Skip to Content

Gentrification, Demolishing the Projects and the Dispersal of Poor Urban Black Communities.

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

A Black Agenda Interview by Bruce A. Dixon

In urban Black America, stable communities are the exception rather than the rule. It's a fact of black life in the US that our urban communities, especially poorer ones are rarely allowed to exist more than a couple generations. Low and moderate income black communities, especially renters are not valued, either by our black elite or by the larger society. Portrayed in the media as desparate sinkholes of despair they are inevitably slated for gentrification, displacement and dispersal. Communities of public housing residents have been conspicious targets of this model of urban redevelopment.  Last summer, Black Agenda Report talked to USF's Dr. Susan D. Grreenbaum, one of the few scholars studying the outcome of the national policy of demolishing and dispersing public housing communities.  It's a question most scholars and our black elite seldom ask.  For too much of our black business class leadership, gentrification isn't a question of economic justice.  It's just another way to get paid.


Gentrification, Demolishing the Projects and the Dispersal of Poor Urban Black Communities.

A Black Agenda Interview by Bruce A. Dixon

Dr. Susan Greenbaum is a professor of anthropology at USF, the University of South Florida. She has been researching urban settings for thirty years, in Tampa, Kansas City and other cities. Since 2000 she has closely examined the impact of the HOPE 6 program, and most recently has been concerned with the patterns of mortgage foreclosure in the areas to which many former public housing residents had relocated. She is the author of More Than Black, Afro-Cubans in Tampa, tracing the experiences of this black immigrant group in the Jim Crow South and the mutual aid society they developed more than a century ago which still endures today. 


BD: What is the HOPE 6 program, anyway?

SG: HOPE 6 is a program that began in the early 1990s, actually under Bush 1. The intention of it was to revitalize housing projects that were distressed and deemed in need of removal by a commission that was put together in preceding years that identified a fairly large number of housing projects deemed to be virtually unlivable. The program evolved into something rather larger than that. It became part of a privatization initiative for demolishing public housing, for redeveloping on the sites of the former complexes mixed income communities that were the result of public-private partnerships and were greatly influenced by the New Urbanism. Henry Cisneros, HUD director during the early part of the Clinton administration was particularly attracted to the principles and ideas of the new urbanism. And so it got combined into this idea that public housing was a failure and needed to be redeveloped.

Out of that also came a number of social principles that were designed, I think, to explain why people were (being) dislocated in this fashion. Complexes were demolished, people have to be relocated, this can be very disruptive to their lives. The theory of deconcentration which came out of the work of William Julius Wilson

among others was the notion that a big part of the perpetuation of poverty arises from the fact that poor people, particularly in public housing are concentrated in areas where only other poor people live. They're bereft of role models, they're bereft of resources and they create a kind of self reinforcing and intergenerationally reproducing set of values and behaviors that make poor people perpetually poor.

BD: So then, according to this (theory) if poverty and the bad behaviors people associate with poverty come from poor people, the solution to poverty is to break up concentrations of poor people.

SG: That is it in essence, that if you can somehow disperse those concentrations and relocate these very poor people into areas where there are less poor people, and ideally more middle class people, that they will learn appropriate values and behaviors, they will be linked to new opportunities and their lives will be transformed and presumably they will be able to lift themselves out of poverty.

BD: Is it really a new idea in urban economic development that the only way, the best way to develop urban neighborhoods is to move poorer people out and richer ones in? That didn't just start in the last twenty years, did it?

SG: No, no, it's got ample precedent. What is different though, is that there was kind of, I don't want to cal it a policy, but there was an agenda of containment. Certainly the dual housing market is containment, where you draw a line around areas and say this is where black people can live, and if black people spill over into the margins of adjoining neighborhoods then those neighborhoods begin to transition and become all black also, and this is somehow related to some kind of creeping pathology, an image of a cancerous process. This is like, let's take these concentrations of poverty and pathology and break them up, scatter the people into new areas where presumably their conditions (the behaviors that characterize poverty) will disappear.

BD: Have any systematic longitudinal nationwide studies been done to determine what the actual effects on families and former communities that were scattered have been?

