In the early 1970s I went to Berlin for a European conference of community activists. At the time I was doing community work in north Paddington, working mainly with tenants living in private rented accommodation subject to the pressures of gentrification and with council tenants on poorly-managed Westminster and GLC estates.
Berlin was an extraordinary contrast, the close juxtaposition of a capitalist city and a communist city, separated only by a wall. In West Berlin, we saw much high quality housing but also large areas of appalling slums where local community activists worked with working class tenants and squatters to argue for improvements. One day we went from the American sector through Checkpoint Charlie, across no-man’s land under the scrutiny of machine gun towers, and into the East. Wandering about randomly we found rows and rows of concrete apartment blocks, workers’ housing that met a certain standard but could only be described as drab and uniform. The contrast between East and West led to several long nights of debate about the inadequacies of both political and economic systems, with the only broad conclusion being that neither served the interests of the workers or the poor very well.
I’ve had this habit, perhaps even a compulsion, since to look out for workers housing wherever I visit. In beautiful cities that everyone raves about, like Barcelona or Vancouver, it didn’t take long to find some private slums and some public high rise concrete blocks. They were there even in Reykjavik, although not so high rise (and beautifully warm) but concrete and distinctive with an invisible architects board saying ‘social housing for the poor’. New workers housing in China was much more attractive than most but it was the sheer scale of provision that was so astonishing. Despite the volume of building, Shanghai also had large areas of slums – hugely overcrowded with communal taps in the courtyards – which seemed to be largely reserved for immigrant workers from other provinces.
I suspect there aren’t many people who have wandered round the projects on Lower East Side in New York and asked random residents how the refuse disposal system works – I was intrigued by buildings that looked rather like British social housing but with an extra 20 stories on top.
I was set on this train of thought by a tweet from Tom Watson MP, scourge of the Murdochs, drawing attention to an article in the New York Times, called The Land that Time and Money Forgot, discussing how New York’s housing projects are now the last of their kind in the country and that they may also be heading for extinction. The author, Mark Jacobson, says “Across the U.S., public housing, condemned as a tax-draining vector of institutionalized mayhem and poverty, whipping-boy symbol of supposedly foolhardy urban policy, has largely disappeared. Chicago knocked down Cabrini-Green, St. Louis imploded Pruitt-Igoe, New Orleans flattened Lafitte after Katrina. Only in New York does public housing remain on a large scale, remnants of the days when the developments were considered a bulwark of social liberalism, a way to move up.”
Reading through Jacobson’s fascinating social history of the projects, there are threads that seem common to most countries mentioned so far. Societies that suffer from rampant disease that affects all classes have to make sure that the poor live in sanitary conditions. Then liberal reformers usher in an era of idealism aiming to provide decent housing for all. Then the social problems emerge and there is a crisis of belief. Then the neo-liberal era where people living on prime real estate fear for their homes as developers move in to provide luxury homes.
Two lessons strike me from the above. First, very different systems all produce 2 solutions for the poor: private slums or under-resourced social housing, which may not be always be very good but meets minimum standards and is affordable and offers some security. And, secondly, there are always long queues of people wanting to get in to the latter because the former is so much worse.