Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Social Haunting in Ward 6

In this blog, I have noted how gentrification often acts like settler colonialism. Gentrification is often portrayed as motivated by "pioneers" taking territory block by block. Those being displaced are often disparaged. (For example, see "Urine and Early Gentrification" and "Eyesores, Urine Smells, and Gentrification" and "Washington DC as a Global City"). Real estate developers, area boosters, and elites encourage an amnesia about the violence done to communities and individuals by gentrification and settler colonialism by claiming that the displacement was "inevitable" or the former residents were "disorderly" or "criminal." But amnesia does not make the forgotten history go away. This social violence remains in the area as a kind of social haunting, as "a sense, a feeling, a way of thinking, an atmosphere that pervades within a community, influencing its future in myriad, perhaps unnoticed, ways." Have you experienced social haunting on Capitol Hill?

Sociologists like Avery Gordon have argued that we should pay attention to these ghostly feelings. They may be reminders of past social violence and may provide us insight into repressed pasts. They can also open up a variety of potential futures. These ghostly feelings may also explain why certain things happen around Capitol Hill. Here is just one quick example.

 At 301 and then 324 Virginia Avenue, SE, Southeast House worked in the segregated community of Capitol Hill from around 1930 to 1962. Southeast House provided day care, classes for adults and children, after-school recreation, and many other things. The settlement house was run by African American women associated with Pan-Africanism. Ida Gibbs Hunt, a member of the organization that established the house, was one of the main organizers with W.E.B. DuBois of the early Pan-African Congresses in Paris. Howard University art professor Lois Mailou Jones taught art there. She was one of the early innovators to use African masks in modern art.

In 1962, the city leaders decided to place the new SE Freeway right on top of the Southeast House and a section of the Ellen Wilson Dwellings public housing buildings three blocks away. Forced out of the community, the Southeast House relocated to Anacostia.

The city could destroy the buildings, displace the residents, but they could not eradicate the spirit of Pan-Africanism. By the end of the 1960s, a mural appeared on one of the Ellen Wilson buildings that remained after the freeway project destroyed the others:

Capitol Hill's historic preservation movement identified with the Victorian houses of the 1890s (and styles of other nearby time periods), which was the time of expanding colonialism worldwide and Jim Crow in the United States. In contrast, this mural represented another temporality, the temporality of Pan-African globalization and anti-colonialism.

In 1996, the city leaders destroyed the Ellen Wilson Dwellings and this mural. A couple of years ago, a block north of the old Southeast House, a historic African American church -- Mount Joy Baptist Church -- was sold and turned into the Churchill condominiums. In his early career, Winston Churchill was Under-Secretary of State for the Colonial Office, a position that he had requested. According to a 2015 Washington Post op-ed, "
As a junior member of parliament, Churchill had cheered on Britain's plan for more conquests, insisting that its 'Aryan stock is bound to triumph.'" Racism and colonialism continue to haunt Capitol Hill, but the spirit of Winston Churchill must still contend with the much more international and local spirits of Pan-Africanism.

Have you experienced social hauntings in Ward 6?

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

When "change" is really just more of the same

Yesterday, the Washington Post reported on the Takoma Junction development, which I discussed in a previous post. In the article, a city spokesmen said, "I think it's about change. Change is hard." So, those who are against the developer's vision of the redevelopment are against change? What is this change? A local resident said, "To me, these are the things you do to adopt progressive values to changing times." At the same time, the city seeks to "[maintain] the unique character of the community." The Post was presenting the developers as part of the inevitable future and the opponents as stuck in the past. But what if the demands of changing times force Takoma Park to lose one of the things that is in fact the way of the future?

Yes, the Takoma Park Silver Spring Co-op (TPSS) is the future.

