24 The Case for Gentrification

From: City

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24 THE CASE FOR GENTRIFICATION What our center cities have needed most is more people living in the center. If only, the hope has been voiced, younger people would come back to the old neighborhoods and fix them up, what a boon it would be. Here and there a few heartening precedents could be spotted. When I worked on the Fortune series on 'The Exploding Metropolis" in 1957 we were able to run a portfolio of attractive blocks in various cities. These were mostly upper-income places, however, and from the market studies we did it was hard to see any substantial shift back to the center city. One large reason was the kind of housing offered. The kind most in demand were the row houses of Georgetown and Brooklyn Heights. These were clearly out of reach for most people but they did provide strong cues for design and marketing of new housing. They were not heeded. The federal Title I urban redevelopment projects were just getting under way, and in scale and spirit they were the diametric opposite of the old blocks. With little variation from city to city the process was the same; not only were blocks razed, but streets as well, and huge superblock projects grouped colonies of high-rise towers in abstract green space. [326] CITY A terrible mistake was being made. These bleak new Utopias were not bleak because they had to be. They were the concrete manifestation —and how literally—of a deep misunderstanding of the function of the city. By such measures as tenant satisfaction, crime rates, and maintenance it should have been evident that the high-rise towers were proving much less suitable for families with children than low-rise units. But the momentum was unstoppable. In New York City the project format became so imbedded in the rules that it was difficult to build any public housing that departed from it. And it was a photogenic format. What on the ground looked like dirty, gray concrete gleamed white against cloud-filled skies in architectural photographs. Particularly attractive were the photos of the Pruitt-Igoe project in St. Louis. But cities—older cities especially—had a great asset: a plentiful supply of old housing. The houses were not of the quality of the redbrick Federal houses of Georgetown or Brooklyn Heights. They were ugly, many of them: brownstones, for example, the felicities of which took a lot of time to appreciate. Most of the housing was in bad shape, much of it foreclosed. But this proved a blessing. Some sites actively promoted their rehabilitation. Baltimore, for one, set up a "homesteading " program with its stock of tax-foreclosed properties; to buyers who would pledge to fix them up the city would sell the houses for a nominal sum. The result has been some very attractive neighborhoods . One, the Otterbein houses, is a very Baltimore place and with front steps as white as any in the city. Pittsburgh is another city that has had homesteading programs. It started with a "Great House Sale," in which it put fifty-eight cityowned houses up for sale at one hundred dollars apiece to people who would rehabilitate them. Since then prices have gone up; it has been selling abandoned properties to homesteaders for three hundred dollars apiece. By and large, however, the people who have been rehabilitating old neighborhoods have been doing it without much help from government —sometimes despite government. The federal government subsidized suburbia with FHA-guaranteed mortgages but offered no such help for rehabilitating city houses. The Department of Housing and Urban Development did have some demonstration programs, including one for "new towns in town." It was, if anything, too well meant. It was thoroughly suburban in its assumptions and was so laden with antidensity, anticity provisions that it was bound to founder. Banks and insurance companies were not much help either. Banks would withhold mortgage financing from areas being rehabilitated until the rehabilitation was largely completed and financing no longer so needed. Then they would lend. Insurance companies were The Case for Gentrification [ 3 2 7 ] often so chary of older neighborhoods that obtaining adequate fire and liability policies was extremely difficult and costly. Cash was the big problem. When banks did offer mortgage financing there was a sizeable gap to fill. The home buyer usually had to put up about 30 percent of the purchase price in cash, and raising it took some doing. Money for the actual renovation was hard...


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