One of the things we do not do well in this country is learn from our mistakes. This is particularly true in the strengthening and rejuvenating of cities. To listen to the hype about new stadiums, aquariums, convention centers and downtown malls, one would think that cities are on a fast track to rebirth. To see photographs of miserable, overscaled public housing projects–effectively warehouses for poor people–blown up and replaced by architecturally attractive low-scaled "town homes," one would think neighborhood rebuilding is moving along nicely. And to observe once empty or neglected neighborhoods exhibiting renewed life is to be reassured that the organic rebirth process is always possible where an urban district has not been erased.
But beneath the pretty-picture surface is a disturbing trend: the repetition of past mistakes that will inevitably lead to severe problems no different from many of generations past. So it is cause to cheer when books come along to remind us of former destructive policies and help provoke scrutiny of practices that mimic them today.
Chester Hartman’s Between Eminence & Notoriety: Four Decades of Radical Urban Planning is just such a book. A rare critical voice within the urban planning profession, Hartman graduated from and then taught urban planning at Harvard and other universities; served as consultant to many public and private agencies, such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Civil Rights Commission; has written or edited more than a dozen books; and currently is president and executive director of the Poverty and Race Research Action Council in Washington. This book is a compendium of articles penned by him over four decades, covering displacement, affordable housing, poverty, race, social activism, transportation, the failings of planning schools and other pertinent issues. With a no-holds-barred style that reflects his lifelong social activism, Hartman is refreshingly direct in his criticism of professionals, educators and public officials.
"What appears irrational or neglectful in working-class residential patterns may, upon deeper inquiry, prove to be quite reasonable and meaningful," Hartman writes. "’Slum’ is a loaded, often class-biased term, oblivious to or ignorant of different and legitimate ways in which indoor and outdoor spaces are used and perceived."
Viable neighborhoods, he points out, have been mislabeled slums because a different political agenda (a highway or urban renewal project) took priority. Hartman’s first professional work was in the early 1960s, studying displacement and relocation impacts in Boston’s West End, "a prototypical early ‘slash and burn’ urban renewal clearance project" of a tightly knit community that functioned well socially and economically, both as a distinctive neighborhood and as a critical contributor to the larger city’s stability. That was a formative experience for Hartman; it became the basis of his PhD dissertation and reverberates through his years of activism, studies and writing.
The destruction of the West End also provided a formative lesson for the pre-eminent urban critic Jane Jacobs, whose Death and Life of Great American Cities was a useful guidepost and inspiration for Hartman’s work. Jacobs has written a brief but instructive foreword to this book. Reluctant to do so at first, Jacobs changed her mind for the reason that goes to the heart of this book’s value:
I happened to receive a phone call from a reporter asking me for a quote on why middle-class people (her code word for whites) were returning to cities when a generation earlier they had fled cities as unfit places to live or bring up children. She was astonished when I told her that hundreds of thousands of middle-class people had been forced against their will to leave cities because their homes and businesses were demolished in the name of slum clearance and urban renewal, or their neighborhoods degraded and ruined by highway clearances. Nor was she aware that poor black ghettos do not locate themselves spontaneously; she knew nothing of financial redlining, social blockbusting, and planned pushing about of minority populations. By the time our conversation ended–she incredulous at my words, I incredulous at her innocence–I had made up my mind…to put in my say that [Hartman’s] book is needed, especially by people too young to have lived through the kinds of events it chronicles.
While neither Jacobs nor Hartman argues that the same conditions and policies are in place today as in the 1960s, both point to new configurations of those earlier problems. Then the "greater good" was officially defined by urban renewal. Today, it is downtown stadiums, "mixed-use" mega-developments, parking garages and "centers" to draw visitors. Little appropriate investment is made in upgrading existing neighborhoods for urban residents and local entrepreneurs. Few transit systems still exist–transit’s value to the strength of an urban economy is still underrecognized. Their destruction in favor of the automobile is complete but little recognized as a segregating tool. So the kind of blatant racism Hartman cited, in which "two Roxbury public housing projects, separated by a single street, had totally different racial compositions: one all white, the other all minority," may not exist today. But more subtle forms are reflected in policy emphasis on replacement of low-income housing with lower-density, mixed-income housing.
