Brown v. Board of Education rules “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” and de jure racial segregation becomes a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution


Eisenhower stresses spending for Urban Renewal


The world’s largest public housing project, Robert Taylor Homes, containing 4,321 apartments, completed in Chicago


decisions in the city to some extent, both a consciously and unconsciously. Still, Frug continues on to say that “no one has the power to control the nature of the other people who also choose to live in the same city.” (Frug, 117) Despite his assertion, we have found a way to by perverting the very promise of inclusion. If it is true that the government can’t control who resides in a city, they can at least control where those unwanted residents live. “The location of public housing projects in neighborhoods of highest poverty concentration is the result of federal toleration of extensive segregation against African Americans in urban housing markets, as well as acquiescence to organized neighborhood groups’ opposition to public housing construction in their communities.” (Venkatesh, Ix) To make matters worse, the housing built was placed in existing pockets of poverty. Propelling the construction of the projects forward was, among other factors, the unrelenting machine of Robert Moses in New York and the utopian visions of Le Corbusier, both of whom subscribed to the modernist belief in the transformative power of high-rise structures. If, as Alain deBotton asserts, “architecture is premised on the notion that we are, for better or for worse, different people in different places” and that it’s task is to “render vivid to us who we might ideally be,” the clean new construction surely was a beacon of hope at the start. In Chicago, “from it’s inception, the Robert Taylor homes was more than a residential complex. For the nations disenfranchised, the housing development would serve as a stop on the way to property ownership, Thomas Jefferson’s cradle of American democracy, as well as to an awareness of the rights that entailed. It signaled the commitment of the federal, state and local governments to addressing the needs of all citizens black and white, rich and poor. (Venkatash, 13) At the same time, these developments “lacked the basic entitlements that the rest of society takes for granted. (Venkatesh, XI) The systematized, cheap, and efficient modes of construction didn’t take long to exhibit wear and tear.

As these pristine towers of concrete began to go to the gutters, one can easily assume that pride in residency, which translates directly to an individual’s self-esteem, followed. If where you live is a reflection of how you see yourself, it’s no stretch to connect the impersonal concrete structures of the projects, where the number on your door was “the only way you could tell the difference between your place and your neighbors,” to the loss of individuality. (Gilderbloom, 5) When looking at the psychology of an individual in


Civil Rights Act outlaws segregation


The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) established

a city, Sennett is particularly interested in these simplified forms of identity. Ultimately he finds that they create a ‘a state of absolute bondage to the status quo’ and, as a result, limit people’s lives. “A reliance on stability coherence, and order,” he writes, “inhibits openness to experience: it undermines one’s ability even to absorb, let alone profit from, the flux and variety the world has to offer.” (Frug, 120) While this analysis is certainly more fitting to the homogeneity of suburbia, as it would be far fetched to say that a person constantly living on edge in the danger zones of projects had achieved stability, the deprivation of experience is the same. With the life of the projects in mind, the irony of Sennett’s philosophy continues with his plea for “the experience of surprise, disorder, and difference in one’s life” with the


NAACP’s Legal Defence Fund declares “negro housing projecgts not affordable or livable”

life of the projects in mind. (Frug, 121) At a certain point, the projects started to permit and even help facilitate crime and violence. Living in them became a matter of survival, and residents certainly got a daily dose of that disorder Sennett idealizes. “The exhaustion on resident’s faces showed the toll that the violence had taken on their lives: their energies were spent navigating safe excursions to the grocery stores.” After gang related incidents, often with little police attention, “some took leaves of absence from work or rearranged their schedules to help other families, and they were all faced with restless children they had confined to apartments and areas inside the buildings.” (Venkatesh, 2) Imagine that when a child living in the projects is isolated to only playing indoors, they are not just isolated from the tattered plastic playground outside, but isolated from everything else the world has to


Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of dwellings based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, familial status, or disability.

offer them one block, or two blocks, or a hundred blocks away. This hindering of mobility, figuratively and quite literally, is where the cycle starts. If one is unaware of something better outside of their bubble, it’s probably pretty easy to be content living in the same cinder block apartment for their whole life. Now that opens up another can of worms. We can blame the immobility of people living in the projects of ignorance, but that assumption in itself would be ignoring all the different ways in which they have been held captive. Let’s say someone living in the roughest


Congress enacts Brook Amendment to protect low-income tenants by capping public housing rates at 25 percent of income.

of projects did realize that there was something better out in the world for them, would they have the financial means to even leave? Or the education to make it happen? Assumedly, to leave the projects would not be instantly liberating. Simply put, for every one lap anyone else runs, they will find themselves having to do one more. There is certainly a ripple effect with housing out into every other area of one’s life. British sociologist Ray Paul states that “a

person’s opportunity to secure adequate schooling, jobs, health care, and a safe neighborhood are shaped by the spatial and social allocation of housing and transportation services.” (Gilderbloom, 206) In the case of American public housing, the distribution has

Dynamiting of Pruitt Igoe in St. Louis is a symbolic end of modernist movement of planning


Section 8 rental subsidies introduced


U.S. Congress enacts Department of Housing and Urban Development Reform Act and established the National Commission on Severly Distressed Public Housing (NCSDPH)


HOPE VI program created


Thompson v. HUD filed in complaint of racially discriminatory housing policies inBaltimore


clearly been unequal.

