Chapman Law Review
LOST IN THE RUBBLE: HOW THE DESTRUCTION OF PUBLIC HOUSING FAILS TO ACCOUNT FOR THE LOSS OF COMMUNITY
Copyright © 2005 by Chapman Law Review; Arthur M. Wolfson
Verna Berryman left her home in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green public housing complex in 1998. Her building was demolished as part of a celebrated plan to move the city’s public housing residents to private housing. Armed with a voucher to cap her rent, Berryman and her son spent the next four years in four different apartments, encountering arson, overcrowding, and rat infestation. She finally settled in an overpriced apartment in an unwelcoming neighborhood. Four years after she left Cabrini, Berryman reflected, “‘[s]ometimes I think the better world isn’t necessarily better.”’
Berryman’s story is not unique. Throughout the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, cities across America have destroyed public housing complexes, displacing hundreds of thousands of residents from the communities they called home. Often viewed as a progressive urban policy, displacement has been justified in three primary ways: (1) the physical site on which public housing developments sit may be put to more economically viable use, thereby benefiting society as a whole; (2) public housing communities isolate the poor; and, (3) a pervasive culture of poverty blights the community residents’ life chances. Additionally, proponents of the destruction of public housing point to the compensation afforded the residents of these communities in their search for new housing. They argue the compensation offered not only covers the costs of relocation, but also allows residents to establish a private home in a setting more conducive to success in American society.
Much has been written on both the inadequacy of modern public housing and what alternatives are best to take its place. This article eschews that argument, taking as a given that public housing is in a state of transformation. Instead, it examines the compensation offered to displaced residents of public housing communities. Particularly, in considering both the theoretical justifications and governmental policies that promote the destruction of public housing, it analyzes whether this compensation adequately accounts for what many residents lose when their communities are destroyed. In doing so, this article will reveal that public housing communities provide their residents with a unique quality of life for which most compensation does not account.
Mindful of the many problems that afflict some public housing communities, Part II of this article briefly surveys these problems and examines corresponding justifications for destroying public housing. Part III examines another reality — the unique social benefits of public housing life, particularly themes of cultural expression, social support, and social activism. Part IV surveys government programs designed to compensate public housing communities’ displaced residents, specifically HOPE VI and Section 8. Part V considers whether, given the unique social good established in Part III, government policies adequately compensate displaced public housing residents. This paper concludes that government programs do not adequately compensate such displaced residents for the distinctive benefits forfeited when the government destroys their communities.
II. DISTRESSED PUBLIC HOUSING: EXPERIENCES AND THEORIES
No comprehensive discussion of public housing can overlook the troublesome living conditions that haunt many developments. These conditions are well documented and evident to even the casual observer. Professor Michael H. Schill writes that they fall into three categories: (1) physical problems; (2) deficient management; and (3) social ills. Many developments suffer from a lack of modern amenities. Many border on uninhabitable. Local public housing authorities charged with managing the facilities are often inefficient, under-resourced and unresponsive. Finally, the social ills that haunt public housing include significant levels of joblessness, crime and drug use.
The depressing realities existent in many public housing communities have led to calls for their destruction. In support of those calls, three theoretical justifications have emerged: (1) public housing sites can be put to more productive use (better use argument); (2) public housing isolates the poor; and, (3) public housing communities perpetuate a poverty-stricken culture.
The better use argument generally contends that public housing sites may be put to a more economically viable use, thereby benefiting society at large. Public housing facilities are often located in urban centers where land is scarce and real estate is expensive. Policymakers, understandably, seek to maximize the property value of these sites. Therefore, in weighing the poverty that often plagues public housing and the economic value such land may otherwise provide, the better use argument often serves as a proffered justification for destroying public housing.
Others who advocate destroying public housing assert that these communities isolate the poor and screen their residents from economic opportunities available elsewhere. Adherents of this position note that the United States Housing Act of 1937 called for establishing public housing explicitly for “‘families of low income.”’ That combined with the Housing Act of 1949 — which placed income ceilings on public housing residents — “clearly sent the message that only the very poor” belong in public housing. Though subsequent federal legislation is aimed towards reversing this trend, some public housing communities remain characterized by high numbers of poor residents living in small geographic areas.
