Our Lady of the Projects

Octavia Anderson and the last days of the James E. Scott Homes

When a new community takes shape on these 50 acres, it will be nothing like the old one. The post-war institutional, dirty yellow barracks-like buildings of Scott Homes, with their flat lines parallel to the street, narrow concrete porches, rats, roaches, pigeons roosting in the crawl spaces, lead paint, primal funk, leaky plumbing ... will be history.

MDHA won a HUD grant because they promised to build a new development -- one of tidy, attractive homes and townhouses shaded by tall, leafy trees and ringed with sidewalks. The housing agency envisions a neighborhood populated not with drug dealers and welfare queens but by SUV-driving Moms and Dads who work full time, fire up the Weber grill on weekends, and have ten-year goal-achievement plans for themselves and their lovely kids. Here the working poor and the middle class will live in harmony, attracted to the quaint ambiance and affordable prices. Here public-housing residents who cleaved to middle-class values through the crack epidemics, gang banging, drive-by shootings, and hoo-ra that plagued public housing in the past will finally get their just rewards -- a coveted spot in a safe, attractive, secure community.

The money and vision steering this revolution is HOPE VI, or Homeownership and Opportunity for People Everywhere. A massive federal program created by Congress in 1992, the goal of HOPE VI (called VI to distinguish it from other HOPE housing initiatives) is to convert the inner city into a place where Cosby, Oprah, and Andy Taylor of Mayberry would feel at home. The transformation begins with what Washington and much of our society has come to view as a cesspool at the heart of these communities -- public housing.

Who's watching you? Roy Hardemon may chow down on Chinese takeout but he's got his big brown eyes trained on HOPE VI
Steve Satterwhite
Who's watching you? Roy Hardemon may chow down on Chinese takeout but he's got his big brown eyes trained on HOPE VI
Alphonso Brewster, the bespectacled deputy director of the Miami-Dade Housing Agency, is deeply offended by people who claim the real agenda behind HOPE VI is to move the underclass out of poor neighborhoods
Steve Satterwhite
Alphonso Brewster, the bespectacled deputy director of the Miami-Dade Housing Agency, is deeply offended by people who claim the real agenda behind HOPE VI is to move the underclass out of poor neighborhoods

"These crime-infested monuments to a failed policy are killing the neighborhoods around them," Vice President Al Gore said in a press release in 1996. "By tearing them down and replacing them with apartments and town homes, we lay the foundations for vibrant neighborhoods that will bring our inner cities back to life."

The U.S. Congress appointed the National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing to investigate the conditions of the nation's public housing in 1989. The commission reported back in 1992 that 86,000 public-housing units out of 1.2 million were so decrepit no one could live in them. The report listed a number of conditions that created a national public-housing crisis -- increasing poverty, inadequate and fragmented social services, and the location of projects in neighborhoods often as blighted as the sites themselves. The commission estimated it would take $7.8 billion to make the worst projects in the United States livable. But the commission stressed in its report that fixing up the physical structures wasn't enough, that "traditional approaches to revitalizing seriously distressed public housing ... without addressing the human condition of the residents" was inadequate.

In response Congress created in 1993 the program that later became HOPE VI. HOPE VI adopted a "holistic approach." It combined social services, health programs, and other help for residents; it provided the dollars to rehabilitate public-housing stock.

Since 1993 HUD has spent more than four billion dollars on the program. HOPE VI, with projects throughout the U.S. -- in Seattle, Baltimore, Chicago, Nashville, San Antonio, Newark, Philadelphia, Tampa, Jacksonville, and Atlanta -- proved to be the most sweeping public-housing initiative since the concept was created by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1937. As such it is the latest Big Fix in a long line hatched in Washington to land on the poor.

Although HOPE VI began as a program to help poor folks and make their lives better, critics say the focus has shifted away from them toward urban revitalization. As HOPE VI projects were started around the country, the push became to move residents out of public housing, demolish the projects, and replace them with new units that would attract higher-income residents. Instead of rebuilding public housing, HOPE VI aimed at building mixed-income planned neighborhoods where those tenants who were ready would get help to move out of poverty and into the middle class, but those who weren't, would just get moved. It was less the inspiration of an individual or small group than a cumulative wave of social-engineering think-tank buzz, and increasing exasperation with the violent culture of public housing. As the program evolved between 1992 and 1996, it dovetailed with new initiatives to reform welfare, get public-housing residents into the job market, and take back control of public housing through get-tough policies like "One Strike, You're Out."


Old-style public-housing projects such as Scott, Carver, and Liberty Square in Liberty City segregated the poor from the rest of society and concentrated them together in a place where poor conditions created a hothouse of desperation. Even the architecture of the projects was seen as contributing to a climate of despair, by packing the poor into barracks and grim high-rises, warehouses of woe. Borrowing a page from the New Urbanism architectural movement -- which aims for development with a small-town feel -- HUD envisioned HOPE VI as people-friendly environments. Reducing the population on the redeveloped site would give more of a neighborhood feeling and leave space for parks, playgrounds, swimming pools, and golf courses. HOPE VI would aim for a community dominated by middle-class values, dragging the underclass into Martha Stewart-land.

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