PRESENT It wasn’t until the introduction of Section 8 in 1974 that HUD made an honest attempt to move beyond default system of public housing to address these inequalities. As a rent subsidy voucher, Section 8 allowed tenants chose a project based or tenant based. In 1999, existing tenant based voucher programs were merged into the Housing Choice Voucher Program, “now the primary means of providing subsidies to low income renters.”1 That same year, the federal government began the HOPE VI (Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere) program. It’s objectives were to change the physical shape of public housing, reduce concentrations of poverty, provide support services, maintain high standards of personal responsibility, and form partnerships. The overall effect was the creation of mixed income communities through the demolition of failing public housing units. The biggest problem with Hope IV to this day has been the lack of attention to what should happen after the demolition of these units. In most cases, the number of units built to replace those demolished have been significantly less, even though waiting lists continue to grow in cities across the nation. Perhaps even worse though, than inadequate replacements, is that the units were often placed in areas that just reinforced the de facto segregation of the city. In 1995, Barbara Samuels and the Baltimore ACLU brought the issue of segregation to the forefront with Thompson V. HUD. In the landmark case, six individuals argued on behalf of every public housing tenant in Baltimore that the “local and federal defendants intentionally developed a segregated system of public housing in Baltimore city between 1930 and 1954,” and that “local and federal defendants failed to disestablish segregation I Baltimore’s public housing after Brown V. Board of Education.”2 Their hope was that the case would enjoin construction on the replacements for Fairfield and Lafayette before they had the chance to continue in the same segregationist style. What makes Thompson so monumental is that it hit HUD right at a turning point for the organization, and questioned if their intentions had really changed at all. After seeing first hand the effects of such segregated housing conditions for the past forty years, the plaintiffs had the audacity to fight against letting the same thing continue again for the next forty. In 1995, HUD released a report titled: “Transforming Public Housing: Building Community Pride” chock full of idealistic renderings of public housing redevelopments and a 1 2

blissful avoidance of responsibility for any of the societal ills or segregation that plagued their sites. “Most of the approximately 1.3 million units of public housing in the United States are well-kept and well managed” they maintained. “Largely ignored by headlines and new stories is the fact that public housing is primarily responsible for meeting this critical human need. In most parts of the country, public housing represents the kinds of housing people want in their neighborhood; it is decent and livable.” (HUD, 5) “Most” is the operative term here. The pages that followed showed the very places not included under that umbrella, American cities. Before and after shots of sites in St. Louis, San Antonio, Texas, Louisville, Detroit, and Chicago boasted of demolition dates, slated or completed, with construction dates shortly after. This was all part of an 8 year, $2.5 billion dollar campaign to demolish around 100,000 public housing units in cities across the U.S. It was as if all at once we realized just how horribly awry the high rise and mega blocks approach had gone. Now those buildings, made


Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago begin to come down

to house the masses, are being replaced with low-rise versions in relatively the same vein, or their lots are left empty altogether. Henri Lefebvre used the idea of social space to describe the active production of places and the creation of their meaning through an individual’s everyday participation. “The concept of social space captures a modern antagonism between the administration of space for rational planning and economic accumulation, and the use of space for everyday purposes, that is, the ‘inhabiting’ of space. The institutions that make up the state are forever concerned with managing space, planning and re-zoning, efficient and rational use of territories, and so on. Their logic – that of “abstract space” – runs counter to that of the people who live in the space and who may value a particular territory for reasons that have little to do with its planning or economic development potential, but that have more to do with their connectedness to it.” (Venkatesh, 39) On the eve of their destruction, many last minute feelings surfaced, especially from residents who were about to be uprooted from the network of family and friends that had developed. Aside from the glaring issues of crime and sanitation, and forgetting the basic needs of health and safety that they inhibited, they questioned if the projects had really been such a bad thing after all. For many of these communities, it might be safe to say that the social space created within these projects was more vibrant than the often non-existent relationships found in their white suburban counterparts. The issue then, it seems, is more that they created the exclusionary enclaves where the opportunity for African Americans to encounter people other than themselves was slim. It’s not hard to see the downfalls of such extreme isolation. Encountering difference in others, as Frug asserts, is necessary for personal growth and the progress of society. A healthy open

