Why Sonia Sotomayor Came Out Okay Despite The Height Of The Building She Grew Up In

by John McWhorter | June 2, 2009

The descriptions of the housing project that Sonia Sotomayor grew up in are an important rejoinder to a truism oft-heard: that poor blacks were done in by, in addition to so many other things, architecture.

We are to shake our heads at the thought of "the demolishing of low-rent housing through slum clearance and replacement of these units with massive high-rise public housing projects sited exclusively in black residential districts," as my Bloggingheads sparring partner Glenn Loury once put it. I am ever in awe of Glenn on all levels, but I do take issue with that analysis of the inherent evil of housing projects, which is typical of a certain literature and discussion.

Fill in this notion a bit and the idea is that the project buildings were too high for residents to watch the outside common areas from their windows for crime, exacerbated by ample concealed spaces such as side stairwells, apartments mostly situated in a row along a single hallway instead of facing one another, and entrances displaced from the visibility of the street.

The result: the "PJs" renowned today where it's dangerous for children to step outside as drug peddlers fight for turf, married couples are virtually nonexistent, the elevators don't work and reek of urine, and so on.

But read the loving descriptions of housing projects in the forties, fifties and early sixties in the Times article. Or this reminiscence of Chicago's Cabrini-Green projects from a Los Angeles Times article some years ago:

Cabrini-Green was a small city unto itself, filled with working families in which both parents lived at home. Children walked to the nearby elementary school. They played hopscotch along the open hallways that led to the apartments. In the afternoons, neighbors gossiped while they weeded vegetable gardens between the towers.

To people living in housing projects in this era, the idea that the configuration of the building was some kind of sentence to community chaos would have seemed distinctly counterintuitive. Yet the idea that the arrangement of hallways and the number of floors and how the building was oriented towards the street spelled disaster lives on, encouraged primarily by a misreading of a hallmark study by Oscar Newman.

He did persuasively show one thing: crime increases proportionally with the height of housing project buildings. His close argument that in 1970 crime was higher in the Van Dyke high rises in Brooklyn than in the Brownsville low-rise project right across the street despite both projects containing the same number of people with the same demographic profile is perfect. And surely there is a bit of nostalgia in how people recall projects high and low in the Eisenhower era: Lee Rainwater's classic description of St. Louis' Pruitt-Igoe projects in the early sixties, with knife fights and teenaged Moms hardly unknown, is useful here, and helped get the buildings torn down. In the seventies.

But Newman's work hardly allows us to trace the specific horror of so many modern housing projects to their height. He addresses a particular problem: crime. He does not argue that architecture made single parenthood a neighborhood norm rather than one of many options, or that building height made children disidentify from school at previously unknown rates, or drug addiction so enticing as to be a key element in a neighborhood's backdrop known to most families, or that it made people start using high-powered firearms against one another for petty reasons so regularly that it no longer even comes as a surprise.

Rather, this version of the PJs emerged in the late sixties. Oscar Newman actually addressed this, although few seem to have paid much heed to this part of his exposition. In 1965, federal standards for admission were relaxed, such that many more families on welfare could move in. This was crucial to the difference between Cabrini-Green, 1955 and Cabrini-Green, 1985.

For example, in the Rosen Apartments project in Philadelphia, in the early 1950s, two-parent working families were typical, and only 28% of the families were on welfare. Rosen mixes low-rise and high-rise buildings, and at that time, crime rates in the high-rises were only ten percent more than in the low-rises. But twenty years later, about two in three families there were on welfare, and the crime rates in the high-rises were horrific.

The problem is what people tend to make of this sea change. Many suppose, for example, that the poverty was, hands down and unquestioned, the problem: it was wrong to put so many very poor people together in one place. Representative assumption: Sheryll Cashin, Georgetown law prof and author of a book on integration that got around some years back on this--"We don't have to imagine the effect on a neighborhood of plopping down massive buildings in which at least 90 percent of the occupants are extremely poor."

But let's stop and think about what this account is actually saying. Poor blacks uprooted from their homes and moving into tall, crowded buildings must slip into chaos. This means we would expect that throughout history, whenever poor people left home and moved into crowded tall buildings, there would be similar results.

Which means that the Eastern European Jews in Fiddler on the Roof, hounded by pogroms from their shtetls and fleeing to tall, crowded tenements in urban American ghettos, ended up at each others' throats on the Lower East Side. They did not.

Jacob Riis' photos make it painfully clear what pits the tenements were. Yet they were not nearly as violent as the projects later would be, and while substance abuse (then, mostly alcoholism), unemployment, and fatherless childrearing were hardly unknown, they were not norms. Consult also Chinatowns in San Francisco and New York back in the day, such as in a fine ethnohistory by Ronald Takaki who died last week: buildings tall, almost everybody poor. Paradise, no. Cabrini-Green 1980: decidedly not.

So why was it different for black Americans in the late sixties? Here is where opinions differ. I think the expansion of Aid to Families with Dependent Children in the late sixties from a temporary, monitored program (and one actually too stingy) into an open-ended, unmonitored dole--something unknown in American history or anywhere else until then--was the key factor. Others would pinpoint the invention of crack cocaine. Others would see the diminishment of Great Society funding after the early seventies as important.

Frankly, arguing for my particular view on that issue and taking on those who feel otherwise is not why I am writing this. Yet this post does have "a point," and one I consider valuable.

Point: The idea that descendants of African slaves are the only people in the history of our species to be done in by the configuration of architectural blueprints is mistaken.

It was much, much more complicated than that: the culprit was aspects of social history in America starting in the late sixties, not merely how housing projects were constructed and how far their doors happened to be from the street.

All fond reminiscences by people like Judge Sotomayor of growing up in tall housing projects are not just interesting "life story" material, but also history lessons of a different sort.


Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//blog/john-mcwhorter/why-sonia-sotomayor-came-out-okay-despite-the-height-the-building-she-grew