- Utopia's Ruins:Seeing Domesticity and Decay in the Aliso Village Housing Project
Driving along East Los Angeles' Gabriel García Márquez Street, one finds no visible reminders of the Aliso Village Housing Project, once one of the country's most infamous public housing projects. Before the mortgage crisis, new homes selling for $300,000 to $400,000 rose along streets where the Aliso Village and its more than six hundred low-income housing units once stood. And yet despite its reputation for "gang shootings, crime, filth, and fear" (Sterngold 2006), tributes to the abandoned structure have appeared in some unusual places—in opinion pieces, in scholarly articles, and on the walls of a Beverly Hills art gallery.
The housing project was built in the 1940s when the city demolished a low-income immigrant "slum" and replaced it with public housing. In 2001, the city then razed that public housing complex to build New Urbanist-inspired, mixed-income town homes. At the time critics such as Jack Burnett-Stuart, writing in the Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Public Design, complained, "the stated reason for rebuilding rather than repair is funding" [End Page 127] (1999). Burnett-Stuart accuses the city of being enticed by federal HOPE VI dollars that could only be used to demolish and rebuild the project. In doing so, city officials ignored the "enormous social costs" of displacing the Aliso Village community. As a site that has been central to a voracious redevelopment cycle, the story of Aliso Village underscores larger issues central to understanding the social dynamics of the built environment in Los Angeles: how public policy has both encouraged and impeded the realization of the American dream of home ownership, how a fantasy of development and opportunity can betray the most vulnerable communities, and how images of urban decay and ruin can fuel destructive redevelopment—a process that sacrifices low-income housing while encouraging the dizzying rise of real estate prices. At a time when the mortgage crisis creates more abandoned and foreclosed properties with each passing day, the story of the Aliso Village Housing Project demonstrates that the roots of these recent ruins stretch far back through the twentieth century.
The United States contains more urban ruins than any other developed nation, yet ruins remain largely ignored as official sites of commemoration. American ruins have been places from which to view the worst of our nature: our violence and our prejudice. Bullet-riddled buildings captured by Civil War photographers bear witness to our violent past, while the ruins of contemporary urban areas such as Detroit or the South Bronx testify to economic and public policy failure. The case of the Aliso Village redevelopment offers an opportunity to discuss issues of slum clearance, community building and disruption, as well as the ideology of New Urbanism.
I am interested in how images of ruins were used to aid very lucrative redevelopment efforts in Los Angeles that ended up destroying the very communities who were supposed to benefit. Prejudice against age and decay fueled negative assumptions about those who originally inhabited the Flats neighborhood. Images of this "slum" sparked calls for its demolition and the creation of the Aliso Village. Some fifty years later, images of the abandoned housing project justified Aliso's destruction in the narrative created on the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA) web pages, despite the fact that the authority itself had condemned the buildings and forced [End Page 128] residents out. Thus, ruins have been used to justify cycles of profitable yet questionable redevelopment.
Still, not all images of ruins support the kinds of radical community destruction that account for both Aliso Village's beginnings and its demise. In contrast, art photographer Anthony Hernandez, a former Aliso Village resident, created a series of ruin images by sneaking into the abandoned buildings when demolition crews were gone. When we step inside the ruins of Aliso Village through his lens, the housing project becomes a site of community and domesticity. Images of ruin yield to images of a space in need of rehabilitation and attention, deserving of more than the wrecking ball.
The first images of ruin...