Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Separate Worlds

I was fortunate to interview a gentleman the other day that has spent his professional life serving the public by working with young people. We talked about racism, the income gap between the poor and middle class, and other societal problems.

Early in our conversation we found we had common ground on some of these issues. He leaned toward me with his hands held together by the fingertips, almost prayer-like. The first thing they need to do is to get rid of these places where they congregate the poor together, he said.

Of course, he was talking about housing projects. As an “outsider” to housing projects (I grew up in Bellevue), I’ve only been to a couple of them a few times. I’ve been to St. Clair Village, where I once received a hostile reaction by some I passed (but no violence, I was with a guy from there); and I’ve also been to bad old Northview Heights.

I call it “bad old” because of its history. Perched on an isolated patch of land on the hillside behind Troy Hill, Northview Heights has been the scene of numerous shootings over the years. About a decade back, five or six guys formed a firing line with their guns and murdered several men in front of a crowd of people who were waiting for a baseball game to start. That was a short time before I went there to cover a speaker for a feature story for the Tribune-Review.

Those few visits to housing projects made a bad impression on me. For years I have viewed the projects as death camps. Some of the people who live in them also feel this way. The Post-Gazette recently had a story on it: City plans to demolish most of St. Clair Village.

This whole issue, and especially the comment my friend recently made, reminded me of a conversation I had with one of my neighbors a while back. Karen lives a few doors up from me. She’s a light-skinned black lady, with pretty blue eyes. She’s also a retired schoolteacher who can’t resist teaching me a thing or two from time to time. Several weeks back she came over and leaned on the fence and chatted with me as I worked in the back yard.

We got deep into the conversation, as we do sometimes, and somehow the subject of housing projects came up. I mentioned how I found it troubling that housing projects seem to always be located on the least desirable land, in out-of-the-way places.

“I’m glad you said that, because I’ve always thought that, too. They give you the view, but you’re out of view,” she said, shaking her head.

I wonder what percentage of people in the suburbs of Pittsburgh have ever stepped foot in a housing project. Probably fewer than we’d all care to consider. Most of us probably would rather not consider this issue of American apatheid. I touched on it in Don’t say the C-word.

St. Clair, Northview and most of the rest of these inner-city camps for the poor have long been dysfunctional places, rife with too much violence. As I have said for years, I believe that all of the housing projects in Pittsburgh should be torn down, and new dwellings should be built throughout the city for the displaced residents of those projects. After minority contractors tear down the projects, the land where the razed projects once stood should be turned into parks, and memorials to those who died in the projects should be erected in those parks.

The new public housing units should be placed all over the city and suburbs, in dribs and drabs, distributed everywhere from Squirrel Hill to Upper St. Clair. Poorer communities should have fewer of the dwellings built in them, and wealthier neighborhoods should have more of them built there. That way, we will all have some understanding of how the other half lives. And more importantly, the urban poor will have the chance to raise their families in neighborhoods that provide a culture of hope, rather than a cycle of despair.


Sherry P said...

i agree with you. i don't think there should be such a thing as "the projects" i think it was concieved as a good idea by some goodhearted people, but it turned out badly especially because it does seem as if they were hidden away on purpose. it made it easier for a lot of people to discriminate, to ignore and to paint the residents of the projects with that brush called "all" all of THOSE people.
somehow tho, i get the feeling that the plans to do away with these projects isn't so much because the powers that be, finally admitted it would be better for the people living there to be finally out of isolation as much as perhaps the land they are on has become valuable to the upper middle class. just a thought.
if they do decide to close down the various projects, the people there still face the loss of the good parts of their neighborhoods. the friends and extended families that will be dispersed when the wrecking balls come to town. just my thoughts.
one other thing, no matter where one lives, there will always be people that have more or better and will find ways, some subtle, some not, to let you know it. i've lived with that no matter which neighborhood i've lived in.

Jonathan Barnes said...

