James Wolfinger: Home Sweet Home: Race and Public Housing in Philadelphia

We welcome a guest post today from James Wolfinger, author of Philadelphia Divided: Race and Politics in the City of Brotherly Love, which has just been released in a new paperback edition. After recent news of the closure of a famous public housing project in Chicago (and the public online response to the news), Wolfinger writes to highlight the history of public housing in Depression-era America and to encourage a better understanding of how access to decent housing affects American families’ lives.–ellen

Cabrini-Green is closing. The city of Chicago has shuttered the last units in its infamous project that often symbolized public housing across the country. Not many people see it as any great loss. A recent AP story recounted Cabrini’s founding in 1942, but quickly fast-forwarded to the drug and crime problems that bedeviled the complex in the 1980s and beyond. A few residents lamented the loss of their homes but most just hoped–perhaps somewhat pessimistically–that better times lay ahead. “[We want to be] accommodated right and leave the building with pride and dignity,” Kenneth Hammond told the press. “We just want to be treated fairly.”

Few people in the article or on the attendant internet message boards offered any sympathy for the end of the project or the fate of its residents. At best, writers labeled Cabrini a liberal experiment gone horribly wrong; at worst they blasted residents as criminals, drug addicts, prostitutes, and pimps. All the residents, in the opinion of most of these writers, were African Americans who wanted nothing more than to rob taxpayers of their hard-earned money.

The end of Cabrini and the massive, overwhelmingly negative response generated by articles about it (nearly 1,300 posts on just one website) led me to think again about the history of public housing in Philadelphia. Philadelphia had a huge working-class immigrant and black population in the early twentieth century, most of whom were poor and lived in the oldest, most dilapidated housing along the Delaware River and in South Philadelphia. Many of those homes lacked running water, heat, and even sound roofs and foundations. In the pre-New Deal era, poor people turned to churches, ethnic organizations, and political machines for help, but none of those local bodies could offer the level of assistance that tens of thousands of Philadelphians needed.

That all changed during the Great Depression. The Depression plunged thousands of people who had been living near poverty over the edge. Authorities found men and women scavenging for scraps of food on the docks while across Philadelphia people of Irish, Italian, Jewish, Polish, and African American descent lost their homes at the rate of three hundred foreclosures per week for six years.

Middle-class Philadelphia largely ignored the problems confronting the poor until a tenement collapse in December 1936 shook the city. In a heartbreaking story, a black woman named Alberta Richardson told the press from her hospital bed that she was trying to get her children to sleep on the second floor when the walls started cracking. “Then I noticed the wallpaper in my room split from floor to ceiling. I couldn’t move or take my eyes from it,” she said. “I picked up Naomi and rushed to the second floor landing and started to scream. Then the wall fell outward. I landed on my knees in Rodman St., still holding my child.” The next thing Richardson knew, she was in Douglass Hospital with a concussion and her three-year-old daughter had a fractured skull. Six people died that night and another twenty were sent to the hospital.

The tenement collapse shocked Philadelphia, calling attention to the plight of the poor. Local newspaper editor J. David Stern, writing under the headline “Home, Sweet Home,” angrily told Philadelphians that perhaps the six deaths would finally “make the community realize what home means to thousands of our fellow citizens. . . . [For many] home is the place where the sun doesn’t shine; the place where they contracted tuberculosis; the place where there isn’t any running water; the place that may fall down in the dead of night, smothering, burning– ‘Home, Sweet Home.’”

The collapse galvanized Philadelphia’s political leaders, Democrats and Republicans, and led them to demand federal aid to house the city’s poorest residents. That housing would certainly help African Americans like Alberta Richardson, but it would also improve the lives of the city’s white working class. Everyone, at least at first, was on board.

The problem was not whether Philadelphia’s poor and working-class residents “deserved” public housing, but where to place it. From the start, city planners and public officials worried about public housing projects bringing black Philadelphians into white neighborhoods. This was such an issue across the United States, in fact, that the federal government had a neighborhood composition rule that tried to make housing projects mirror the racial makeup of their surrounding communities. That meant projects in South Philadelphia such as Tasker and Shipyard Homes were intended for Italian and Irish residents while the James Weldon Johnson homes in North Philadelphia were for African Americans.

