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by jack burnett-stuart

Rookeries and Model Dwellings

In nineteenth century London, a campaign for housing reform succeeded in completely liquidating the notorious rookeries, old pockets of the inner city that housed large numbers of the urban poor in the meanest, most crowded conditions.[1] It is perhaps forgotten today that the concern of the reformers was not simply that the physical conditions were unhealthy, but that they also contributed directly to the “moral corruption” of the people who lived there, condemning them to a life of vice and crime. These concerns were linked in the minds of the reformers by the metaphor of disease. On the one hand there was the mystery and resulting fear of the spread of contagious disease, on the other hand the fear of the largely hidden and unregulated lives of a new class of urban poor, brought into being by the rapid growth and industrialization of the city.

What were the physical conditions that needed to be eliminated in order to cure this physical/ moral disease? The rookeries had not originally been built for the poor: they were once better off parts of the city that had fallen into decay and adapted to the lives of the poor. The new patterns of inhabitation within these old, sometimes fine buildings disturbed the reformers in two ways. First, large townhouses originally built for one household had been subdivided in a seemingly haphazard, unstructured way that was unfathomable to the outsider, whether reformer, debt collector, or policeman. There was no clear distinction between public and private space, passage and dwelling, rooms with multiple doors were linked together with labyrinthine complexity. Second, whole families occupied single rooms; this was not just a problem of overcrowding, it was also morally suspect.

The housing type proposed by the reformers, the forerunner of twentieth century housing, was based on the multiplication of a rigidly defined spatial unit for a hitherto uncrystallized social unit, the nuclear family. All the apparent ambiguities, and therefore supposed dangers, of the rookeries were erased. Not only were private and public spheres clearly delineated, as space within the apartment and minimized circulation space outside, but the space inside the apartments was also rigidly structured, according to the morals of the reformers, into separate rooms for the various members of the family. Needless to say, the initial reaction of the slum-dwellers to the improved housing was not favorable: it blew apart a social structure that was, for all its ills, the only world they knew. In the long term, however, the ideals of the reformers, in the guise of concern for public health, prevailed. The rookeries were demolished, freeing land for road improvements, development and some social housing. Their populations, and with them the danger they represented to Victorian society, were dispersed.

The New Aliso Village

Aliso Village, built in 1942, is part of the Pico Aliso public housing on the “Flats” between the Los Angeles River and Boyle Heights. The two-story buildings, grouped around yards entered through breeze-ways, now house a predominantly Latino community. To the outsider, the buildings appear shabby, but not particularly foreboding. At the weekend, the space around the buildings is full of life, typical of many poorer neighborhoods in the city: gardening, car repair, bathing in paddling pools. But not so many outsiders probably venture to take a look: the impression given by the media is of a gang-dominated war zone. Whatever the true nature of the gang problem, one senses that there is much more to the culture of Aliso Village than the gangs alone.[2]

In June 1998, the Los Angeles City housing authority declared the buildings to be structurally unsafe, requiring twenty-three units to be vacated in the coming months. As housing officials themselves admit, the danger is in fact slight: it is part of a strategy to qualify for HOPE VI federal funding for the Housing Authority’s planned redevelopment of Aliso Village. It also happens to be a convenient way to begin to empty the project of residents, not all of who are in agreement with these plans. The redevelopment foresees nothing less than the complete demolition of the 685-unit project and its reincarnation as town-house type apartments. In the words of Don Smith, Executive Director of the Housing Authority, “This project is old and can’t be modernized. It is obsolete and needs to be torn down.” If only it were that simple. Not only will the community be dispersed during the construction, but a mere 469 units will be built to replace the existing 685. Of the new 469 units, just 403 will be reserved for returning residents. The remaining 66 units will be “For Sale” affordable housing units, designed to attract better-off residents into the area; these units will be grouped together as a separate enclave, not mixed into the public housing. At a time of an acute housing shortage, the number of units is actually being reduced.[3]

The stated reason for rebuilding rather than repair is funding: there are said to be no federal funds available for the estimated $66 million cost of rehabilitation. For 685 units this works out at $96,000 per unit, which is probably a gross overestimation of the cost of a rehab. On the other hand, a $23 million HUD grant will be available to put towards the cost of rebuilding, estimated at $85 million, excluding a further $8.5 million for demolition and the relocation of the residents.

It is clearly absurd to compare the costs of repairing or rebuilding a whole neighborhood as if it were a simple choice between repairing an old car or buying a new one. There are the enormous social costs to be considered: the choice between repairing and rebuilding necessarily affects the community as much as the buildings that house it. Repair means to invest in the existing social structure. Demolition and rebuilding means to destroy and reconstitute the social structure, in this case, as a mixed income community with a completely new spatial organization. The displacement of the existing residents is not considered a problem: it will supposedly by taken up by Section 8 vouchers. “Research shows that when they go out to those areas [with Section 8 assistance], they don’t come back,” says Housing Authority spokesman George McQuade. “They like the lifestyle, they make new friends.”[4] End of problem.