Closely related, yet importantly distinct, is the argument that public housing communities internally breed a culture of poverty. While the isolation argument focuses on restricting residents from advantages available elsewhere, the culture of poverty argument focuses on the disadvantages perpetuated from within. A culture of poverty, the argument follows, is born out of a community with exclusively poor residents. In such communities, the role models do not represent models of financial success. As a result, community members do not focus on monetary success. Through this system of development, the argument concludes, the culture of poverty perpetuates itself.
III. THE PUBLIC HOUSING COMMUNITY
Despite the stark examples of despair that characterize the ills of public housing, another reality competes for attention. Public housing life frequently gives rise to a palpable sense of community. Unlike the well-documented negative aspects of public housing culture, this unique good of the public housing community often goes unnoticed to the passing outsider. However, to residents and guests alike, the distinctive sense of community that pervades public housing is very real indeed.
In a landmark article arguing for “spatial equity,” Professor John Calmore first defines the common, yet elusively ambiguous term, “community.” For Calmore, “[c]ommunities are based on things people hold in common. A community implies that its members’ relationships are solidified by ties providing a feeling of collective identity, self-awareness, and affiliation.”
Upon first arriving at Chicago’s Wentworth Gardens in 1982, Sheila Radford-Hill took immediate note of exactly what Professor Calmore describes. Radford-Hill recalled, “I was struck by the sense of neighborhood that these people of meager resources had somehow captured like lightning in a bottle.” Radford-Hill’s initial inclination proved to be correct but not novel; public housing residents often exhibit a fervent sense of identification with their neighbors. That sense of community is generally evident to both visitors and residents alike. Indeed, visitors frequently comment that the sense of community is almost palpable while residents often remark that it left an indelible impression on their lives.
This section closely considers this special sense of community exhibited by public housing residents. Relying heavily on anecdotal and empirical information, this piece identifies and examines three examples of public housing culture: (1) cultural expression; (2) social support networks; and (3) environments conducive to social activism. Each reflects the steadfast commitment to place and neighbor uniquely found in public housing communities.
A. Cultural Expression
Public housing complexes are epicenters of a genuine culture that is both a product and a reflection of those who live there. Indeed, the artistic and musical expression that emerges from public housing could only develop in such a setting. This is so for two primary reasons: (1) the physical structure of the community is conducive for production of these cultural forms; and (2) what the residents express reflects their particularized lifestyle. These two reasons are interdependent — the physical form of public housing gives rise to much of the lifestyle, which, in turn, gives human meaning to the physical form. What results is a cultural product that could not easily develop anywhere else.
This cultural product is evident in both musical and artistic expression. Public housing’s musical tradition dates back to the 1950s and 1960s when Motown sound developed in Detroit. Public housing communities provided a conducive social structure and physical space for developing this unique musical genre. Close living arrangements allowed new musicians to meet and work together. The buildings’ hallways and stairwells gave young singers space to hone their skills. The concrete walls and floors of public housing architecture provided the “perfect acoustics” for the vocal development so crucial to the Motown sound. Suzanne Smith summarizes the development of Motown and its reflection of the unique culture of public housing: “[t]hrough music, [residents] personalized and transformed institutional environments and produced a distinctly urban culture in the process.”
This musical tradition has continued more recently with the development of rap. Rap’s use of physical site and ascription of meaning to place embody public housing’s unique cultural expression. Teenaged public housing residents speak of specific places where people meet within their communities. Often found in building hallways or on rooftops, these places are inconspicuous enough to escape an outsider’s eye, but central enough to attain a place of prominence within the public housing community. Moreover, residents fondly describe these places as locations where young adults seek shelter from and make sense of the outside world. A teenaged public housing resident from New York City explained, “‘[w]e have places of peace all over the [projects] … if we wanna be by ourselves this is the place to be. We talk, do rap, we in-tel-lec-tu-al-ize.”’ Once tried out informally by the small group, a new piece of rap often reaches its first audience in the larger public housing community; street disc jockeys who perform at larger community functions often disseminate the original rap created by members of that particular community.
The substance of rap tends to be unique to public housing, originating as a musical form designed to express the lifestyle of the community members. Describing how rap began with this aim in mind, a prominent rapper recalled, “‘[i]t was like finally somebody was telling the world how we live and what we’re going through.”’ While rap has recently gained both sources and audiences in communities outside its own, it stands as a representation of public housing residents’ experiences and sentiments.
