Toppling Towers

IMAGINE LEVELING WHOLE BLOCKS of decaying, crime-ridden slums in one great sweep, and building in their stead modern apartments with plenty of light and fresh air and high-rise views. Think about replacing crowded streets and decrepit playgrounds with paths for pedestrians and bicycles, winding between wide lawns. Picture that, and in 30 years or so you'll have re-created... Cabrini-Green, the notorious Chicago housing project, eight of whose 23 buildings are to be demolished in what the city administration hails as a great step forward in public housing.

In the decades after World War II, the United States built approximately 1.3 million units of public housing, following the most advanced theories of the time: the Bauhaus vision of uniform, starkly functional workers' housing, which had the advantage of being cheap to build and, in theory, to maintain. Now this great social effort, whose cost has been calculated at some $90 billion, has been thrown furiously into reverse. The Clinton administration has a goal of demolishing 30,000 units of public housing by the end of this year, 100,000 over the next four years. At least some of these will be replaced by new developments designed according to the most advanced theories of our time: the vision of cozy domesticity and tidy community life that goes by the name New Urbanism. In a generation or so, it will be clear whether we have revitalized the worst neighborhoods in the nation or just proved that at least American society doesn't make the same mistake twice.

It's always exciting when high-rise housing projects are demolished, because the very factor that made them fail in their purpose--their isolation amid desolate patches of lawn--means they can be safely imploded with explosives. On a sunny summer morning recently, HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros arrived at the site of the former Edward Scudder Homes in central Newark, N.J., for the demolition of one of the three buildings remaining of the original seven, which opened in 1963 and at one time housed 1,800 families. Across Court Street were some of the 150 units that have begun to replace the Scudder projects: the Oscar E. Miles Village, named for a tenant organizer who led the fight to tear down the old buildings. These are single-family town houses, set back just a few feet from the sidewalk behind neat but tiny yards. Donella Smith, who lived in Scudder for 30 years, points out one big advantage of the new design: ""Here, you walk out the door, you walk out your door, not some long hallway. I don't have to yell, "Get out of this hallway!' anymore.'' For years, she said, she longed for a kitchen window. ""I remembered we had one when I was a kid. Now I got my window right over the sink, and I am washing dishes all the time, just so I can look out that window.''

It's a small thing, neglected by the great modernist Le Corbusier when he imagined his mile-high human beehives, but windows and doors that face directly onto a street help people feel in control of their environment. The ""superblocks'' on which the giant towers perched have been broken into a grid of ordinary streets. New Urbanist theory venerates the grid pattern, in contrast to the cul-de-sacs of the suburbs, because it enhances the streetscape and facilitates walking. But central Newark demonstrates another virtue of grids: they're easier to police than housing-project halls, stairways and paths. Also, as Cisneros points out, the new development's design links it to the surrounding neighborhoods rather than setting it apart. ""People who live in public housing ought not to be stereotyped by the look of public housing,'' he says. ""You could drive in this neighborhood today and this new housing would be indistinguishable from market-priced apartments. It's much more dignified, safe, noble compared with the old buildings across the street.''

He's expressing one of the highest goals of New Urbanist thinking about low-income housing: that it shouldn't look like ""the projects.'' This required HUD to change the rules prohibiting any frills--such as gables, cornices or materials more sumptuous than brick--that might enhance the surroundings of welfare recipients at the expense of taxpayers. Even better would be to do away with projects entirely. Planners have long sought a formula for ""scattered site'' housing to dilute welfare recipients into middle-class neighborhoods, without much success. Now they are trying what might be called reverse-scattered-site housing. In Atlanta, America's very first public-housing project, Techwood Homes--dedicated by Franklin Roosevelt himself in 1936--is being demolished and rebuilt by a developer as another ""village,'' with new shopping, community facilities, schools and apartments. Only 40 percent of the 900 planned units will be for the public-housing tenants who lived there until now, 20 percent will be for working-class families eligible for subsidized rents and the rest will be rented out at market rates of $500 to $900 a month. In honor of their impending rise in status, Techwood's former Tenants' Association has renamed itself the Residents' Association. ""This is a private deal, period,'' says developer Egbert Perry. ""It so happens that some of the units are going to be made available to public-housing-eligible tenants... but it will be managed the way you would manage any private development.''

Privatization is, of course, the great panacea of our age. An even more ambitious example is Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's $1 billion plan to transform much of Cabrini-Green into a mixed-income neighborhood of two-flats, three-flats and town houses. Cisneros waxes eloquent about these signs that ""cities are fighting back, neighborhood by neighborhood. The key,'' he says, ""is to harness the larger forces of history and momentum.''

But poor people know that the larger forces of history are rarely on their side. They're well aware that Techwood Village (just down the block from the Georgia Institute of Technology) and Cabrini-Green (on the edge of a gentrified downtown neighborhood) represent potentially valuable development sites. There are no comparable plans to redevelop the Robert Taylor Homes, surrounded by nothing much except other housing projects and the Dan Ryan Expressway. Over 10 years, 16 of the worst buildings are scheduled to be demolished there, to be replaced by an industrial site. The residents will be given vouchers to help pay for apartments elsewhere, if they can find them. But the waiting list for ""Section 8'' vouchers in Chicago already has 48,000 names on it, and funding for new vouchers is drying up. Moving the displaced families to the head of the list just means everybody else will have to wait longer.

For all their flaws, high-rise projects housed people at four or more times the density of the town houses that are replacing them. At Cabrini-Green, 1,300 units of public housing will be replaced by only 650. ""It's certainly impossible to promise several thousand people they can live there when only several hundred units [will be] available,'' says Pierre deVise, one of Chicago's foremost urbanologists. ""It's just a way to justify the removal of Cabrini- Green.'' There's no doubt that many public-housing projects are in terrible shape, and most people, given their choice, would probably rather live in a nice town house. But in reality, not everyone gets to choose. The reason that so few public-housing projects were torn down in years past was that the law required them to be replaced one for one. ""Logistically, physically [and politically], this can't be done,'' Cisneros says. ""Neighborhoods won't accept it; cities won't accept it.'' So with the best of intentions, Washington did the next best thing: it repealed the law.