Social manipulation, as shown by the story of the rookeries, has always been an undercurrent of housing policy. HUD’s HOPE VI program, which will fund the “New Aliso Village,” is its latest twist: it is no longer slums that are to be demolished, it is public housing itself.[5] The aim is to reduce density and create a mixed-income environment, “to make the poor blend in with everyone else,” in the words of HUD officials. The New Urbanist townhouse is the new model dwelling. In contrast to previous HUD policy, apartments no longer need to be replaced one-for-one: nationally, 100,000 units are being destroyed, to be replaced by a mere 40,000 new ones. Section 8 vouchers, however, are unlikely make up the shortfall because private landlords, at least in Los Angeles, are increasingly shunning Section 8, finding it possible to get higher rents on the free market.[6] There may well be housing projects in the country that are so bad that the only reasonable option is demolition, but this must be decided on a case by case basis, rather than being a blanket policy. Aliso Village hardly seems to require such radical treatment. Aliso Village is not even particularly dense: there are certainly no tower-blocks there. Is there any sense, from a wider perspective, to having a housing policy in Los Angeles that aims to reduce density, contributing further to the sprawl that disadvantages the transit-dependent poor most of all? How is the town-house supposed to ‘blend in’ with Los Angeles, where it is an entirely foreign building type. No one seems to have considered such obvious questions.

Why then does the Housing Authority really want to be rid of Aliso Village? Clearly some people stand to make a lot more money from rebuilding rather than repair. But perhaps the story of the rookeries also holds a clue: the fear of an unknown culture in the midst of the city. Not knowing how to deal with the problems, there is always the temptation of starting afresh. Is today’s obsession with “gang infestation” and “hiding places for gangs” in fact so different to the Victorian obsession with disease? The real tragedy of the situation is that if poverty, rather than gang activity, is the real problem facing Aliso Village, the community structure is its greatest strength and potential. By opposing the plans of the Housing Authority, the community is now seen to be part of the problem; the poor are supposed to accept what public housing they are offered gratefully, not to question the policies of the Housing Authority. The redevelopment will destroy the irreplaceable asset of a strong, motivated community and do nothing about the poverty.

A Note of Optimism: Berlin 1998

Comparisons may be odious, but the contrast presented by the renovation of a housing project in Berlin shows that public housing does not have to be managed in this way. The housing authorities of West Berlin have done their share of damage in the past: whole areas of Wedding and Kreuzberg were erased in the 1960s and 1970s. Yet a recent scheme in the Siedlung Belss-/ Luedeckestrasse in Berlin-Steglitz by one of the same authorities, the GSW, shows that such an organization can learn to act differently. The project, built in 1952, consisted of very basic two-story buildings in poor condition. Sited on the edge of West Berlin, it had its social problems and was not a good place to live. In 1994 the GSW commissioned architects Baufroesche Kassel to plan the renovation and densification of the project. In the words of the architects, “the idea of the design is to build onto the existing structure of the project and thereby to remedy the existing deficits, so that one afterwards has the feeling that not so much was done, or that it was always intended to be like that. The project is therefore not so much remodeled as completed.”

Now that the work is complete, the transformation of the place is in fact astonishing. In place of the gray barrack-like buildings, there are colorful buildings with balconies, gardens and a new lightweight third story. But the underlying structure of the place is the same. Very little has been demolished, above all, nearly all the tenants have been able to move back into their old apartments, if they so wish. During the phased construction, they moved into temporary housing elsewhere on the project, so that they never lost touch with neighbors or had to change schools. The density of the project is almost doubled, but noone sees this as a problem. The GSW was able to build the new units remarkably cheaply and also provide new community facilities. Some of the new apartments can be rented to better off families, to promote a social mix, but they are not more expensive than the existing ones. There are now enough people living there to support some stores, and the disused communal laundry has been transformed into communal space.

Given the differences between American and German social models, it may be futile to draw conclusions from such a comparison. At the very least, however, it should make us question why there is said to be no alternative to the demolition of Aliso Village.

1 see Robin Evans’ 1978 essay “Rookeries and Model Dwellings: English Housing Reform and the Moralities of Private Space,” reprinted in Evans, Translations from Drawings to Buildings and Other Essays, MIT 1997.

2 for additional information, I am indebted to Beth Holden, who documented the life of Pico Aliso as her undergraduate thesis at SCI-Arc and continues to work with the community. Her careful observation of the everyday, and the dialogue with the community arising from it, could be the first step in formulating a strategy for the repair of Aliso Village. The Housing Authority should take note.

3 see also Jacqueline Leavitt, “A Public-Housing Policy That Says Fewer Units Is More,” Los Angeles Times, October 25, 1998, published after this article was written.

4 Los Angeles Times, June 4, 1997.

5 for more information about HOPE VI, see Bradford McKee, “Public Housing’s Last Hope,” Architecture, August, 1997, p. 95.

6 Los Angeles Times, August 30, 1998.