Thursday, May 29, 2014

1979 in DC Public Housing

In the DC Archives the other day, I came across two interesting items from 1979. On January 2, 1979, Marion Barry became the second mayor of Home-Rule-Era DC.

First, resident representatives of the DC public housing projects met with Mayor Barry on June 12, 1979. One of these resident representatives, Vivian Williams, told Mayor Barry:
Ms. V. Williams: We have a priority. I would very much like to see us keep our eye on Ellen Wilson. This property is right up on Capitol Hill and if we aren't careful folk will take it right from under us. (1)
Vivian Williams did see what the future held! In 1988, everyone was moved out of Ellen Wilson with the promise to renovate the buildings, but then the entire project was destroyed and rebuilt as a mixed-income development called the Townhomes on Capitol Hill. Vivian Williams was quite aware of what was going on on Capitol Hill, since she both lived in public housing and worked as a public housing organizer through Friendship House. Here is a sampling of the activities she and the rest of the small staff at Friendship House organized, from my previous post:
During one three-month period in 1982, Friendship House had distributed 6,175 flyers, pamphlets, and newsletters (about resident council meetings, jobs, school activities, bingo nights, etc; usually distributed door-to-door allowing them to know personally many Hill residents); connected 150 residents with resources; assisted 33 renters or owners; advocated for city-wide policy changes; organized public housing meetings and a disco to fund public housing resident councils; helped people get jobs; dispensed clothes; gave out emergency food assistance; enrolled 84 families in a food cooperative; organized parents to improve the public schools; provided a breathtaking array of youth activities; provided seniors with meals and services (including visiting them in the hospital); and more (GWU Special Collections, Friendship House Association records). They organized public housing residents into resident councils to advocate for repairs and security, formed food cooperatives and low-cost food buying clubs, and organized residents as consumers to work to improve the Safeway and call for lower utility bills.
Today, these resident councils still exist. It would be interesting to hear how they are doing.

Second, the resident representatives noted the 1979 schedule for the Mayor's Department of Housing/Property Management Administration Special Summer Youth Programs. Mayor Barry had set up a special summer youth program for public housing, which included a bike program, horticulture program, video tape program, reading program, soccer program, and drama program. These programs also provided jobs for those running the programs (Washington Youth Corps [WYC]). Here are a couple of the schedules:

1979 Bike Program

15 WYC Supervisors, 1 per 5 youth.

Monday: Arthur Capper, Montana Terrace

Tuesday: Sheridan/Barry Farms, Highland/Valley Green

Wednesday: East Capitol/Capitol View/ East Gate

Friday: Stanton/Frederick Douglas/Edgewood

1979 Horticulture Program

2 Supervisors (17-21 years), 10 WYCs - 1 per 5 youth.

Monday: James Creek

Tuesday: Greenleaf

Wednesday: Arthur Capper

Thursday: Woodland

Friday: East Capitol

Monday: Lincoln Heights

Tuesday: Potomac.

(1) DC Archives, NCHA Advisory Board, Advisory Board Meeting with Mayor Barry, June 12, 1979.
(2) DC Archives, NCHA Advisory Board, Advisory Board Meeting with Presidents of Resident Councils, July 16, 1979.

Monday, May 26, 2014

What is "world class"?

Clinton Yates wrote a great piece in the Post today: "Officials who want 'world class' need to look no further than D.C.'s Fish Market." Yates has looked at the plans for the Wharf, a $2 billion project to redevelop the SW waterfront, which, in Yates' words, "would gut the quaint grittiness of the waterfront and replace it with amenities that sound like they've been created in a college marketing class." 'World class' is a phrase used to draw in international investors "and inflate the egos of those involved in the courting." It is clear that 'world class' developments look a lot like other 'world class' developments. Take a look at the plans for the SW waterfront:

Every aspect of the development plan refers to some other city, especially Seattle around Pike Place Market, San Francisco around Ghirardelli Square, and Baltimore around the Inner Harbor (including the tall ships). Thus, the design refers to or speaks the international language of the 'world class.' As many sociologists have noted, since the urban fiscal crises of the 1970s, cities around the world are in competition with each other for international investors' funds and use all sorts of strategies to lure investors. Surprisingly, sociologists have found that entrepreneurs are a pretty risk-averse bunch, which Malcolm Gladwell has discussed in detail. For example, based on a survey with new entrepreneurs, INSEAD entrepreneurship professor Hongwei Xu and Duke University sociology professor Martin Ruef found that "nascent entrepreneurs are more risk-averse than non-entrepreneurs." Many entrepreneurs are interested in assured profits, which might explain the unimaginative developments around DC. For example, compare the current fascinating and much enjoyed McMillan Park (two photos on left) and the development plans by Vision McMillan Park that have almost nothing to do with the fascinating nature of the space (photo on right):
Current McMillan Park, Friends of McMillan Park

Current McMillan Park, Friends of McMillan Park

Plan by Vision McMillan ParkFriends of McMillan Park
NYU anthropologist Tom Looser has noticed that professionals moving through global cities or supposed 'world class' cities tend to be indifferent to their local surroundings, local history, and local culture, and to feel little responsibility for others and for local government in these cities. At the same time, as Richard Florida has argued, many of these professionals also demand "unique," "authentic," "local" experiences. So, they would not desire a dinner at a McDonalds or other chain restaurants. However, many restaurants, cafes, and events appear locally distinct, when, in fact, they are owned by major global investors and reflect the global demand of the "creative classes." As a result, we see similar "local" events all around the world -- outdoor movies, gallery walks, business district food fairs, ferris wheels, etc.

