The Fountainhead, part 4, chapter 7
In 1972, a housing project exploded while Americans cheered.
The Pruitt-Igoe public housing project of St. Louis opened in 1956 to much fanfare. It consisted of 33 high-rise towers, each 11 stories tall, and was designed by Minoru Yamasaki, the architect who would later design the World Trade Center. But barely fifteen years later, it had become so notorious for crime, violence and urban decay that the city of St. Louis decided the only option was to move out the remaining residents and dynamite the buildings.
Does this prove, as Ayn Rand would surely assert it does, that the government can’t do anything right and that public projects always turn into disasters? Is housing a solution that only the free market can solve?
For decades, that wasn’t the prevailing assumption. Public housing in America got its start with FDR and the New Deal, according to The Nation:
From 1933 to 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt launched a range of employment programs, including the Public Works Administration, which he tasked with building model homes, among other major construction projects, thus addressing the twin crises of unemployment and unaffordable housing. PWA-built homes, which housed both the poor and the middle class, were often attractive, equipped with laundry facilities, meeting rooms, playgrounds, even libraries.
Notice these housing projects were originally intended for both the poor and the middle class. But they were kneecapped by lobbying from the National Association of Realtors, who denounced public housing as “the cutting edge of the Communist front” and demanded hard supply caps. This ensured they could never house more than a small percentage of Americans.
Still, where they were built, they were a vast improvement. Before the 1940s, the urban poor were crowded into filthy, trash-strewn slums that lacked plumbing and electricity. Early public housing projects, like Pruitt-Igoe, were built with federal dollars that allowed the city to tear down the slums and replace them with clean, modern buildings that had amenities and green space. At first, it worked well:
In The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, a 2011 film interviewing past residents on their experiences growing up in the buildings, many recall the initial joy and warmth of the place, the efficiency of the plumbing, the smells of cooking, and the community. One interviewee even recalled her apartment as a “poor man’s penthouse.”
Originally, public housing served both white and black residents (although it remained segregated in many places). But after segregation was ended, white families decamped en masse to the suburbs. They got an assist from the government’s and banks’ racist redlining policies, which preferentially extended subsidized loans to white families, and homebuilders’ restrictive covenants, which locked out black buyers from desirable areas.
What resulted was a vicious cycle. The tenants left behind in Pruitt-Igoe and other housing projects like it were almost exclusively the poorest black residents. Upkeep for the buildings was funded by rent, but as the well-to-do moved out, the burden fell more heavily on the poorer tenants left behind, who became even less able to afford it.
As maintenance plummeted, broken windows, graffiti and other vandalism went unrepaired. Elevators broke and weren’t fixed, trash piled up, and rats and roaches multiplied. Corridors and stairwells darkened by broken lights became dangerous places for robbery and rape. According to residents, the police started ignoring them when they called to report crime. As more and more people moved out, vacant sections became havens for drug addicts and squatters. By the time they were demolished, the towers had become as blighted as the slums they’d replaced.
Many of these dynamics persist today, even in housing projects that haven’t degraded to the point of demolition. There are still over 2 million Americans living in public housing, but the projects have a reputation for sheltering only the poorest of the poor, for neglecting upkeep and maintenance, and for high rates of crime (even though most crime happens in a small number of hot spots). Under Ronald Reagan, the federal budget for housing was brutally cut and has never recovered:
With Reagan in the White House, HUD’s budget was cut by more than half, falling from $83.6 billion in 1976 to less than $40 billion by 1982; it has never recovered. Federal spending on housing assistance hemorrhaged by 50 percent during the same period. Homelessness, in his administration’s view, was a personal failing; homeless people were homeless “by choice,” Reagan said on Good Morning America in 1984. (source)
When affordable housing is concentrated in very poor neighborhoods, jobs and opportunity tend to stay away from those neighborhoods (because you can’t start up a business where there are no paying customers), ensuring that poor people stay poor. As I wrote in “Poor Doors“:
The best way to have a thriving, vital society is when different kinds of people can mix and mingle freely. Segregating people from each other, whether by wealth or by race or by any other characteristic, leads to stagnation and prejudice. What’s more, it’s a barrier to economic mobility…
The most important lesson to take from this is that you can’t understand housing in America without understanding race, and Ayn Rand didn’t. Although she issued a rote condemnation of racism, “race” is a word that otherwise never passes her lips.
As I’ve observed before, Objectivism should be a showcase for meritocracy. Rand’s philosophy would be an ideal template for demonstrating that talent and dedication can come from any racial or ethnic group. She wouldn’t even have to alter her standard plot. Just tell a story about how a brilliant, passionate, hardworking person of color overcomes persecution and outwits their tormentors to wind up rich and successful.
As a bonus, this would explain the seemingly random hostility that’s often directed at Rand’s protagonists. Instead of her canonical explanation, which is that looters hate achievement and joy and want to tear down anyone who’s capable of either, it could be explained as racists’ resentment that someone they view as “lesser” could be succeeding where they’re failing. Unfortunately, that’s all too plausible a motive.
But that’s not what we get. Instead, in one of the world’s worst cases of Unfortunate Implications, Galt’s Gulch, the capitalist paradise from Atlas Shrugged that’s a refuge for the world’s greatest geniuses, seems to be inhabited exclusively by white people and almost exclusively by blond-haired, blue-eyed white people. Its messiah John Galt having green eyes instead of blue eyes is Rand’s idea of diversity.
The same is true of The Fountainhead. Although public housing projects are a major theme of the last section of the book, the historical context is absent. There’s no discussion of who might need such a thing or why, except as a sinister socialist plot to take over society and drive out free-market capitalism.
Rand often seemed to forget that non-white people even existed. Because of that, she was oblivious to these hugely important dynamics that have shaped the history of America. Her one-reason worldview, in which heroic individual (white, male) capitalists accomplish everything and everyone else is an undifferentiated mass of socialist sludge, fails to account for all the myriad causes and dispositions that drive human behavior.
Image: The demolition of one of the Pruitt-Igoe towers, via Wikimedia Commons
Other posts in this series: