Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The D's

"There is a wistful myth that if only we had enough money to spend--the figure is usually put at a hundred billion dollars--we could wipe out all our slums in ten years, reverse decay in the great, dull, grey belts that were yesterday's and day-before-yesterday's suburbs...

But look at what we've done with the first several billions..."

-Jane Jacobs, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities", 1961

Quite often, I am reminded of this passage, since "more money"--no matter how badly yesterday's "more money" is being spent today--is the the usual solution for everything (Ie- City workers grossly unproductive? Hire more). Yesterday, I was reminded of it in it's specific context, that is, the context of demands for billions of federal dollars to build massive housing projects. I didn't read this in some ancient planning publication at the library, or on the Tribune microfilm rolls from the late 1950s, but from a column from Frances Russell in yesterday's edition of the Free Press. Story here.

It's surprising that Frances Russell would be advocating more social housing projects. Even though she was doing just that when she wrote for the Tribune in the 1960s, everyone thought they wre a good idea at the time. Although maybe it doesn't surprise me, since she uses the lack of new projects going up in Canadian cities the same way she uses every other topic she writes on: to bash the Tories of Stephen Harper, and, in this case, and Brian Mulroney, too, who "in 1993, cancelling all federal funding for new social housing."

What does come as a surprise (or maybe not) is one of the individuals whom Russell uses to academically back up her argument, Dr. Jino Distasio of the University of Winnipeg's Institute of Urban Studies, who advocates for top-down funding and projects from the federal government to go toward affordable housing projects:
"Right now no level of government is really building social housing... governments are relying on small community groups to launch housing projects. These organizations lack the capacity to add significantly to the availability of affordable housing and are struggling to finance escalating management, maintenance and operational costs."

This kind of top-down funding for the building massive public housing projects were almost totally rejected across North America over 25 years ago, not because of a Conservative conspiracy, but because they don't work. They increased crime, social dysfunction and a sense of hopelessness and ghettoization. (The notorious Pruitt-Igoe project in St. Louis is the most famous example of this.)

Here in Winnipeg, the best example of the federal government's role in providing a massive injection of public housing, is Lord Selkirk Park, known locally as "The D's", along Dufferin Avenue just west of Main. In the early 1960s, this neighborhood--which had been the Mitzraim, the Jewish Ghetto, in the early century--was demolished entirely, replaced by row-housing and a bulky "hi-rise" apartment block.

This development was built with the utmost attention to the Soviet-inspired urban planning principles of the day: the end of private property, private outdoor space, mixed incomes, mixed-uses, local commerce, small city blocks, and traditional architecture. Not only that, but the wholesale demolition of the Lord Selkirk Park neighborhood, displaced thousands of residents and dozens of businesses ("employment opportunities") to other quarters of the city.

(Like today, the advocates of these public projects almost always lived in neighborhoods that enjoyed the benefits of capitalism: traditional middle class neighborhoods south of the Assiniboine, or at least Portage Avenue. Capitalism for us, imposed socialism for the poor.)

By 1970, columnist Val Werier had deemed the Lord Selkirk Park a failure--eight years after he enthusiastically anticipated its construction. Today, even Prof. Jim Silver, in a report for the left-wing think-tank Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, wrote that Lord Selkirk Park had been a failure over time.

If federally-driven public housing projects of this type continued, many other central and North End neighborhoods would be gone. There would be no North Point Douglas, the last affordable riverbank neighborhood in the city, which for a time was under the threat of urban renewal that froze investment, assisting its decline (which was discussed in an earlier post).

Thankfully, North Point Douglas and other neighborhoods were left intact, and are now able to revitalize themselves through progressive public policies working within a free market. Affordable housing is available through locally-led initiatives that (hopefully) fit within the context of the existing neighborhood--not seeking to wipe out the very fabric of the existing neighborhood. Massive public housing projects that Russell and Distasio seem to be advocating may be built today with LEED-certification, and whatever post-Modernist designs fads are in today, but these new projects would still be the same megalithic failures that Pruitt-Igoe, The D's, and Jigtown (Burrows and Keewatin) were. By their very nature, no matter what the look, they would still further isolate and ghettoize the poor, and stifle hope and opportunity among them to ever leave the ghetto.

Corner of Dufferin and King, c.1963--shortly before urban renewal wiped out this neighborhood


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