Visionaries Wanted

Visionaries Wanted

New homes for those displaced by Hurricane Katrina need not be the penitentiary-style public housing we’ve come to dread. Bring in architects who know how to create human-scale dwellings for the poor.


In the spirit of top-down government, talk abounds about the appointment of a czar, kaiser or gauleiter to run the reconstruction of the Gulf communities destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. The name of Jack Welch, former General Electric CEO, is mentioned. He’d be perfect, famous, as he is, for his considerate treatment of subordinates.

The hundreds of thousands of low- and moderate-income people whose lives have been blasted are not heard from. Nor will they be, scattered and unorganized as they are. If reconstruction continues in the direction it has been going, the displaced will get what they are given and can start practicing how to look grateful for it.

These people could be organized to have a voice in their own destinies. The Industrial Areas Foundation, which has organized scores of low- and moderate-income communities across the country, including in Texas and Mississippi, has the organizers with the skills and experience to mobilize marooned and powerless people. With organization comes democratic decision-making.

The rebuilt communities do not have to resemble penitentiaries or other forms of government housing. There are architects and developers who have made it a specialty to work with limited-income communities to design and build what people want. Among them are Telesis Corporation of Washington, DC, the brainchild of Marilyn Melkonian, with many low-income home developments to her credit. In Chicago, there is Archeworks, founded by architect Stanley Tigerman, who, with his wife, Margaret McCurry, a gifted architect also, has a long history of working with community groups. The National Organization of Minority Architects is assembling resources and expertise to devote to the rebuilding effort.

Among the architects and designers qualified by experience and prizewinning results to collaborate with grassroots organizations are: Urban Design Associates in Pittsburgh; Calthorpe Associates in Berkeley; Pyatok Architects in Oakland; Moule & Polyzoides Architects and Urbanists in Pasadena; and, in Boston, Goody Clancy.

Grandiose talk aside, in the practical realm the skill, talent and experience is available to take this catastrophe and turn it into a political, social and design marvel. This thing doesn’t have to be another hack politician, crony boy, bureaucratic morass that produces more excuses than homes. If a couple of the big foundations, for once in their cunctatious lives, got on this fast, instead of a top-down disaster we could have a bottoms-up triumph.

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