Andy Shallal (image from Twitter)
The proposed redevelopment is really just more of the same. As Andy Shallal, owner of the wildly successful Busboys and Poets restaurants, said at the WPFW town hall on the Takoma Park redevelopment (around 51:48):
After a while [as a result of the gentrification of businesses], you start losing the essence of a community, you start losing the vibe, you start losing its soul. And it becomes just like every other place anywhere, anywhere in the United States. I'm amazed at how many of these new developments that are coming in, they look almost identical. Like everywhere you go, they look identical. Somebody comes up with an idea of having mixed-use with an open atrium at the center and a bunch of string lights across the center. And everyone is like, "this is so novel!" People get really excited. And they all come. It's like this worked here. Let's do ten of these. That's what happens. 
When I happened to visit Bentonville, Arkansas (the headquarters of Walmart, not the reason I was visiting there), I thought, "This looks a lot like DC." The new buildings seemed to have the same architects as new DC developments. Cities, investors, and developers seek tried-and-true solutions, which leads to a homogenization, a standardization of cities that you see around the world. These solutions that developers tell us are the way of the future are in fact just more of the same, done over and over again.

The Takoma Junction redevelopment as currently imagined would endanger the TPSS Co-op, a thriving business. Among other things, the redevelopment would be on the parking lot used for deliveries and customer parking. With the redevelopment, the delivery trucks would have to park in the road out front. Thus the redevelopment would de-develop or underdevelop Takoma Park. How about expanding on the TPSS and embracing this model for the future?

Here are just a few thoughts about TPSS as the future:
  • As a co-op, the profits from TPSS are distributed to the members and the workers, thus enriching the local economy. 
  • TPSS sells products from local businesses, thus expanding the community economy.
  • TPSS could provide the basis for a cooperative economy, which has been successful in places like Spain
  • TPSS is also incredibly pleasant, a space that exemplifies democracy, equality, equity, and solidarity, which is also a space of the future.
But there are many other kinds of development envisioned by the Takoma Park residents, development projects that go beyond retail, such as Community Vision for Takoma Park and another group seeking to "set a brave and bold example."  Their ideas are not fear of change, but a call for real change in response to just more of the same.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Report on WPFW Town Hall on Gentrification

WPFW hosted a remarkable town hall, which brought together such interesting people and wonderful hosts. The concrete focus of the town hall was about a development planned for Takoma Junction, but the discussion expanded from this focus to include gentrification, displacement, and development more broadly. You can watch the town hall here.
WPFW Town Hall, High School Student Emily Kombe speaking.
Here is my report on some of the main issues that came up:

1) Definition of Gentrification.
There was a great interest in having some clear definitions. Here a composite definition:
Gentrification is the influx of capital (business and housing investments) and new middle-/upper-income residents (the 'gentry') into disinvested urban neighborhoods. 
According to this definition, gentrification depends on previous disinvestment in order for investors to make money and depends on disinvestment in other parts of the city in order to concentrate investment funds. Gentrification is part of a broader restructuring of cities for a new middle/upper income class, transforming low-status neighborhoods into upper-middle-class playgrounds, thus it is a kind of class conflict. Gentrification involves both physical and cultural/symbolic displacement, so that people may be made to feel displaced even if they still in the neighborhood. Finally, as many social scientists have discovered through interviews with those displaced, displacement is devastating and terrifying (See Atkinson's "Losing One's Place: Narratives of Neighborhood Change, Market Injustice and Symbolic Displacement")

2) Commercial Gentrification.
Gentrification can also happen to businesses. At the town hall, the owner of the Busboys and Poets restaurants, Andy Shallal, reported that his K St branch had recently been gentrified out because the rent had been raised 30% (the branch is moving across the street to a lower-rent building). The owner of Bikram Yoga in Takoma Park and elsewhere, Kendra Blackett-Dibinga, also said that she had been gentrified out because another business bought her building. Shallal complained that all the new restaurants and developments "look identical" and are making DC look like everywhere else. Jane Jacobs called these new developments "the great blight of dullness." These developments, like the proposed Takoma Junction, signal to investors and potential new residents that Takoma Park is ready for more investments, but they do not necessarily provide much for low-income residents. Such gentrification can also crowd out businesses catering to working-class residents.

