Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Why Public Housing is Scorned

I came across this on You-tube:

This comes from the film Koyaanisqatsi (a Hopi word meaning life out of balance). From roughly minute 3 to minute 6 of this clip are shots of the notorious St. Louis public housing project Pruitt-Igoe, a subsidized housing project that was so awful, it was never more than 60 percent occupied. The eleven building complex of nearly 3000 units was torn down before it was 20 years old.

In a terrific essay (, Alexander Von Hoffman argues that even a well-designed Pruitt-Igoe would have been a failure, because St. Louis had been (and in fact continues to be) a dieing city. And so it has; the 4th largest city in the country in 1890 is now not among the top 50.

But Pruitt-Igoe was a representation of the modernist movement at its worst. The buildings were faceless and difficult to cool. Public spaces were neglected and shadowy, and bred crime. The shame is that the complex gave high-rise living for the poor a bad name. High rises can work well, so long as they are well maintained and managed (some of the most desirable places to live in Chicago, Vancouver, Hong Kong and, of course, New York are high rises). More important, the complex lent such a stigma to public housing that it eliminated it as a mechanism to house the poor.

Malpezzi and I have written that the public housing that the US has built has been invariably inefficient as a means for housing low-income people in expensive American cities. This doesn't necessarily mean that it must be so, but the disasters of Pruitt-Igoe and other large scale public housing projects (Cabrini-Green and Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago are almost as notorious) means we might never find differently.


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