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Public housing—government-subsidized low-cost housing units—is an offshoot of industrial society: the concept of low-cost housing communes began soon after the rise of industrialization, in response to the problem of providing shelter for the impoverished urban working class. Early examples that indirectly influenced modern, large-scale complexes included the utopian ideals of social reformers in mid-nineteenth century Europe such as Henri Saint-Simon and wealthy industrialists such as Robert Owen, who pioneered the concept of company towns. The American equivalent of Owen’s plan was the development of mill towns, such as Slatersville, Rhode Island, which was set up by Samuel Slater to house workers. Although these communities differed from “modernist” large-scale
twentieth-century complexes—they were privately financed and the buildings were small—they were precursors to twentieth-century public housing in that they were self-supporting communities that provided basic shelter. These early communities differed significantly from later complexes such as the Pruitt-Igoe complex in St. Louis and the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago that relocated poor workers away from urban centers. Twentieth-century public housing, however, kept impoverished minority groups in the inner city.
At the end of the nineteenth century, the terrible living conditions of the urban poor—especially the despicable conditions in tenements in large cities such as New York—came to the forefront. Exposés, such as Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives, led to moral reform movements in cities across the nation and contributed to government involvement in housing reform. Unlike later public housing, late nineteenth-century tenements were privately owned, and, in terms of design, they bore little resemblance to modernist public housing; for example, they lacked the logical format of the Pruitt-Igoe complex. More important, tenement dwellers experienced de facto segregation from “mainstream” middle-class society; as in modernist public housing, the impoverished and mostly minority residents were not accepted in middle-class white society. Many tenement dwellers were from immigrant families and bore obvious marks of difference, whether skin color, native language, or religious practices.
During the Progressive Era of the early twentieth century, the modern conception of public housing began to take shape. In 1911 the National Housing Association (NHA), led by Lawrence Veiller, held its first meeting and clarified its “scientific” approach to housing reform. The NHA had five major goals: to prevent the erection of “unfit” housing, to encourage the building of “proper” housing, to ensure proper management and maintenance of existing housing, to attempt to renovate existing structures, and to bring about “scientific,” economic, and “reasonable” housing laws.
At the same time that the NHA was clarifying its strategy, the “garden city” movement was in vogue, supported by Herbert Hoover’s housing policy that favored the movement to the suburbs. A revamped plan to develop company towns, the garden city movement attempted to develop working-class suburbs with limited population to ensure good living conditions. Popular prior to World War II, the garden city suburbs left behind impoverished minority groups in the inner city, which increased the need for public housing. Meanwhile, the middle class was unwilling to support programs that primarily aided the lowest and most impoverished social and racial groups. Progressive reformers, such as the writer and activist Catherine Bauer argued, in Modern Housing (1934), against the construction of large-scale public housing. Bauer emphasized that a top-down approach to public housing (one that focused only on the very poor and did not include mixed-income support) would lead to the failure of public-housing complexes, which could not function if the residents relied on welfare “handouts” to provide for themselves and their family.
The conception of public housing as a high-rise slum supported by the federal government began during the New Deal. Whereas previous housing programs had attempted to improve the plight of the poor through renovating overcrowded tenements and jump-starting community, the switch toward large-scale public-housing complexes of the New Deal signaled the beginning of an explicit top-down housing policy. During the Great Depression, the problem of the urban poor became so large that policymakers were forced to implement a program of large-scale public housing.
These programs never received sufficient financial support, because the middle class was not interested in programs that “benefited” only the very poor. This same problem hindered later complexes such as Pruitt-Igoe—cost-cutting influenced the starkness of the design and increased resident dissatisfaction.
The 1937 United States Housing Act (USHA) led to the popularity of modernist housing, because it encouraged cost-cutting measures in any way necessary to keep expenses down. Early examples of complexes built under the USHA were Brooklyn’s Red Hook and Queensbrough housing developments. As in later complexes, such as Pruitt-Igoe and Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes, these complexes were designed on a strict geometrical layout, did not have any design frills, and were generally dirty, unpleasant places to live. Also like Pruitt-Igoe and the Taylor Homes, the enclosed design and large scale of these early modernist complexes led to residents feeling isolated from the rest of the city.
By the 1950s, despite the obvious problems of modernist, big-box public housing, policymakers retained an idealistic attitude toward modernist public housing. Indeed, urban planners and policymakers often had a utopian vision of what public housing could accomplish. This unwarranted idealism—not unlike the visions of nineteenth-century social reformers—set up the big-box projects to fail, because they could not live up to the groundless expectations of the designers and policymakers. From the mid-1970s to 2000, many American cities demolished their bigbox projects and switched to mixed-use developments.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)’s HOPE VI grants facilitated this transition. In Louisville, Kentucky, for example, the Park Du Valle housing complex was replaced with a lower-density development, featuring a community center that provided access to health care, a Laundromat, shopping and dining, and mass transit connections. The Housing Authority of Louisville (HAL) received $31.4 million to revitalize the Park Du Valle area; of this, HOPE VI provided $20 million. The Park Du Valle revitalization effort is a good example of the growing awareness of city officials that housing is not a separate entity, but part of the overall community. Whereas earlier sites, such as the initial Park Du Valle and Pruitt-Igoe, had been isolated from surrounding neighborhoods, the newer developments it better into the overall urban setting. This switch is partly because of the increased emphasis on community revitalization and comprehensive planning that is an offshoot of recent changes in urban planning—most notably the rise of “New Urbanism” and its emphasis on livable communities. Although it is too early to assess the long-term effectiveness of these lower-density public housing developments, at least they appear to be an improvement over the dehumanizing conditions of big-box public housing.
- Bauman, John F., Roger Biles, and Kristin M. Szylvian, eds., From the Tenements to the Taylor Homes: In Search of an Urban Housing Policy in Twentieth-Century America (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000);
- Lawson, Benjamin A., “The Pruitt-Igoe Projects: Modernism, Social Control, and the Failure of Public Housing, 1954-1976,” Master’s Thesis (Oklahoma State University Press, 2007);
- Park Du Valle Revitalization (http://www.hal1.org/hopevi/index.htm);
- Rainwater, Lee, Behind Ghetto Walls: Black Families in a Federal Slum (Chicago: Aldine and Atherton Publishers, 1970);
- Riis, Jacob, How the Other Half Lives (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1890);
- Stromberg, Jerome S., “Private Problems in Public Housing: A Further Report on the Pruitt-Igoe Project,” Occasional Paper no. 39 (February 1968);
- The Community Builders. Our Projects: Villages at Park Du Valle (http://www.tcbinc.org/what_we_do/projects/fp_parkduvalle.htm).
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