The Fountainhead: A History of Slums

The Fountainhead: A History of Slums February 15, 2019

The Fountainhead, part 4, chapter 9

Roark has almost finished building the country house that Gail Wynand wanted for himself and Dominique. But Wynand has another project for him:

Late one afternoon in the fall Wynand came to Roark’s office, as he often did at the end of a day, and when they walked out together, he said: “It’s a nice evening. Let’s go for a walk, Howard. There’s a piece of property I want you to see.”

He led the way to Hell’s Kitchen. They walked around a great rectangle — two blocks between Ninth Avenue and Eleventh, five blocks from north to south. Roark saw a grimy desolation of tenements, sagging hulks of what had been red brick, crooked doorways, rotting boards, strings of gray underclothing in narrow air shafts, not as a sign of life, but as a malignant growth of decomposition.

“You own that?” Roark said.

“All of it.”

“Why show it to me? Don’t you know that making an architect look at that is worse than showing him a field of unburied corpses?”

If you were keeping track, Howard Roark’s moral worldview holds that an Objectivist artist who can’t do the work he wants to do is worse than a field of people crushed under tank treads, and a block of shabby tenements is a worse sight than a field of decaying dead bodies.

You have to wonder, why does he object to tenements? We know it’s not because he feels bad for the people forced to live in them, because he never feels bad for anyone, period. The guiding ethic of The Fountainhead is that admiration and compassion are mutually exclusive emotions. If you appreciate great deeds, you’ll never stoop to pity those who are suffering, and vice versa. The only answer is that it’s not the poor living conditions of the tenants that sadden him, but the decrepit condition of the buildings themselves that stirs his otherwise stony heart.

Wynand explains that this slum is where he was born. It’s the first piece of property he ever bought, once he had the means, and he’s left it untouched until now because he’s been saving it for that special someone:

“When I could begin to think of buying real estate, I bought this piece. House by house. Block by block. It took a long time. I could have bought better property and made money fast, as I did later, but I waited until I had this. Even though I knew I would make no use of it for years. You see, I had decided then that this is where the Wynand Building would stand some day… All right, keep still all you want — I’ve seen what your face looked like just now.”

“Oh, God, Gail!…”

“What’s the matter? Want to do it? Want it pretty badly?”

“I think I’d almost give my life for it — only then I couldn’t build it. Is that what you wanted to hear?”

“Something like that. I won’t demand your life. But it’s nice to shock the breath out of you for once. Thank you for being shocked. It means you understood what the Wynand Building implies. The highest structure in the city. And the greatest… It will be not only my monument but the best gift I could offer to the man who means most to me on earth. Don’t frown, you know that’s what you are to me.”

Wynand wants to erect the greatest skyscraper in the world, which he plans to use as a headquarters, consolidating all the different offices of his business empire. He intends it as an achievement that will never be surpassed, a way to prove once and for all that he’s triumphed over his lowly origins. And Roark is nearly orgasmic at the thought of getting to build it (sorry for that image).

Though I have no doubt Ayn Rand didn’t intend it, this may be the most unexpectedly pro-social-justice section of the book. Roark’s lament over decaying buildings points, albeit unintentionally, to the way that slums, tenements and ghettos are deeply interwoven with the history of race and class injustice in the U.S.

Matthew Desmond’s Pulitzer-winning book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City explains the connection:

[T]he ghetto had always been more a product of social design than desire. It was never a by-product of the modern city, a sad accident of industrialization and urbanization, something no one benefited from nor intended. The ghetto had always been a main feature of landed capital, a prime moneymaker for those who saw ripe opportunity in land scarcity, housing dilapidation, and racial segregation.

All across Europe, the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries saw rural families flock to rapidly growing cities as the Industrial Revolution got underway. Urban land became scarce, rents spiked, and landowners soon realized that there was profit to be had. The most money could be made by renting not to rich tenants, who could afford to drive a hard bargain, but from the poor, who had little power to negotiate. This led to slums springing up in cities throughout the continent, from Paris to Geneva to Edinburgh.