Yates quoted someone else stating that the SW waterfront plan "unites the whole waterfront into a kind of singular amenity that is going to really be great for Washington, D.C." As a result D.C.'s Fish Market -- according to Yates, "the oldest still-running fish market in the United States" -- is swept up into this singular amenity, into this uniform controlled space of the waterfront, rather than building the waterfront plans on the Fish Market, the uber-modernist buildings of the 1970s, the monuments, the houseboats, the seafood restaurants, Westminster Church, and so on.

One commenter on the a Post article on the SW development wrote: "As a SW resident, I am so happy this is finally getting done! There has been virtually nothing in the area and the current wharf is a dump." Developers and city governments let places deteriorate for decades as they wait for investors. Decades of deterioration also undermine and delegitimize opposition to even uninspired development projects. In Jane Jacobs' words, these investors bring "cataclysmic" money, which is used to wipe out the existing buildings and the people and create a whole new community. Planners sought to do exactly the same thing during 1970s urban renewal in SW DC. Jane Jacobs would have called for "gradual" money, which maintains and builds on what is there.

Another commenter on the same Post article criticized the new plans for SW, "The DC metro has hundreds of franchised Ye Fake Olde Irish Guinness Pubs and bland upscale apartments and movie theaters. We only have one place where you can go buy crabs unloaded from boats in an open air stand under an overpass." The standardization involved with creating 'world class' cities might make cities...boring.

P.S. DC has many examples of communities, which have fought this boring, expensive, and exclusionary uniformity. Such as residents of Adams Morgan (see this interesting report by former GWU political science professor Jeffrey Henig) and the current-day Friends of McMillan Park. Consider helping the Friends of McMillan Park save this remarkable park! 

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

High Modernism returns to DC (the Utopian Potential)

City Center, Washington Post, 4/23/2014
In my last post, I talked about the dystopian nature of high modernist architecture, as architecture for multinational corporations, global finance, the wealthy, an elite society. In DC, high modernist architecture replaced the vibrant communities of SW and was the object of protests by historic preservationists on Capitol Hill and elsewhere. We can see high modernism returning to DC at City Center and on the Waterfront. Yet, at the same time, modernist architecture has always also had a utopian potential, reflecting or encouraging an inclusive democratic society.

This weekend in his Post interview, How the “Sassiest Boy in America” became the most interesting man in rock-and-roll, Ian Svenonius so succinctly expressed the utopian potential of modernism. The excellent Post interviewer, Chris Richards, captured so many interested comments by Svenonius. Svenonius talked about his band from the early 1990s, Nation of Ulysses:
In a sense, Nation of Ulysses was a pastiche band...We loved James Brown and the Futurists and Situationism. I'd say the band was innovative in that it was presenting an immersive package that wasn't a revival. And punk is essentially a revival -- a revival of modernism. Punk comes out of postmodernism, but it's real desire is to inhabit modernism in that it says, "Art has meaning and is revolutionary." 
Postmodernism says, "Oh, Bauhaus looks cool, but we don't have to subscribe to the ideas of Walter Gropius. We can just have this cool thing and still be bankers." Know what I mean?
Bauhaus Dessau, built 1925-1926
From my quick education in Walter Gropius and his art school called Bauhaus in Germany, I learned that he sought to integrate art (sculpture, ceramics, weaving, metal work, painting, wood carving, stained glass), industry, architecture, nature, etc., as well as sorts of elements, such as rich wood, broad expanses of glass, pre-fab concrete, and so on, to create a new kind of building for "A society such as ours, which has conferred equal privileges on everybody, will have to acknowledge its duty to raise the general level of responsiveness to spiritual and aesthetic values, to intensify the development of everybody's imaginative faculties..."(1) Modernist architecture was seen in contrast to "charming Tudor mansions with all modern conveniences" and was a critique of pure commercialism and pure materialism.(2) Modernist architecture, especially imagined and built in collaboration with artisans of all sorts and in dialogue with nature and society, could be broadly meaningful, radically inclusive, and revolutionary.

This practice of modernist architecture is quite different from what seems to be going on at DC's City Center and elsewhere in DC (see end of previous post). Maybe City Center looks like modernist architecture but really is postmodern?
Hotel Bonaventure, L.A. Weekly
The amazing Professor Fredric Jameson at Duke University argues that we are living with postmodern architecture that is merely pastiche, bringing together all sorts of elements arbitrarily and superficially. Thus, modernist forms can be appropriated without the inclusive democratic politics. The modernist forms can be used to create exclusionary, elitist worlds. Postmodernism represents the victory of commodification of all spheres of life.(3) Jameson specifically discussed the commodified world within the Hotel Bonaventure (image to left), but we can see a similar commodified worlds created in DC's City Center: "Dior, Herm├Ęs, Longchamp, Paul Stuart, Salvatore Ferragamo and Zadig & Voltaire. Tumi and Allen Edmonds have both already opened their stores and Burberry, Hugo Boss and Kate Spade have announced their plans to follow." (Post, April 23, 2014). As Svenonius said, postmodernism says, "We can just have this cool thing and still be bankers."

What were people thinking when they destroyed the communities in SW during the 1960s and built the modernist architecture that stands there today? Was there an original utopian potential that was undermined? Or was it realized in some ways and not in others?

(1) Hoffa, Harlan. 1961. "Walter Gropius Innovator," Art Education 14(1): 12-15+26+28. 
(2) Murphy, Kevin D. 2011. "The Vernacular Moment,"  Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 70(3): 308-329.
(3) Modules on Jameson, "On Postmodernity" and "On Pastiche." 
(4) Washington Post, April 23, 2014.