Public housing’s unique cultural expression also takes the form of visual art. Street art, or graffiti, is a common feature of the public housing landscape. Though many negatively view graffiti as destruction of property, it is also necessary to recognize the expression of cultural meaning graffiti embodies. Graffiti artists are often motivated by a desire to publicly express their creativity. It is the publicity — or desire to be noticed — that provides such a strong impetus for the proliferation of graffiti. The public housing setting provides both the public canvas and immediate audience to meet these desires. Indeed, much of what constitutes graffiti is creatively “tagging” a public surface so that the audience may instantly identify the artist. Another form of graffiti is “wall writing,” in which the artist covers the entire side of a building with a scene. Wall writing scenes typically serve as tributes or memorials to local personages. Thus, graffiti is a cultural expression both made for and reflective of the public housing environment.
B. A Network of Social Support
Public housing communities provide residents with a unique social support network, a cultural facet which is both a reflection of and a response to the residents’ particularized life experiences. Specifically, this social support reflects the population density and sense of community that mark the public housing experience, and is also a response to the common obstacles many residents face, including poverty, stigmatization and social inequity. Consider three elements of that support: (1) a personal sense of belonging; (2) a means for communication; and (3) a communal sense of parentage. While this article treats each element as distinct, they combine to create a vibrant network.
1. Personal Sense of Belonging
A personal sense of belonging is central for any locale to become someone’s “community.” This feeling of “home,” however, is distinctively strong for public housing residents, commonly surviving both the presence of social ills and even physical moves away from the community itself.
Public housing residents often have a multitude of objective reasons for wanting to leave the community, including deteriorating buildings, poor management and crime-ridden surroundings. However, in the face of these objective pressures to leave, the personal sense of belonging tugs fiercely as a motive to stay. Such was the case for two women interviewed for J.S. Fuerst’s When Public Housing was Paradise. Hazel Johnson, a long-time resident of Chicago’s Altgeld development noted that, despite her neighborhood’s recent troubles, she preferred to stay out of a sense of security and comfort. Johnson commented:
I don’t want to leave this community because I know just about everybody …. I feel secure out here. I wouldn’t feel comfortable walking in Hyde Park or anywhere else at two or three or four o’clock in the morning. But out here, a lot of people know me, and I’d feel comfortable walking at that time of night.
Furthermore, many who do leave public housing retain their personal attachment to their public housing home. In her memoir, Project Girl, attorney Janet McDonald recalls her struggle for personal identity upon entering affluent Vassar College after growing up in New York City public housing. Caught between her college world of privilege and a personal sense of belonging to her public housing home, McDonald reflected, “I had deliberately chosen a school far from home, and now I felt lost and fearful. As awful as the projects were in some respects, their world was my home.” Years later, after earning a law degree at prestigious New York University, McDonald still embraced her public housing past. She wrote, “I know where my heart is, and I can go home again, whenever I like.”
2. Communication Network
Public housing residents often have an uncanny way of knowing about the affairs and needs of their neighbors. This knowledge results from the special communication network that frequently develops in these communities. Sometimes, this grapevine is the product of residents’ purposeful efforts to acquaint themselves with and subsequently fill each other’s needs. Other times, powerful communicative ties develop naturally as a product of the unique combination of physical proximity and strong personal connection to each other. Whatever the source, the residents’ strong communication network counts as a central feature of the public housing experience.
Sometimes, the communication network outlives the time the individuals actually live amongst one another. Dr. Pedro Pedrazza, who grew up in New York City’s Amsterdam Houses, saw that the web of friendships from his childhood remained intact years after he left. When Dr. Pedrazza’s son suddenly died, his former neighbors quickly spread the word and rushed to support him:
‘We buried my son two days after the shooting. I was a basket case, couldn’t call anybody for the funeral. But you know what? Over sixty people from the Amsterdam Houses who knew him and who knew me showed up at the funeral. Some people I had not seen for ten years. The word went out. They came to the funeral out of love and respect.’
