Book Liveblog in Action

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.

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4 thoughts on “Book Liveblog in Action

  1. I’ve spent some time the past few days rereading your posts chronologically from the beginning and though this is an older post, I figured you might still be interested in some other example of New Urbanist Urban Renewal. Thought I could walk you across my community (Northside of Pittsburgh or preferably Allegheny City) and show you dozens of example big and small of this issue, there is one in particular that had me in a rage recently. I think it is a perfect example of stale and outdated “expertise” and “logic” about how to face the challenges our communities faced and how larger trends would affect all of our cities. In this case I’m referring to the Washburn Square project undertaken over the course more than a decade in our Brightwood neighborhood (though officially it is still named Marshall-Shadeland).

    This link is to the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s (URA)* project lead sheet that gives a high level look at the project (http://www.ura.org/pdfs/showcase/washburnSquare.pdf). First, when they say “absentee landlord property ownership, lead to a set of blighted rental housing units”, what they are actually referring to was a set of 48, two story, solid masonry, brick row houses built circa 1915 (they are not on the 1906 Sanborn map but appear on the 1924 version). By the time the URA and Brightwood Civic Group got involved, there were 42 of the original structures remaining. Many of these units were still occupied by low income tenants who are currently facing very difficult times finding affordable shelter across the city. The various parties involved spent 10 years buying the land, forcing the tenants out and tearing down every remaining structure. In the end, they built 3 rather bland detached single family houses facing onto a rather desolate square/minipark.

    The things that gets me so fired up is that the houses that were so wantonly destroyed represented the exact type of housing of which we have such a need across this city and across the majority of our city’s. These were 42 solidly constructed houses which, though blighted, could easily have been returned to modest but quality housing that would have been affordable. Not only that, but it was a very human scaled density level and within a 5 minute walk of three separate bus lines running straight into the CBD. We can even still see a few houses that were built as part of the exact same development that are in good shape and are being reinvested in as we speak and providing quality affordable housing (https://www.google.com/maps/@40.4666421,-80.0311571,3a,75y,172.08h,87.16t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1sso-w3H6kfdwFW1GSv-W6GQ!2e0). We could have had 42 units like these and instead we now have 3 inferior units which are larger and less affordable than what was there.

    This link will take you to an amazing tool which we have for us history/urbanism buffs here in Pittsburgh (http://peoplemaps.esri.com/pittviewer/). If you get yourself oriented with the current location in google maps, then open this map, scroll the time bar at the top to 1923, then zoom into the area you located on the current maps, you will see the 48 structures as they originally stood and you can see the ones across the street (linked to above) that are still standing. I could say an awful lot more about all of this but I’ll leave it there. Please forgive the rather hasty manner in which I threw this together.

    *and if you look further, this is the same quasi public authority that was created for and executed all the disastrous urban renewal efforts in the 50’s, 60’s & 70’s and has continued performing that function, with admittedly some solid steps forward, but unfortunately still to this day is making miserable mistakes such as Washburn Square.

    1. Thanks – this is really interesting. I’m definitely still interested in urban renewal, new urbanist or otherwise. That’s really a travesty about the rowhomes – were they totally vacant? Still, seems like an incredibly short-sighted project.

      I’ll definitely spend some time with the historic map thing. Again, thanks so much for all of this.

      1. That’s the real kicker and the reason why the development took over ten year, the properties were actually mostly occupied but of course with a low income tenant composition. They spent that time relocating, if I remember correctly, over 25 families who were still living in the units. So the taxpayers subsidized not only demolition of historic and viable housing, but the forced removal of dozens of tenants to be replaced with three tenants who fit a very specific set of criteria that allows them to buy these new units (not too wealthy, but not too poor either). The scary part is that I literally run in the same circles/work next to many of the same people who both executed this project and continue to push forward similar projects under the same flawed reasoning (though they are “urbanists” as well). Even though absentee landlords and disinvestment are, of course, a huge challenge we face in our community, after years of listening to these arguments used over and over again, my gut tells me that, whether or not it is the explicit goal, these projects are there to get rid of the lowest income of our neighbors.

      2. That’s horrible. Yeah, I’ve come to the same conclusions about the redevelopment (or just razing) of public housing projects in Chicago. Whether or not they needed to be torn down – and some of them probably did – the motivations, and therefore outcomes, have been largely about getting certain kinds of people out of those neighborhoods.

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