"All the characteristics of the 1960s exist today," notes Hartman. "We are losing good public housing stock, intentionally. Relocation results are abysmal. No meaningful citizen participation exists, unless fought for. Displaced public housing tenants are being resegregated into higher poverty areas. And, in some places, available affordable housing doesn’t even exist for those displaced tenants bearing Section 8 vouchers (a federal subsidy)."
Other critics could be heard or read in the decades of Hartman’s writing and activism, but his has been the rare voice of the credentialed expert who seeks to expose the deceptions of public policies and high-sounding official pronouncements. As Jacobs notes in her foreword: "Throughout the mad spree of vandalism, deceptions, and waste known as urban renewal and slum clearance, Chester Hartman’s was a voice of sanity, caution, and compassion." Hartman’s voice has been unusual in three respects, she writes:
First, after getting in the fray early on, he then stayed with it unremittingly. Even after urban renewal and slum clearance petered out, he continued dealing with the social wreckage the programs left in their wake and with problems of providing housing for the poor and the disregarded that remained unsolved–as he continues doing to this day. Second, at a time when very few "credentialed" voices were to be heard in protest…[he had] a degree in planning from a respected university [Harvard]. And third, he was optimistic enough to suppose that schools of planning could reform themselves; his efforts to help institute advocacy planning in service to communities helped give teeth to the idea of public participation in planning, now widely accepted in theory but still hard in practice for many professionals and politicians to chew on and swallow.
Hartman’s work holds the same importance today, as an inspiration to both the citizen activist and a new generation of planners. Successful urban development requires learning and applying the lessons of an earlier generation.
Unfortunately, developers are using investor tax credits to build low-density inner-city projects, undermining urban neighborhoods that need density, diversified housing options, neighborhood-based businesses, walkable shopping streets and access to transit. Mismanaged, deteriorated and ill-conceived public housing projects are being blown up and replaced with outwardly attractive suburban enclaves, again missing the full measure of ingredients needed to make authentic urban neighborhoods survive. The popular mantra is "homeownership," when genuine solutions demand both owner and rental opportunities and options in housing types.
The bottom line now is "housing production"–fundamentally a numbers game–not community-building or neighborhood rejuvenation. A housing development without corner stores, neighborhood gathering places, social institutions, local entrepreneurial opportunities and good public schools is just a "housing development" and no more. In a critical chapter, "Social Values and Housing Orientation," Hartman spotlights the nuances of evaluating neighborhoods based on the indoor/outdoor lifestyles of the local population. What the conventional planner may consider overcrowded living conditions may not be what it seems when assorted "outdoor rooms" encourage "a high degree of informal socializing and the intensive use of the street." Sometimes, he notes, residents living in more crowded conditions than they might prefer or are able to afford will opt to stay "rather than disrupt personal ties, attachment to places and a general sense of continuity."
One cannot help but understand, after a careful reading of both Hartman and Jacobs, that those neighborhoods declared "slums" after World War II contained the very qualities that community activists struggle to revive today. "Housing developers" and "community renewers" are not the same thing.
Again, Boston’s West End remains the classic forgotten lesson. Hartman was "becoming suspicious that the West End was to be demolished for specious reasons and was growing angry at the traumas inflicted on its residents" at the same time Jacobs was encountering architects assigned to help justify the demolition. A photographer member of the architects’ team was having a terrible time finding negative conditions to photograph. One told her, with a certain amount of wonder in his voice, "that on the whole the district’s stock of buildings was so well constructed it was superior to what would undoubtedly be erected in its place; he added that some buildings were so beautiful in their detailing that it was heartbreaking to think they must be wrecked." So much for the officially accepted definition of "slum." This scenario is repeated across the country today.
West Ends throughout America were bulldozed to build the very public housing projects being razed today. But where, one has to ask after reading Hartman’s critiques of almost every aspect of how those policies were formed and followed, is the genuine questioning of what went wrong? Most public housing, as Hartman notes, is not found in high-rise projects–and in fact, one can find many well-managed, successful high-rise projects (the New York Housing Authority, for one). High rise to low rise, high density to low density, rental to home ownership, publicly to privately built: Those are the popular policy rationales. But they either miss the point, evade the real challenge or highlight only one part of the problem.
