Not actually an update on Sprawl, although I have reams of notes to deliver at some point this week.
BUT: I was walking down Cottage Grove in Woodlawn today, heading to the Green Line, when I realized that I was literally passing through the middle of a very stark example of the sort of New Urbanist Urban Renewal that I wrote about last time. Specifically this:
It is hard to imagine large, invasive, confiscatory government programs to retrofit the suburbs along urbanist lines as long as the residents affected are members of the middle class. It is much easier to imagine that happening to a relatively poor community in, say, an auto-dependent inner-ring suburb along a light rail line and in a potential path of gentrification. In a sense, that precedent has already been set in Chicago, with the demolition of public housing towers and their redevelopment as urbanist-style mixed-income housing. The diagnosis of the towers’ failure, after all, wasn’t just about the sin of segregating poor people from the rest of society; the popular narrative is that the form of the buildings themselves made it impossible for them to house decent communities.
This is the west side of Cottage Grove, right around 62nd Street:
It’s a little hard to see – the light was pretty harsh – but this is Grove Parc Plaza, a 500-some unit public housing complex from the late 1970s. It used to run on both sides of Cottage Grove from 60th to 63rd, but now maybe a third of the project has been torn down. Directly across the street from these buildings is Woodlawn Center South, part of the mixed-income complex that’s replacing it:
Design-wise, Grove Parc Plaza is nothing stellar, although it doesn’t appear as cheaply built as some of the worst of the high-rise projects. In fact, it looks solid, if inelegant; certainly some new paint, a bit of landscaping, and maybe some added details around the windows and doors or a cornice would make the buildings more appealing. Woodlawn Center, on the other hand, is everything modern urban housing is supposed to be: a solid wall addressing the street, human-scaled but dense, bright, lots of windows.
Chicago Weekly, the University of Chicago newspaper, puts it this way: “Technically, the remnants of Grove Parc lie just across the street on 62nd and Cottage Grove, but it now looks so different next to these modern visions of subsidized housing that it might as well be in a completely different world. Shabby and brown, faded signs out front state the now defunct number of the housing manager’s office, a parking lot of cracked-up tar.”
Certainly, the complete reconstruction of this stretch of Cottage Grove makes it look more attractive – or, at least, more truly mixed-income, or, one more step away from euphemism, more middle-class – than it might appear if Grove Parc had just been rehabbed and marketed as mixed-income housing. But it’s also notable that the design excuse, the same one that was used to level huge parts of Bronzeville and other neighborhoods in Chicago and around the country, has the ancillary benefit to the city of removing all of the poor people who used to live there. Sure, the new buildings will also have low-income units. But the process of starting from a blank slate, of uprooting existing residents and physically demolishing their homes, obviously changes the sense of community ownership, and the fact that the CHA loses track of many of those residents before their new homes are ready can’t hurt, either.
It’s also the case that older buildings, in most neighborhoods, are the bread and butter of affordable housing in otherwise desirable areas: most people are willing to put up with floors that creak a bit, or smaller kitchens, in exchange for access to jobs, amenities, and education, if their budgets won’t let them have both. Destroying older buildings because they don’t fit the right design profile, then, reduces affordable housing even outside the context of subsidies.
So: New Urbanist Urban Renewal in action. I’d love to hear any other examples people can think of in comments.