|The Nineth Annual Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectual Design Excellence 2007|
Re-presenting Public Housing: creating community in the East-End
Here is the house. It is green and white. It has a red door. It is very pretty. Here is the family. Mother, Father, Dick, and Jane live in the green and white house. They are very happy. -Toni Morrison “The Bluest Eyes”
This benign tableau aptly describes the painful struggle over realizing the so-called American dream of home-ownership. Morrison’s ironic use of language helps us to understand the cultural value attached to a home, and the discrimination that could come with not fulfilling this normative expectation. Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies revealed that in 2004, over 15 million households faced severely burdened financial situations, defined by those diverting half of their income towards housing. The problem with “Home” transcends a game of arithmetic; it buries itself in the very foundations of our communities, our shared culture, and our identity. Allow me to take you through one such community and offer an image of its future.
In Lexington, Kentucky on a sunny day, we cross Elm Tree Lane just past the abandoned Lyric Theater, a former stage for jazz greats like Duke Ellington and Count Basie. We continue slowly down Third Street, the main thoroughfare for the East End neighborhood, past neon signs of liquor stores and the shifting glances of hooded drug dealers, past a group of noble women on their porch and into the “projects.” For 80 years, Bluegrass-Aspendale played the gracious role of Home to thousands of needy and grateful Lexington residents. It opened in 1938 as the first public housing project in America, part of 51 other projects by the Public Works Administration, designed to provide respectable housing and labor relief to the working class. No modernist tower block, it drew from the utopianism of Ebenezer Howard’s garden city, from the optimism of Dutch and English housing movements and from the social agenda of New Deal legislation. Situated on a former racetrack in a traditionally African-American part of town, it anchored the community, one replete with stores, schools, community centers and entertainment. Residents of Bluegrass-Aspendale benefited from the “village experiment;” they opened a communal library, worked together to build a softball field on the central green, started tutoring sessions and maintained victory gardens. After the 1949 Housing Act institutionalized housing policy and renewal, Bluegrass-Aspendale fell victim to a series of unfortunate additions and policy shifts. Discrimination and social unrest during the 1960s took public housing out of the public discourse and created the “second ghetto,” the effects of which linger today.
As we pause on the road and peer over the fence, a group of yellow machines work to tear apart the masonry and wood, and the years of memories. Over 900 residents, mostly single mothers and the elderly, have been asked to disperse to apartment blocks on the edges of town, far removed from community connections. Only yesterday I sat in the kitchen of Ruth Ashley, a former resident of the project now living in her daughter’s suburban home. She told me, “my memories were there, all of me…I miss waving at my friends…” A victim of renewal in the federal government’s extensive effort to vanquish “depressed” public housing through its HOPE VI program, the site will reemerge with neo-colonial town-homes and suburban-style tract housing, priced well above lower income ranges, and lacking significant community input. In rethinking American urbanism, new typologies of collaborative development not only add legitimacy, but social sustainability. Social architecture, beyond the aims of affordable housing or economic development refers specifically to an inclusive process that adds transparency to urban change. Today, the East End needs the power of design to develop a new typology of public housing, one that uses local knowledge and democratic processes. Cooperative housing, realized under the auspices of a great design (both physical and social), will imbue a sustainable method of living in a localized community.
We leave the spectacle of Bluegrass-Aspendale, travel south, past abandoned storefronts, through a cluster of “straight-backed” houses, and enter the design charette for a community art garden. Roughly 20 children, surprisingly focused and excited, sit over a large conference table at a community ventures center. Crayons race to complete a rendering of the ½ acre space, dedicated to a black jockey who grew up nearby. NELI, or Northeast Lexington Initiative, organized the charette with the hope of bringing an unexpected voice into the debate over contested urban land. This effort has emerged from a grassroots movement to rethink the East End neighborhood, to respect its past and push for a better future. As the former housing project clears 65 acres for redevelopment, a neighborhood has the rare opportunity to bring this land into the purview of its community visioning process.
Great housing can unmask the spectacle of urban entropy, particularly those places tortured by discrimination, conflict, and uncertainty. Communities, true communities filled with healthy strife, rough edges and evolving boundaries, exist at the helm of great housing. The cooperative housing movement has garnered recent attention as a financial typology capable of producing affordable housing and self-sufficiency. Residents buy a stake into a cooperative property and in turn lease back a unit from the group. As the property appreciates in value, residents build equity and take responsibility towards its overall maintenance. “Cooperatives do more than provide a place to live. Studies show that cooperative residents report fewer problems with crime and drugs, live in their homes longer, take better care of their homes, have lower operating costs, report a higher quality of life and are more involved in their communities.” (Gray, Cooper, Clare, 2) With the help of Public Architecture and a faith in radical optimism, the former site of Lexington’s first housing experiment can rise again as a site of social responsibility.
The provision of housing fails most often when it relies upon pure arithmetic to determine affordability or appropriateness. This proposal makes a claim that an affordable, medium-density, mixed-used, sustainable housing cooperative best suits the community’s needs. Bachelard, in the tone of his airy French phenomenology, defines the poetic nature of home as “that which shelters daydreaming.” (Bachelard, 8) This development must work to enable every individual to do just that. The architecture, because of careful design and policies of trust, is itself part of the cooperative model, free to adjust its boundaries as new needs emerge.
The realities of overcoming the financial and social burden tied to this complex project present a serious challenge. By creating a foundation, composed of potential stakeholders, residents, activists, officials, and designers the gap between dream and reality can close. The group will navigate the complex world of financing, while preserving the progressive social vision. By working with the Downtown Development Authority, they will establish a land trust to stunt the rising values of urban land. They will work with the Lexington Housing Authority to lease a portion of the land under an agreement of co-support and management. Our municipal government can provide tax relief, zoning easements, and social services. A loan from the Kentucky Housing Corporation or the Federal Housing Authority and private investment can fund significant parts of the project. Just as citizens “cooperate” together to build better lives, the disparate entities of power can work harmoniously to build bridges that might have remained uncrossed.
Let’s imagine the dream as reality and drive again down Race Street. The new milieu gives many of the same impressions as 70 years prior. Children have many friends close by and spend their time playing outside. Families congregate in their communal garden, gossip, and grow produce. Simple, smart design lowers the average energy bills. Shared facilities provide inviting spaces for birthdays and holidays. They rely upon each other for common sustenance, for a cup of flour, for time to talk. Public transportation and job support remain accessible. They utilize common childcare facilities so that job opportunities and schooling become possible. They have problems and conflicts, but because of the nature of the organization and the community, because the housing always evolves, those conflicts are managed.
Sustainability refers not only to an increasingly imperative ecological condition of unstable energy supplies and environmental damage, but also to the social longevity of place. The East End has long been a site of racial tension and social friction; success depends upon how well housing can connect and adapt to changing perceptions. The sustainability of our cities, in all senses, has received new international attention since the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change in Paris urged for dramatic revisions of global thinking. Cooperative housing can de-compartmentalize the various faces of sustainability and provide new methods of remediation.
In term of physical properties, the building can learn from successful precedents of green thinking. Drawing from the local university’s research and practice in digital fabrication, the building can hire local fabricators to save considerable amounts of wasted material and support a local economy. It can learn from a green-housing village in Berea, KY, which uses photovoltaic panels, grey water recycling and passive solar heating to reduce energy usage and improve environmental quality, important to an urban site. Just as the original Bluegrass-Aspendale encouraged the maintenance of victory gardens, this project too can rethink urban land as a tenable area of gardens, flowers, vegetables, and food, all while connected to the newly emerging “green-pathways” through downtown Lexington. Its density and location will encourage walking or public transportation, and decrease our reliance on fossil fuels. The cooperative statement will serve as a radical example of how green thinking can actually improve lives, and hopefully spark interest in continuing the trend.
If dwellings can improve the quality of life, beyond economic accessibility, then it must work seamlessly with the holistic image of the neighborhood. Zoning constraints and social norms have limited many developments to “single-family home” typologies. However, recent successes in mixed use bode well for similar ideas in the East End, an urban site where jobs have dried up and businesses lack the shared-resources to succeed. The residents' council would have the resources with which to support, train and facilitate small business ownership. Attached business space would encourage revitalization and local knowledge. Residents could develop entrepreneurial skills while retaining a simultaneous focus on their families and careers.
