Monday, October 01, 2007

Public Housing

Over the weekend, m.d. filter began an absolutely fantastic discussion on a recent decision by the Housing Authority of New Orleans to begin demolitions of the C.J. Peete, St. Bernard, B.W. Cooper, and Lafitte public housing complexes. He condemns the decision, citing a New York Times article:

This demolition strategy is not new. It is part of a long-standing campaign to dismantle the nation’s public housing system that began in the 1970s. That campaign was based on the valid belief that the concentration of the poor into segregated ghettos condemned them to a permanent cycle of poverty, crime and drugs. Specifically, it was directed at the large-scale postwar housing developments that became a fixture of American cities in the 1960s — anonymous blocks of concrete housing, like Chicago’s recently partially demolished Cabrini-Green, whose deadening uniformity seemed to strip the poor of their identity, reducing them to repetitive numbers in a vast bureaucratic machine.

The last few decades have witnessed the emergence of a new model for public housing: mixed-income developments whose designs are largely based on New Urbanist town-planning principles. Nostalgic visions of Middle America, they are marked by narrow pedestrian streets and quaint two-story houses with pitched roofs and covered porches. For HUD, they have become the default mode for rebuilding in New Orleans.

But if the sight of workers dynamiting an abandoned housing complex was a cause for celebration in Chicago’s North Side, the notion is stupefying in New Orleans, whose public housing embodies many of those same New Urbanist ideals: pedestrian friendly environments whose pitched roofs, shallow porches and wrought iron rails have as much to do with 19th-century historical precedents as with late Modernism.

Another NYT article cited by m.d. filter provides more context:

In its rush to demolish the apartment complexes — and replace them with the kind of generic mixed-income suburban community so favored by Washington bureaucrats — the agency demonstrates great insensitivity to both the displaced tenants and the urban fabric of this city.

I will begin my response by saying that I do not favor the immediate demolition of the public housing complexes. The need for public housing make it imperative that the city seriously consider alternative options. More importantly, until we can completely trust that the plans for replacement developments conform to our city's needs, not one building should come down. These complexes do indeed provide a notable contrast to the emblematic crime-ridden towers of big cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago that have been demolished over the last decade.

There are good reasons to avoid replicating the new River Garden housing development that replaced the old St. Thomas projects in the Irish Channel. However, those reasons DO NOT include it's layout from above (see m.d. filter) which expose the absence of the courtyards and walkways of the 1940s construction.

As some comments on m.d. filter indicate, those walkways and common areas often found themselves in total disrepair. Additionally, it was noted that the isolation of these areas and the front doors of many homes from the traditional street grid pattern further cut off project residents from surrounding neighborhoods. Later, site moderator m.d. himself agrees regarding street-grid isolation.

Since I am back at my childhood home in South Philadelphia this week to celebrate my grandpa's 90th birthday (and hopefully run into some playoff tickets for Wednesday, GO PHILS!), I got to thinking about the changes made to nearby developments by the Philadelphia Housing Authority over the last decade or so. I went out and took pictures to offer a comparison that might further our thoughts on public housing design and architecture.

Readers over at m.d. filter are reasonable in fearing homogenized suburban-style developments being forced into urban landscapes. The old Southwark projects were knocked down in the mid 1990's and replaced with the "posher" Riverview complex.

View Larger Map

The Southwark complex had consisted of three large and ugly towers surrounded by bungalows. The projects were high crime and the neighborhood surrounding was working class bohemian. By the 1990s, the Queen Village neighborhood, just to the North of the development, was gentrifying at a blistering pace. The replacement Riverview complex consists of one large ugly tower reserved for senior citizens surrounded by bungalows with parking lots central areas. The buildings stand out clearly from the traditional brick row homes of the surrounding area, architecturally reinforcing the already implicit social isolation. This complex remains mostly livable and is relatively low crime, but that could be in large part due to the fact that the surrounding neighborhood is, at this point, rather wealthy and that delinquent residents from Southwark were not welcomed back.

Here are some pictures:

The ugly renovated tower for seniors

The bungalows

A few years later, within the same section of the city, the demolished towers of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Housing Development were replaced with structures reflecting an adjusted set of design values.

Unfortunately, google earth does not have a recent flyover of the completed development project, but you can see the dimensions of the area and some completed units.

View Larger Map

The new MLK projects, completed in 2004ish, attempt to be an exact representation of the Philadelphia row home style. The street grid is maintained without interruption. Parking for residents is provided in the rear of each house rather than in a lot. When walking down the street, it is not at all an exaggeration to say that a passerby without prior knowledge would be completely unaware that the stretch is public housing.
Here are some pictures of the new MLK development:

Note especially how the developers differed the colors of the bricks, the heights of some of the buildings, and even the style of the moldings and keystones around the windows. These buildings aren't perfect, the parking areas in the back reveal that the city did skimp in places, the brickwork gives way to typically ugly suburban-like siding where facades don't face the street. Nonetheless, the design here is meant to integrate the public housing community with the neighborhood at-large. Private courtyards and walkways within the housing complex are sacrificed so that the "complex" is really just a bunch of regular old Philly row houses.

For everyone's reference, here's a picture of the 200 block of Catherine St, a typical-looking facade in the gentrified and popular Queen Village neighborhood. These buildings date from the 1870s.
So what should we look for when we design public housing?
Does it reinforce the social isolation of its residents or does the architecture attempt to integrate the public housing community into the surrounding neighborhood's existing street plan and facade style?
Does "homogenization" mean that the public structures all look similar to each other or that they look similar to their neighborhoods?

So in the long term, I am very much in favor of the demolition of the four public housing complexes being discussed in New Orleans. Let us ensure that they are designed to be a part of the community at large. Projects should not be demarcated zones of implicit social stratification that are entered into or exited out of, they should just be people's homes and nobody should be able to tell the difference.

Unfortunately, as with all New Orleans city agencies, I have questions about the fundamental competency of HANO officials and am not eager to allow them to move forward with their plans to demolish. However, there ARE new models for public housing that demand a closer look. CJ Peete, Lafitte, et al are not worth preserving because they capture New Deal design principles; they certainly do not reflect the progressive design principles being attempted in the 21st century.


Sophmom said...

Interesting post, particularly when read in tandem with M.D.'s. I asked this question on his blog but will also ask it here. Is your point that you're against immediate demo because you don't trust HUD/HANO to handle this well? Do you have any thoughts on how this can get better with waiting?

E said...

I just don't think it's worth it to spend all that money to demolish the buildings when we don't know whether other scenarios have been properly evaluated by these agencies.

Pistolette said...

Great post. I wrote one on this topic too, but I was approaching from a human rights angle.

I especially like the photos from Philly. Those new places look awesome to me. I hate the high rises and every time I see one I think of old people dying in them during heat waves.