3) Does economic development necessarily cause gentrification and displacement? 
No, not necessarily. In the late 1970s, DC Mayor Marion Barry sought to transform DC into a cooperative city. He brought in Cornbread Givens, who had a vision of a city-wide cooperative system of producer cooperatives, consumer cooperatives, credit unions, housing cooperatives, and community cooperatives that would use the profits from the other cooperatives to provide services (health clinics, schools, etc). Here is a discussion of his vision (see from p. 71). This cooperative system would keep profits in the District and collectively owned by District residents. I highly recommend UDC professor Amanda Huron's new book, Carving out the Commons, which also captures this alternative economic development alive in DC today. Takoma Park is in a wonderful position for this kind of economic development because it has the amazing TPSS Co-op.

One of the town hall participants, Sue Katz Miller, had earlier talked on WPFW and called for another kind of transformational economic development that might bring people together without having to buy things. Sociologists have found that the plans for mixed-income development do not result in the social mixing assumed by them. Places such as retail businesses, cafes, and restaurants are not conducive to such mixing, but schools and rec centers are better for such mixing.

4) Put renters first! 
Georgetown University sociology professor Brian McCabe has shown in his book No Place like Home that homeowners often physically and symbolically keep renters out of their neighborhoods and out of public discussions. Renters are often seen as not committed to the community. McCabe finds that civic and political engagement is driven much more by residential stability -- living more than 5 years in a community -- than by whether or not one owns a home. Takoma Park is majority renters, so renters should drive the discussion, since homeowners have had their say.

Well, there was so much more talked about by such inspiring people (including the amazing Emily Kombe, high school student in Takoma Park, and the TPSS workers)!

Thursday, July 19, 2018

WPFW Town Hall on Gentrification

I'll be talking about theories of gentrification as part of WPFW's Economic Development, Equity, and Social Justice Town Hall in Takoma Park tonight 6-8pm. There will be many amazing community organizers and local activists discussing their work.

Here is the tentative schedule for the town hall:

Schedule of Speakers 

Michele Bollinger + Dara Orenstein

Johanna Bockman + Sabiyha Prince

Johanna Bockman, Sabiya Prince, + Parisa Norouzi

Parisa Norouzi, Michele B., Mokie R., + Tiffany S.

Andy Shallal


Kendra Blackett-Dibinga, Sue Katz Miller, Emily Kombe, and Jarrett Smith

Community Comments

Panelist Responses

Community Comments

Panelist Responses

Katea Stitt + Dave Zirin

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Fighting Gentrification Across the City (II)

David Rotenstein (@iVernacular and historian4hire blog) thankfully reminded me of another fight against gentrification: the lawsuit filed by Aristotle Theresa against the District's role in gentrification and displacement of African Americans. Does anyone have a link to the lawsuit and other related legal documents?

Here is the updated list of battles against gentrification:
  1. DC General shelter in SE DC. The battle continues. Here is today's Washington Post article: "The original legislation...called for a halt to all demolition and barred District officials from relocating any families in the shelters to the budget hotel rooms frequently used for homeless families." And, according to Amber Harding at Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, "It's a completely different bill...I went from protecting the health and safety of poor families by stopping the demolition to telling the administration they can do what they're already going to do."
  2. Crummell School in NE DC.
  3. McMillan Park in NW DC.
  4. Barry Farms public housing in SE DC. Here is the recent lawsuit: https://caselaw.findlaw.com/dc-court-of-appeals/1894575.htmlhttps://caselaw.findlaw.com/dc-court-of-appeals/1894575.html
  5. Greenleaf public housing in SW DC.
  6. Takoma Park Junction just outside the District.  
  7. Aristotle Theresa's lawsuit on behalf of Paulette Matthews and Greta Fuller, residents of Southeast DC, and Shanifinne Ball, who lives in Northeast DC, against the DC government. Here is a recent Post op-ed on this. From the July 4th Post article, "Classist, racist, and ageist" was how Theresa described District policies.
Let me know about other battles to add to the list: johanna.bockman@gmail.com

Monday, July 9, 2018

Fighting Gentrification Across the City

Every day I hear about people fighting to stop the DC government from giving away (or selling at very low prices) public land and buildings to private developers. The government does this by declaring this public property surplus. To surplus these properties, the Mayor must deem them "no longer required for public purposes." The privatization of these properties means that they then serve the interests of the new owners/investors. Many DC residents do not agree that these properties are no longer needed for public purposes. DC residents regularly seek to stop this process and keep these properties public, in order to serve local needs. By succeeding, they help their communities, which makes DC an even better place to live.  

