TOPICS > Politics

Extended Interview: Historian Arnold Hirsch

April 1, 2008 at 12:00 AM EDT

ARNOLD HIRSCH: I’m a professor of history at the University of New Orleans. My formal title is the Ethel and Hermann L. Midlow Endowed Chair for New Orleans Studies and University Research Professor of History.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Your area of expertise is public housing, right?

ARNOLD HIRSCH: My area of expertise is race and urban development and I’ve done work on housing policy.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: So when this country decided to build public housing, what was the goal of doing that?

ARNOLD HIRSCH: There were a number of goals in the initial public housing program. One was simply a jobs program to help us get out of the Depression. The second facet of that was the desire to get the construction trades going in the industrial sector. And third, there was housing reform and the attempt to give temporary help to the transient poor — people who were seen as being down on their luck, through the circumstances beyond their control, and then just needed a helping hand to get back to work and move up the social ladder again.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: So the initial idea was to give people temporary help?

ARNOLD HIRSCH: It was not seen as permanent developments for people to go and live in through the generations. It was generally viewed as a way station where people could take a timeout, get a break on their rent, get a job, save some money, move on and open it up for the next family to follow.

Rise of modern public housing

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And when did that change?

ARNOLD HIRSCH: The purpose of social reform as the core of public housing really changes in the post-World War II period. There's a shift from the use of public housing as a temporary way station for people in giving them a hand up, to its transition to a depository for people who lived on inner city property that was desired for redevelopment or slum clearance. Post-World War II was a booming period, suburbs grew, housing grew, inner cities were being redeveloped and the cities which were overcrowded needed a place to relocate people off of crowded, densely populated city land. And the difficulty there was that you couldn't start a development until you rehoused people. You had to empty one location before you could bring in the bulldozers and clear it out.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Because of federal regulations?

ARNOLD HIRSCH: Just because of the practicality of it. The people needed somewhere to go. They were literally living two and three families to an apartment. You had six-room apartment buildings, six apartment buildings converted into 18 two-room apartment buildings. One bathroom serving all of them. People were living in buses and abandoned cars and stables. The housing shortage after World War II was really a disaster that had to be coped with. And so that was the first problem that anybody that wanted to redevelop the inner city faced. Where do you put the people who were occupying the land that you need?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: So how did all of this develop into these giant complexes that looked like army barracks, full of second, third-generation mostly women with no husbands, no man around, children, crime, drugs?

ARNOLD HIRSCH: The high-rise buildings really come in the 1950s and 60s. Everybody's strapped of money. There's a shortage of financing for these projects. And so high rise construction was seen as the cheapest way to handle that problem. Certainly not viewed at the time as the best way to raise small children, having to run down 20 flights of stairs when the elevators are broken to play outside. But it was a way to get people off of a redevelopment-slated area and into an area that would be less controversial.

And the difficulty here of course was in site selection then you do run into the problem of race. And here in this transition period public housing is also changing over from being a mixed-race program to one that will be identified largely as a black program, African American program. Because the sites selected for the public housing high rises were invariably either in all-black neighborhoods, mixed-race neighborhoods that were changing to all black, or border areas. They were seen as being on the way to becoming racially transitional neighborhoods. And so whites generally fled the program in the 50s and 60s and they became identified as an all-black program.

A successful beginning

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Has public housing as you've just described its history, until this change in policy came a few years ago--has it been a success or a failure?

ARNOLD HIRSCH: That's an interesting question. The earliest public housing in the 30s, if you go back in, and there are several books out, written on the tenants themselves that gives their testimony. They looked back on those days of the first generation of public housing the 30s and early 40s with a lot of fond memories.

There were two-parent households. Tenants were screened. They were checked. They had home visits before they were admitted to the program. The early generation, the first generation, they were viewed as a success. They said that they recreated their communities, they swept their stoops. They sat out on the sidewalk at night. They had the communal sense to take care of the children of the development: to watch them play, to watch them crossing the street. And the housing for them in the 30s and 40s was a step up.

The slums that grew out of the 1920s and 1930s, the Great Depression years, years of housing shortage of World War II and immediately following, conditions were terrible in the inner cities. People were living in basements and attics and buses, abandoned cars. To get away from all that to public housing was seen as a real step up. It was new, it was modern, it was well constructed, relatively, given the facts of poor housing at the time.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: So in the beginning it was successful?

ARNOLD HIRSCH: I would say through the 30s there were evidences of this yes, there were signs that it could be successful and that it was succeeding in some places.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And what about after the transition -- say for the last 30 years. Has it been a failure?