3. Communal Sense of Parentage
The public housing communication network fosters a communal sense of parentage. Public housing residents often consider themselves an extended family. Like all functional families, these too provide nurturing, guidance and discipline for their children. Bert Ellis, who grew up in Chicago’s Ida B. Wells development, described this part of his childhood, recalling, “[i]f somebody else’s mom saw you doing something, she just picked up the phone, and when you got home you had to answer to that.”
Many residents feel an informal, yet definite responsibility toward the community’s children. For some, parenting the community’s children is a seamless continuation of parenting their own. For others, it serves as a call to fill the neighbors’ needs. Whatever the reason, the communal approach to parenting left an indelible mark on many who grew up in public housing. As Janet McDonald put it, “[t]he projects were full of kids, and all the adults played parent to all the children.” These extended family practices give rise to more formal networks of community organizing and illustrate how the various aspects of public housing culture work together to create a unique lifestyle.
C. An Environment Conducive for Social Activism
Public housing communities are hotbeds of social and political activism, a characteristic attributable to an environment conducive to organizing. The propensity for activism is often born out of the shared circumstances and strong social ties among residents and is often fueled by the communication network. Formal organizations develop in a variety of ways; however, no matter the form, that development tends to be distinctively reflective of a given community. Sometimes, organizations develop as an outgrowth of smaller groups representing individual buildings in a development. Others develop as a continuation of the communal sense of parenting.
The Local Advisory Council (LAC) at Chicago’s Wentworth Gardens is one such formal organization. Housed in an office on the development’s grounds, the organization promotes its constituents’ interests in a manner unique to public housing. LAC addresses issues related to physical site and building maintenance. However, it also serves as a vehicle to further the development’s culture, youth activities, job training, grounds cleanups, food and clothing distributions, crime prevention programs and social events.
In New Orleans, a public housing-based community group provided a more specific benefit for its residents. When the city approved a plan to destroy the St. Thomas Housing Development and replace it with a mixed-income housing community and Wal-Mart store, the residents organized to negotiate the most favorable terms possible for their relocation. The groups retained counsel to negotiate the construction of replacement units, the residents’ return after construction and even a guaranteed number of jobs for displaced residents at the new Wal-Mart.
From its indigenous art forms to its social support networks to its propensity for activism, the public housing culture is unique to the community that spawns it. It is a reflection of common struggle the residents share, their means for survival amidst that struggle, and, most importantly, the particularized human meanings ascribed to those strategies. When Chicago’s Cabrini-Green or New Orleans’s St. Thomas buildings collapse, a piece of the community’s culture cascades into the rubble.
IV. COMMON REMEDIES FOR DISPLACEMENT FROM PUBLIC HOUSING
Throughout the last decade of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, local housing authorities across the United States have called for the destruction of public housing facilities. These policies destroyed huge numbers of units and displaced large numbers of people. Between 1993 and 2002, cities razed over 100,000 public housing units. Chicago alone has moved over 60,000 people out of public housing. In New Orleans, St. Thomas’s destruction cost the city 1,500 apartments, and five other developments in the city were either completely or substantially demolished.
Policies calling for public housing destruction often come with names that connote a sense of forward-looking optimism. A national initiative to replace public housing is called HOPE VI, Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere. The Chicago Housing Authority named its program the Plan for Transformation. Proponents of these plans typically offer the better use, isolation of the poor and culture of poverty arguments as justification.
To pursue the public housing elimination policy, several strategies have emerged. One such strategy, HOPE VI, seeks to replace public housing facilities, occupied almost exclusively by impoverished residents, with mixed-income communities that are occupied only in part by the former development’s residents. Section 8, another strategy, provides displaced residents with vouchers to defray the rental cost of private housing. Particular consideration should be paid to the design, rationales, outcomes, and common criticisms for each.
A. HOPE VI
Participation in a HOPE VI program serves as a possible remedy for displaced public housing residents. HOPE VI is a federally funded program in which local public housing authorities compete for grants that fund revitalization efforts for distressed public housing facilities. A successful HOPE VI project calls for demolishing a public housing facility, and replacing it with a combination of public, market-rate rental and privately-owned housing. A HOPE VI project may also include developing commercial enterprises in the new neighborhood. A portion of the units in the new complex are set aside for residents from the former development. The residents receive Section 8 vouchers to meet their housing needs during construction. Those unable to obtain housing in the new development tend to rely on Section 8 permanently.
