Issue #138, November/December 2004


Be It Ever So Humble


In the American idiom of good things, the importance of “home” and “community” cannot be challenged. The associated images – mom, apple pie and the picket fence – serve as anchors for our images of the American Dream. The power of these symbols would seem to protect houses and communities from destruction, but in the United States, oddly enough, homes and communities are destroyed all the time. How is this possible?

The Housing Act of 1949, the legislation that started massive destruction of urban neighborhoods, called for safe and decent housing for every American. The concept of housing for everyone bespeaks a commitment to equity and is based on the condition that the housing be “safe and decent.” Inherent in this phrase was the formulation that if the home were safe and decent, then it was good. And by contrast, if the home were blighted, then it was bad. Indeed, blighted buildings were seen as a kind of cancer that threatened the health of the urban environment, and the consensus was that such blight should be excised.

George Evans, a white city councilman writing in 1943 about Pittsburgh, argued that the black ghetto neighborhood of the Hill District was one such blighted area and, therefore, should be bulldozed. He wrote,

The Hill District of Pittsburgh is probably one of the most outstanding examples in Pittsburgh of neighborhood deterioration…There are 7,000 separate property owners, more than 10,000 dwelling units, and in all, more than 10,000 buildings. Approximately 90 percent of the buildings in the area are substandard and have long outlived their usefulness, and so there would be no social loss if they were all destroyed. The area is criss-crossed with streets running every which way, which absorb at least one-third of the area. These streets should all be vacated and a new street pattern overlaid. This would effect a saving of probably 100 acres now used for unnecessary streets.

George Evans’ comments echo those used by today’s civic leaders to justify the destruction of communities all around the United States – in the name of urban renewal. Several key elements of his comments are worth analyzing.

Neighborhood deterioration. Evans charged that the Hill District, one of the oldest sections of Pittsburgh, was an “outstanding example of neighborhood deterioration,” referring to the old buildings and dwindling infrastructure. The buildings were not just old; they were historic. Very little money had ever gone into the infrastructure of the Hill District, and many factors, including redlining, had driven investment away from the center of the city towards the outer neighborhoods and near suburbs. Evans did not have the foresight to invest in historic preservation and gentrification; he chose instead to put the neighborhood on the chopping block.

Physical=social. Evans infers that the physical state, the deterioration, of the Hill District is an indicator of its social value. Note his statement that “approximately 90 percent of the buildings in the area are substandard… and so there would be no social loss if they were all destroyed.” The “value” of the neighborhood was not rated very highly by the power structure that governed the city, but to the largely African-American residents, there was a great deal of value. In fact, in interviews, people described it to me as one of the most exciting urban scenes they’ve ever experienced.

Sala Udin, who lived in the district as a young man, and who was later elected to City Council to represent the Hill District, pointed out to me that there was a strong connection between the narrow streets and social life of the area.

The sense of community and the buildings are related, in an old area. The buildings were old, the streets were cobblestone and old, there were many small alleyways, and people lived in those alleyways. The houses were very close together. There were small walkways that ran in between the alleyways that were really a playground. So, the physical condition of the buildings helped to create a sense of community. We all lived in similar conditions and had similar complaints about the wind whipping though the gaps between the frame and the window, and the holes in the walls, and the leaking, and the toilet fixtures that work sometimes and don’t work sometimes. But that kind of common condition bound us together more as a community. I knew everybody on my block, and they knew me. They knew me on sight, and they knew all the children on sight, and my behavior changed when I entered the block. And so, I think there was a very strong sense of community.

This strong sense of community – the neighbors’ concern for the children, and the playground embedded in the byways – is just one of the many things that former Hill District residents point to as having added social worth to the neighborhood. Studies of the psychology of place underscore the special importance of “insider” knowledge, and Evans’ assessment of the social value of the Hill lacked such knowledge.