Here are the battles I have recently heard about (let me know about others you know about):
  1. DC General shelter in SE DC. As DCist reported: “[Mayor Bowser] is foul for doing that. D.C. has money. Y’all going to tear down an overflow for the homeless just to put the rich right here. Why?” says Carlena Durbin, a 31-year-old who lives at the shelter with her 10-year-old son and her spouse.
  2. Crummell School in NE DC. According to Empower DC's June 29th newsletter: "At the request of Mayor Bowser, the DC Council is considering the surplus and disposition of the 2-acre site of the historic Crummell School, the heart of the Ivy City community, to a developer who will build high-density, mostly high-cost housing. You may remember that Empower DC worked with the community and submitted a proposal for the school which would have created a one acre park, community land trust, play ground, affordable housing, community health care, daycare and other neighborhood-serving programs. Our proposal was rejected by the Mayor."
  3. McMillan Park in NW DC. According to the Friends of McMillan Park: "The property was selected by the now-defunct public-private National Capital Revitalization Corporation (NCPC) in a land swap deal for Anacostia Riverfront property used to build DC’s baseball stadium. In advance of a NCPC completing a Request for Proposals process, disgraced DC Councilmember Harry Thomas, Jr. selected a sole-source development team that proposed a scheme that included 1,200 units of housing in buildings up to 10 stories tall, a 100,000 square foot shopping center, a 125-room hotel and conference center, and underground parking.  This team proposes to essentially bulldoze the entire park and pave it over with dense urban development, leaving very limited open green space to remain."
  4. Barry Farms public housing in SE DC. I don't think that this is public property disposal, since the land is likely still owned by the DC Housing Authority, but it is an ongoing battle over buildings. As discussed in this Post article, the residents are concerned that they will be permanently displaced.
  5. Greenleaf public housing in SW DC. I don't think that this is public property disposal, since the land is likely still owned by the DC Housing Authority, but it is an ongoing battle over buildings. Greenleaf residents have fought for a long time for a "build first" model, in which no one is moved from the Greenleaf development and promises "zero displacement of current Greenleaf residents." Yet, as discussed in the Hill Rag article "Don't Place your Trust in Build First for Greenleaf," residents are still concerned that they will be permanently displaced.
  6. Takoma Park Junction just outside the District.  According to an op-ed in the Post, Takoma Park residents "are most worried that their beloved food co-op, denied adequate parking and loading, might be thrown out of business," though I have heard from other residents that they are concerned with how such developments have raised rents in other areas of DC and displaced low-income renters. 
As DC geographer Katie Wells has discussed, DC has been disposing of public property for private consumption for at least the last 20 years: "City-level policymakers have sold schools, libraries, firehouses, and homeless shelters to developers of upscale gyms, luxury condominiums, and private art museums" (2014: 474). Later, Wells noted, "Since 1998 the D.C. City Council has tried to sell 68 percent (or 15 out of 22) of its public shelters" (2014: 484). You can see the current list of public properties being privatized in DC right now. In her article, Wells talks about how DC residents without homes and their allies stopped the surplussing of the Franklin School for years. Last year, the DC Government privatized the Franklin School, which developers are using to create "Planet Word, an interactive language arts museum and education space." The goal of the activists, housing for those without homes, was not realized.

Where are the other battles going on in DC? How can we help our neighbors in their fight to keep public properties for "public purposes"? 

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Back to DC

After spending the past 10 months in New Jersey, I am happily back in DC. I got a lot of academic writing done in New Jersey, which was the goal. Today I made some updates on the blog: adding links to new sociological tools and related websites/blogs, revising the DC Public Housing Radio page, and updating the Blog Index. I plan to blog soon!