Hartman points out the overarching importance of having "considerable interaction with the surrounding physical and social environment, an interaction that formed an integral part of the lives of the people." The behaviors observed but discounted decades ago in the West End included "sitting on stoops, congregating on street corners, hanging out of windows, talking to shopkeepers and strolling in the local area."
Yet, that is just the kind of vibrant community life that cannot evolve in the suburbanized, low-density, often gated enclaves being built today in cities from New York to Detroit to San Antonio, where West End-type neighborhoods once existed.
Hartman covers the gamut of "cavalier ‘city planning,’" details how the poor and the powerless "were being ripped off in the name of ‘progress,’" how most relocated residents paid more for worse and how government studies carefully omit critical information to show positive results for their programs. The current parallels are staggering. He demonstrates which "populations were paying the costs and which reaping the benefits then and now," criticizes planning professionals and the schools that produce them, covers housing law policy issues and points out "the exaggerated, often mendacious claims as to job creation and added tax revenues" of huge downtown renewal projects like San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center. He also demonstrates the positive potential of neighborhood housing corporations and puts needed focus on the impact of transportation policies on welfare reform, sprawl, pollution and economic and social equity.
Several chapters focus on San Francisco development battles (Hartman’s book on that city’s recent decades of change, City for Sale: The Transformation of San Francisco, will be published shortly by the University of California Press). Remarkably, throughout his career Hartman seems to have fiercely fought establishments while also working within them, and produced volumes of revealing reports relegated to bookshelves while also having an enormous impact in many quarters. This insider/outsider quality adds to the interest of the material he covers.
In a chapter titled "A Radical Housing Alternative for the United States," Hartman points out that "the private housing market is unable and unwilling to solve the problem" of decent, affordable housing for all Americans (the ostensible goal of the 1949 Housing Act) and that "government interventions and subsidies have been wholly inadequate." This has been a persistent problem, and remains so today.
But Hartman also argues that the solution rests with an increase in nonprofit housing ownership, "a plethora of ‘social housing entities’" as the "basic delivery mechanism for nonspeculative housing of all types." And the positive change is that a plethora of "social housing entities" has been evolving over the years, in part through Hartman’s own efforts in inspiring, as did Jacobs, a generation of "advocacy planners" working with community-based organizations. Thousands of citizen-based community rebuilders exist today where they didn’t years ago. Many have taken over and refurbished deteriorated housing that experts judged hopeless. Some have built new, affordable housing on demolished sites, trained property managers and owners, incubated new neighborhood businesses and battled for improved schools and other essentials. Sometimes one might feel they are but a finger in the dike, as so many affordable units are lost to offset their gains. But at least that citizen army Hartman called for is out there, and growing.
Hartman’s chapter on "Transportation Users Movements in Paris" highlights the transit-accessibility still present in Europe and its necessity for successful urban neighborhoods. Authentic and vibrant urban neighborhoods simply cannot be car-dependent, a reality resisted in too many quarters today. Hartman bemoans the small "number of local and national citizen-based activist transportation groups" in the United States in contrast to Paris.
This, however, has also been changing. Many pro-transit groups have emerged in recent years, recognizing the inextricable link between vibrant urban centers, multiple transit options, neighborhood preservation and open space conservation. Quite probably, the growing environmental justice movement will advance the transit cause furthest and fastest as it confronts pollution, traffic and open-space issues in low-income and immigrant communities.
Unfortunately, however, old clearance problems have been reconfigured to threaten remaining urban neighborhoods. With federal funds, cities like Philadelphia, Detroit, San Antonio and New Haven are demolishing redeemable, often occupied housing to make way for developer-built homeowner enclaves, replicating the mistakes Hartman highlights in Between Eminence & Notoriety. Occasional signs of hope, however, can be found: A number of small developers are demonstrating that alternatives are possible, appropriate and profitable. Elements of the community development, historic preservation and environmental justice movements are achieving successes that might inspire broader support. Some foundations, recognizing the difference between "building housing" (the numbers game) and "rebuilding communities," are investing in people, not just projects. But none of these hopeful signs override the need for revisiting the mistakes of the past to avoid repeating such a sorrowful history. And Chester Hartman is a good place to start.