The clearance of the thriving, legendary African-American neighborhood in Detroit known as Black Bottom, circa 1950, was not caused by natural disaster, gentrifying developers, or a destructive riot by its residents. The slowly gathering public policy that led to its demolition included an element of racial animus in the city’s politics, but more than anything, the death of a neighborhood replete with black-owned businesses and owner-occupied property stemmed from the ideas of progressive housing reformers.
They began to build in the 1890s, when Jacob Riis, a New York police reporter deeply versed in sensationalist journalism, portrayed New York’s Lower East Side in How the Other Half Lives as nothing but squalid, showing no interest in the vibrant upward mobility of its immigrants.
Riis inspired the now-obscure Johnny Appleseed of American zoning, Lawrence Veiller, who convinced communities across the country that the density that makes housing affordable (without government subsidies) must be limited. The formula that brought housing within the reach of the poor—what Boston settlement house pioneers Robert Woods and Albert Kennedy rightly celebrated as a “zone of emergence”—would be cast aside.
Its replacement—literally in the cases of Detroit’s Black Bottom, Chicago’s Bronzeville, St. Louis’ DeSoto-Carr, and so many other healthy neighborhoods—would be public housing. The “projects” were and still are the rotten fruit that grew from seeds planted by progressive public intellectuals. The premier modernist architect Le Corbusier envisioned high-rise urban campuses without streets or stores. Less well-known but still essential figures in American housing policy history were University of Chicago sociologist Edith Elmer Wood and selfstyled reformer Catherine Bauer Wurster.
In her 1934 paper “A Century of the Housing Problem,” Wood led the ill-fated charge that would guide New Deal public housing policy. She inveighed against the private housing industry broadly—even arguing against the idea that homeownership was one of the means for the poor to improve their station. “The housing problem is an inevitable feature of our modern industrial civilization and does not tend to resolve itself,” Wood wrote. “Supply and demand do not reach it, because the cost of new housing and the distribution of income are such that approximately two thirds of the population cannot present an effective demand for new housing.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) and his acolytes might use the same language today; indeed a group called Data for Progress has called for a “massive new commitment to publicly-owned homes.” Housing reformers from the start overlooked the naturally occurring affordable housing that uplifted America’s poor: three-family homes in New England, row homes in Philadelphia, duplexes in Chicago, bungalows in Oakland. They were not the product of urban planners but were, rather, vernacular architecture, developed in small lots by legions of small builders who drew on regional building materials and tailored their styles to the needs and wants of the upwardly mobile.
It was Bauer Wurster who filled in the details of Wood’s vision in the landmark 1934 book Modern Housing. Her blueprint for public housing projects even included admiring rotogravure plates of the high-rise government-owned housing of Moscow. Bauer would gain appointment as a New Deal housing official—and set in motion the death of Black Bottom and its kin. A review of Census data for parts of Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and St. Louis where public housing was built reveals that these were places where home ownership was enabling black families to build wealth: In Cleveland, fully 49 percent of the structures cleared were owner-occupied. Their modesty offended what might be called the reformer’s gaze—but they embodied what should be recast as black economic empowerment.
Black Bottom was everything that latterday pessimists about AfricanAmerican culture lament—filled with entrepreneurs, small property owners, and selfhelp organizations.
All that was swept away as the ultimate progressive, Eleanor Roosevelt, channeling Wood and Bauer, personally cut the ribbon for the Frederick Douglass Homes in Detroit and the Roosevelt Towers in Cambridge. The Douglass Homes were explicitly reserved for African Americans—a policy the former first lady championed as benevolence. Ultimately, they would themselves be demolished as unfit for human habitation. Neighborhoods without owners do not thrive.
In the post–World War II era, private developers exemplified by William Levitt and the modest, owner-occupied homes of Levittown, New York, proved Wood and Bauer tragically wrong. But reformers have never learned the lesson. They continue to believe in private housing market failure rather than examining how public policy distorts and constrains private development. Like medieval architects who lost the Roman formula for waterresistant cement, we have lost and even disdained the formula for affordable housing: small homes on small lots, replete with duplexes, triplexes, and all manner of owner-present structures. We have convinced ourselves, wrongly, that poor neighborhoods cannot be good neighborhoods—that to thrive, the poor must be relocated to “high-opportunity zip codes”—ignoring so much history demonstrating the converse.
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