23 July 2007

Against Change or Against Improvement?

I don't like it when a childhood haunt is demolished, and I can understand a person expressing sadness at the loss of a neighborhood.

But what if you grew up in a disfunctional 15 story housing project with elevators that smelled of urine and broken glass in the dusty playground? I have to admit, I would still be a bit saddened to see it demolished. I hate demolition. I think most all buildings can be saved and improved.

That said, some forms of housing are proven disasters, and the most disaster prone is high-rise government housing. Study after study has shown that they are unsafe and unsalvageable. In his ground-breaking studies Oscar Newman used scientific methods to successfully design what he termed "defensible space", something high-rise government housing always lacks. You can read his book for free on the HUD website.

An article on the AP today is about a woman who gives what I would term sentimental tours of the old ghetto:

..this "Ghetto Bus Tour" is.. the last gasp in her crusade to tell a different story about Chicago's notorious housing projects, something other than well-known tales about gang violence so fierce that residents slept in their bathtubs to avoid bullets.

"I want you to see what I see," says Beauty Turner, after leading the group off the bus to a weedy lot where the Robert Taylor Homes once stood. "To hear the voices of the voiceless."

Turner, a former Robert Taylor Homes resident, has been one of the most vocal critics of the Chicago Housing Authority's $1.6 billion "Plan for Transformation," which since the late 1990s has demolished 50 of the 53 public housing high-rises and replaced them with mixed-income housing.

City officials have heralded the plan. But Turner believes the city that once left residents to be victimized by violent drug-dealing gangs is now pushing those same people from their homes without giving them all a place to go.

In many ways similar to Cincinnati's City West Project, the Chicago Housing Authority is demolishing Robert Taylor Homes, which consisted of 28 high-rises and over 4,300 apartments and replacing it with a "mixed income" development. This is all part of a Federal Program called Hope VI, which was a controversial program to help Housing Authorities demolish housing.

I have concerns about any wholesale change of a neighborhood. To paraphrase Jane Jacobs: "Any neighborhood, built at once, and built to be unchanging, is bound for failure" (I'll try to look up the exact quote later and insert it here).

My concern with City West is that it is overly new and built to be unchanging. A mixture of old and new structures is essential to a vibrant city district because small, new ventures require the affordable places that old buildings provide. Only established businesses of large size can afford new construction.

Also, the new homes in City West are all wood framed construction with brick veneer fronts and vinyl siding on the sides and rears. This may be expected in the suburban neighborhoods that Drees typically builds in, and it is certainly the cheapest per square foot, however, it seems out of place in a city that is mostly brick.

Despite my reservations about the new City West, I am only slightly sentimental about the housing projects that it replaced, and think that a mixed-use, mixed-income project, with defensible space is certainly an improvement.

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