Making a
Better World

Public Housing,
the Red Scare, and
The Direction of
Modern Los Angeles

Don Parson
You wouldn't think (I didn't think) that public housing in Los Angeles would be all that interesting but it was and is. After World War II, the City Housing Authority was conceived and ended up being run by a bunch of old lefties who worked in the slums --- social workers and the like in run-down places like Bunker Hill.

They thought that low-cost, racially integrated housing would improve the lot of the very poor, so they got the Feds involved (along with, alas, that old bugaboo, "eminent domain"), and built several thousand units ... and then they got hit by the two Joes: Josef Stalin and Joseph McCarthy. Public housing had not been all that popular with the business community and the real estate people (they saw it as socialistic) and the Red Scare was a godsend, especially since the head of CHA, Frank Wilkinson, plus a few of his top aides, were old-time rads.

Within two years, Los Angeles public housing was dead, but the real estate people had learned a couple of very important lessons. One was, when your enemy is a liberal, or has an unseemly affection for the poor and the minorities, call him "a communist." In the America of the 1950s, you are thus able to be rid of him forthwith.

The second lesson was that eminent domain, coupled with acres of federal funds, could be used for damn near any project one can dream up. Like tearing down what some people saw as slums --- and the poor folk thought of as home --- then buying up the land at bargain prices with U.S. Housing Authority (viz., our tax) dollars, then you can start building first-class, high-rise offices for the new banking and monied classes.

All this was achieved under what was formally known as Title I (in 1949) --- later modified as Title III --- and it was a bomb. Literally. It was as if the government of the United States decided to do a Dresden on the poorest parts of the largest cities, then turned around and sold the vacant lots to banks, realtors, and larger corporations at a 50% discount.

The original purpose of public housing (to house the poor, the war workers, the veterans) was, largely, Parson proves, subverted by the Big Red Scare. The left, liberal, union coalition fell apart under the microscopic hunt for subversives by the City of Los Angeles, the House Un-American Activities Committee and the California Un-American Activities Committee. The deputy mayor of Los Angeles, Orville Caldwell, speaking on the interracial aspects of public housing, offered the opinion that "Negro people who could not find housing ought to go home, and that they should write to their friends and tell them not to come to Los Angeles."

    Now they come here and get into some war industry, and then comes Saturday night and they find lots of money in their pockets. They don't know what to do with it. They get liquored up, stuff themselves with marijuana, and then they become a serious problem. And from the housing standpoint, we haven't the facilities to take care of them."

With the decline of "community modernism" comes what the author calls "corporate modernism. Title I effectively "financed the destruction of American cities."

Bunker Hill, the oldest part of Los Angeles, near downtown, was filled with luxurious old mansions which had gone to pot. 80% of them had been built around the turn of the century. The city defined it as a "blighted area," the police cooked up some crime figures (it wasn't more crime-infested than most of the rest of city) and the bulldozers came in. Within ten years, the Bunker Hill Redevelopment Plan was in place, with scheduled completion in 2015, including

    a twenty-four acre residential plaza containing 3,100 modern apartments; a sixteen-acre commercial plaza of high-rise office buildings that would employ some 50,000 persons; and twenty acres of sites for motels and a hotel.

Sixty acres for the middle and upper class; zilch for the poor.

Making a Better World will make your heart ache if you have a fondness for old homes and Victoriana. There are also some excellent vignettes. Charles Bukowski, John Fante, and Raymond Chandler all wrote purple prose about the old Bunker Hill, the latter reporting, "They are all rooming houses now, their parquetry floors scratched and worn through the once glossy finish and the wide sweeping staircases are dark with time and with cheap varnish laid on over generations of dirt."

    In the tall rooms haggard landladies bicker with shifty tenants. On the wide cool front porches, reaching their cracked shoes into the sun, sit the old men with faces like lost battles.

Of the California Redevelopment Agency, which emerged from the California Housing Agency, Parson says, "The public housing and urban renewal programs shared many of the same characteristics --- government administration and eminent domain infringing on private property rights --- which had been orchestrated by the press so that the former was labeled Communistic or socialistic.

    Despite the bitter and frequent denunciations of the CRA and urban renewal by small property owners for precisely these reasons, the press never broadcast such opinions to the extent of the slurs hurled at the CHA during the public housing war.

He concludes: "In this manner, modern Los Angeles, shaped by urban renewal and insulated from popular participation in political alternatives, might be described as nothing short of the spatial expression of the Red Scare."

--- F. J. Baker, AIA
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