Social Housing and Historic Preservation

Essay adapted from Jessie Fisher’s presentation at El Museo’s Shoreline Symposium.


When the decision was made to clear the land that would become the site of the Shoreline Apartments, it was as part of a larger urban renewal effort unveiled in the late 1950s encompassing 17 projects designed to “eliminate the principle sore spots in the City” and projected to induce more than $400 million in private investment.  Indeed, Mayor Frank Sedita declared at the time that “urban renewal is a matter of survival.”

The shoreline neighborhood shown here prior to redevelopment was considered to be contributing to economic deterioration in surrounding areas, in addition to being “sub-standard” itself.  It was determined that major redevelopment was the best path forward, and hundreds of homes, dozens of businesses, and a school were sent to a landfill to make way for the future.

Only forty years after its completion, the same argument – almost verbatim – was made to justify the removal of the Shoreline project.  Hundreds of units of housing have been torn down, and the rest are slated to be sent to a landfill, to make way for the future.  So what went wrong, and what is the role of preservation in these types of places?  To begin to answer these questions, we have to understand a little more about the history of social housing in the United States, and think about the traditional and potential roles of historic preservation in our community.

Shoreline did not, of course, mark the beginning of urban renewal or of large scale public housing in Buffalo.  Indeed, Buffalo was an early adopter of public housing, completing its first four projects:  Kenfield, Lakeview, Perry, and Willert Park within five years of the creation of the Federal Housing Authority by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The creation of the FHA itself was the result of decades of work by activists and reformers to solve what was a substantial and growing housing availability and affordability problem.  Urban housing conditions had been a growing source of concern since the dawn of the industrial revolution, but by the turn of the 19th century the issue had reached a fever pitch, which was only exacerbated by two world wars and the Great Depression.  Studies at the time showed that across Europe and America, the private marketplace was only able to provide housing for the top third of income levels, leaving a growing urban population to crowd into tight quarters and poorly maintained structures.  It became clear that some sort of bold public intervention in funding and building would be necessary.

Following World War 1, many European nations seized the opportunity to create large scale social housing programs aimed at increasing availability and affordability, as well as increasing the architectural quality of new housing. The architects working on social housing projects were the top in their field, and were focused on building the best possible product for people.  Far from viewing social housing as shameful or unworthy of high standards, these projects were seen as exciting and as critical parts of building stronger, healthier, more successful citizens and communities.

Early American housing reformers were overall successful in bringing new European design ideas about housing and public space to this country, and many of our most prominent and important modernist architecture examples are in the form of public housing or municipal buildings from this era.  However, two uniquely American factors would make social housing provision very different in the US versus Europe.

The first was racism, and how segregation would come to be codified in housing finance and housing provision practices.  Of the first four projects built in Buffalo, 1700 units of housing were erected to serve white residents, while 170 were erected to serve black residents.  These projects were situated carefully to either create or reinforce existing patterns of segregation.

The second was an emphasis on “clearing slum and blight.”  While in Europe, cities were rebuilding after World War 1, in the U.S. it was seen as necessary to clear away existing “substandard” neighborhoods in order to build newer, more modern neighborhoods in their place.  The emphasis came to be twisted to emphasis the clearance, while actual provision of housing seemed to take a back seat, and these early attempts at housing reform actually displaced as many people as they housed.  For instance, in the Ellicott District of Buffalo alone, urban renewal housing provision actually left at least 1,900 primarily African American residents displaced when not enough new housing units were built to make up for the number demolished.  Strict controls on family size permitted in the new housing projects also exacerbated this displacement issue.

If Shoreline was built as an integrated housing project, our earliest projects most decidedly were not.  At the direction of the FHA, housing projects were mostly mandated (with a few exceptions) to be segregated by color, and the first three projects that were planned in Buffalo were to house exclusively white families.  The Buffalo Urban League and other African American leaders fought hard to get a project that would house Black families in Buffalo.  Segregationist housing policies and racist lending practices meant that most of Buffalo’s black families in the 1920s and 1930s were confined to an increasingly over crowded Ellicott district, and the construction of public housing was seen by many as a way to get better, more modern housing.  In fact, the major organized opposition to Willert Park within the Black community at the time came over concerns that the project site selected was not big enough, and that more units would be needed.

Many of Buffalo’s most prominent black leaders at the time were involved in the siting and design of Willert Park, and the complex was heralded upon its completion by the New York Times art and architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable, in particular for the cast sculptures depicting every day African American life that adorn the buildings, including the door way to each apartment.  It was also included in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1940 Guide to Modern Architecture in the Northeast States, as one of eight significant Buffalo buildings, featured alongside such beloved tourism destinations as the Darwin Martin House and Kleinhan’s music hall.  Eleanor Roosevelt visited the project to see first-hand the living embodiment of the ideals of the Federal Housing Authority.