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Removing the public from public housing: Public–private redevelopment of the Ellen Wilson Dwellings in Washington, DC

Just wanted to announce my article that was just published by the Journal of Urban Affairs:

"Removing the public from public housing: Public–private redevelopment of the Ellen Wilson Dwellings in Washington, DC"

In the United States, urban regimes have long brought together public and private actors to provide public services. Given this, how do public–private partnerships (PPPs) change public housing? To answer this question, I examine a public housing project: the Ellen Wilson Dwellings in Washington, DC. In 1993, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded one of the first federal HOPE VI grants to a PPP to demolish the Ellen Wilson Dwellings and construct the mixed-income Townhomes on Capitol Hill in its place. The redevelopment that was supposed to help the residents of the Ellen Wilson Dwellings, in fact, permanently displaced nearly every one of them. I argue that the PPP, within the context of the 1990s dismantling of the state’s democratic accountability and welfare functions, allowed business groups and homeowners to stage a coup and take control of the Ellen Wilson Dwellings.

If can't access a free copy of this article, please email me: johanna.bockman@gmail.com

Monday, April 16, 2018

Pruitt-Igoe Revisited, Part 2

I always find it surprising that all sorts of people can talk so easily about the "failures" of Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis without much knowledge of the development at all.
Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis, Wikimedia Commons
They usually repeat a conventional story, which I discussed in my previous post: in the 1950s, Pruitt-Igoe had been built with great acclaim and awards, and then quickly descended into chaos, crime, and violence due to housing people (especially low-income people) in multi-story modernist buildings, the lack of private property and "defensible space" in public housing, the concentration of low-income residents living separately from more wealthy people, the concentration of African Americans living separately from whites, the arrogance of early urban planners (the false opposition of Robert Moses vs. Jane Jacobs), the chaos and disaster somehow inherent in public housing or somehow associated with African Americans or low-income people, and so on. This narrative assumes that public housing will always fail, the residents must be freed from the space (even though they were always free to move elsewhere, but likely had other constraints to doing so), and the development must be replaced with a private alternative. The ease of knowing and understanding this narrative suggests to me that it is a fundamental American story or myth about cities, known perhaps subconsciously. Who subscribes to this myth? middle-class people? white professionals? gentrifiers? In its certainty and its lack of interest in other perspectives, it resembles the perspective of colonial rulers. Colonial rulers project the inversion of their self-perception onto others -- colonial rulers see themselves as orderly and productive and the ruled as chaotic, criminal, and lazy -- which justifies colonial rule and displacement.

Let’s look more closely at the narrative about Pruitt-Igoe and the reality. First, in contrast to the conventional story mentioned above, Pruitt-Igoe public housing as it was designed or constructed did not win any awards.(1) Most references to professional architectural acclaim cite a 1951 article in Architectural Forum, a Time Inc. publication for the building industry.(2) The article is positive, but mostly about the cost savings and about the “refreshing” park land on the site. The article states that Pruitt-Igoe “might well set a new rescue pattern” for other cities filled with slums.(2) As Meehan (1979), Bristol (1991), and others have documented, the budget of the already cost-saving design was, in fact, cut dramatically, leaving the buildings without landscaping and the "refreshing" park land when opened in 1954.(7) Pruitt-Igoe was not award winning, but was understood, at least by the building industry, as low-cost housing.

Second, the St. Louis business community supported the building of Pruitt-Igoe as a strategy to encourage investment in declining St. Louis.(3) Public housing construction as a development strategy was also practiced in other cities, including on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. According to Chris Bacon (1985), large-scale manufacturing in St. Louis, especially Anheuser-Busch, had suffered losses in market share in the 1930s and 1940s and sought to expand production with the help of new transportation routes and other public infrastructure.(4) At this time, the building industries also suffered from the weakening economy. Not a single major office building had been built in St. Louis between 1930 and at least 1958.(4) Because St. Louis received federal funds from the 1949 Housing Act, public housing construction was the only major building activity in St. Louis.(5) The city government supported expansion of industrial production through urban renewal, destroying slums and displacing people away from sites for new freeways, new production, and new middle-class housing. The Pruitt-Igoe’s site was “the cheapest such parcel in St. Louis,” but it “will probably have grown to be the best.”(2) On this inexpensive land, the Pruitt-Igoe buildings doubled the density in the area, thus concentrating low-income residents and making available the land of former slums for expansion of industrial production and new infrastructure development. Thus, the city government and business leaders understood Pruitt-Igoe as an investment that would raise land and property values in St. Louis.