As America became urbanized and industrialized, we adopted the same model:

Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, America’s poor lived in cellars, attics, cattle sheds, and windowless rooms that held multiple families. Some slums were cut off from basic municipal services and local wells; so families begged for water in other parts of town. Rents continued to rise as living conditions deteriorated. Soon, many families could not afford their housing. When this happened, landlords could summon the “privilege of distress,” which entitled them to seize and sell tenants’ property to recover lost profit, a practice that persisted well into the twentieth century.

American slums were often divided along racial lines, especially after the Civil War and Reconstruction. The vast majority of land in the South remained in white hands, and black families who stayed there had little choice but to become impoverished sharecroppers – technically free, but in living conditions scarcely different than those that existed in the era of slavery. No surprise, many headed North to seek their fortune. But life there was little better:

In the early decades of the twentieth century, African-American families seeking freedom and good jobs participated in the Great Migration, moving en masse from the rural South to cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee. When they arrived in those cities, they were crowded into urban ghettos, and the vast majority depended on landlords for housing. Ghetto landlords had a segregated and captive tenant base and had nothing to gain by improving their run-down houses. They began dividing their properties into small “kitchenette” units, throwing up so many plywood walls their apartments resembled “rabbit warrens.” Many houses lacked heating and complete plumbing… They came to know well the sound of the tuberculosis cough. In 1930, the death rate for Milwaukee’s blacks was nearly 60 percent higher than the citywide rate, due in large part to poor housing conditions.

As I’ve mentioned before, the New Deal fought this kind of poverty with subsidized loans that let families buy spacious, modern homes in the suburbs, but that assistance was limited to white families. Black families were mostly left behind in the ghettos, and when they could get housing, it was often through predatory “contract” loans where they would lose everything if they missed a single payment. These loans were cash cows for unscrupulous slumlords, as Desmond says:

Over three centuries of systematic dispossession from the land created a semipermanent black rental class and an artificially high demand for inner-city apartments. In the 1950s, white real estate brokers developed an advanced technique of exploitation, one that targeted black families shut out of the private housing market. After buying houses on the cheap from nervous white homeowners in transitioning neighborhoods, private investors would sell these houses “on contract” to black families for double or triple their assessed value. Black buyers had to come up with sizeable down payments, often upwards of 25 percent of the property’s inflated value. Once they moved in, black families had all the responsibilities of home ownership without any of the rights. When families missed payments, which many did after monthly installments were increased or necessary housing upkeep set them back, they could be evicted as their homes were foreclosed and down payments pocketed. The profits were staggering. In 1966, a Chicago landlord told a court that on a single property he had made $42,500 in rent but paid only $2,400 in maintenance. When accused of making excessive profits, the landlord simply replied, “That’s why I bought the building.”

Rand wasn’t oblivious to the parasitic behavior of these slumlords. In an earlier chapter, Dominique wrote an exposé of them – although she insisted that an equal share of the blame should go to the slum-dwellers themselves, because they’d be able to live somewhere better if they weren’t so lazy.

Nevertheless, this scene – together with the accidental semi-endorsement of deposit insurance in Atlas Shrugged – has a surprisingly progressive message for a libertarian novel. After all, even if it’s only the poor, beleaguered buildings that Roark feels bad for, any project to fix them up would also help the people who live in them. Roark’s language isn’t so different from the social reformers who once railed against allowing people to be crowded into these squalid structures, even if he’s saying it for very different reasons.

Of course, Ayn Rand seemed to imagine that these outcomes were a perversion of capitalism. In fact, they’re exactly what we should expect as long as there’s massive inequality and a captive underclass who can be exploited by ruthless, rent-seeking property owners. Despite her status as the self-proclaimed ultimate defender of the free market, she could be surprisingly naive about what it actually entailed.

Image: “Bandit’s Roost”, an old New York City slum notorious for gangs. Photo by Jacob Riis, via Wikimedia Commons.

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