Contending with the failure of much post-war public housing has been one of the nation’s significant housing policy challenges. As more and more developments became unlivable as the result of poor design, inadequate maintenance, racial segregation, and the compounded effects of rising urban poverty — a process documented in the recent film, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth — demolition became the response of choice. The federal Hope VI program and newer Choice Neighborhoods Initiative begin with the premise that severely distressed public housing must be replaced by mixed income developments.But what of other approaches, that might preserve and improve the projects? Jane Jacobs offered a prescient blueprint for “salvaging the projects” in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, anticipating in 1961 the challenges that would overwhelm public housing decades later. We believe it’s time to put her astute analysis to work. Additional models are needed for transforming challenged public housing neighborhoods into healthy, vibrant, mixed income communities — approaches that do not demolish buildings and displace residents.
Our organization, Community Solutions, is working with a growing network of community residents and partner organizations to make Brownsville, Brooklyn, a safer, healthier, more prosperous neighborhood. To accomplish this requires salvaging the projects.
The Brownsville neighborhood Brooklyn has been described — in essence truthfully — as “one square mile of public housing”. More than a third of Brownsville’s residents live in one of the 10,000 New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) apartments in the neighborhood. The NYCHA developments define Brownsville’s skyline and the neighborhood’s streetscape as well.
Brownsville’s concentration of public housing is both the neighborhood’s greatest curse and greatest asset. At a time of diminished support for affordable housing, Brownville’s 10,000 units of affordable housing are an irreplaceable treasure and crucial to the stability of many of New York City’s poorest families and seniors. Yet to walk through Brownsville is to experience the bleak consequences of the disastrous urban design policies that governed urban renewal projects and the development of public housing in New York and elsewhere. In the fortress-like public housing blocks fear is palpable. There is limited street life, no retail or other natural meeting places, nothing to invite friendly interaction.
NYCHA, the nation’s largest housing authority with 178,000 units under management, has been a diligent property manager — to the degree its diminishing finances allow. Its properties in Brownsville and elsewhere are not in severe distress, but neither are they in good repair. NYCHA reports a maintenance backlog of over $7 billion as the result of many years of federal budget cuts. For residents of the Brownsville developments this translates to waits of a year or longer for maintenance requests, irregular elevator service, and persistent security problems.
Jacobs took a pragmatic view of the projects, the design of which contradicted every quality that in her view made for successful neighborhoods. She judged that the investment in the projects was too great to write off, and that a series of planning and management corrections could mitigate the effects of the projects’ typical design features. The task, as she described it, was to “un-slum” the projects. First, she urged that the “super blocks” — the “parks” created for public housing towers — be rewoven into the surrounding street grid. Reconnecting the complexes to the traditional neighborhood block pattern would restore normal street and sidewalk interactions, discourage crime and vandalism, and open up space for new mixed uses. It was not the density of the projects that made them problematic in her view, but the absence of diverse uses and diverse building types and of spaces to encourage natural public interactions.
Jacobs also advocated a level of management control that would provide confidence to residents in navigating the shared spaces of these impersonal developments. She suggested that elevator monitors be hired to assure the equivalent of “eyes on the street”.
In Brownsville, the four NYCHA developments that are the focus of our work have between them 4,100 apartments in 56 buildings on six super blocks and roughly 13,000 residents. There are also over 2 million square feet of unused development rights on the blocks. Following the Jacobs prescription, we investigated how the developments could be reconnected to the surrounding street grid to create sites for new mixed income housing, education and community facilities, and recreational and open space.
By re-opening closed streets as new lane ways, sites for from 700-1,000 new units of environmentally sustainable infill housing could be built, a supermarket, school and cultural facility and playing fields, added, and many jobs created for local residents. As part of a comprehensive development plan, existing buildings could be upgraded to improve their livability and reduce their energy utilization. All this could happen without demolishing existing structures or displacing existing residents. It would mean a major, multi-year investment, but salvaging the projects in this way would almost certainly pay for itself in reduced crime, energy savings, increased employment and in a more stable and successful community.