Whence You Came, Whither You Go:
A Reaction to Andres Duany's Urban Vision For Urban Ecology
by Mike Pyatok
Upon reading Andres Duany's recent interview in Urban Ecology (Spring 2001), I found myself nodding in agreement for nearly 90 percent of his comments. It made me realize once again what I have always contended: Within my generation there matured a slice of the design professions that consistently felt uncomfortable with the tenets put forth by our schools and the culture at large as to how to develop new communities and revitalize older ones. Much of the new urbanism (a style of town planning that emphasizes mixed–use, pedestrian–oriented development, usually in suburban settings, of which Duany is a leading practitioner) is a congealing of sympathies that arose organically from the 1960s against radical individualism and the use of environmental design for artistic heroics. We recognized a social responsibility to use our skills not for self aggrandizement or the promotion of private profit motives, but for the improvement of all societies by intelligently blending their cultures with the planet’s resources. There are no titanium extravaganzas in this crowd, thank you. And not surprisingly, we had our counterparts in the previous generation of modernists, for these issues do not go away, although they take on new forms with new realities.
I have also discovered—as my generation has now matured into, and some already through, our 50s — that where one originated in this journey–of–life–and–ideas greatly tempered where one chose to go. Those who originated in the comfortable middle classes from suburbs or smaller towns have a built–in understanding of the flaws and benefits of such peoples and their places, which those of us who originated from within the underclasses and have lived only within the inner–city core can never fully appreciate. I admire the zeal and zest of all my colleagues who are tackling the conditions of sprawl. While I can intellectually identify with their tenets, and have even applied them in such conditions before they became principles of a Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) manifesto, my emotional connection at some deep primordial level was never there. I simply rationally attempted to correct a problem I saw, but I hated visiting these sites in the suburbs for fear I would get lost in some nearby maze of forever curving streets with dead ends, bearing pretentious French–sounding names, like cul–de–sac.
What amazes me about some of my colleagues among the new urbanists is the passion they can muster for these places and peoples who have chosen, and who are now stuck with, the sprawling conditions at the edge. I admire their tenacity and genuine love for overcoming something so deeply built into the structure of our economic, social, and cultural life. Unfortunately, I am an urban rat, disfigured by my origins and afflicted forever with the narrowness of a provincial inner–city dweller. As much as I understand the complete regional interdependence of cities and their sprawling edges, if there is to be a division of labor, I had best stick with what I know best. I am the son of a welfare single parent raised within Brooklyn’s tenements, and so the heart of the inner city is the source of all my personal loves and hates. I never forsake my roots, so it is where I have always chosen to live and work.
A Mistaken Housing Path
And this is why for 10 percent of Duany’s interview I began to shake my head in a negative fashion: when he touched upon the problems of poverty and ways of dealing with it. For example: “The only way I know how to keep housing affordable is to do a lousy job, use the HUD system of giv[ing] people horrible design, and you can be damn sure it will remain affordable. I don’t know any other way.” No other way is Duany’s way of describing how the uncontrollable conditions of the marketplace can treat housing as a commodity. Good design under the free market will be sold or rented upward to whatever the market will bear and bad design will be rejected, left to those who have little choice, thereby keeping it affordable. Except the free market is not so simple because there are profoundly ugly buildings in locations that command very high prices and some beautiful older housing stock that goes begging for owners and investors. Other forces are at play, creating pockets of poverty and wealth, which have little to do with good or bad design. Neither description of real estate is an adequate measure of the vitality of a poor or rich neighborhood, or of the merits of their residents or their social order.
It is this lack of full appreciation for the richness of life and culture in neighborhoods of poverty and the paucity of such culture in some communities of comfort that can distort CNU’s pursuit of economic and social justice. The mistake that so many people like Duany make is to believe that if neighborhoods are poor then their residents must be impoverished. The most glaring example of this naivete is the CNU’s embrace and support for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s HOPE VI program. HOPE VI is a HUD program begun under Bush and revised during the Clinton era, that takes as its major goal the eradication of “severely distressed” public housing and its replacement with mixed–income, low–rise developments that “lessen concentrations of poverty.”
When he says that “we know how to make affordable housing but we do not know how to maintain it as affordable,” he is admitting that the market mechanism does not work for people whose incomes cannot compete in local housing markets. First–time affordable homes for sale lose their affordability after the first sale unless there is government assistance or resale deed restrictions. So his solution of using bad design to devalue housing ignores other mechanisms for intervening in the ruthless marketplace by altering the present system of government subsidies in the production and distribution of housing.
Existing tax laws favor homeowners, providing them with over $100 billion a year in subsidies, with 60 percent of that going to the top 20 percent of homeowners. Low–income renters nationwide are getting housing aid at a rate equal to less than one quarter of that amount, and they get no tax relief for being without property. The new urbanists should be attacking this system of imbalanced housing subsidies with as much passion as they attack imbalanced government support of highways over mass transit or separated land uses over mixed use or unchecked sprawl. They need to be fighting in favor of the progressive redistributive role of government and against a regressive one. They should be fighting for expanding government assistance in those programs that encourage self–help bootstrapping and not squandering resources on real–estate–development schemes.