SG: There have been some. The Urban Institute and Apt Associates at Cambridge had collaborate longitudinal panel studies that they began, I can't remember the date they started, but there were a period of intervals at which they revisited the impacts of relocation on the people who have been relocated. There was a report issued in late 2007 that was the latest version of what has happened. In that report there are a number of findings that are certainly negative.

There have been virtually no positive effects on employment opportunities. There are mixed and equivocal results regarding the benefits to youth of being relocated. There are very negative results regarding the health status of people who've been relocated. There is not much good that has been identified in the effects of this process from that study, which is the largest study. It's based on several sites, It's not a nationwide review. But this is going on in cities and towns that have public housing throughout the country. It continues to be even though the actual funding for the HOPE 6 program was discontinued in the late Bush administration.

BD: Let's go a little bit into this idea that you help poor people by scattering and breaking up their communities, that sounds like an interesting idea. If poverty is bad, who would want to be around other poor people? And if poverty is bad, how can breaking up concentrations of poor people be the wrong thing to do?

SG: This, I think, is one of the principal contradictions in this policy, or in this program and in the policy that undergirds it. There is an assumption that poor people living together with other poor people develop very dysfunctional habits, behaviors and values, and that this is the principal reason or one of the reasons they cannot escape poverty. Well, if that's the case, to relocate poor people into lower and middle class neighborhoods is to introduce what are acknowledged to be 'bad elements" into those neighborhoods. Now I disagree with the initial premise, so I don't agree with the secondary premise....

BD: The premise that the former residents of public housing are "bad elements".

SG: Exactly, I think this is part of a longstanding pejorative tradition that blames poverty on people who are poor rather than on structural factors such as inadequate incomes and poor educational opportunities.

BD: So do the people in these middle income neighborhoods into which poor people are relocated resist and resent the newcomers?

SG: Well, that's certainly been our experience. This is one aspect of the program that has been very little studied. To my knowledge we are the only people who have systematically attempted to determine how the homeowners in neighborhoods into which people have been relocated are reacting to their arrival. Ed Goetz in Minneapolis did a study of a court ordered relocation process that also looked at the reactions of incumbents and he found a lot of resistance. What we have found is considerable amount of resistance, and it's hardly surprising. People are worried that their home values have been diminished as a result of the new mix in the neighborhood. They're worried that their safety has been affected by this new mix in the neighborhood. They believe the images and the messages they've been presented of why these are uncongenial neighbors. So it's hardly surprising that they've been resistant. It's an unexamined problem.

BD: Tell us if you can why the health outcomes of former public housing residents should be worse, and why the job outcomes of former public housing residents have not improved after relocation.

SG: I would be purely speculating on this but I'd be happy to speculate. In the most recent report from the Urban Institute this is one of the findings that really stand out. We know from their earlier baseline studies that people in public housing have worse health status than other people at comparable income levels. This is both cause and effect. People who are in poor health seek housing security because they really don't have the capacity to engage in employment at the same level as more healthy people.

But what they found was that people who were relocated with vouchers into private neighborhoods were worse off than people who stayed in public housing. And that's anomalous. I think what it is, is that disconnecting them from health care services that tend to be concentrated in those public housing neighborhoods.

In Tampa for example, on the edge of the former public housing projects and continuing still, there was a low income clinic. There were services provided by WIC and a program called Healthy Start that brought that kind of services to people who lived in these complexes. The services were more accessible. When you scatter people into areas where there are not those kinds of services deliberately positioned, it just causes more problems in securing them. The eligibility for Healthy Start for example, was based on living in a census tract with a certain level of poverty. When people were moved out of public housing into a variety of census tracts many of which had income rates too high to qualify, Healthy Start had trouble finding their former clients, and certifying their eligibility. So those people fell through the cracks. I think this is one small example of the processes that led to those outcomes.

BD: Weren't the presence of a lot of these health programs in these (public housing) areas a result of the exercise of political agency, political power by some of the people who used to live in the projects?

