Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Pruitt-Igoe Revisited, Part 1

The Pruitt-Igoe public housing project in St. Louis came to symbolize much more than its 33 eleven-story buildings (1). Pruitt-Igoe took on iconic status as a monumental or civilizational failure. The narrative condemning Pruitt-Igoe followed a general plotline: in the 1950s, Pruitt-Igoe had been built with great acclaim and then quickly descended into chaos, crime, and violence, which led the city of St. Louis to demolish the entire project just twenty years later.
Figure 1: 1956 Aerial View of Pruitt-Igoe and Vaughn Housing Projects (Public domain image).

As the images of its physical implosion circulated through the media worldwide, the project gained global symbolism as a self-imploding failure:
Figure 2: Demolition of Pruitt-Igoe building in 1972 (Public domain image).
A wide range of people and institutions were simultaneously blamed for the great hubris that brought Pruitt-Igoe’s demise: modernist architecture, urban planners, the low-income residents, African Americans, the St. Louis city government, public housing, the welfare state, and so on (2). In these intertwining narratives, the supposed failure of Pruitt-Igoe even began at its very origins, as a local St. Louis television station announced: “Pruitt-Igoe was doomed the day it left the drawing boards” (3). Architecture theorist Charles Jencks outrageously declared, "Modern architecture died in St Louis, Missouri on July 15, 1972, at 3.32pm (or thereabouts)," the time of the demolition shown in figure 1. The use of Pruitt-Igoe to condemn modernity, as well as the people and institutions listed above, is clearly demonstrated in Philip Glass' Koyaanisqatsi (start from 2:09), which is worth watching:

Most urban planners, architects, sociologists, and government officials can recite all that I have written above because, in their training, Pruitt-Igoe is taught as a key mythical cautionary tale. This tale is taken as "common sense" knowledge about modernist architecture, earlier forms of urban planning, the behavior of low-income residents living separately from more wealthy people, the behavior of African Americans living separately from whites, the "reality" of public housing, the destruction caused by state actions to create housing, etc. This tale about Pruitt-Igoe has shaped policy and academia for decades. It is false, false about Pruitt-Igoe specifically and about public housing and its residents more generally. 

In St. Louis, I read through the papers of A. J. Wilson, the Executive Secretary to Democratic St. Louis Mayor Alfonso J. Cervantes (1971-1973) and to Democratic St. Louis Mayor John H. Poelker (1973-1976). These mayors regularly worked on issues and concerns at Pruitt-Igoe. In Wilson's papers, I found a 1971 letter from a senior citizen living in Pruitt-Igoe to Mayor Cervantes. Mrs. James Johnson wrote:
And we are concerned citizens and we don’t want to move. We have nowhere to move and we don’t want to move. We love this place. We been here 16 years and we vote in every election and vote a democrat ticket and I thank you. [You] should look into this matter for us. We feel since you are our mayor you should help us stay here. Our committee peoples can’t do nothing if you don’t help. Thanks. (4)
What kind of world does this letter illuminate? What does the "common sense" narrative about Pruitt-Igoe conceal? My next installments will lay this out. 


(1) Pruitt-Igoe had 33 buildings. Reports sometime referred to 43 buildings, but there were, in fact, 43 addresses for 33 buildings. 

(2) R. Montgomery. 1985. "Pruitt-Igoe: Policy Failure or Societal Symptom." In B. Checkoway and C. V. Patton, eds, The Metropolitan Midwest: Policy Problems and Prospects of Change. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, p. 240.

(3) Washington University Archives, A. J. Wilson Papers, Wua00369, Box 04, Pruitt-Igoe 1970s, File: Housing - Pruitt-Igoe, 1971-1972, Folder 2, KMOX editorial, June 23, 1971. The editorial also stated that any further funds proposed to renovate the project would be a “futile repetition of other costly efforts to rectify a monumental error in the project’s original concept.” In the footnotes, I refer to these archives as the “Wilson Papers.” 

(4) Wilson Papers, Box 05, Pruitt-Igoe 1970s, File: Pruitt-Igoe Housing, 1969-1972, Folder 1. Letter from Mrs. James Johnson, 2433 O'Fallon, Apt. 1000, Aug. 30, 1971. Emphasis added.

Writing about DC in NJ

This academic year, I am in New Jersey, where I have time to write (glorious!). On my DC research, I have finished two articles, which are making their way through the peer-review process at two journals, have completed a short article about the multiple DCs, and am working on a book. In the meantime, I decided to post some research I did on the Pruitt-Igoe public housing development in St. Louis. Pruitt-Igoe, along with Cabrini-Green in Chicago, play central roles in the US imaginary about public housing, as places of chaos, disaster, and failure. However, the reality from the archives brings to light a different world.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Problem of Celebrating Gentrification

Those who view gentrification positively usually misidentify the actors who drive gentrification. They also often assume two sets of actors: 1) certain older residents who are seen as destroying the city (an underlying revanchist attitude) and 2) individual homeowners or business owners who "pioneer" an area and are saving the city. Yet, they do not perceive the agency of developers, investors, and city governments in gentrification. Here is my memory of a recent conversation with a colleague (C) visiting from out of town:

C: I lived in DC before gentrification, in 1992-1993.

