Roger Cohn
Roger Cohn

Fellowship Title:

High-Rise Hell

Roger Cohn
November 13, 1984

Fellowship Year

Take a drive up State Street on Chicago’s South Side and you will begin to get an idea of what went wrong with high-rise public housing in urban America. Start at 54th Street at Robert Taylor Homes, the largest public housing project in the world–28 consecutive buildings of 16 stories each, all of identical concrete and brick construction, with fenced-in, cage-like walkways along the outside of each floor. Then continue north, and on the west side of the street, virtually the only thing you will see for the next four miles is high-rise public housing–five housing projects, all built between 1950 and 1966, each with its own uniform construction mold stamped from the architects’ cookie cutter. By the time you approach the glittering skyscrapers of downtown Chicago, you will have passed 65 buildings containing 8,162 units which house more than 35,000 people, roughly a quarter of the city’s public housing population.

If you venture into one of those buildings, you are likely to find conditions that defy the worst stereotypes of public housing. The elevators break down so routinely that residents say they prefer walking as many as 17 floors to the risk of getting trapped in a jammed elevator. To cut initial costs, the elevators and corridors were constructed on the outside of most buildings, and so during the bitter Windy City winters, the elevators frequently are frozen stuck and hallway floors are covered with sheets of ice, forcing tenants to slide and slip as they try to reach their apartment doors. The exterior walls consist only of a single layer of brick and concrete block, with no insulation to prevent solid ice from forming on the inside walls of rooms that have had no heat for as long as anyone can remember. Indeed, many tenants have become so inured to life in these buildings that they speak almost matter-of-factly of children who were severely burned by steam pipes left exposed in bedrooms or were killed falling out windows without screens or protective barriers or down elevator shafts that had become their play areas.

“There’s an old saying in Chicago that public housing was meant to fail,” said Michael Davis, the dedicated manager of Dearborn Homes, a project located in the midst of the State Street public housing corridor. “It seems like the people who planned the public housing didn’t really care about the people who were going to live in it. They were just considered poor, illiterate people, that’s what the public’s image was, so the attitude was, ‘Let’s put them all in one place, in these huge buildings, and just let the damned things go. Let them fall apart.’ “

Davis’ analysis may be rather harsh. But unfortunately, it points to some sad truths about the high-rise public housing that America built for its low-income families in the 1950s and 1960s. For in city after city, from Chicago to New Orleans, from Boston to San Francisco, the monolithic, concrete and brick slabs that often were built on the rubble of razed slums soon became the hopeless ghettoes that they were supposed to replace. In cities like St. Louis and Philadelphia, massive buildings that were hailed by the architects as the wave of the future when they were erected less than three decades ago, today stand totally vacant, abandoned both by housing officials and tenants.

From the very beginning, high-rises proved totally unsuitable for housing poor families, particularly the large, single-parent households that ultimately were to comprise the bulk of the inhabitants. There were simply too many people crowded into too little space, without easy access to the world outside. Not that these inherent shortcomings were unforeseen. In fact, even as the public housing planners were designing their high-rise blueprints in the early 1950s, sociologists were warning of the dangers of concentrating the poor and isolating them in mammoth structures. But the warnings went unheeded, and during the 1950s and early 1960s, a boom period for public housing, the vast majority of units constructed in major urban areas were in buildings of nine or more stories.

The danger signals were ignored because of factors that guided the course of the nation’s public housing program almost from its inception in 1937 and virtually assured that many of its most ambitious efforts would fail. Despite the warnings, high-rises for families were built because of inflated inner-city land prices and tight federal per-unit cost constraints that left local housing authorities with little choice but to build straight up. They were built because of pressures from powerful labor organizations that saw more jobs in bigger construction projects and from a potent real estate lobby that feared government competition in the traditional housing market and so sought to limit per-unit spending. And they were built because of a public that neither wanted subsidized housing for the poor in their neighborhoods nor wanted tax dollars used to subsidize housing that looked like a place where people with a choice might actually choose to live.