city needs exchange of ideas and residents who are tolerant of diversity. Within the concept of an open city, the projects were a glaring thorn in the side. And in the ideal of the open city, every piece matters. The failure of one segment effects the success of the whole, which should be something that both the interventionist left and the hand-off right can agree about. Unfortunately, the possibility is huge that isolation of the urban poor will become even more ignored in the two story replacement homes scattered around our cities. Maybe we needed the sixteen story eyesores to remind us of those being left behind. With all of that being said, can we really blame the structures? Despite the impersonality of their design and invitation of crime throughout poorly planned halls and stairwells, these are structures that, under different conditions and with different bells and whistles, work perfectly fine. Just look at similar structures in mixed-income apartment buildings in the US, or the successes of public housing in Amsterdam or even New York. In looking at the demise of the American projects, what it came down to was the removal of choice from the equation. The most important choice here was location, the ability to mix, if desired, with other races and classes living in the city. Now, the crux of programs like Section 8 or Hope IV is the ability to choose through mixed income developments. In 2007, an Inclusionary Housing Bill was actually introduced in Baltimore “requiring developers to designate a certain portion of new developments as affordable.”3 Chicago’s “Plan for Transformation” brags that even though they are “rebuilding on the same land” they are “charting new ground” with contemporary town homes and low-rises in developments that mix equal parts public, affordable, and market-rate housing.4 Looking at the glass as half full, “they may represent imperfect or incomplete efforts, but they have succeeded in a total remake of some of America’s most dangerously blighted neighborhoods, in the process creating quite healthy, new, mixed-use communities.” (Gilderbloom, x)

FUTURE Noting Paul Pierson’s idea of “lock-in effects” – that “once a choice of policy is taken, the cost of adopting alternative solutions to the problem increases.” (Sidney, 13) – it is necessary that we completely weigh the options at hand and their future consequences before we jump blindly into another convincingly titled plan. This is especially important now, before HUD starts throwing around its 10.1 billion dollar share of the stimulus package signed into law last week.5 A solution should include more than the literal structure. Going back to Chicago, the CHA’s plan also includes partnerships with other agencies to help residents with things like employment assistance and substance abuse counseling. When possible, it is just as important that the intangibles of it all are taken into consideration. 3 4 5

“This is not something that can properly be answered in the abstract or the aggregate. Individual places matter. So do the particular residential communities that inhabit them.â€? (Vale, 5) The best solution is not to look at public housing in the U.S. as one solid entity requiring one generalized treatment. That is precisely where applying Corbusian systems got us in trouble. To create one blanket approach ignores the individual people of the community that public housing aims to serve. Instead of throwing money towards impersonal formulas with unforeseen results, our current situation requires specialized attention for each individual community, if the actions taken are to be as inclusive as possible. With that being said, current conditions are hinged on the analysis of past forces, a past where exclusion rules the day, and the tear-down-try-again approach is acceptable. Can we afford to continue gambling when there are actual people at stake? Now that a second solution is being sought, and we are again disrupting the natural order that has developed in these communities, it is necessary to ask ourselves if we are really fixing the problem or just switching out the façade of the same old exclusionary approach.

Bibliography Massey, Douglas and Nancy Denton. American Apartheid. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993. Hirsh, Arnold. Making the Second Ghetto. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. Frug, Gerald E. City Making: Building Communities Without Building Walls. Princeton. Princeton University Press, 2001 Sugrue, Thomas. The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005. Sidney, Mara S. Unfair Housing: How National Policy Shapes Community Action. Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2003. Gilderbloom, John Ingram. Invisible City: Poverty, Housing and New Urbanism. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008. Bloom, Nicholas Dagen. Public Housing That Worked: New York in the Twentieth Century. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008. Venkatesh, Sudhir Alladi. American Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002 Thompson v. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. No. 04-1535. US Court of Appeals.4 May 2005. Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law. Thompson v. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development: Class action complaint. January, 2005. 1 March 2009. <> Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law. Thompson v. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development: Plaintiffs’ memorandum in support of motion for preliminary injunction. January, 2005. 1 March 2009. <> United States. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Transforming Public Housing: Building Community Pride. Washington: GPO, 1995. Vale, Lawrence J. Reclaiming Public Housing: A Half Century of Struggle in Three Public Neighborhoods. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002 Power, Garrett. “Apartheid Baltimore Style: The Residential Segregation Ordinances of 1910-1913.” Maryland Law Review Vol. 42(1983) 289-328. 2 Mar 2009 < context=facpubs>. Belluck, Pam. “End of a Ghetto: A Special Report; Razing the Slums to Rescue the Residents.” The New York Times 06 Sep 1998 1 Mar 2009 < &sec=&spon=&pagewanted=1>. “The CHA’s Plan For Transformation.” CHANGE - Chicago Housing Authority. 2007. Chicago Housing Authority. 1 Mar 2009 <>.

arsenal of exclusion: public housing  

essay for "architecture, art, and the open city" with dan d'oca, spring 2009.