Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Plastic Social Surgery

My first real experience with public housing projects came when, at the age of 19, I got a job delivering meals and groceries to people living with AIDS in San Francisco.  I did the "project route", and earned an extra dollar an hour in hazard pay.  I would fill up my van and then chart a wide, circular course around the city, starting off at Folsom, then heading to the Misson, Portrero Hill, out to Hunter's Point, then onto the freeway and finishing up in the Marina. 

The buildings were generally designed in the same eastern-bloc concrete architecture, painted in various shades of brown, gray or violet single-tones.  With the exception of the Marina, each was hellish in its own way.  The Folsom towers were decrepit - I remember a broken elevator standing ajar, filled with garbage, and a pigeon flying in and out of its shaft through a missing ceiling tile, forcing me to take the urine and blood spattered stairwell.  Mission was only two storied, and thus felt somewhat safer.  But Portrero hill was often "jumping" - a lot of people hanging out, gang colors flying, cars driving by real slow with tinted windows and menacing glares - especially on Friday nights, or after the first of the month, when everyone was partying.  Fortunately, we scheduled our deliveries around noon, so as to avoid the afternoon action.  However, dinner meals were still delivered, usually by local volunteers.  But I had to fill-in frequently, especially as the ghetto-routes were hard to find volunteers for.  More than once, I found myself surrounded by a group of young thugs asking me my-motherfucking-business.  I came to cool to these encounters, as I soon learned that a white kid in a white government-looking van making a delivery was a reasonable invasion of territory.

Hunter's Point was by far the scariest.  Surrounded by heavy industry, it was a veritable island of poverty and lawlessness, a corner of San Francisco most would never see unless somehow having taken a wrong turn out of Candlestick park after the Giants game.  Here, broken glass littered the sidewalk, trash would go uncollected for weeks, and children would play dirty and half-hazardly clad in the street.  Row upon row of low-income housing spread over what could have been water-front property.  Drugs were sold openly on corners, and fights seemed often on the verge of breaking out.
Hunters Point residence, 1973, EPA - This was also a common sight during my time there in the 90's  
When I would return to the Marina projects for my final last stop, turning down streets lined with tourists, cable cars and 4 star hotels, I would marvel at how the same bland, oppressive concrete structures that housed the same desperate inhabitants could exist alongside such fanciful plenty.  The yards were scrubbed of debris, walls were freshly painted, and the sidewalks devoid of local residents.  No drugs were going to be sold here.  No fights were going to break out, except maybe among young drunken tourists.  But when I knocked on doors, the interiors reeked of poverty and sadness, hermetically sealed away from the outside.  Which was real?

So, I thought of this when I read the NY Times article today on the rehabilitation and redesign of a low income public housing project tower in Sevran, a suburb of Paris, France, the flashpoint of the 2005 riots. The transformation was stunning.  Before and after shots were included.  Rising up out of a poor, disadvantaged community, the tower - once a beacon of hope, a safe-haven for local residents - had become a living monument of desperation and neglect.  The article waxes artistic, placing it in a "preservationist" context, referencing an ideal of "reusing obsolete structures".  The upgrades seem pleasant enough - things like opening up balconies to let in more light, more interesting textures and materials, or niftier color palettes.  This building does look magnificent.  The article ends by calling the new tower the addition of "an exemplary landmark to the Paris skyline."

In the US, project towers have come to represent the pinnacle of wretched, violent inner-city poverty.  Rap music brought them to us in the late 1980's, singing us a complex narrative of bittersweet triumph in a world in which violence prevailed and tragic sociopathology reigned.  According to the Black Youth Research project's online database of rap lyrics, the term "projects" peaked in 2001.  The "projects" served as the Dickensian reality in which young toughs proved their mettle.  It became increasingly clear that, far from a safe refuge for low-income families, project towers had become giant, ugly monoliths of concentrated poverty and inequity that only endangered the lives of their residents.  Crime was rampant, and neighborhood gangs would battle to win them over as territory.  This was of course, nothing new to poor communities.  But the cold institutionality of their presence and physical structure seemed almost designed to inspire pathology.  In retrospect, one wonders what the designers must have been thinking.  Could it have been possible to design a more dysfunctional and problematic housing solution? 

My guess is that this insight is born as much out of obvious history as of a changing perspective of poverty.  One could have imagined a view in the 1960's of poverty as something purely the result of factors external to a poor population: racism, lack of jobs, proper housing.  If only we built the poor brand new houses (likely even deemed beautiful at the time, according to contemporary modernist aesthetic), they would flourish.  A stretch, this view is, but with enough naivete it might have explanatory power. Maybe it was only ever supposed to be a first step, an opening shot in the war on poverty. 

Apparently the cavalry never arrived.  No doubt they were lost in the woods.  The projects fell into disrepair, the crack epidemic came on like a holocaust, welfare checks were too little, too late, and education had hardly woken up, even after Reagan's commission on education published A Nation At Risk in 1983, detailing the dismal state of poor schools in America.  Fast forward past welfare reform of the 1990s, and project towers are being detonated in controlled explosions across the United States. 

So where are we now?  The poor haven't left.  Their schools are still dismal, despite millions of dollars in Microsoft and Apple technology grants, millions of hours of professional development, and around 20 years of misguided school reform centered around the fallacy that teachers alone can break poverty and send every kid to college.

So, an old project tower outside Paris gets a new coat of paint and the New York times hails an improved skyline.  Has anything even changed?

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