“The construction of high-rise public housing was to a large extent a response to cost pressures,” observed Mary K. Nenno, associate director of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials, who worked in the public housing program in Buffalo, N.Y. in the 1950s. “The federal government wanted to get as many units on a site as was humanly possible–not only because it would be cheaper to build per unit, but also because it would be cheaper to operate once it was built and would mean more rental income coming in…In retrospect, a lot of the (local housing) authorities should have said, ‘If those are the ground rules, then we don’t want to build now.’ “

But build they did, often at much higher densities than local officials originally intended. Before ground was broken on the gigantic Robert Taylor Homes in 1960, for example, Chicago planners submitted proposals to the federal government for a series of low-rise projects consisting primarily of four-story buildings. Those plans were rejected because they did not meet federal per-unit cost ceilings. In the case of St. Louis’ notorious Pruitt-Igoe development, initial plans had called for a mixture of row-houses and high-rises. But by the time the project was actually built, its density had been more than tripled with 2,762 apartments jammed onto the 57-acre site in thirty-three, 11-story buildings.

“The entire public housing program was always geared to production, not to providing decent housing for poor people,” Thomas P. Costello, former director of the St. Louis Housing Authority, said in a recent interview. As the authority’s director, he supported that decision to demolish Pruitt-Igoe in the mid-1970s, believing that the dense packing of poor families into badly designed high-rise buildings virtually guaranteed failure.

St. Louis’ notorious Pruitt-Igoe housing project being dynamited. Photo by Wide World
St. Louis’ notorious Pruitt-Igoe housing project being dynamited. Photo by Wide World

“In the big construction years of the program, the thinking was, ‘Let’s get the damned things (buildings) up, let’s get the dollars out and get the production going,’ ” Costello said. “Nobody really faced up to how bad these things could get. Nobody really thought about it…

“The only thing public housing has proven is that it can build public housing units,” he added. “It has never proven that it can manage them.”

The emphasis on production resulted at least in part from the efforts of government policy makers to provide as many units as possible for low-income families, particularly those displaced by urban renewal and slum-clearance projects of the 1950s. But it also stemmed from the mixed agenda that has haunted the public housing program since its inception nearly 50 years ago. Social reformers had been clamoring for the federal government to help rebuild urban slums since the late nineteenth century. But it was only in the throes of the Depression, with the ailing construction industry and its labor unions pushing for federal subsidies, that the public housing program was initiated. In fact, the Housing Act of 1937, which established the program, listed relieving unemployment as its first goal, followed by the provision of housing.

The first wave of public housing, constructed from 1937 through the early 1940s, was nearly all row-houses or low-rise buildings of three or four stories. But as the nation moved into a postwar housing boom in the 1950s, the real estate industry became increasingly concerned about the potential intrusion of government into the private housing market.

The economies imposed by spending restrictions led to many built-in design features that made the high-rise projects of the 1950s particularly unsuitable for large, poor families. The rooms were extremely small, often with little more than a Pullman-style kitchen in an apartment with four or five rooms that might house as many as ten people. To save money on doorways, elevators in many buildings were designed to stop only on every third floor so that tenants, who might be hauling groceries or baby carriages, then had to walk up or down concrete stairwells. Elevators and hallways constructed along the outside of buildings may have reduced initial costs but also virtually assured maintenance problems.

Many public housing experts contend that the spartan, institutional look of the 1950s-era high-rises, which was repeated with monotonous regularity in city after city, was also a response by local housing authorities to pressures from a public that felt that subsidized housing ought not look too good. It was, after all, housing for poor people that was being built at taxpayers’ expense. Such innovations as eliminating covers on toilet seats or doors on closets or kitchen cabinets might not save a housing authority much money, but it could enhance its image as a no-frills operation that was serving the needy, not catering to freeloaders.