Me: Well, gentrification began in the 1930s in Georgetown and in the late 1940s on Capitol Hill. A lot of Capitol Hill was gentrified by the late 1970s. It's been going on for some time.

C: But there were no-go areas; we were told that there were areas we should not go to.

Me: Gentrification works by investing in certain areas and disinvesting in other areas. Developers buy up low-cost buildings in areas they think might be profitable to develop and sit on them for years. They may let the buildings fall into disrepair or may maintain them at minimal cost, which often lowers the values of surrounding buildings making them cheaper to buy. This might create "no-go areas." [According to Neil Smith's rent gap theory, gentrification "is most likely to occur in areas experiencing a sufficiently large gap between actual and potential land values" (p. 464) because disinvested areas are where developers can make the most money. When developers have finished their investments in one area, then they can move capital into the most profitable disinvested area, like Ivy City and New York Avenue NE area, see 2003 Washington Post article "Where to Build Next?; As Downtown Fills In, Only Way for Construction Is Out." And the District government helps them in these processes too (see Susanna Schaller in Capital Dilemma).]

C: Do developers do this?

Me: Yes.

C: [I can't remember exactly the next step in the conversation, but it was something about white flight to the suburbs and how DC fell into disrepair.]

Me: White flight was about white homeowners [and renters?] leaving cities but this did not mean that they necessarily sold their houses. Rather, many white homeowners rented out their houses and did not necessarily maintain them very well. [I learned this a few days ago at Nathan Connolly's great talk on his book A World More Concrete at Georgetown University. These homeowners could thus do their own rent gap, doing minimal investment on their properties and waiting out for the return of capital to the area.]

This short discussion revealed to me how those who view gentrification positively often do not see the agency of developers and investors, as well as of city governments, in changing cities through investment and disinvestment. Also, interestingly, gentrification is perceived as just starting very recently, rather than as a long-term process. This long-term process should be understood as both a process of investing in certain places and disinvesting in other places, thus investment and disinvestment are connected processes. As Sabiyha Prince (2014) writes, "Gentrification is contingent upon disinvestment and dearth in urban environments...gentrification is the end result of a deliberate cycle that begins with neighborhood devalorization" (p. 46). Where is this neighborhood devalorization happening now in DC?

Monday, October 31, 2016

Murals, Mondrian, and Gentrification

Ellen Wilson Dwellings building, August 1988.
During the summer of 1988, a local homeowner commissioned a 30-foot mural, copying a modernist artwork of Piet Mondrian on the side of a public housing building in the Ellen Wilson Dwellings on Capitol Hill. Above is the painted building, and below is the building, as seen from the 6th Street, SE, freeway underpass, before it was painted:   
Ellen Wilson Dwelling, early summer 1988. 
This mural faced a freeway and was joined by two smaller Mondrian murals in the freeway underpass across the street. By 1992, he had commissioned 13 Mondrian murals in the underpass, in addition to the 30-foot mural.
SE Freeway Underpass. 
You can still see the murals in the underpass, but the 30-foot mural was demolished along with the Ellen Wilson Dwellings in 1996.

In November 1988, just months after the first three murals were completed, the DC Housing Authority moved all the residents out of the public housing project for a long-planned renovation of the buildings. Soon after, however, the project lay vacant and later was demolished, leaving the former residents permanently displaced.

I have spent the summer researching a series of questions: What role did the murals play in the permanent displacement of the public housing residents? What kind of work did the Mondrian murals perform on Capitol Hill at the end of the 1980s? The story has been surprising, to say the least.

Here is just one small finding: The late 1980s was a time of worldwide return to gentrification and displacement (see this previous post). From my research over the past year, I have come to understand that this block lay on a long contested racial line (see this previous post). One can see the murals as an early form of "tactical urbanism," as Amanda Kolson Hurley discussed in the Post a few days ago:
Tactical urbanism — which also goes by “DIY urbanism” or “creative placemaking” — uses small, often short-term fixes (like an artistically painted intersection) to promote wider and more permanent changes to a city (like reclaiming streets for walkers and cyclists).
We can thus see the Mondrian murals in some way reclaiming land and promoting wider and more permanent changes to the city. As Hurley discusses, only certain members of the community are considered legitimate initiators of or participants in DIY urbanism, which Eric Shaw, DC director of planning, notes in the article: “if five black males took over a parking spot and had a barbecue and listened to music . . . would they last 10 minutes?” City planners often perceive similar activities by lower-income groups and especially by non-whites as illegitimate and thus not given the label "DIY urbanism," but, as Hurley notes:
"There’s been tactical urbanism in lower-income communities,” argues Veronica O. Davis, a civil engineer and urban-planning consultant in the District. “It’s called graffiti.” The problem, she says, is the gap between the largely white and middle-class planning profession and the general public. “What’s the difference between a mural, which is paint on the wall, and graffiti, which is paint on the wall?
The local, Capitol Hill media, in fact, understood the Mondrian murals as giant graffiti put up by a "brave" homeowner, as part of battle over the Ellen Wilson Dwellings space. During the late 1980s return to gentrification, these murals were in competition with other graffiti with their own claims over the area, which those in the media and local homeowners deemed illegitimate.