The HOPE VI program rests on several theoretical foundations. First, it addresses the “better use” critique of public housing by attempting to put favorably located real estate to a more economically viable use. Such was the case with the HOPE VI redevelopment of New Orleans’s St. Thomas, a site located just blocks from both the affluent Garden District and the downtown business district. Through HOPE VI, developers seek to bring a number of high-rent apartments to public housing areas. Another common justification for HOPE VI is that it breaks the isolation and concentration of poor citizens. By including mixed income residents in the new community, low-income residents are no longer isolated. Finally, HOPE VI seeks to combat the culture of poverty that exists in public housing through its focus on economic vitality. To that end, the presence of economic success within the community will lead to increased opportunity and life chances for low-income residents.
The most common criticism of HOPE VI is that it leaves too many former residents without a place in the new development. Indeed, new developments frequently contain significantly fewer public units than old developments. Charlotte’s Earle Village is illustrative: of the 367 families who occupied the original housing community, only 44 of them – or 12 percent – found a home in the new community. Moreover, this outcome is often surprising to many residents who were either promised or led to believe that they would have a place in the new development. What results is displaced residents’ greater reliance on Section 8 or other public housing facilities.
B. Section 8
Section 8 voucher issuance may occur in conjunction with participation in a HOPE VI program or it can serve as a stand-alone program. Codified in the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974, which revised Section 8 of the United States Housing Act of 1937, the Section 8 voucher program subsidizes a low-income tenant’s private housing rent. Funded by the federal government’s Department of Housing and Urban Development (“HUD”), Section 8 issues rental subsidy payments directly to the landlord from the local public housing authority. Verna Berryman’s case illustrates that the tenant is responsible for the portion of the rental payment that exceeds the amount of the subsidy. To rent their properties through Section 8, landlords must maintain them according to HUD’s quality standards.
Several theoretical justifications support the Section 8 voucher program. Primary among them is that the program reverses the concentration of poor citizens at a particular site. According to this theory, impoverished citizens, aided by vouchers, will have greater housing choices and increased mobility. This, in turn, will lead to increased housing integration, thereby easing the isolation of the poor.
Along with the support it has enjoyed, Section 8 has also drawn sharp criticism. In particular, tenants frequently have difficulty obtaining affordable housing that meets the program’s standards. Furthermore, as Verna Berryman discovered, it may also prove inadequate in meeting total housing costs. Finally, the broader goal of integration often flounders due to unwelcoming landlords and prejudiced neighbors.
V. THE FAILURE OF GOVERNMENTAL REMEDIES TO ACCOUNT FOR COMMUNITY
Seen in one light, the government initiatives discussed above are forward-looking corrective actions designed to provide unilateral benefits for public housing residents. At least in part, however, these programs must also be construed as remedies designed to compensate displaced residents for the loss of their homes. A draft of the Restatement (Second) of Restitution outlines the underlying principles that give rise to a right to restitution. The Restatement includes “[l]oss suffered by claimant [and an] infringement of [claimant’s] interest” as separate but related bases for the right to restitution. With respect to displaced public housing residents, the loss of physical space and relocation requirement constitute a “[l]oss suffered” while forced abandonment of familiar settings and adaptation to new surroundings constitutes “infringement of interest.” Therefore, despite its progressive intentions, government initiatives directed at displaced public housing residents constitute, at least in part, remedies for a loss incurred.
However, these remedies do not provide sufficient compensation to displaced public housing residents for the loss they incur. They overlook how much of modern public housing life is a unique, and typically a uniquely black, experience. A consideration of some lessons gleaned from Cornel West’s discussion of black nihilism sheds light on both why much of the public housing experience is uniquely black and why that experience is inherently valuable. “When the federal government first built public housing in the 1930s, most project tenants were white.” However, beginning in the latter half of the twentieth century, a pronounced statistical trend reflected a heavy concentration of blacks in public housing. Indeed, two independent studies reveal that today, over sixty percent of non-elderly public housing households are black. As such, issues relating to modern public housing are inextricably linked to issues of race.
