9.11.05

CORNEILLE DE JAMES? Identify the speaker:
"What can a young person hope for who is born in a soulless neighborhood, lives in an ugly building, surrounded by other ugliness, gray walls on a gray landscape for a gray life, while all around him there is a society that prefers to look away and only intervenes when it has to get angry and forbid things?"
If you said Lyndon Johnson in 1965, give yourself a "Good Try." The editors of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel attribute this to Francois Miterrand in 1999. They elaborate.

Americans who remember the riots that hit our big cities in the 1960s and '70s may be perplexed by what's happening in France. According to a recent New York Times article, the physical conditions in the Paris housing projects hit by the current violence are not as dire as those in poor urban neighborhoods of America. The public schools in these places are better, French social welfare programs are generously financed, crime is less rampant, health care and education are free and family ties are strong. So what gives?

What gives is the emergence of an underclass that, like a counterpart in the United States, suffers from jobless rates that are much higher than those of French citizens generally. This underclass consists largely of young Muslim immigrants whose parents or grandparents came to France from northern Africa in search of work. The children were born and raised in France and have few remaining ties to North Africa. The immigrants have no jobs, no prospects, no roots, no hope and no identity.

Let Mohammed lead me and de Villepin feed me? Were the public schools of Watts or the poorer parts of Detroit or of Newark or of Milwaukee better in the mid-1960s than they were now? Was crime less rampant then? Were family ties stronger? How well funded were the Great Society programs of those days? The perplexitude the editors identify might reflect their own inability to grasp the history. What I'm learning about the riot-torn banlieus of France suggests lessons learned by urban housing authorities in the States never got translated into French. North Africans housed in isolated high-rise housing projects? Are the relevant banlieus separated by expressways and railway tracks from the more prosperous quarters? How like Chicago's Robert Taylor Homes. Were these high rises conceived by intellectuals? How very like St. Louis's unlamented Pruitt-Igoe towers.
Yet for all the criticisms, little is known about why Pruitt-Igoe was designed as a massive high-rise project in the first place. One popular theory blames the Swiss architect, Le Corbusier, and his influential conception of a modernist city of high rises. Another points to segregationist policies aimed at confining African-American residential areas to the inner city. Perhaps the most widely accepted theory holds that the federal Public Housing Administration's (PHA) restrictive cost guidelines for public-housing construction required the construction of a megalithic high-rise project.
Certainement. No bad idea lasts quite so well as your own bad idea. In France, perhaps the bad idea has greater staying power. In St. Louis, despite the grand intellectual pedigree of what the powers-that-be called urban renewal and the resources to build a better class of khrushchoba (also Corbusier-inspired??) the high rises have pretty much bit the dust. (The same rethinking is coming to the universities, where high-rise dorms of the same era are slowly being replaced.)

Under pressure from [newly elected mayor Joseph] Darst to move forward, in January 1950 the St. Louis Housing Authority revived the City Plan Commission's redevelopment scheme for the DeSoto-Carr neighborhood. Meanwhile architects George Hellmuth and Minoru Yamasaki -- who had been hired at Darst's insistence -- persuaded the authority to adopt modernist-style high-rise designs for public housing. The first of these was Cochran Gardens, which later won architectural awards. This was followed by a much larger-scale plan for Pruitt-Igoe which, when completed, contained 2,870 dwelling units in 33 eleven-story buildings.

These structures were no anomaly. Instead, the Pruitt-Igoe project was the product of a larger vision of St. Louis government and business leaders who wanted to rebuild their city into a Manhattan on the Mississippi. Other redevelopment schemes of the time, for example, placed middle- and high-income residents in buildings that actually rivaled Pruitt-Igoe in height and scale.

Yes, that Minoru Yamasaki. He's perhaps best known for the late World Trade Center, but notice some of the same design elements at Butler, Oberlin, and Wayne State.

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