An Alternative to HOPE VI
Here is where I part with the New Urbanists like Duany because they fear that such a battle may cast them as coming from — horrors of all horrors — ’old liberal thought’ he called it. This may discredit them in the eyes of the very sources of established power they want to sidle up to in order to achieve at least a portion of their agenda. As they like to recite, “Politics is the art of the possible.” Well, the inner–city poor are simply tired of this kind of whining and compromising by middle–class professionals. Maybe this is one more example of the differences that social and geographic origins imprint on what planners and architects see as appropriate ways to deal with the injustices of our system.
Which leads us to HUD’s HOPE VI program. Duany asserts, as do many of CNU’s apologists for HOPE VI, that concentrations of poverty are pathological and the people who live in such conditions by association are socially unhealthy. The best thing that can be done for them is to disperse most of them with vouchers and import people in their place who are less prone to be socially diseased because they have higher incomes. This position ignores the fact that the rip–off artists of the savings–and–loan scandal were all wealthy people; that shady contracts between the military and industry are created by economically very comfortable people; that daily insider trading is common thievery practiced by financially comfortable people; that the string of recent school shootings is occurring within comfortable white suburban communities.
Let me be very clear here. The rates of certain types of crime are higher in lower–income areas, but most of these are related directly or indirectly to a drug economy that is forced by government policy to be underground, expensive, and hence dangerous. The loss of the manufacturing sector throughout the United States since the 1950s, and the halving of union membership related to it, has pulled the economic base out from under such communities. The resultant broken homes and domestic disorder and abuse are contributing as much, if not more, to abysmal student performance and high drop–out rates than white flight from the schools.
It is an assumption of the outsider perspective that signs of physical disrepair, low student achievement, and drug addiction mean there is no value at all to such neighborhoods, and, as if it were their own fault, they must be eradicated. HOPE VI is built on the premise that people of higher incomes are morally superior and must be imported into low–income communities to bring balance. As many as half of the existing very–low–income tenants must be given vouchers to leave the area. It also assumes that all of the existing public housing must be torn down and, at best, only half of it rebuilt for the very–low–income households previously served. This program is not only displacing a portion of the present generation of tenants, it is also not replacing this type of housing stock to assist future generations who may find themselves with very low incomes.
For those of us who have lived and worked most of our personal and professional lives in such communities, these views are despicably simplistic, elitist, and socially twisted by an addiction to the market economy, which treasures only that which is physically new and only those who are presently capable of surviving in the competitive marketplace. The insider perspective might see a HOPE VI program shaped something like this. Instead of spending $250,000 to $300,000 per unit to rebuild the housing:
a) invest only 20 percent of the financial resources into modestly improving the existing housing stock and site plans ($50,000 to $60,000 per unit). Whatever is done, do not create exaggerated, trumped–up or outright falsified studies (in some cases) that depict public housing as in such disrepair that it must be torn down. Every CNU architect who is doing this work must admit they were told from the start that, if a local housing authority is to get access to these funds, it must find a way, whatever it takes, to prove the existing stock is not worth saving. This practice should cease immediately.
b) By saving the existing stock with modest improvements there is no need to ask half the residents to leave with vouchers. They can remain in place as needed repairs or site–plan adjustments are made gradually in phases.
c) With 60 percent of the funds ($150,000 to 180,000 per household), invest in the entrepreneurial spirit already in place, spread over a five–year period, by creating:
•serious job training programs on site with extensive, high–quality child care;
•provide micro–loans to create home–based businesses and provide small business management and marketing training for family–based enterprises;
•change local zoning laws to allow many types of home–based business, even light industrial manufacturing, and redesign existing units to absorb these new uses or add Butler buildings to the sites for rent–free work space;
•make available a substantial after school tutorial program;
•renovate apartments and homes to create in–home secondary units set aside exclusively for college students to move into the area with reduced, or free, rent in return for specified after–school tutorial services;
d) With the remaining 20 percent, give each family a $50,00 to $60,000 educational trust fund, whose annual interest would help defray some of their offspring’s expenses for higher education and, in the near term, provide short–term rewards for good grades in elementary, junior high, and high school. The trust fund moves on to another family once all offspring have grown beyond their mid–20s or completed their first advanced degrees.
This approach places the real–estate investment clearly in a secondary position while building the social capital becomes the primary investment. No one is asked to disappear into the sunset with vouchers. This is the main difference between the outsider and insider perspectives. There will be no magazine–ready photos of cute front porches and instant stage–set bucolic communities, nor any bogus academic post–occupancy evaluations that ignore the lives of those who left with vouchers. But there will be thriving, energetic, up–and–coming people with stories and photos not suited to architectural journals and 30–second TV sound bytes.
So I commend my colleagues in the CNU for their sophistication in dealing with the comfortable yet misguided masses that have fled to the suburbs. This is where I can agree with 90 percent of their work. But in the 10 percent where I disagree, the revitalization of our under–invested urban communities, I cannot help but think of the recent findings that chimpanzees and humans are 94 percent genetically identical. It is that last 6 percent that makes all the difference in the world. Pronouncements like Duany’s in his interview with Urban Ecology and the continued CNU support for HOPE VI, make me sometimes angry, sometimes ashamed, and make me decide once again to pass up another of their annual conferences.