It is because of this statistical trend that the issue of remedies offered to displaced public housing residents inherently relates to race. Therefore, Cornel West’s discussion of black nihilism becomes relevant. West’s theory is premised on the idea that many Americans construe black life as something outside the mainstream, only legitimized when included in that mainstream. West argues that black Americans occupy a distinct social space in American life, but one that exists legitimately without any prerequisite of inclusion.
Based on both liberal and conservative Americans’ failure to recognize this point, West offers that, “the most basic issue now facing black America: [is] the nihilistic threat to its very existence.” West defines that threat as “the lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness, and (most important) lovelessness.” West focuses less on what spawned black nihilism and more on what sustains it. To that end, he addresses the responsibility of three groups in its perpetuation: (1) white liberals; (2) white conservatives; and (3) blacks. West posits that white liberals have allowed black nihilism to develop by focusing too much on economic and political aspects of black life at the expense of an appreciation for the cultural aspects. Conservative whites, West charges, conversely fail to give proper credence to the political and economic structural challenges blacks face in daily life. Finally, West charges blacks with furthering this threat by abandoning strong internal structures that have historically provided support in the face of nihilism.
West defines and establishes his theory of black nihilism by demonstrating what different segments of America do not recognize. From this position, we glean a more affirmatively constructed argument of what these groups should recognize if they correctly perceived the “presence and predicaments” of blacks in American society. In doing so, a picture of the distinctive black social space becomes clear, characterized by three essential elements: (1) a powerful and particular culture; (2) victimization by adverse societal structures; and (3) strong community institutions.
West’s criticism of white liberals suggests a need to recognize culture as central to black life. He charges white liberals with failing to recognize both the role and content of black culture. West notes that culture is important for all people, but that it is particularly important for blacks as a “degraded and oppressed people.” He describes culture as a structural element of life that exists as a human-created “set of behavioral attitudes and values” developed in response to struggle. As such, a culture offers a particular meaning and identity to those who exhibit it. Because it is born out of struggle, and the black struggle in America has been unique, the resultant culture is correspondingly distinctive. Therefore, West suggests that black culture is particular in both power and form.
West’s criticism of white conservatives further reveals his conception of a distinctive black experience. He asserts that certain American political and economic structures exist to keep blacks at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. White conservatives, according to West, give little or no consideration to the effect of these structures, focusing instead on personal agency in self-determination. However, ignoring the pervasive effect of American political and economic structures on blacks neglects a crucial piece of the black experience, a distinctive victimization, born “out of historical context and contemporary circumstances.”
Finally, West’s criticism that blacks perpetuate their own nihilism reveals the importance of black institutions. He charges modern blacks with failing to sustain religious and civic institutions that have provided communal support throughout history. These institutions – such as schools, churches, and media outlets – stood as a symbol of black culture and resistance to a victimizing political and economic climate. West contextualizes contemporary black social ills in part as a result of weakened black institutions. Accordingly, we may take from his critique, the role of such institutions in a uniquely black social space.
These lessons offer profound insights into an analysis of the insufficient remedies the government offers to displaced public housing residents. Indeed, both the policies and their underlying justifications fail to account for the loss of community that occurs when public housing communities are destroyed.
The first justification, the better use argument, falls short when considering West’s teachings. It overtly and explicitly places other interests ahead of displaced public housing residents’ interests. Such a rationale speaks directly to West’s critique of white liberals. As previously noted, public housing communities exhibit a special and unique culture. A rationale explicitly stating that such a site could be put to better use undervalues what is lost. For its part, the better use argument overlooks West’s valuation of black cultural institutions. The community activist organizations can no longer play a role in the lives of displaced residents who obtain Section 8 housing. Furthermore, the community activist organizations will be significantly weakened in a rebuilt HOPE VI community. However, because this reality takes a backseat to “better use,” this justification additionally undervalues the unique social good that exists in public housing developments.
An application of the principles underlying black nihilism to the belief that public housing isolates the poor also renders the remedies in question insufficient. HOPE VI and Section 8 are often premised on the theory that they disperse poor citizens and relocate them in integrated communities. However, in doing so, they deprive the displaced residents the valuable benefits derived from isolation. Indeed, as noted earlier, the cultural expressions that emanate from public housing communities only happen because of public housing’s unique physical place. Moreover, the notion that isolating the poor deprives them of economically successful role models and status symbols undervalues those they do have. As such, remedies based on the justification that public housing isolates the poor render those remedies insufficient in providing compensation for the loss displaced residents incur.
