Clearing the Slum, Building the Project
Apr 17, 2009 at 1:42
John Matthew Barlow in Hip Hop, Issues, Research, Spaces, The Slum, The Wire

In two previous posts, I pondered the fate of the inner-city slum in North America in the face of reformers.  First, I explored attempts at re-imagining and re-building the slums of New York City and Montréal in the late nineteenth century.  Next, I examined the ways in which the freeway was used to segregate the slum and waterfront port areas in Las Vegas, Toronto, and Seattle from the rest of the city; in effect, to quarantine these diseased areas from the rest of the city.  All of this was done in the name of security, to protect the health and welfare of the city.  In the former case, another added benefit were the improvements in the health of the inhabitants of the slum.

At this point, I should distinguish between the slum and the ghetto.  A slum is an inner-city neighbourhood, plagued by various social ills.  A ghetto, on the other hand, is an area that the inhabitants cannot escape from.  They are trapped in the ghetto. The term ghetto itself is Italian in origin, it means "slag", as in the slag heaps next to the foundry on the Venetian island where Jews were confined.  So the word emerged from the Jewish quarter in Venice in the early 17th century.  In the 20th century, ghettos became increasingly common in North American cities.  And these ghettos, as well as slums, remained as problematic as they had been in the late nineteenth century.  In the twentieth century, though, race also became a primary factor in the discourse surrounding the slum and/or ghetto, especially in North America.

The middle of the twentieth century was the height of modernity, and nothing symbolised modernity for North Americans quite like the car.  Hence the construction of freeways.  But on the other side of these freeways lay slums, mostly comprised of Victorian-era housing and other buildings.  In some places, like New York City and Boston, the buildings were even older.  These dilapidated, broken down old structures mocked the wealth of their cities. 

In Montreal, the slums of the city's southwest borough were on plain view as one arrived into the shining, gleaming new downtown core by either car or by rail.  This was made all the worse as the city prepared to welcome the world to Expo '67. What to do about this?

The answer became slum clearances, or, in French, les rénovations urbaines (literally, "urban renovations").  Eager rénovationistes working at City Hall became obssessed with cleaning out the slums.  They went out and explored the slums, especially those close to the freeways or train tracks, attempting to find reasons for their eradication.  One ancient neighbourhood, Goose Village, was eradicated in the mid-1960s in advance of Expo '67.  When the technocrats from City Hall went out to inspect Goose Village, they found a neighbourhood with an almost invisible crime rate, where there was no juvenile delinquence, and where the Italian immigrants who peopled Goose Village kept their houses in good repair, good order, and freshly-painted.  Nonetheless, the technocrats concluded, the neighbourhood needed to be cleared because the area was a health threat.  And so, it was torn down in 1966.  But if Goose Village was a health threat, so, too, was every other inner-city industrial neighbourhood around the world. 

Goose Village was replaced with a football stadium that was eventually torn down, and service roads for a freeway.  Other slums, however, became the target of reform, and when the slum buildings were torn down, they were replaced with housing projects.

One look at housing projects on a grand scale, be it in Boston, New York, Chicago, Toronto, Baltimore, or Montreal, makes it clear what the goal was.  The architecture is obvious; the initial goal was surveillance.  At the centre of the project are large towers, surrounded by smaller buildings initially designed as townhouses.  In between the buildings is a lot of asphalt and concrete, and some trees.  They were designed to provide playgrounds for the children, meeting places for the adults, and places where teenagers and other threats to security would be on open display when they met and hung out.  In many ways, the modern housing project was Bentham's panopticon at work.  Or at least it was supposed to be.

Housing projects in any North American city today show us something else.  Built in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, they have become decrepit.  They are urban decay personified.  They seem to breed crime and fear.  The open concourses initially meant for surveillance have dacayed, the hallways of the towers now locations of crime.    

[Inside of abandoned project flat, Marcy Houses, Brooklyn]

What went wrong?  A lot.  First, the type of surveillance intended for the projects was impossible to carry out.  Budgetary commitments could never be great enough.  More than this, however, it is impossible to put people under surveillance in a free society to the degree that was intended for the projects.  Maintenance budgets were not kept up.  And many of the ideas urban planners had for public spaces failed.  They failed because concrete is not an appealing surface, especially in the hot summer months of most North American cities.  Moreover, open spaces that become wind tunnels during winter are just as unappealing.  People do not naturally congregate in hard, concrete spaces.  Any successful urban park is an obvious example of this.  People will congregate in parks that have vegetation and shade from the sun.  These housing project public spaces failed.  Rather than becoming great meeting places for the inhabitants of the project, they have become wastelands today, loci of crime.  

Hip hop emerged out of the projects of the South Bronx, before spreading around New York City.  In and of itself, of course, hip hop is just a form of musical expression.  But hard core hip hop emerged out of the gang scene in New York and Los Angeles in the late 80s, especially around artists like Boogie Down Productions (from the South Bronx) and NWA (from South-Central Los Angeles).  And many artists since have rapped about life in the projects, from the perspective of both the drug dealer and the victim of crimes.  Indeed, Jay-Z, perhaps the most popular rapper of all-time, was himself a drug dealer in the Marcy Houses projects in Brooklyn, something he refers to in his music repeatedly. 

[Marcy Houses, Brooklyn]

What hip hop does, then, in many ways, is document the failure of the housing project as a panacea for society's ills, or at least the ills of the poor.  But other forms of media do so as well, including film and TV.  In particular, the HBO series, The Wire documents the drug trade in the housing projects of Baltimore.  Indeed, in the 3rd season of the show, the notorious projects, Franklin Terrace, are torn down to great fanfare, attended by the mayor of Baltimore, as well as state politicians, and Baltimore's police force.  The demolition of the Terrace is intended to cure all that ails the inner city of Baltimore in the show.  But, as the rest of that season and subsequent seasons show, this is far from the case.

Of course, the danger here is doing exactly what the technocrats and urban planners of the mid-20th century did: to get too caught up in the idea of societal ills, disease, and so on in relation to the housing projects.  And then we forget that this is home to a lot of people, dispossessed as they may be.  Indeed, it is as De La Soul rap in their song Handsome Boy Modeling School, "The Projects"; after listing a litany of complaints about the projects, they note that "Yo, we ain't always at war/ There's a lot about the projects I do adore."  

In other words, the projects, like the urban slums before them, are more than just blights on the city. They are also the homes of real people, and this is something that must also be taken into account in any attempt to deal with crime and/or dislocation in housing projects in North America.

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