But why murals of Mondrian's art? What were these specific art pieces communicating? More in a future post.

Images are from the Smithsonian Institution Archive, Warren M. Robbins papers: 1) SIA Acc. 11-001, Box 76, Folder Warren M. Robbins - Mondrian murals, August 1988, 2) SIA Acc. 11-001, Box 36, Folder Mondrian mural,  Images, 1988. 3) SIA 11-001, Box 36, Folder Mondrian mural,  Images, 1988 [image must have been taken later]. 

Sunday, June 19, 2016

I highly recommend this!

I went to the first show, which was truly great. It is a very innovative format and had great Q&A too. 

On My Mind/In My Heart: The Voices of Women in Public Housing 
Monday, June 20th
6:00 - 8:00 PM (Doors at 5:30)
Anacostia Arts Center
1231 Good Hope Rd, SE

Six public housing residents tell their stories along with music and discussion led by the amazing Schyla Pondexter-Moore. The public housing residents telling their stories are:
·                     Linda Brown, Greenleaf Gardens 
·                     Robin Fields, Arthur Capper 
·                     Abena Disroe, Hopkins 
·                     India Fuller, Greenleaf Gardens 
·                     Rhonda Hamilton, Syphax Gardens 
·                     Paulette Mathews, Barry Farms 

Don't miss this special encore performance!

The first show was standing room only - and some people didn't make it in the door! 

The powerful personal stories of six women who live in DC public housing communities are brought to the stage thanks to the talented script writing of Caleen Jennings and staging of Director Goldie Patrick.

This special performance is being held in conjunction with the Washington Area Women's Foundation and will be followed by a discussion with the audience on our collective hopes and dreams for the next generation of women and girls.

Space is limited. Please RSVP to Lauren Stillwell Patterson at lpatterson@wawf.org.

Visit the Empower DC website:  http://empowerdc.org/

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Capital Dilemma Book Talk Tomorrow

Tomorrow evening at All Souls Church, Georgetown University history professor Maurice Jackson, GWU history lecturer Bell Clement, and I will be talking about our chapters in Capital Dilemma: Growth and Inequality in Washington, D.C. edited by American University sociology professor Derek Hyra and anthropologist Sabiyha Prince

The amazing Sam Menefee-Libey has been running a monthly series on "Economic Inequality in DC" at All Souls Church. The group does common readings and engages with DC scholars about DC history, sociology, and so on. 

Tomorrow, the event starts at 7pm at All Souls Church, 1500 Harvard Street NW @ 16th (Columbia Heights Metro Station). Join us for a great discussion. 

Friday, March 4, 2016

The Alternative Lifestyle City and the Great Blight of Dullness

A while back, I was talking with someone who has been running an illegal food co-op for decades. In his discussion about the co-op, he said in passing that DC in 1967 was an "alternative lifestyle city." I asked him why he thought that. He said that downtown was filled with cooperatives, like a co-op bookstore, co-op plant stores, and even co-op headshops. This 1981 article describes DC's Magic Lantern Cinema and other DC co-ops in this area: "Five years ago, Washington DC's worker-run cooperative community was still strong — a network of food coops, "anti-profit" bookstores, record stores, print shops, plant stores, etc." You can see a list of the extensive number of co-operatives in DC here.

The co-operator said that the mindset of downtown was alternative. Around the Second World War, the area had been redlined (redlining is "arbitrarily denying or limiting financial services to specific neighborhoods, generally because its residents are people of color or are poor") because it was understood to be an African American area. Banks would not provide loans to residents or to businesses in the area. He said that "alternative," "working-class" whites then moved to this area, which had cheap rent. In this area neglected by banks and investment, people could try out a lot of new ideas very cheaply and the people in the area were relatively open to such experiments and such people.

As many people have discussed, downtown DC had a vibrant punk scene, such as at the Landsburgh in the center of today's Penn Quarter discussed by the fabulous Vassar sociology professor Leonard Nevarez. In the DC punk scene book Hard Art: DC 1979, the authors write, "In the land of the rejected, the field is flattened, open to much opportunity. Here flourish the weeds and nonstandard quality alike" (p. 63). But punk music and cooperatives were by no means the only part of this "alternative lifestyle city." (For another fascinating discussion, see Michelle Chatman's "At Eshu's Crossroad: Pan-African Identity in a Changing City"). Where did the "alternative lifestyle city" go?

In our perverse world, when investors abandon an area, rents may go down and diversities might increase, as well as opportunities for creativity and social life. And conversely, when investors become interested in an area and "revitalize" it, they often seek to erase what is there and create a blank slate. As discussed by Jane Jacobs, developers who seek to lure the wealthy into the cities often eradicate a whole range of diversities (age, income, race, etc.) and create, what she called, a "Great Blight of Dullness":
CityCenterDC. Photo by: Payton Chung, public, labelled for reuse.