SG: Sure, that and the fact that you place services logically in the areas where people need them the most. But it was also the case that people agitated for their own needs, and did so more effectively when they were together as a large group, as a constituency.

BD: What about access to employment?

SG: Actually this is interesting. We've looked at this in Tampa, so I can only speak about Tampa. There was better public transportation by a long shot in the areas where the projects used to be. If you look at the areas where employment was most likely to be, such as downtown and in hospitals located in the downtown area, and shopping districts that were accessible by public transportation from the downtown area, opportunities to find and secure employment were actually better.

Now people were stigmatized for living in public housing. Those kind of issues had an effect on whether or not employers were willing to hire, One of the assumptions was that this stigma could be relieved. Well, there doesn't seem to be much evidence of that. What has been going on is that people seem to have less access to the employment that they need. Other studies have shown similar kinds of results in other places where transportation seems to be a major factor...

BD: You mean the availability of public transportation in the areas to which they have been moved... although jobs are out there, if you can't walk five miles to a job and there's no bus there, it's not going to work out for you.

SG: Right. I think there are some issues like that which weren't anticipated. I mean, the broad notion that good jobs had left the inner city and had been relocated into the suburbs so if we move people to the suburbs where the jobs now are then they would have better chances of getting them. But that doesn't eliminate the kinds of discrimination that exists. And the fact that people with low skills no matter how close are not going to be qualified for those jobs and they're not going to get them. The idea that they would somehow be incorporated into social networks where it's sort of a well known truism that people get jobs through people they know, and if they now know people who have jobs maybe they'll be able to get jobs, well, that hasn't happened,

BD: Is it true, do you think, that we've developed a culture in America where we only value homeowners, where we don't value, and we don't protect the rights of people who have to rent their housing?

SG: That's a situation which has come to full contradictory flower in recent years. Yes, I think so. Certainly in the state of Florida, the rights of tenants are extremely flimsy. There are very few protections against either bad conditions or bad treatment or recourse when landlords don't fix things they're supposed to... that creates an insecurity which is, I think, a real problem, and it reflects... (a valuation of renters) as transient and not as reputable as people who own their own homes.

BD: What do we lose when we break up communities of renters like the communities of people who lived in public housing. What's lost there?

SG: I think this is the real problem. Because the social structure of public housing has been so demonized, there's a failure to recognize what that social structure actually consists of. A very recurrent theme not only in our interviews but in the work that other people have done in other places is that when people lived in public housing they had access to a whole range of support from each other that is no longer available (once they've been moved). people watched each others kids. People were able to use each others' telephones. People gave each other rides places. So you didn't have to own a car to get someplace because you could pay somebody a couple of dollars to take you in their car. You didn't have to have a phone to get a job because you could give the number of the person next door and they would get you and you would get that call. There are a whole list of those kind of things. These practices are well known but they are not valued, they're certainly not valued appropriately.

When people are moved away from those contacts where you no longer have somebody next door whose phone you can borrow or who's willing to watch your kids while you go for a job interview or any of the other kinds of things that make survival more feasible, there's a lot of struggling that happens. Or people have to buy those services which further diminishes their limited incomes. So the breaking up of communal support structures is really one of the casualties of this.

BD: Does the fact that the projects were or used to be on good sized contiguous tracts of land near downtown that developers can make a big buck off of, did that have anything to do with the popularization of this relocation agenda?

SG: Nobody will acknowledge that, but many of us think so. There are sites that were desirable, certainly in the city of Chicago, desirable real estate that was being occupied by large public housing complexes. In Tampa for example, the area of Seminole Heights which was sort of a 1920s development with a lot of old... cottages had become a site of gentrification. But there was a very large public housing project located just to the north of Seminole Heights. That was redeveloped, and it was, by anecdote of the people trying to revitalize Seminole Heights a very welcome development because now there's no longer this sort of looming menace up the street of these projects, but rather this very attractive new urbanist style apartment buildings where very few former public housing residents live.

BD: What do we have to do to be able to move beyond and create a model of urban development that isn't simply moving poorer people out and richer ones in? What would have to happen?