These construction policies intensified the racial composition patterns of the city and made the government complicit in furthering housing segregation. White Philadelphians largely supported public housing–remember, many working-class whites lived in the projects for a number of years, especially in the 1930s and ’40s–but only if it represented no “threat” to their neighborhoods.

Despite the way public housing patterns deepened segregation, the Johnson Homes were at first seen as a great success. The project had 1,800 residents (95 percent of whom were African American) who paid fifteen to twenty-four dollars a month to cover rent and all utilities for a clean, safe, new home when the community opened in 1940. Johnson residents loved the amenities, which included a library, Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops, three baseball teams, and community dancing, among other things. Many people found a sense of community at Johnson and proudly took care of their homes. Flowers, bushes, and white picket fences decorated many of the yards, and inside reporters found freshly washed windows and gleaming brass. Observers described Johnson as an idyllic community of “happy, quiet and orderly” citizens. Residents of the complex had access to jobs, cared about their community, and took care of it. The same could be said of white residents of Tasker and other projects.

When Philadelphia’s economy boomed during World War II and the suburbs grew in the decade after, many white residents moved out of public housing and the city in general. Job opportunities beckoned in the suburbs as did modern homes with green grass and new schools. Lending policies, restrictive covenants, and the antipathy of ordinary white suburbanites combined to keep African Americans out of the new communities.

Black Philadelphians, trapped in the city, found fewer and fewer jobs available and their infrastructure crumbling around them as the tax base declined precipitously. Their best housing options were often in public housing, but with the economic problems confronting Philadelphia, the city found it difficult to keep up the projects. More, the lack of jobs undermined family stability and made it harder for people to care for their homes.

Public housing became a place where black Philadelphians lived because they had few options and few opportunities. White suburbanites, many of whom had lived in public housing or had friends and relatives who had, increasingly came to think of the projects as places where dysfunction and poverty reinforced each other and did so with a black skin. To them, public housing residents were no longer the “worthy poor” who had survived a tenement collapse and were trying to make it through tough times; they were now deadbeats too lazy, too conniving, to make it in America. That is the belief that the responses to the article on Cabrini-Green’s closing highlight anyway.

But it did not have to be this way. The story of Philadelphia’s public housing shows an alternative vision we now lack.

For a time the Depression highlighted the fact that capitalism does not work equally well for everyone. Certainly there were hidebound critics of New Deal social safety net policies, but most people recognized that we as a society have an obligation to make sure all Americans have a floor below which they cannot fall. That meant food for the hungry, social security for the elderly and infirm, income for the unemployed, and shelter for the poor.

But racism shaped the way New Deal-era progressive policies were implemented, particularly when it came to the placement of public housing projects. And that placement had long-term ramifications as it intensified segregation in Philadelphia, made public housing look like black housing, and trapped African Americans in communities that went through the wrenching process of deindustrialization in the decades after World War II.

People have some power to shape their own destinies–the residents of Cabrini-Green, for example, are not blameless in the problems they faced–but when government policies, economic trends, and often naked racism confront a people who are generally poor and marginalized, then we should have some sympathy, or at least a better historical understanding of how they came to live in public housing and what that has meant for their lives.

Public housing is seldom a major issue in American politics. Even in the age of Obama we rarely talk about social policy beyond helping the middle class. But we as a society should expand our vision, recognizing that tax cuts and a mortgage deduction do not help everyone lead a better life.

At one time Americans understood that decent housing was a social obligation that cut across racial and political lines. The free market in housing works for many people, especially those with access to a good education, a stable job, adequate compensation, and decent health care. But not everyone has those things, and the Depression made us understand that it was not always because of personal failings.

So the next time a story about public housing comes out, rather than condemning the people who live there, perhaps we should take a more charitable, or at least historically minded, view and try to understand where public housing came from, why people live there, and remember that maybe, just maybe, some of our relatives once lived there too.

James Wolfinger is associate professor of history and education at DePaul University.