Ultimately, high-rise public housing was a product of the architectural trends of its era. Urban architects of the 1950s, armed with modern construction techniques that enabled them to build higher, were eager to put new ideas to work. Ironically, some of high-rise public housing’s most colossal failures-including St. Louis’ Pruitt-Igoe and Philadelphia’s Schuylkill Falls, both of which were abandoned less than two decades after they opened-actually won architectural awards at the time they were built.

“Architects love to build high buildings because that’s what impresses other architects,” said Oscar Newman, a prominent urban planner whose 1972 book, Defensible Space, criticized the lack of adequate security provisions inherent in the design of public housing high-rises. “Who sits up and takes notice of little row housing? That may be exactly what the people who are going to live there really want, but it’s not what the architects want to build…It seems architects are never really trained to take into account the social effects of design.”

The social effects should have come as no surprise to either architects or housing officials. In 1952, University of Pennsylvania sociologist Anthony F. C. Wallace conducted a study for the Philadelphia Housing Authority that concluded that high-rise buildings were unsuitable for families with children. Despite Wallace’s findings, the authority, faced with a severe housing shortage and difficulty in obtaining approvals for building sites, proceeded to launch into the most intensive period of high-rise construction in its history. In 1957, in the midst of the high-rise boom, longtime housing activist Catherine Bauer decried the massive structures “whose refined technology gladdens the hearts of technocratic architectural sculptors but pushes its occupants into a highly organized, beehive type of community life for which most Americans have no desire and little aptitude.”

The warnings issued by Bauer and Wallace proved tragically prescient. In 1968, Congress acknowledged the failure of high-rise public housing for families, prohibiting any new construction except under special circumstances. By that time, the drawbacks of high-rises–particularly for the chronically impoverished, welfare-dependent households that were increasingly inhabiting urban public housing–were already well established. Youngsters had few play areas, and those that did exist often were so distant from the apartment that mothers would not allow their small children to use them. The corridors and elevators became the play areas, leading to increased vandalism and putting excessive wear and tear on equipment that was never designed for constant use by unsupervised children. With the maze-like “superblock” layout of the buildings and the kitchen corners of the twisting stairwells, many high-rise projects became havens for drug addicts and criminals who often came from surrounding inner-city neighborhoods to prey on project residents.

Ethel Marshal does not need to read reports by sociologists or planners to know what is wrong with high-rise public housing. For the past 13 years, she has lived on the tenth floor of a 16-story building in Robert Brooks Homes on the Near West Side of Chicago. She has raised eight children there in a four bedroom apartment, and, with her 16-year-old daughter now expecting a child of her own, the household will soon have a new member.

“They should never have built these (high-rises) in the first place, especially if they weren’t going to maintain them,” Ms. Marshall said. “You’re dealing with low-income people. Certain people don’t need to be stacked on top of each other.”

One afternoon last August, Ms. Marshall and the Rev. Delores Watkins, a tenant leader, guided a visitor on a tour of their building at 1639 South Racine Street at Brooks Homes. In the rear yard, where dozens of children played, raw sewage had backed up through a manhole cover and collected on the ground. The overloaded plumbing system was constantly having problems, they said, frequently clogging and causing filthy sewage to overflow from toilets or kitchen sinks. An outbreak of meningitis that claimed two lives at the project the previous year had been attributed by health officials to unsanitary conditions stemming from the sewage problem.

On this particular day, 1639 South Racine was without either water or mail delivery. The water service had been shut off because of a busted pipe that had caused what was supposed to be the children’s play area in front of the building to be nothing more than a shin-deep pond of murky, foul-smelling water. There had been no mail service for three days because the mailroom was so infested with roaches that the postman refused to go inside until the housing authority dispatched the exterminators. Luckily, the elevator, which breaks down so frequently that many tenants do not even bother to check if it is working, was operating this day. But it rattled so loudly as it slowly climbed to the upper floors, its thin metal walls actually bending in as they hit the sides of the shaft, that a visitor felt rather foolish for even bothering to look up to note that it had no city inspection certificate.