SG: We need to return in earnest to place-based redevelopment, and to participatory, collaborative redevelopment. There were many, many people living in public housing who had a very good understanding of their situation and of the kinds of things that would help their community, and where very willing to work on behalf of creating those kinds of structures, opportunities, opportunities for kids, opportunities for each other, political mobilization, and self-help. Self-help and mutual aid are principles that are destroyed by (gentrification) this kind of redevelopment, it... (makes survival) highly individualized. We need to return to the belief that we're all in this together and that collective structures have power.

I'm hoping that in this new administration this kind of understanding that neighborhood has new status, certainly more than it did in the previous one. There's been this notion that well, we tried community development and it failed. Well, it's very easy to dissect the failures of community development and see that the concept really has never been appropriately tried, that there were many successes we could build upon.

I think there is hardly any good evidence in support of deconcentration. There's a growing body of evidence that suggests it's not a good idea. People who are earnestly interested in making improvements in the urban landscape and in the way that poverty is conceptualized should really go back and look at some of these time worn principles that really do work.

BD: What is there to fear from concentrations of poor people and who are the actors in our society who had something to fear from concentrations of poor people, and who benefited by their dispersal?

SG: That's complex question. The media images of what went on in public housing have been so negative and so thorough. It just amazes me, the number of well-meaning people who believe this in totality, who think that the problems of poor black families come from the fact that their structure is somehow different from nuclear families in the suburbs rather than this being a matter of economics or some other circumstances. People have this belief, mainstream middle class white people, that if they're somehow brought into contact with poor people they're going to become victims of crime or their kids are going to take on bad practices and those are pejorative, really libelous characterizations that need to be re-evaluated. People need to have a more balanced understanding of where poverty comes from.

BD: Finally, a lot of the people who did move wound up in neighborhoods that have been ground zero for the foreclosure epidemic.

SG: That's exactly what we're finding. We looked at two case neighborhoods... we chose two case neighborhoods for ethnographic treatment. One of these neighborhoods is not the site of the highest foreclosure rate in the county, and it is just like a war zone. There are so many empty buildings, so many predatory activities going on in that neighborhood now that to suggest people are better off living there is ridiculous. These are neighborhoods that were vulnerable to the sub prime scams and now the foreclosure prevention scams. It's a situation in which the problems have compounded themselves. People are being evicted from Section Eight properties that are being foreclosed upon (even though) they've paid the rent, HUD has paid the rent, but they're in foreclosure and people get evicted.

BD: We understand that now one of the focuses of your research is what's going on in those neighborhoods where the foreclosure epidemic is happening.

SG: That's right. Now we're just beginning so it's very difficult to generalize, but the things that we've learned are just heartbreaking. people who get foreclosed on and evicted lose everything they have. They put all of their possessions in storage, and that becomes one more bill they cannot pay. So heirlooms that have been in families for generations are lost... all of their memorabilia, all of their valuables. People who started out a step on the ladder to some sort of middle class are now consigned to far worse poverty and to despair. Their families fall apart under the weight of this pressure, pets are sent off to the pound. The aching circumstances surrounding all that are causing domestic violence, they're causing divorce, family dissolution, things we can't really tolerate much more of as a society.

Neighborhoods like the one I was talking about where people have been working for decades trying to get the neighborhood on its feet are now

BD: And there are no communities left to organize...

SG: The effect is to demobilize, and to demoralize, and those are not good things... it's hard work and it's so much harder than when all we had to worry about was relations between the former public housing residents and homeowners.

BD:  Thank you for taking the time to talk to us, Dr. Greenbaum.

More Than Black

Dr. Susan D. Greenbaum, Ph.D. is a professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of South Florida specializing in Community Development, Urban Ethnicity, Native American policies, Social Networks, Neiighborhood Revitalization and Ethnohistory.  She is the author of More Than Black; Afro Cubans in Tampa, an account of an immigrant community in the Jim Crow South and the century-old self-help society they founded which endures to this day.