ARNOLD HIRSCH: Well, I think it's become something it was never intended to become and it has failed in so many ways. Both for the residents and for the larger society. But I think that is a function of the fact that the fate and welfare of the tenants was never the top priority of the program. The needs and purposes of public housing changed with the post-war period. Change from Democrat to Republican administration. Changed to the Eisenhower era from the New Deal, and the ideal was to emphasize the economic significance of urban renewal, which was a shift away from slum clearance and urban redevelopment which characterized the 40s. You weren't helping the poorest of the poor. The subsidies were going to the developers and the middle class and the renovators and the rehabbers.

'Ultimately a failure'

BETTY ANN BOWSER: As a matter of social policy has public housing been successful or a failure?

ARNOLD HIRSCH: Ultimately I would have to say it's a failure. And I say that with great reticence. There's always going to be a need to subsidize housing for those who can't afford it. Housing is the single biggest ticket item any family could attempt to purchase. Poor people don't have the wherewithal to purchase, at a profit for the builder, that kind of an item. And so there's going to be a gap.

And then that's where the trickle down theory's supposed to come in that the well-to-do buy second homes, or a third home so they move and they constantly keep construction trades going. The old housing filters down to the poor and pretty soon everybody's taken care of. But we know there's a residual that's never going to be taken care of. And the question is what happens there. If you view that as a temporary problem due to economic circumstances, like a Great Depression, you've devised a program that would temporarily help those people out of their plight and get them back on the way to recovery. If you see it as society's producing a sort of permanent problem here in terms of people can't afford decent housing, then you have a difficulty, especially if they occupy certain locations that are then desirable for other reasons.

The interesting thing here is that cities change. They're living creatures. What is undesirable in one area, one generation is very desirable in the next. And so you could have a site like a Cabrini Green in Chicago which transitioned from an Italian immigrant neighborhood to a public housing neighborhood cornered in the African American community is now gone.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: So take a St. Bernard or a St. Thomas or Pete or BW Cooper or Lafitte in New Orleans...

ARNOLD HIRSCH: The earliest projects of the first ones built were really rather centrally located. And they're all low rise so you don't have that kind of high-rise construction in New Orleans. But they're all centrally located. There were new amenities and services. They were near bus lines and shopping districts and walking distance from various services and so forth, but the second round of projects that was built later in the 60s especially and key to the civil rights era and the redevelopment of the downtown areas, those were more isolated in their site selection ... New Orleans was a city that had a long tradition of having shared neighborhoods. Not till government projects came in and they begin to clear land and populate their projects with all of one race or another did you get neighborhoods divided racially.

Future of public housing

BETTY ANN BOWSER: [What do you think of the federal government's] vision of the future of public housing: that if they will build places like River Garden, and if they will have three income levels of people, the very poor, the people with low income and then people who can afford market value housing all in the same community, and they're not building these things high rise, they're building town homes, apartments, tree lined streets, manicured lawns--do you think they'll work?

ARNOLD HIRSCH: I have a desire to see them work and a skepticism that eats at me a little bit when I contemplate the chances of their pulling it off.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: What is the skepticism?

ARNOLD HIRSCH: The historical background to it, that any number of plans have been tried in the name of reform that have not come close to achieving their goal. I think the numbers that are tossed out there in terms of housing available to poor people are perhaps cavalierly arrived at in some cases. And the real problem becomes one of checking these things out and seeing what is it that you can really do. How many units really exist for poor people that are inaccessible to them where they will be accepted?

The other problem here is that these neighbors that have grown up around public housing have created their own social networks. They're familial networks, they're social networks, they're institutional networks, they're religious and fraternal organizations. People have built a dense human settlement even in the poorest of the housing, the poorest of the neighborhoods. And that has provided a support system in the absence of the state where people have drawn on their own resources to help them get by on a day to day basis. When you clear out an area and rip all that up, that's another form of subsidy that's being drawn out of the poor community

[...] People live their lives in the short run every day. You can't take somebody out of a home, and then tell them to come back in two or three years with another one. They have kids that have to be in school. They need shelter over their heads. They need a place to live in the short run. Maybe they can find that in town with relatives, maybe they have to go to Atlanta or Birmingham or Houston. In the wake of a Katrina it may be further than that.

And then they get drawn away. They start over. They get established or not get established but they're taken out of the community, taken out of that network that was a resource for them here in New Orleans. And when that happens, a cost is incurred. I don't know how you would calculate this in dollars and cents

[...]The only thing that you could be really assured of in one of these programs is that one, you're going to uproot thousands of people, and two, you're going to immediately in the short run reduce the supply of housing. Everything beyond that is conjecture. And you have to look at the track record and the past programs to see if in fact they work it out or not. And I don't think the record's been very good.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Is this essentially privatizing public housing?

ARNOLD HIRSCH: It is essentially privatizing public housing and what we find out is that as with so many other things that we tended to privatize that are inherently unprivatizable, the ends may be stated to be social reform and social uplift and assistance to the poor, but we don't confront that problem head on. And as long as we do that, what we will get is economic development and subsidized growth but thousands are left out of that program because they are not able to be helped at a profit.