According to this view, public and private housing should be built together. The 1951 article discussed above had a second section, giving equal importance to a privately funded urban renewal project of middle-class housing to be built beside Pruitt-Igoe. The architectural sketches in the article show modernist slab buildings much taller than those planned for Pruitt-Igoe similarly surrounded by park land. In response to demand for such units, these apartments would primarily be efficiencies. The same architectural firm designed both the public and private housing. According to a journalist quoted in the article, the major businessmen investing in this privately funded project “had the kind of arithmetic which could appeal to the big companies who have big investments in the downtown.” (2) The article and the major business leaders supported both this private housing and public housing together as a way to save the downtown of St. Louis.(2)

Third, government officials and business leaders chose a modernist architectural style for Pruitt-Igoe that conveyed progress and thus would lure investors to the city. Today, from the colonial perspective, low-income residents are seen as somehow unable to live in high-rise apartment buildings, while the wealthy are somehow able to live in these buildings:

Concentrated wealth in modernist buildings today. City Center DC, Wikimedia Commons.
At the same time, as Bacon (1985) has argued, public housing had to function as a stigma. According to sociologist Erving Goffman (1963), stigma is "an attribute that is deeply discrediting" with two major consequences: status loss and social rejection.(6) To create a stigma that would encourage residents to leave public housing as quickly as possible and enter the private housing market, the St. Louis Public Housing Authority could not provide at Pruitt-Igoe the amenities of middle-class housing. Furthermore, many middle-class, white St. Louis residents did not support providing even the most basic amenities to low-income African Americans. As a result of this and the drastic cost cutting, the buildings were already falling apart already when opened in 1954.(7) From his extensive archival research, Meehan (1979) found an extraordinary number of problems, including “The quality of the hardware was so poor that doorknobs and locks were broken on initial use, often before actual occupancy began. Windowpanes were blown from inadequate frames by wind pressure. In the kitchens, cabinets were made of the thinnest plywood possible…”(7) The consequences of extensive cost-savings were deadly. Within the year that the first resident moved in, two girls fell from the buildings, one from the seventh floor and one from the ninth.(8) The budget cuts created the stigma demanded by the private housing industry and supported by middle-class white citizens in St. Louis.

With little knowledge of the actual history of Pruitt-Igoe, people can rely on the colonial perspective, which offers them a range of actors to blame for the "failure" of Pruitt-Igoe: modernist architecture, urban planners, the low-income residents, African Americans, the St. Louis city government, public housing, the welfare state, and so on. The colonial perspective also offers a perverse solution: the destruction of public housing and the displacement of its residents. Today, the Pruitt-Igoe public housing project is completely gone, replaced by a forest that has grown in its place:
Forest at the former Pruitt-Igoe Site, July 2013 (Image by author).

(1) According to the AIA, “Pruitt-Igoe is often cited as an AIA-award recipient, but the project never won any architectural awards.” Sara Fernández Cendón, 2012. "Pruitt-Igoe 40 Years Later." AIArchitect 19. The architectural firm had won an Outstanding Design Award from the AIA for a different project (Cervantes 1974: 45). A. J. Cervantes. 1974. Mr. Mayor. Los Angeles: Nash Publishing.

(2) "Slum Surgery in St. Louis," 1951. Architectural Forum: The Magazine of Building 94(4): 129-136.

(3) The article in Architectural Forum identified the investors in the private housing as "conservative business leaders" ("Slum Surgery" 1951: 135).

(4) Chris Bacon, 1985. "Pruitt Igoe Revisited." Department of Town and Regional Planning, Faculty of Architectural Studies, The University of Sheffield. 

(5) The building industries supported public housing across the country for similar reasons (Vale and Freemark 2012: 385). L. J. Vale and Y. Freemark, 2012. "From Public Housing to Public-Private Housing." Journal of the American Planning Association 78(4): 379-402.

(6) Erving Goffman. 1963. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

(7) K. G. Bristol, 1991. "The Pruitt-Igoe Myth." Journal of Architectural Education 44(3): 163-171; E. J. Meehan, 1979. The Quality of Federal Policymaking: Programmed Failure in Public Housing. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.

(8) 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. 231.

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.