I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, site of the notorious Pruitt-Igoe public housing project. I may have gone in once or twice but what I remember is that my Aunt Ernestine ran the Capri Community Center that was across the street from the apartment towers. The Spinks brothers were kids that participated in the community center’s boxing program.
The Pruitt-Igoe project was a good idea, replacing tenement housing with modern high rise apartments, that was never quite as good as anyone might have imagined. The ideal home in mid-century St. Louis was at least two stories high, brick, with a full basement and a front and a backyard. This was true for both white and Black families. When the Pruitt-Igoe concrete housing blocks were demolished in the early 1970’s what the news media did not discuss, was how many Black families had migrated away from the old segregated North St. Louis neighborhoods to the city’s northern suburbs, places with names like St. Ann and Ferguson.
What happened to The Projects in St. Louis, would soon happen over and over again in other American cities, most notably Chicago where the Cabrini-Green complex would become the center of a long-running political battle that was of course, lost by the less powerful financial interests, i.e. the residents.
Of course, I would learn that racially segregated housing projects were not just limited to the Black community. San Francisco had projects with predominantly Black occupants and it still has the Ping Yuen (Tranquil Garden) complex in Chinatown.
When I was in law school in the late 1970’s the place had a bad rep for all of the usual things — crime, gangs, robbery, drugs, sexual assault. The rape story that haunted me involved a woman who was attacked and then thrown over a balcony onto a courtyard. Her attacker came down to the courtyard to make sure she was dead. She wasn’t. He dragged her back up the stairs and threw her off the balcony again.
It was stories like these and the general hatred of any thing urban in 1970’s and 1980’s America that lead to the destruction of most public housing facilities through the most effective means possible: deliberate neglect.
All of the memories of the hope and the promise of subsidized housing that devolved into your own local version of New Jack City (circa 1991) came swirling back at me as a watched, listened and then sought out on-line, information about the Grenfell Tower apartments that burned with the loss of nearly 80 lives in London on June 14, 2017. There were a lot of dark faces in the pictures of the survivors and the victims. In London, Black can refer to people of African, Arab, Caribbean and South Asian descent. It goes without saying that most of these families were poor and as we know, poverty knows no color. See http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-06-17/desperate-grenfell-families-take-to-social-media/8627390
But I am not hearing any outrage about this event. If nearly 100 residents of a low-income high rise apartment died in an apartment fire somewhere in the United States, I expect that not all would be right with the world. Yes I get that this horrible thing happened in another country, but here’s the thing: It Happened. What happened needs to make us all mad. Maybe as mad as we were when two hijacked airplanes wiped out two office towers.
Maybe this could be the wake-up call about the need for safe, decent, affordable housing as a right for all people. Just like that fire about 100 years ago in New York, became the rallying cry for workplace safety.