The lessons gleaned from West similarly shed light on the insufficiency of remedies based on a goal curtailing the culture of poverty. Indeed, this rationale stands in direct conflict with West’s construction of the black experience. The argument contends that the most powerful responses to poverty are negative. West, conversely, acknowledges that struggle exists in poor communities; however, he contends that there is valuable meaning and identity forged in the responses to that struggle. It is recognizing this meaning that gives culture value. Additionally, the culture of poverty argument views the public housing environment as the primary vehicle for perpetuating the economic disadvantage of its residents. This contention fails to recognize the role of political and economic structures. Similarly, it fails to account for the organizations born out of public housing culture-such as the LAC- that serve as a vehicle for progress. The culture of poverty argument, consequently, also fails to adequately consider the importance of black institutions. Therefore, basing HOPE VI and Section 8 on this rationale is equally inadequate in compensating former residents for their losses.
Professor Derrick Bell provides analogous support. Bell similarly argues that school desegregation plans of the mid-twentieth century failed to recognize a unique loss that black schoolchildren incurred. To meet the mandates of desegregation, many school districts closed schools located in black neighborhoods, establishing the newly integrated facilities in formerly all-white schools. Black teachers and administrators frequently lost their jobs as a result of these closings, and black students had to travel to sites far from their homes to attend school. In Bell’s account, we get a sense of a uniquely black cultural institution a school located in a black neighborhood, staffed by black teachers and populated by black students. Therefore, desegregation plans stripped black students of a central feature of their community and imposed on them a distinctive but certain loss. That school districts failed to “provide educational compensation to black children” reflects a failure to recognize and account for the particular loss those children incurred.
Both public housing life and black schools provide unique cultural forms. Initiatives calling for the destruction of both fail to recognize as much. They also fail to properly recognize the importance of black institutions to the community. Thus, in crafting these remedies, both plans fail to account for lost elements of the black community, and in doing so, devalue its culture accordingly.
In contrast to such a devaluation is the story of Bayview, Virginia residents. This story provides an example of a government initiative designed to assist impoverished residents, which values that community’s unique culture. Bayview is a historically impoverished community located on Virginia’s eastern shore. For most of its history, Bayview residents, nearly all of whom are black, have lived in dilapidated shacks without indoor plumbing or modern electricity. In 1998, buoyed by a successful effort to thwart the construction of a new state prison nearby, Bayview residents appealed to state and federal officials for assistance in building modern infrastructure for the town. After a tireless campaign, government officials obliged. The Commonwealth of Virginia granted over four million dollars and various federal agencies added another four million dollars to rebuild Bayview’s infrastructure. Included in this rebuilding effort was a block of housing aimed at replacing the shacks that characterized Bayview for so long. The houses featured modern amenities, including kitchens and central heating and cooling. But each new home included an even more telling feature – a front porch. Bayview residents demanded that the homes include porches because of the central role they played in local culture. As activist Alice Coles explained,
that’s where our family life was spent, on the porch. And so if you take the porch, just like taking a farm, you take a part of our past. That’s where old stories were told and songs were taught, and our poems and the scriptures of the Bible were all taught on the front porch. We rehearsed everything from the Gettysburg Address to the “Creation” James Johnson’s ‘Creation,’ on the front porch. We held the books for others, and others held the books until we learned together. So a part of this village concept was the porch.
Thus, in contrast to the government initiatives aimed at providing remedies for displaced public housing residents, the government initiative to improve Bayview’s infrastructure represents a tangible accounting of the community’s culture.
The remedies offered to displaced public housing residents need to account for the community’s unique culture. The current remedies are inadequate in light of what residents lose. When developers construct a HOPE VI site, they should consider how physical form gave rise to culture and include these features in the new construction. In administering Section 8, public housing authorities should consider the communities in which they place residents, not merely the quality of the housing. As it is now, however, the destruction of a public housing complex often results in a loss of a community-based culture unique to that setting. By failing to account for this quality of life, the remedies offered provide insufficient compensation to residents for something lost that may never be regained.