Roughly 70% of the residents evicted from Bluegrass-Aspendale at its destruction were single-mothers. Current housing subsidies relocate these individuals to remote suburban locations with high financial burdens and limited social connectivity. Cooperative housing allows these individuals to generate appreciable equity, draw upon neighbors for help or simple conversation, and utilize common resources. Common rooms and shared facilities will alleviate the strain of living alone. If deemed important to the community, an on-site daycare facility would ease the difficult task of finding stable work and raising a child. The supervising leadership of the cooperative council alleviates social worries about problem residents.
Great architecture transcends any image; either the freewheeling “hero” architect or the neo-colonial developer. The East End needs great architecture because they need creative perspectives, one that asks questions and makes reasoned judgments. Too often a site of architectural blasé, affordable, process driven cooperative housing will facilitate dialogue between cities and cultures. Residents will build their place over time, have control over their own domesticity, and take back their community. Empowerment happens when process never ends, when the decisions about how we live are within the realm of our control. Great architecture should be the norm and not the exception.
Public Architecture, based in California, identifies and solves practical problems of human interaction in the built environment and acts as a catalyst for public discourse through education, advocacy and design. Their experience in the public realm and their talents as designers would serve well to energize a neighborhood by realizing a tricky piece of social architecture.
The firm’s role would range from organizing the process of design to coordinating the interests of those in power. Traditional practice places the architect as beholden to the client, a scenario that does not fit this project. Instead, Public Architecture will take the responsibility of creative leader, rethinking typologies of urban housing through a transparent and public process. They will encourage community participation, reach out to existing organizations, and communicate with financial or governmental agents. The rough boundary between community idealism and pragmatic construction needs the attention of a courageous leader. My role will draw upon existing research into the history of the former housing project and the neighborhood as a whole. I will negotiate the particularities of Lexington so that certain assumptions of place can either be avoided or emphasized.
Public Architecture’s existing body of work will greatly inform the process of cooperative housing. They recently developed a speculative project called an accessory dwelling unit (ADU), popularly called a granny flat, located in the backyard of existing homes and occupied by older parents or other individuals. They understood a complex social situation (the rise of the baby-boom generation) and translated it into an architectural proposal. The East End has its own particular social composition, one that few designers have been able to grapple; Public Architecture can alleviate this disparity.
If the cooperative housing project will utilize green technologies, mixed-use and urban connectivity, a traditional residential firm would strain to incorporate them all. Public architecture has extended experience in working with them all. Their well-publicized “Scrap House” used waste material to erect a sustainable, model home on the front plaza of the California capitol. Not only did they imagine an ecologically responsible structure, they knew how to literally and figuratively put it into the public conscious and affect state environmental policy. They have developed a community center, a day Labor station and sidewalk plazas and do so with attention to selling their ideas to a skeptical public. The housing project in Lexington is meant to not only to address a local social need, but also to inject vigorous dialogue into the housing movement of the United States.
Many locals firms have the mindset and ideological framework to support this type of sustainable architecture, but few have the resources to complete the project. Public Architecture created the 1% solution that calls for firms to commit that percentage of their time to pro bono design work. With Public Architecture at the helm, local firms will collaborate as executing architects. Construction documents, code research and site presence can be easily accomplished by our local industry.
Public Architecture, both the firm and the dream, can take the benign tableau of Morrison’s words and turn it into a sustainable future. Cooperative housing does not refer to a housing type, but a way of applying process to our built future.
Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon Press, 1958
Gray, Jim, Jay Marcus and Jolie Marie Carey. “Cooperative Housing.” Journal of Housing and Community Development. Nov/Dec 2005.
Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University. “The State of the Nation’s Housing.” 2006
Kivisto, Peters. “A Historical Review of Changes in Public Housing Policies and Their Impact On Minorities.” in Race, Ethnicity, and Minority Housing. eds: Momeni, Jamshid A. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986.
Public Architecture. http://www.publicarchitecture.com February 2007
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