I know that neighbors would be separated, but I'd guess that most would welcome the change. It's not safe to live in many of these places, and a lot of the residents want out.
As far as middle class folks wanting project land, I think that's more the exception than the rule... Ever been to Northview, or St. Clair? Northview is up a goat-path on the side of a hill bordering the start of 279 North. It's Nowheresville, and it's no longer fulfilling its purpose. I believe it's had a gate for a while, but folks still get shot there.
I still say tear them all down.

Sherry P said...

yes, i agree again, tear them all down and hope that it works out. i think it will, if the people that live there aren't just forgotten about once they are moved out. as to unsafe and being there, my daughter has her master's in physical therapy and could work just about anywhere but she wanted to work with the elderly and that is mainly home health care because their needs are easier taken care of, especially right after hospital discharges from joint replacement, strokes or amputations in a home setting rather than trying to get them back and forth to hospitals or other out patient facilities. she goes to those places frequently. i still say that land can be grabbed up by weathy investors and made into upper middle income places. just look at the prices they are getting for the condos that were just built across the track, along the river in aspinwall/ohara twp. or blawnox those were always places looked down on and made fun of, til now. me, i hope for the best, but i don't expect it, been around too long i suppose. you are doing the right thing tho, calling attention to matters that need looked at more carefully.

Cope said...

I know you don’t place much stock in my opinion but I did do extensive reporting on the Pittsburgh Housing Authority in 2001, complete with ride-alongs with top housing authority administrators, housing authority cops and residents. In a nutshell, here's what I learned:

The city has tried unsuccessfully over the years to create mixed-income communities with varying degrees of success. The hurdles are two-fold: first, it's hard to get the upper middle class people to move there. But it's also hard to move people from the "projects." Home is home, even if it is public housing.

The next obvious solution is to do away with public housing altogether and offer vouchers, i.e. Section 8. This seems to work a bit better, but it fails if it happens all at once. A good example of this in the West End, which deteriorated more rapidly than similar Pittsburgh neighborhoods in the 1980's when nearby public housing units were, relatively speaking, abruptly closed. It's a classic case of "there goes the neighborhood," with nearby owners selling out quickly and being replaced with absentee landlords looking to get the Section 8 rentals. Those landlords realized that the displaced people would want to remain near friends and family so they were likely to move to the closest neighborhood with affordable housing.

You can put conspiracy theories about the city selling the land to some private developer away. The land isn't valuable -- in most places, Pittsburgh included, housing projects over the past few generations have acted a bit like a tumor, destroying the value of the adjoining properties. Similarly, Pittsburgh has tried to "grab up" the land and create middle income places (i.e. Crawford Place) with only limited success. It's hard to pinpoint if it's another failure of government-backed development, but the private sector has been historically reluctant to invest in such property.

Most of the public housing now being slated for a date with the wrecking ball in Pittsburgh and other cities was built in the post-war years as a place to temporarily house returning G.I.'s and their families -- hence the nice views (almost every project I have been to in Pittsburgh has an absolutely incredible view of the city skyline). Somewhere along the way -- and my research never got far enough to pinpoint where or when -- public housing shifted to a permanent solution.

A potential solution? If you buy into Hernando DeSoto like former President Clinton and scores of others on the right and left, the city sells its public housing units to the current tenants for $1, putting the property back on the tax roles (the idea being annual tax payments would be less than current rents for inhabitants and create a sense of ownership). It's a radical notion that would never have legs politically, but nothing else has really worked thus far. Off paper, however, the idea is just an idea and fraught with problems, the most obvious being that even $1 and the burden of ownership is probably overvaluing some of these properties.

But the lack of ownership opportunities in the mixed-use developments the city built in the 1990’s is part of the reason they haven’t been wildly successful: middle class residents were enticed with low interest loans, but those loans remained out of reach for many of the inhabitants, forcing them into another renting situation. Without ownership, properties deteriorated, and the few people who did buy units suddenly saw their “investment” devalued.

Feel free to go ahead and delete my comment now.

Jonathan Barnes said...

Copeland, if you want to comment intelligently on my blog, fine.
But please don't use your comment as an excuse to take a jab at me.