Rev. Watkins’ apartment on the third floor was a tidy, well-kept home, with plastic seat covers on the living room furniture and framed family photos literally covering the corner credenza. But only a few days earlier, human waste had backed up through the sewer line and overflowed from the toilet onto the bathroom floor. And each winter, Rev. Watkins, her husband and their eight children must contend with corner bedrooms which have no heat and where ice forms on the thin concrete walls.

Up on the tenth floor, Ethel Marshall paused on the outside concrete corridor to look out through the wire mesh fencing at the gleaming, distant Chicago skyline. “When you’re up here, you feel trapped,” she said softly. “It’s just too closed in, and there’s too many people living too close together, living in the conditions the we live in.”

In many cities, as community opposition and zoning restrictions made it difficult to find new sites, housing authorities erected high-rises adjacent to public housing row houses that had been built only a decade or two earlier. Inevitably, those high-rises proved far less desirable places to live than the existing row houses.

At Raymond Rosen Apartments in Philadelphia, for example, Gloria Singleton said that the day two years ago that she moved from one of the project’s 13-story towers into a row house was one of the happiest days of her life. She had become fed up with living in a building where trash from overstuffed incinerator chutes littered the halls and where a stray bullet from warring drug dealers had actually passed through her front door. And the old apartment was haunted by the memory of her five-year-old son James, who had slipped and fallen to his death from an open window. “Compared to over there,” Ms. Singleton said, as she stood in the doorway of her row house and gestured toward the high-rises across the street, “this is like moving to the suburbs.”

Despite the inherent problems, high-rise public housing has had some successes. For instance, the New York City Housing Authority, which operates the country’s largest subsidized housing program and has most of its units in elevator buildings, has earned a national reputation for excellence. In many of New York’s roughest neighborhoods, “the projects” are considered a most desirable place to live. Public housing observers attribute New York’s enviable track record in part to the professionalism of its housing authority, which has remained free of the untrained political appointees that dominate many local housing agencies, and to the authority’s policy of limiting the number of welfare families in each project. Those observers also note that apartment living has long been a way of life in New York, unlike other cities, and so the tenants did not feel stigmatized or isolated by living in high-rises and the authority’s staff knew what was needed to manage such buildings properly.

Yet what of the family high-rises in other cities that, by the accounts of both officials and residents, have failed miserably? With some projects, particularly those plagued by vacant units that are prey to vandalism and decay, authorities plan to demolish buildings or convert them into housing for the elderly, whose life style is more conducive to centralized apartment living. In a few cases, plans call for turning projects into private developments for those who can afford to pay market rents. But such plans do nothing for those low-income families who are most desperately in need of housing and for whom the most severe housing shortage exists.

The idea that high-rises for poor families are totally unmanageable has become something akin to gospel among some public housing officials. But others believe such notions have often been used as easy excuses by housing authorities that have failed to accomplish their mission.

“I think all the talk about the inherent problems of high-rises is a little bit of a scapegoat,” said Robert J. Rigby Jr., executive director of the Jersey City Housing Authority. “The bottom line is that high-rises are difficult but not impossible. It takes work both by the tenants and the authority, but it can be done.”

Rigby should know. When he came to the Jersey City Housing Authority in 1973, its three high-rise projects for families were as bad as any found anywhere in the country, with appallingly high vacancy rates and deteriorating buildings that were easy targets for vandalism and abuse. Rigby quickly moved to upgrade management at his agency and to get the residents involved in taking responsibility for their buildings–first by tenant patrols of lobbies to deter potential vandals or thieves and eventually through a program where tenants took over the day-to-day management of the developments. Two of those projects–A. Harry Moore Apartments and Montgomery Apartments–are now frequently cited by federal officials as examples of how high-rise public housing can be salvaged.

“I think the lessons to be learned about high-rises,” said Rigby, “are that they should never be built again, but given the shortage of affordable housing for (low-income) families, they’ve got to be dealt with–and they can be dealt with.”

©1985 Roger Cohn

Roger Cohn, reporter on leave from the Philadelphia Inquirer, is investigating public housing in America.