Share this



Bruce A. Dixon says:
“Our problem is that we have absolutely no model of economic development...”
But, surely that is like saying,
“...then go a mile, turn left and your in a most beautiful park.”
For in problem solving, if you don’t as a first step, start attacking the root cause of the problem, then all you have done is create a whole new problem.
STEP ONE:  My laboring class shoulder our burden to feed and shelter the homeless.
STEP TWO:  Your intelligent middleclass pay us who hard labor a living wage.
STEP THREE: Your college level class be not so fool as to think you can ever rule over those in a country club with class, as paid actor politics is a brain-power dictatorship high above your ability to comprehend
STEP FOUR: Tell the rich be peaceful and honest in action, or rot in an open air prison.

Not quite...

Bruce A. Dixon says:
“Our problem is that we have absolutely no model of economic development...”
But, surely that is like saying,
“...then go a mile, turn left and your in a most beautiful park.”

I disagree. It is more in the direction of saying,
"... we have a most beautiful park, but the roads that lead to it are closed to those who can't afford the price of admission."

When will it end?

Firstly I’d like to say that having grown up in, for lack of a better term, a black ghetto as well as having had buddies and girlfriends who lived in various high rise projects in Baltimore, I concur with Mr. Dixon in that as tough and rough and embarrassing as hell as it was at times to shop with food stamps and go pick up that cinder block of government issue cheese from time to time, or sadness of  have your friends older brother bum fifty cents from you to buy a bottle of thunderbird; we lived in a community albeit a poor one; a community where you were not only known, but recognized for who you were or wanted to be. And knowing that you could go to church with the neighbor even if your family didn’t or knock on the neighbors door to borrow sugar, milk, a bar of soap or ten bucks ‘til pay day that you might return to them while meeting them on the bus stop on the way home was a great relief and sense of interdependence with out the fear (at least not openly) of being judged. If it were not for that sense of community, there would have no doubt been more crime, drug abuse and the sense of desolation. And in spite of the riffs that existed between those belonging to one project or ghetto neighborhood and another, there existed along with the angst of entering another one to visit your girlfriend or boyfriend, or to play ball a sense of central cohesion and unspoken relative understanding. You were aware of the rules and so were they. And if truth be told; those black folks living in the low rise versions on the same plot of the projects thought of themselves as slightly different from those having to take the elevator fifteen flights to arrive at what was basically, with some slight variations, the same accommodations; but so different as to think of themselves as the other.
It’s ironic now that I think about it, because common western wisdom would have it that those who live up in the sky are closer to god therefore better than those living closer to the earth.
“And for what it’s worth - whatever the outcome, continuing to corral people in housing projects is not only illegal, unconstitutional and racist, it’s a recipe for failure. We've lost entire generations to the public housing system.”
Secondly, the above statement by the Hope 6 consultant really isn’t worth much when I think about it either.
Developing low income housing and having people move in there is not illegal, nor is it unconstitutional and it certainly isn’t purely racist or if it is racist, it is equally classist; for when in the fifties following the second world war, with the advent of the suburbs, there were plenty of Irish and other European immigrants residing in public housing, including high rises. Public housing in and of itself cannot be blamed for the loss of generations of African Americans as you claim. Public housing didn’t create the heroin epidemic that began in well established black working class neighborhoods in the forties that spread to the low income areas like wild fire. P.H. didn’t create racial discrimination against people of color in the work force and armed forces or housing/rental markets; it was a result of those inequalities. P.H. also did not create failing public schools and accommodations in lower income communities. And public housing didn’t create the opportunities for Korean, or Puerto Rican or Vietnamese or eastern Europeans to name a few entrepreneurs; opportunities that were and still are in many instances denied honest hard working black men and woman a chance at running a grocery, or barber shop or take out joint store instead of liquor store. Sure there are and were some but with the possible exception of Caribbean’s, foreigners predominate shops in ghettos or low income/project areas of most black urban landscapes.
No, those social and spiritual ills that plague low income public housing as well as working class black communities all over the nation have it roots in systematic racism from the white dominant structure along with classism from the dominant African American elite. The public Housing sectors were allowed to deteriorate just as other areas of any urban city are allowed to run themselves in the ground when speculators get a glimpse of the potential to make huge profits.
Lastly, i think that the idea of breaking up concentrations of the poor to combat the spiritual erosion with in those who are poor is naturally idiotic and I think Mr. Greenbaum recognizes that. It also makes the  inhumane implication that poverty is self generating like fungi on a loaf of bread left to its own devices for weeks at a time. Poverty begins with and is created by those for whom a poverty class is needed for the existence of the wealthy.
Before we know it, there'll be new pop psychology report informing us the newly found poverty gene that is responsable for the poverty personality disorder; much like that nonesense regarding drug adiction. It's not bad enough to be at the bottom of the economic ladder, those who are there are expected to trust scientific proof that it is the tragig result of inherent character flaws caused by an un repentant DNA chain.

