Building the Dream: A Social History of Housing in America - Book Review
Published in 1981, Gwendolyn Wright’s Building the Dream emerged before Arnold Hirsch’s classic on Chicago’s post depression housing segregation Making the Second Ghetto. Undoubtedly, Wright’s work laid important groundwork for Hirsch’s conclusions. InBuilding the Dream, Wright examines the “public side of architecture” and the prevailing idea that “domestic environments can reinforce certain character traits, promote family stability, and assure a good society.” (xv) Dividing the book chronologically into five parts, Wright begins with the planning of Puritan Massachusetts tracing the changing attitudes and ideologies attached to housing and domestic space from America’s colonial beginnings to the present (1980s for Wright).
Housing elicits reactions and discourses that imbue hopes/fears for families, social/economic inequality for communities, and the ultimate American identity. Tensions between the “housing model model based on communities of similar dwellings and a seemingly conflicting ideal of personalized self sufficient dwellings.” Dominated all periods of American history (xvi) (“patterns carry the weight of social as well as an aesthetic dichotomy.” (xvi)). Though each period illustrates a housing ideology affected by economic/social/political conditions, some general themes prevail. First, not until the 1960s with the publication of various works by Jane Jacobs, David Riesman, Lewis Mumford and others do cities begin to experience some positive associations with housing. For much of United States housing history, the apartment dwellings, tenement homes, and other urban shelters were subjected to derision by reformers and others. The detached suburban cottage or home long stood as the ideal family space, a tendency that accelerated with the 1930s creations of the FSA, FHA, HOLC, and other housing tools created by the federal government. Second, reformers and others repeatedly associated social ills with housing architecture ignoring the wider, more complex problems that caused such difficulties. This tendency stretches from the late nineteenth century to the late twentieth, most frequently seen in discourses around public housing and “inhumane” apartment towers. [note- Venkatesh probably pushes back on this a bit in American Project when he talks about how the Robert Taylor Homes and others did in there early years supply the kind of housing they were supposed to, however, lack of maintenance resulted in deteriorating structures that gradually fell victim to crime …. Wright does spend a fare amount of time discussing how planners and others purposefully structured such public housing to monitor and discourage certain practices by residents i.e. small rooms, no doors on closets, etc] If early 20th century reformers failed to see the complex informal networks that residents utilized to survive or acknowledge that what they saw as clutter were actually momentos from their country of origin, modern housing observers fail to see the importance of informal networks within public housing [ Again Venkatesh, notes this as well as presenting the importance of Tenant Associations and their leaders within such housing … Black Corona and The Future of Us All accomplish similar tasks … Edna Baskin and the Lefrak City … in terms of reformers not acknowledging or understanding these informal networks, Meyerowitz, Clement, Ewen, Odom, Stansell and others discuss this as well … ]. Third, after the 1930s the idea of public housing repeatedly ran headlong into opposition by real estate lobbies and conservatives who argued that such dwellings reduced American individualism and promoted socialistic ideas. Housing for the poor seemed a waste to such people, though the same people who opposed funding for public housing supported subsidies, tax write offs, and the like for suburban homes. [note – My Blue Heaven’s working class suburbanites illustrate this tendency to view government largess in suburban home building as an entitlement, something earned while viewing public housing as a handout. The discourse around public housing in Wright and others illustrates that an honest attempts at sheltering the nation's poor and working poor has never actually occurred. Politicians and others failed to understand that public housing added to city architecture as a whole rather than existing in a vacuum. Moreover, criticisms of public housing frequently focused on the architecture itself, rather than the intense surveillance and other policies that alienated inhabitants . Finally, the role of urban renewal in filling public housing with minorities, especially blacks, also went unexamined at the time, which led to conflations of public housing with blackness, crime, and the like]. Fourth, housing often serves as a tool for control whether it be working factory girls in Lowell, MA, union laborers in Pullman, Illinois, or low income residents in public housing. Employers and reformers often tried to imbue various characteristics into residents through architecture and interior design, “The history of American houses shows how Americans have tried to embody social issues in domestic architecture and how they have tried at the same time to use this imagery to escape a social reality that is always more complex and diverse then the symbols constructed to capture it.” (xix)
