Housing | Lit

High-Rises on the Horizon

An interview with Professor Lawrence J. Vale



The shadow of Cabrini-Green looms large over Lawrence J. Vale’s life and career. He grew up in a high-rise a few streets down from the infamous development, and has spent his life trying to understand and help others to understand how public housing has marginalized huge swaths of the American population. In his fourth book, “Purging the Poorest: Public Housing and the Design Politics of Twice-Cleared Housing,” he tackles the histories of Cabrini-Green in Chicago and the Techwood Homes in Atlanta. Vale is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he is also the director of the Resilient Housing Initiative. We got the chance to speak with Professor Vale about what design politics are, the current problems of public housing, and the future of the American poor.

You grew up pretty close to the Cabrini-Green developments. What was your experience of the neighborhood?

It was mostly an experience of avoidance, frankly. As a child I was aware of the Cabrini development, but had no reason to go there. When my parents were in the car with me we would give it a pretty wide berth. It was not a place that I ever explored on my own. I can’t say it was anything more than high-rises on the horizon to me. It was always a name I was very familiar with, and I remained highly curious about the place.

And that curiosity developed into a career.

Well, I think that’s right. As an undergraduate at Amherst I wrote my honor’s thesis about public housing in Chicago. That was back in 1981, just after Jane Byrne had moved into the Cabrini high-rises while she was mayor. It was certainly a place that was on my mind. Even though I was in Massachusetts, leaving Chicago for the first time was when I really found myself reflecting on the place that I had grown up in in a more detached kind of way.

How do you feel when you return to Chicago now, especially as an academic doing research? 

As an adult, returning to Chicago on visits, I’ve seen many more neighborhoods than I ever did while growing up and I’ve become much more curious about the city, and much more aware of the profound inequalities that lurk proximately to one another in the city. Chicago also now has a much better reputation nationally than it did when I was in high school in the mid-seventies. I still on the whole feel very proud of being from Chicago these days.

I learned from your book that in 1990, nine of the ten poorest census tracts were in Chicago’s public housing. How did this happen?

I think it’s a function of several different things. First of all, Chicago was building large enough housing projects to enable them to constitute their own census tracts, either individually or collectively. Secondly it seemed that some of the census districts may have corresponded with these projects, making it more possible to make that calculation. And third, at the time employment levels were so low and the welfare payments so meager that you could get the lowest kind of incomes by simply having a huge percentage of the entire tract be very poorly paid, or welfare-receiving residents in public housing. There were not other places that would have that many unemployed per acre, for lack of a better measurement. When I looked at the incomes in these areas as percentages of the rest of the incomes in the city, one of the most striking things to me was that when these places were built, through the fifties, the incomes were low but not extremely low, like fifty or sixty percent of the city median income. But by 1990 or so the national figure for public housing was something like seventeen percent of the area median income, so well into the extremely low-income category. If that’s who is in public housing nationally, and then you have that amount of contiguous public housing, it’s not surprising that you would get these dire figures.

It seems that the word choice in your book’s subtitle is very significant: “twice-cleared communities,” not “developments” or “lots.” Was it purposeful? 

At some level this has to be about human beings, and about the removal of one set of people and their replacement by a preferred set of people, and that is the dynamic. It’s cast as a real estate operation, but that’s not how its perceived on the ground, it’s not the way its thought of by the people who care about this, and it is often thought of as, “Well these are places where no one wanted to live,” whether we’re talking about the so-called slums, or the public housing development itself. Certainly the people in those places didn’t want to be removed, and didn’t see their community as lacking in worth. It is a decision by people making professional judgments that one community deserves to be wiped off the map and that another should be socially engineered to replace it.

When talking about the redevelopment of the Cabrini-Green site, you mention that one of the realtors involved, Peter Holsten, bristled at one website referring to the area as “Cabrini-Green.” For places like this and Techwood, in Atlanta, and in other failed public housing developments across the country, what’s in a name, for both former residents and outsiders?

So much of this is a kind of re-imaging of a place. Part of that is a salesmanship job that is about trying to reinvent a community with a different set of property values and a different set of expectations for residents, but it’s a branding exercise. When redevelopment started happening in the 1990s, you often got these appealing, kind of verdant, rural sounding names that have words like “village,” or “park,” or “orchard,” or “garden.” But conversely, it would get a reaction from former residents for whom its seen as not simply replacing a name, but eliminating a memory, who are not necessarily so happy to see the last vestiges of the place they knew completely forgotten.

You teach a class at MIT every year about the relationships between politics and the resultant shape and form of an urban structure. How might a political motive be visible in the very design of a building and its surroundings?

The class is called “Urban Design Politics,” and they didn’t let me put a hyphen in “Design Politics” in the title of the book because it sounded ungrammatical, but I think of the two terms as very much conjoined, and it comes out in a lot of different ways. Some of it is about the symbolism of naming and renaming and things like that, but some of it is inherent in the way a community is laid out on the site, and the choices about which kind of amenities to include, and which of the component groups in that community is being most targeted by investors. The initial plan for the northern part of Cabrini had plans for open space, for a “tot lot,” and the market-rate developer said, “No, we can’t have all of those people out there,” so they turned that area into a dog park, because the thinking was that that would be more appealing to some of the more upscale residents who didn’t have young children. So they made fewer outdoor spaces for residents, which kind of forced the social life indoors. I think design politics is there on a lot of scales, whether its visible as architecture on the outside, or basic decisions about things like the number of bedrooms, which is an architectural way of saying we don’t want families of this size. Its evident in the act of building one thing as opposed to building something else, and you don’t have to actually say, “We don’t want our family here,” you simply don’t design for them. To me that’s design that encodes the politics.