Too many streets. Beyond bulldozing old buildings, Evans wrote of reconfiguring the streets, including it as a major part of the urban renewal. The new street patterns altered the community. In the Hill District, as pointed out by Udin, the streets were fundamental to the area’s vitality. Others have spoken about the energy that used to be present on the streets. Henry Belcher, a tap dancer who learned his trade on the streets of the Hill District, told me, “The [Hill District] was amazing. There [were] people all up and down the street all the time…I would say it was like in New Orleans or something, where if something was going on, people would be out mingling. The only place that I see now that reminds me of what it used to be here is on Carson Street on the South Side. See, on Carson Street after dark, people are mingling all up and down the street and in the joints. Well, that’s the way it used to be here. All up and down Centre Avenue.”

Once, while I was walking around the Hill District with a group of local people, our group came across a small street that had been abandoned, its cobblestones overgrown with grass. “My aunt used to live here,” one woman in the group recalled. Though most of the houses had disappeared and much of what was left had fallen into ruins, the little street retained a charm, part intimacy and part seclusion. The combination of narrow side streets and alleyways lined with homes and apartments, with major thoroughfares packed with clubs and stores, made the Hill District a unique and exciting place to be. Jane Jacobs, in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, talks about the contribution a complex web of streets makes to the interest and liveliness of an urban environment. The street reconfiguration under Evans’ plan would eliminate such community encounters, and with the breakdown of this important community network, cause enormous social harm.

The premise of the Housing Act of 1949 was to create safe and decent homes for all Americans. Yet the urban renewal programs that promised better housing for all destroyed the only housing affordable to some. During the past 50 years, millions of low-income housing units have been mismanaged or destroyed. Although it would seem, at first glance, that old, beat-up housing is worthless, what I have learned is that it is an irreplaceable asset not only for the people who live there, but also for the rest of society. Furthermore, the “blighted” houses formed neighborhoods, and those, too, were demolished at great cost to the area residents and the nation. The destruction of affordable buildings and neighborhoods has created an epidemic of homelessness, inhibited the start of new businesses, delayed the independence and family formation of young adults and stifled the rebuilding of strong neighborhood-based communities.

I first visited the Hill District in 1997, just as the rhetoric of “blighted neighborhood” was being trotted out again, to justify a new round of housing destruction, this time under the rubric of the federal government’s HOPE VI program. People who had known the Hill in its heyday were horrified to hear a repeat of the propaganda that had torn up their neighborhoods 40 years before. In my interviews, the old-timers began to speak up, and a half-century of grief came welling up: The unspoken sorrow for the lost home had lingered for more years than anyone had imagined. Outside observers, who had declared that poor African-American neighborhoods had no social value, and that the people in those neighborhoods had minimal attachments to their precarious homes, were proven wrong. On waves of sorrow and rage rides the true story of the magnitude of the loss when the Lower Hill was stripped of its tightly packed tenements and messy streets.

As I listened to their stories and felt their emotions, I came to understand that the loss had a massive, collective quality that was not captured in our existing language. It reminded me of the experience of plants that are yanked from the ground and go into a period of root shock. It is the injury to the network of roots that causes the whole organism of the plant to droop, and possibly to die. For people who have been forced from their neighborhoods, and who lost the network of connections that made life possible and even fabulous, root shock is a certain result. The existence of root shock teaches us how important neighborhoods are.

In the upwelling of emotion among Hill District residents, one might recall that simple old truism, “Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.” What also matters, I believe, is that every home is a castle because it functions as such: guarding the family huddled inside from the dangers of the storm and the fear of the night. People who cheerfully set out to redo others’ environments would do well to remember this simple and eternal truth.

Mindy Thompson Fullilove is a professor of clinical psychiatry and public health at Columbia University. She conducts research on the relationship between the structure of cities and residents’ mental health. She is the author of Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do About It (Ballantine, 2004), which explores urban renewal in the 1950s and the consequences of neighborhood destruction.