Tag Archives: public housing

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth

For anyone interested in urban planning, public housing, and the lessons we can draw from the past in those fields, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth is essential viewing. It chronicles the rise and fall of the infamous Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex that “graced” the St. Louis skyline from 1954 til 1972. If you don’t know of Pruitt-Igoe, perhaps you’ve at least seen this iconic photograph, showing its demolition:

Source: Pruitt-Igoe.com

In the decades since Pruitt-Igoe’s demise, much has been speculated regarding what exactly caused the project to fail so dramatically. Mismanaged social welfare? Modern architecture? Poor economic conditions? In interviewing past residents as well as experts on urban policy and St. Louis, the film makes clear the Pruitt-Igoe complex had all the above factors and others working against it. The Pruitt-Igoe Myth aims to bypass the generalities and get at the heart of why Pruitt-Igoe failed from a decidedly personal perspective of the tragedy.

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A Look Back at “American Murder Mystery”

In 2008, Hanna Rosin investigated the troubling patterns of violent crime in Memphis that cast doubt upon what we thought we knew about urban crime prevention. This fascinating, in-depth article is nearly four years old, but just by taking a look at a 2012 ranking of America’s most dangerous cities, it feels just as relevant now. That’s because, as Hanna Rosin describes, the patterns of urban crime in the U.S. are changing, and rather than our largest cities also being home to the highest crime rates (Chicago’s recent homicide troubles notwithstanding), mid-sized cities like Cleveland, Orlando, and the story’s focus city of Memphis are now showing up on these lists regularly. In Rosin’s words, she wonders, “why has Elvis’s hometown turned into America’s new South Bronx?”

But the crux of Rosin’s article is that within Memphis, the destruction of concentrated public housing hasn’t brought down city crime rates nor has it granted low-income residents new opportunities for improvement. Instead, the results of decentralizing the city’s public housing (via new, smaller developments and Section 8) has broadened the geography of crime throughout Memphis, bringing gang activity, drug dealing, and violent assaults to once quaint, care-free neighborhoods. This flies in the face of what so many sociologists and urban theorists have been led to believe, including myself, since the failure of public housing towers in the 1960s and 70s: mix low-income families throughout middle- and upper-income communities and they will be raised out of poverty and crime through stronger social and economic networks.

But as Rosin points out in her analysis, de-concentration shouldn’t take all the blame for Memphis’s crime woes because the fundamental problems facing the urban poor in large part remain and haven’t been addressed in full. This actually reminds me of the well-intentioned but incompletely thought-out plans for public housing in the 60s that would house hundreds of families in giant “towers in the park”. The new buildings started out clean and new, and there was an assumption that these beautiful surroundings would inspire people to be lifted out of poverty. But if the services, maintenance, and general long-term upkeep plans aren’t established, things fall apart quickly. This roughly sums up the saga of Pruitt-Igoe, a story I’d like to go more in-depth on in later posts. Just as towers in the park were ill-equipped for long-term habitation, perhaps so too are the HOPE VI-style public housing that still fails to address core needs. For example, Rosin notes that one major problem facing the relocated poor in Memphis is that the services they depended on remained at their old sites or were concentrated downtown, leaving many with less support than before the move.

For a more eloquent exploration of these issues, I highly recommend this read. In particular, the video featured alongside the article featuring Phyllis Betts from the University of Memphis describing the current the national dialogue on urban crime is really fascinating.

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“Scum Villages” in Amsterdam?

Late last year I was alarmed to read about a program put forward in Amsterdam to create so-called “scum villages” to house “persistent troublemakers” tormenting city communities. It’s a fascinating and rather morally questionable way of dealing with anti-social citizens: relocate and isolate them. While I think anyone would love to see their havoc-wreaking neighbors shipped out of sight so you can finally get a good night sleep, if you look at it from the perspective of greater societal welfare, the repercussions of the plan are more alarming. So many questions arise: What evidence is there that isolating bad seeds is the best way to pacify neighborhoods? Is the goal to preserve quality of life for all Dutch, or to nurture the model citizens while damning the rest? Are the poor or ethnic minorities more subject to relocation than the rest of society? Will facilities in these “scum villages” truly be on par with those in the rest of Amsterdam?

As the article notes, this kind of project has been done before, with predictable results for anyone familiar with public housing pitfalls:

The Dutch Parool newspaper observed that the policy was not a new one. In the 19th century, troublemakers were moved to special villages in Drenthe and Overijssel outside Amsterdam. The villages were rarely successful, becoming sink estates for the lawless.

My vision for these “scum villages” (a term which ironically seems to fly in the social welfare-friendly Netherlands, and yet one that I can’t imagine being tied to public policy in the U.S.) is in line with what has happened in Pruitt-Igoe, Cabrini-Green, Queensbridge, and any specialized public housing system that provides “modern” housing for society’s fringe while leaving them without adequate building maintenance, retail, recreation, or public services. And that is a vision of hopelessness, crime, and a general breakdown of the social order. But if Mayor van der Laan’s goal is to simply keep anti-social Amsterdamers out of sight and out of mind, perhaps such consequences would still count as a success.

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