Like other writers of the 1980s such as Joanne Meyerowitz, Elizabeth Ewen, and others, Wright recognizes the tendency to associate moral and social decline, especially for women, in their housing. If Meyerowitz’s reformers feared boarding houses and flats, Wright points to similar developments, “The suspicion of urban row houses, communitarian settlements, and industrial boarding houses was both political and architectural.. In builders’ guides and in other forms of popular literature, detached dwellings in the countryside were taken as the symbol of certain key national virtues. On an individual level, they represented personal independence. On a social level, they showed family pride and self sufficiency. Politically the architecture seemed an expression of democratic freedom of choice. And economically, it mirrored the pattern of private enterprise, rather than planning for the overall public good, which characterized American society.” (89) As well, Wright clearly illustrates shifts in housing ideologies connected to economic developments. For example, if early worker housing of the nineteenth century as exemplified by Lowell, MA made a moral argument for watching over young women (meaning mostly young native born women since many immigrants entered the textile industry but were not privy to such housing) away from the influence of family, the explosion of industry post-Civil War, led to a progressive housing ideal that demoted the importance of nature and ornamentation. Progressive housing reflected the influence of scientific management (applied to housewives as well) and Taylorism. Rather than emphasizing nature, Progressive homes were models of efficiency and order. Employers and society lauded the clean efficient orderly lines of these homes, hoping to imbue the same characteristics in employees. Moreover, by the 20th century, most people accepted that workers had a right to decent housing even if individuals debated what made housing decent.
In general, American housing hoped to promote the stability of the nuclear family, individualism, community, and anti-communism (this was more true of the late 20th century than in other periods). Changes in laws and the economy led to the growth of large planned suburban communities (note- Wright suggests this was due to the fact by the 1950s developers now also built housing rather than just securing land and contracting out labor. A point more recently expanded upon by Adam Rome in Bulldozer in the Countryside which argued many environmental problems arose from this new house building as industry rather than craft.). Urban renewal and slum clearance suggested that new housing could eliminate social ills like delinquency and disease, though often it replaced low income housing with moderate to upper income accommodations. Thus, urban renewal failed to create new housing stock, instead offering a one to one replacement rate that punished ethnic and racial communities that had been designated problematic by the broader public and the FHA’s system of allotting value to communities. Thus, the illusion of “quaint stylistic diversity of American suburban architecture [led to] hostilities against ethnic minorities.” (212). Suburbs used various zoning restriction and covenants to segregate communities economically, socially, and racially.[note similar to Einhorn’s segemented system that employed fire limits not for public safety or to reduce the chance of fires but to maintain “community standards”]
Returning to public housing, a couple of notes are required. First, the federal government was forced to create housing agencies for each state/city in order to administer public housing [a supreme court ruling had limited its ability to build such housing itself]. Thus, from its earliest moments federal, state, and municipal prerogatives were at odds. Local control also limited the federal government’s ability to enforce integration since the government promised not to alter a community’s character, thus a mixed community could receive integrated public housing but all white communities could but would not. Wright admonishes builders and society to rethink ideas of family life, class relations, and political power as the 20th century came to a close. The “feminization of poverty”, increasing divorce rates, and other changes require society to reimagine housing generally. "No growth" movements often reflected attempts to prevent integration [ i.e. "slow growth" movements that Mike Davis' in City of Quartz discusses]. Published in 1981, Building the Dream acknowledges the efforts of CDCs and the government to rebuild cities even in the face of federal cuts [she also notes the creation of LISC, but certainly had no vantage point at the time to make any assertions]. Also, Wright notes the problems of gentrification, a process that gained incredible momentum in the late 1980s and 1990s. Finally, she suggests that builders and others refrain from simply embracing clearance and architectural destruction, arguing that to often the assumption is a scorched earth policy towards perceived failed housing. Builders must build homes for people that perhaps do not share their values and Wright does not simply mean the poor here but also growing populations of other people that builders historically have ignored such as urban populations (gays, single people, childless couples).
Criticisms — Wright simultaneously suggests that architecture is too often blamed for social ills, yet alludes to architecture doing just that especially when discussing public housing. At times, it seems contradictory though understandable
— In regard to public housing, Wright regards it as a failure from moment one, which may or may not be true. Venkatesh’s American Project suggests this idea is too reductive. Public housing, did decline and become severely problematic but it did in its initial years serve it