I'm just seeing this piece.

I'm just seeing this piece. Greenbaum's description of HOPE VI (there is no such thing as a HOPE 6) is simplistic, and at times inaccurate.
The process is not perfect. There is room for exploitation. But there are occasions where it has worked. And for what its worth - whatever the outcome, continuing to corral people in housing projects is not only illegal, unconstitutional and racist, its a recipe for failure. We've lost entire generations to the public housing system. To characterize public housing projects as "communities" is to buy into the idea that the ghettos are ours in the first place. They aren't. They're little more than concentration camps and prison incubators.
When I have time I will try to come back and offer my firsthand experience as a consultant on two HOPE VI projects, as well as my understanding of the laws that govern HOPE VI. I certainly see several holes in what the Dr. is describing - although I'm in no way suggesting that HOPE VI is the ideal alternative to public housing.

I worked in the projects as a community organizer....

Cabrini-Green for a spell in the late 70s and again in the 80s.  I can tell you that despite the awful problems, and at the time four or five of the ten poorest census tracts in the U.S. were in Chicago's hi-rise public housing projects, there was a very real community there. 

The problem is that our black elite, just like our white elite, does not value low-income black communities, in or out of public housing.  Invariably urban black communities are depicted as sinkholes of despair and pathology in need of profitable demolition and dispersal.  Everywhere else on earth humans are permitted to plant their families and live generation after generation in the same spot, developing deeply rooted communities.  This is a privilege that modern US capitalism seems intent on denying urban blacks.  I know that large parts of the south side of Chicago where I grew up are barely recognizable.  If Barack and the mayor had succeeded in bringing the Olympics to Chicago the landscape would be utterly alien.

I think Dr. Greenbaum has it about right.  Our problem is that we have absolutely no model of economic development aside from moving poor people out and rich ones in.  And we do not value communities of poor people, whether in or out of the projects, and the systems of mutual aid and benefit that they construct.


This gigantic article, 51 big paragraphs long, and but one sentence on the heart of the problem.  Namely wages, job skills and the laboring class.  Actually not one word on the gut issue, as the term “laboring class” was not mentioned once.
And why such discriminating and degrading as to call my high achiever ability to scrub a floor spotless, just a thing so worthless as “low skills?”  And my 30 year profession of hand planting seedling pine, with a survival rate second to none,  my having been many times broke but never on welfare, why call me destitute, starving and of no more value then “poor people?”
Take a banker who has a very “low skills” ability to plant a tree, why is it that he earns more in a day then I earn in a lifetime?  For $366 million a year, including bonuses, Cadillac healthcare, retirement and golden parachute, a cool million a day.  And $125,000 an hour if your lucky enough to get from him a full 8 hour day.   
And so, what would happen if you hired a hundred laboring men from a slum housing project and gave them the equal pay of those in law enforcement?  Yes a near impossible thing to accomplish as all cops have college level ability to achieve three times the pay of a laboring man.  But lets say by some miracle this was done, what would happen?
BINGO – all your problems solved.  For then self-worth would they have equal to all those legalized killers who get a god-ego strapping a killing machine to their body.  For then the number of babies they procreate would be equal to the average man in the next higher class, the average trophy husbands of the stuck-up higher achiever middleclass.

Clicky Web Analytics
Dr. Radut | blog