You write that talking about the collapse of Cabrini-Green pushes us to grapple with “a long-standing cognitive dissonance between a territory of undeniable extreme violence and an impoverished community that also retained enormous social value to its residents.” How much of this cognitive dissonance do you think policymakers in the world of Chicago’s public housing understand?

It’s something that has been very difficult for officials in most cities to understand, and in some ways Chicago has been more understanding of the value of these communities than other places. I certainly think that developers like Peter Holsten were pretty knowledgeable and sensitive and genuinely wanting to help low-income households be able to thrive in redeveloped communities. If you asked the policy-making leadership in Atlanta, whether it was the mayor or housing authority, they really, genuinely believed that there was no value in the communities they were wishing to see torn down and replaced. And these were African-American women who were middle class and very much of the opinion that the public housing communities were a constraint on the upward mobility of lower-income African Americans in Atlanta, and they would go so far as to say, “Those people don’t want these communities, and anyone who says that they do are outside agitators who don’t really speak for the community.” They were pretty explicit in saying that there was not a redeeming social value to an economic wasteland. And yet when you talk to people who were residents, they’re able to see the social value of the networks that they have built up to survive, and sometimes thrive, on very low incomes. That’s a hard thing to see if you’re a policymaker.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently outlined a housing plan that will put $1.3 billion into creating 41,000 new homes over five years. What is necessary for this money to create quality public housing?

What I’ve seen is this shift between an emphasis on the poorest to focusing on middle-income households. What’s happened, especially in cities that have had many struggles to house everyone, is that the lowest households are pitted against the slightly less poor households for a scarce supply of housing. Public housing was prepared to house people in the extremely-low-income category, and the question is where will the city find the resources and places to do something more for those who have the very lowest incomes. The temptation around the country has unfortunately been to try and make public housing serve the working poor, and yet if you look at the waiting list it is comprised overwhelmingly those below thirty percent of median though the eligibility is up to eighty percent.

In the book’s introduction you quote a 1971 National Affairs article by Roger Starr, in which he asks, “Which of the poor shall live in public housing?” You present a more honest variant of this question in your conclusion: “Which of the poor deserve the empathy of the state?” Why is there still an effective and moralizing distinction in this country between the deserving poor and the unworthy poor?

In the first book I wrote I kept trying to figure out, “Where did this come from?” since it wasn’t invented in the 1930s with the New Deal. I ended up trying to trace it all the way back to European inhabitation of the continent, and called the book “From the Puritans to the Projects.” I probably could have looked at the Spanish colonists and found something there, too. It seems to me that this is something really deeply rooted. It’s not something that starts with public housing, but it‘s a set of moral judgments tied to where you live and how you live that go all the way back to the poorest townspeople of the seventeenth century. Starting with the Poor Laws in Elizabethan England, there was this assumption that there was some moral failing in you that made you poor. The argument that I have been making in all of my books is that these judgments are still—and in a peculiarly American way—blaming poor people for their poverty, rather than people being willing to look at the structural problems in the economy that might enable more people to work in an effective way that allows them to afford housing. If you look at the name of the public housing reform of the nineties, it was called the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act of 1998. You can’t get any closer to John Winthrop and Puritans than that language.

Do you consider the problems of American public housing to be quintessentially “American”?

That’s a really good question, and I puzzle over that. I’m really only now starting to do more international comparisons, either with Europe or developing countries. The trick that has really made European-style “social housing” different from the American-style “public housing” is that they’ve never really targeted the tiny fraction of the lowest-income people in the same way that the United States did. They had a much broader range of incomes that were eligible for this housing, so it didn’t develop the same stigma. It is possible to say that other countries may be sharing more of the American style challenges than they used to, tied to immigration and growing racial minorities, and in that public housing is gaining in stigma worldwide. There’s definitely an American attitude that is still pretty distinctive, but it may be becoming a little less so.

You write in your conclusion that quite often “the urban design politics of public housing offers a promise of moral redemption.” Who is being redeemed: the poor or the politicians?

Well, it’s the delusion of the “tabula rasa” approach, that you can start over with a blank slate and invent an alternative that will leave the problems of the past behind, as in renaming a capital city or relocating a neighborhood.  Sometimes a local government is trying really hard to make these investments on behalf of the least advantaged citizens; I just didn’t find any cases of this in Chicago or Atlanta. There have been cities in which public officials say, “You know, we’re going to bring back one hundred percent of the public housing on this site, and we’re going to create additional housing with tax credits to get a slightly larger income household into this neighborhood, but we’re going to say, ‘Sorry, market rate developers, there’s not room for you here.’ ” San Francisco­—and, to some extent, Boston—have done that. I want to try and find some of the rays of hope that are in HOPE VI.

In your chapter on the creation of Cabrini-Green, you quote a Chicago Sun article that compares the severely over-crowded “Black Belt” of the South Side to “a concentration camp or an Old World ghetto,” calling it “a disgrace to civilization, [and] a sad commentary on human greed and indifference.” Those words were written in 1945. Do you think these “disgraces” will inevitably cease to exist?

There have been a lot of successes in the last seventy-five years in removing substandard housing. The challenge now is not that we have substandard housing, but that we’re left with housing that is simply not affordable to people with the incomes they have. There will always be people describing certain parts of cities as disgraceful, but that’s a relic of moral judgments that have persisted for hundreds of years. I don’t know if that answers your question, but it certainly makes me think that we will continue to have battles over housing that are couched in extremely moralist language, and that we will continue to have an enormous shortage of affordable housing in American cities. The need is still framed in ways that blame the poor person, rather than the larger context in which they find their housing unaffordable.

Lawrence Vale will be speaking on his book “Purging the Poorest” this Thursday, January 23, 6pm, at the Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State St. publichousingmuseum.org

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