Foote Homes: Better to Rehab than to Destroy – The Paradox of HUD Programs

Foote Homes

Memphis   After a 30-year HUD led program to obliterate public housing in the USA, there probably isn’t any more quixotic campaign than to try and save the “last public housing project in Memphis,” as Robert Lipscomb, head of the Memphis Public Housing Authority calls the 497 unit Foote Homes, but there I was huddled in a conference room of the University of Memphis with more than 20 community activists and organizers, church people, property owners around Vance Avenue, and students and professors at Rhodes and the University of Memphis, and it was a fascinating and exciting session.

meeting about Foote Homes

If we had good sense, we would all just walk away since the odds of winning are so long, but there were two reasons it was impossible to do so:

  • Residents of Foote Homes actually wanted to stay there and have the homes rebuilt rather than being spread out in the diaspora of Memphis in Section 8 housing.  One survey after another from outside groups had found significant majorities who wanted to stay at Foote and improve the housing rather than being force marched elsewhere in town.   Not surprisingly, the structural surveys of the homes had found they were sound and well-built, and in fact would invariably be better and more affordable housing than what would replace Foote Homes.  Whenever people are this clear, especially about public housing, attention must be paid!
  • Another clue turned out to have been that Foote Homes is in fact not only unique, but historical.  Each set of buildings is centered by expansive parks and grounds with recreation and relaxation facilities located there.  Having looked at hundreds of housing projects over 40 years, I was immediately struck as I drove by on the way to the meeting at how physically attractive the landscape and building sitings were.  Not surprisingly it turned out that the design had been done in the heyday of the so-called “City Beautiful” movement.  As historic, was the fact that the actually design was done by two African-American architects who worker for the Olmstead firm famous for Central and Prospect Parks in NYC and many others around the country.

The more we talked, the more I started to believe there were real prospects for a campaign to protect the housing project, or at least a large part of it, and to deliver solid community benefits agreement for Foote Homes as well.   The public “narrative” changes when the public realizes that residents want to stay in their homes because these are better homes and that it has incalculable meaning for history and culture of the community not far from the highly touted Civil Rights Museum in Memphis and Martin Luther King’s assassination.

Talking, it turned out that there were people and organizations that were excited about helping the residents file an application for historic and landmark designation.  What an accomplishment that would be!  And, so richly deserved.

Oh, and HUD cannot finance the demolition of any project with historic designation.  This campaign might just be a winner!

playground at Foote Homes

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Jane Jacobs Meeting Robert Moses in New Orleans

Protest where people dressed in their Jane Jacobs eyeglasses

New Orleans    For decades Robert Caro’s Power Broker, a biography of New York City’s parks, ports, bridges, and roads czar Robert Moses, has been required reading for community organizers interested in understanding how power works in cities.  Jane Jacobs of course was the author and planning aficionado best known for her advocacy of human scale community development.  Roberta Gratz, our neighbor, wrote a book (The Battle for Gotham:  New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs) about their conflict some years ago and was going to give a lecture on how their shadows could still be seen on the New Orleans landscape, so it was bound to be an interesting hour at the Historic New Orleans Collection on Royal Street to hear her remarks.

I had been attracted to the lecture because I had thought she was speaking about shrinking city footprints, which is a critical organizing issue these days.  That turned out not to be the real drift of Roberta’s remarks though it was fascinating to hear her point about a Brooklyn land survey finding more than 500 acres of undeveloped property in the city, making that amount larger than Prospect Park!  The real sharpness of her critique was on the Moses-like attempts to create state authorities over local land use and development without any accountability.

She correctly drew direct comparisons in New Orleans to some of the controversial Moses strategies of public control that authorizes the Bio-District developing a so-called medical corridor for the new Veterans’ Hospital and replacement for Charity Hospital.  The outsized footprint of the hospitals she argued would create a suburban-like city center competitor driving businesses and services out of the core central business district to the magnetized health facilities.  She predicted that they would end up requiring subsidizes and would not deliver new jobs or enterprises as promised. The virtually all-white French Quarter and uptown crowd wildly applauded these remarks.  They were equally enthusiastic about her critique of a newly state proposed Tourism District that would not involve the immediate planned destruction as the Mid-City hospital district had, but amassed $11 million for marketing that was seen as unnecessary and she warned that an unaccountable authority in the Moses-model could keep annexing more area and power having already claimed even the Treme neighborhood as part of its footprint.  She argued that this district was little more than a hotel development stalking horse.

One of the key components of the Moses-model was the ability to control public revenue streams which Gratz did not mention.  The authority may have been the Moses hammer, but the money from his ability to control bridge tolls and other streams provided the muscle that moved the tools.  In a city where one of the proposals for renaming the local basketball team is to call us the New Orleans Poor Boys and in a state which is not hesitating in its guerrilla war against the city to transfer power and control, revenue is still the delimiting factor in plans no matter how grand.

Gratz had the dignified crowd whooping when she raised the Jacobs arguments against one current streetcar plan that would extend the line for tourists near the behemoth Morial Convention Center and not farther downtown along St. Claude in our Bywater neighborhood.  She related an Jacobs-like development axiom:  “…do it for locals, visitors will come…do it for tourists and the locals will leave eventually.”  That’s worth thinking about some more.  Another line about “authentic regeneration” is also intriguing along with a Jacobs term she cited about something called, “cataclysmic money,” all of which I need to consider longer and weigh harder.

The contradictions and ironies in the crowd were hard to avoid.

Gratz took incoming hits during the question period for her criticism of the cloistering of Armstrong Park and her comparisons to the earlier planning disaster of Grant Park in New York City.  She made an interesting point about letting people decide by waiting to build sidewalks until it was possible to recognize the “desire paths” that people chose to walk.

She let the crowd off easily by not defining the passage of the Community Reinvestment Act as having been specifically passed in 1978 by ACORN and others to end racial discrimination in lending, but soft pedaling it more as something that moved the banks to lend more to neighborhoods.  Also unspoken was the obvious points that might have lost her the support of many in this particular room had she pointed out the fact that nowhere is an unaccountable and undemocratic state control in the city in more dramatic evidence than the usurpation of the local school system which still goes largely unchallenged and in power almost eight years after Katrina.

Nonetheless, anyone listening carefully would be hard pressed to escape the conclusions and the dire warnings that hung from Roberta’s words at almost every turn.

Jane Jacobs
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