In addition to the praise heaped upon its design and construction, Willert Park became an important social force in the community.  Home to the original Buffalo Garden Walk, competitions were held annually by complex manager and resident Alfred D. Price for the best gardens, and the communal courtyards and intimate setting gave rise to a generation of Buffalo’s black middle class who went on to become the doctors, teachers, politicians, and business owners who shaped so much of our City.  If there is a place in Buffalo that deserves listing on the National Register that touches multiple listing criteria spanning architecture, history, and associations with prominent people, surely it is Willert Park.

And now, eighty years later, virtually the same argument that was invoked to build Willert Park, is being brought forth again to justify its demolition.

Willert Park and Shoreline share many qualities:  celebrated architects, architecture that was widely recognized and lauded at the time, and now, the same arguments that willed them into existence are being used as arguments to why they should go:

  • They are sub-standard;
  • They are unhealthy for people;
  • They simply do not fit the way we live today.

And of course, these arguments are the same ones that are made every time housing for people, whether subsidized or not, stands in the way of other priorities – these were the arguments made by civic leaders in promoting the destruction of Allentown for a west side highway connector, or the destruction of Prospect Hill for a new Peace Bridge Plaza and Duty Free Shop to name a more recent example.

What if anything are preservationists supposed to learn from this?

The main thing we must understand before taking any steps forward is that our issues with public housing have nothing to do with architecture, and everything to do:

  • With our attitudes toward poverty;
  • With our assumptions about who lives in social housing complexes;
  • With who is making decisions about the worth and quality our neighborhoods;
  • With who benefits from the constant churn of large scale publicly funded projects;
  • And maybe, most importantly, with how we see (or don’t) the living, breathing people who call these places home.

Does that feel uncomfortable?  Too political?  Outside of the usual preservation mandate?  Welcome to why saving even the most architecturally and historically important public housing projects is so difficult for the preservation community.

As a field, we simply do not know how to have these conversations, and in so many instances, lack the deep relationships with those who can help us learn.

As a profession, we are trained to do the research, tell the story, determine whether and how to save the physical fabric.  If we talk about people, it is people of the past whose story we tell, it is rarely the story of our fellow contemporary citizens, and it almost never draws a vision for the future.  If we save the building, it doesn’t necessarily matter who does it or what the future use might be so long as it is architecturally sensitive.  After all, we’ve built an entire practice around adaptive re-use.

Preservation of public housing reveals the inadequacy of those approaches to meeting this challenge.

If we save the physical fabric of Willert Park or Shoreline but they become privately owned upscale housing or office complexes, which there is a market for, is this okay?  If they were saved and in continued use as social housing, are we unfairly limiting the housing choices of BMHA and other low income residents based on an historic but impractical ideal, as the Executive Director of BMHA has suggested to me?  What is our role in this dialogue as preservation professionals who may not live in the affected neighborhoods?  What tools do we have, and what tools do we need to ensure that our profession is sharing and contributing our knowledge, while ensuring that other voices are also heard?

To meet this moment in time, and to work to create answers to these questions, preservationists are going to have to open up

our tool kit and take a different approach, and we will need to build new relationships across a broader range of communities and movements.  We must not look simply to find allies in fights we have pre-determined are worth fighting, we must strive to BE allies for those who have been displaced continuously, and denied, through both action and inaction in our sector, the benefits of historic preservation.

In Buffalo today, about 5% of our fabric is protected through our local preservation ordinance.  If you were to read the city’s cultural heritage through the lens of what we have saved, you would come away with a sense of a place built almost exclusively by and for wealthy white men.  But this is not the story of our City.  If you believe the studies, as I do, as many of us in this room do, that protecting the tangible evidence of our shared history and culture strengthens community cohesion and brings stability and pride to people’s lives, than the narrow way we currently practice this profession is not just limiting, it is in complicity with forces that are denying certain people the right to stable, culturally rich homes and neighborhoods.

If we want to develop a field that is relevant to the present and future, and not just as a branch of real estate development or tourism, then we must be willing to fight for everyone’s home, and everyone’s history, and we must be willing as professionals to work with other fields to ensure that we are not just conserving the physical fabric of places, but are deeply respectful of their cultural significance, and uplifting the agency of the people most embedded in the places we serve.

This is Viola Hill, the last tenant to leave Willert Park.  She wanted to stay in the place that she called home.  She wanted to have neighbors again and watch children play in the grassy courtyard in front of her apartment.  If preservation is to be relevant, we can’t simply understand architectural styles and historical development patterns.  We must understand and support what it means to be home.

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