You may have seen developer Geoff Palmer’s luxury apartment buildings clustered on the fringes of downtown Los Angeles. Massive, and dressed in wan tones of bisque and vanilla, they all hew to a particular architectural style. One could say they’ve broken out in a rash of ancient Roman power signifiers: arches, pillars, fountains, obelisks, pediments, and grandiose Italian names. They boast strong security systems, sealing residents away from the city — protection being paramount. One of his buildings spans a street with an elevated “skybridge” enabling tenants to avoid any homeless people below.
The skybridge plan caused controversy for its symbolic class divisiveness and hostility toward pedestrian life. But it was supported by downtown business owners because they felt Palmer was building in locations that other developers avoided. Maybe they saw his project as a kind of “urban renewal,” a rescue from decay by means of fortress-like extravagance.
Last July, Palmer donated $2 million to a super PAC for presidential nominee Donald Trump.
“A Plan for Urban Renewal” is the subtitle of a page on Trump’s website pertaining to his condescending “New Deal for Black America.” Trump’s careless use of “urban renewal” reveals a telling ignorance of the history of the phrase.
In the 1950s, this phrase was used to describe federally funded slum removal. The cleared, inexpensive land was then turned over to private developers, and only 1 percent of the original funds were used to rehouse the original residents elsewhere. In Los Angeles, the notorious destruction of the Chavez Ravine neighborhood and expulsion of its residents stand as one illustration.
Over time, “urban renewal” became code for the displacement of minorities and destruction of their neighborhoods. By 1963, author James Baldwin equated urban renewal to “Negro removal,” noting, “the federal government is accomplice to that fact.” In some cases, there was blatant removal, in others, stealthier restrictions or obstructions. For example: the tactic of quietly putting housing applications from non-whites into a drawer. This is what employees of Trump Industries were told to do in the 1970s, and what the company was successfully sued for, repeatedly.
Retired surgeon Ben Carson, the incoming Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, who has no prior experience in the field, criticized a recently proposed addition to the 1968 Fair Housing Act. He attacked the new rule — which aims to make cities report housing segregation, set desegregation goals, and provide low-income housing in integrated neighborhoods — as “socialist.” Over 60 years ago, a beautifully designed public housing development for the displaced residents of Chavez Ravine was terminated by Los Angeles’ conservative mayor, due to similar charges of socialism.
So history repeats, nationally and locally. Sterile, homogenous luxury versus affordability, systems of racial exclusion from bald-faced to baroque, and the knee-jerk smear of socialism flung at any project that might reduce profits by providing housing to low-income residents.
The next administration faces crises in affordable housing and homelessness in cities across the United States. Even with a nearly $50 billion budget, the rental assistance HUD currently provides to low-income families (80 percent of that budget) only reaches one-quarter of them. The budget for HUD’s community development block grants have been reduced nearly every year since 1995. And the incoming administration’s desire to further erode not only the existing housing assistance program, but the oversight of fair housing practices, will likely come to pass considering its campaign promise to reverse America backto when it was “great.”
It was some time after this nebulous moment of greatness when, in 1968, architect Whitney M. Young, Jr. assailed a national audience of architects for their “thunderous silence” around the cause of civil rights. He proclaimed, “You share the responsibility for the mess we are in, in terms of the white noose around the central city. It didn’t just happen. We didn’t just suddenly get this situation. It was carefully planned.”
The noose has changed. Now it’s a knot in the middle of our cities, pushing the impoverished out to the edges. This was planned too.
But what hasn’t changed is the urgent responsibility for architects, designers, engineers, urban planners, developers, and construction companies to weigh the ethical ramifications of the projects they take on.
There are signs that this is already happening. In November, when Robert Ivy, president of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), announced that he was “committed to working with President-elect Trump to address the issues our country faces,” he provoked a backlash from AIA members across the nation. Architect and author Michael Sorkin responded with the document “Architecture Against Trump,” which lists five at-risk areas requiring continual scrutiny, including affordable housing, ethically built infrastructure, and environmental sustainability.
An open letter opposing the appointment of Ben Carson was signed by hundreds of housing advocates, architects, historians, students, designers, and urban planners.
Last September the group Architects Advocate Action on Climate Change was launched, encouraging architects to act as spokespeople for sustainable building practices and to vocally promote legislation slowing climate change. Around 300 firms have joined.
Closer to home and to Palmer’s faux-Mediterranean bastions — certainly a microcosm of the kind of urban life Trump and Carson would support — the Los Angeles chapter of the AIA has launched a series of free talks dedicated to their core values, including diversity, housing for social equity, and fair labor practices. Their first event sold out.
While these may seem like small acts, they add up. And we must not forget that state and local elections will continue to wield a great impact on how we support affordable housing. The future of our cities and the fair housing of our most vulnerable demands constant vigilance and action, from all of us.
Commissioned for KCET, Los Angeles