City of Memphis has a well-earned national reputation for reinventing public housing, and because of it, it’s perplexing to watch the campaign to preserve Foote Homes, the last public housing project in Memphis.

It’s even amazing at times to listen to the Norman Rockwell rhetoric about public housing from defenders of the status quo for Foote Homes which is mixed with shots over the bow at public officials who disagree with them.  That said, we don’t question the sincerity or the passion of the opponents to the city’s plan for the area, but it just feels so, well, 1960s-ish, particularly with its Saul Alinsky-style campaign.

Mr. Alinsky, the famous Chicago community organizer who became the guru of Sixties’ radicals, fought many campaigns for the people he called the “have-nots.”  He still has his adherents, but for most of us, even those of us involved in these kinds of activities in the 1960s, this approach just feels stuck in time and ineffectual.

Most notably, a primary Alinsky strategy was to vilify the power structure, often the government, as the enemy, and in the pre-Civil Rights movement era, there was no denying that government was frequently the obstacle to fair play and equal opportunity.  It was an approach built on conflict and a certain level of chaos, and in retrospect, two of its weaknesses were that it never seemed to know when it had won and in attacking what it treated as a monolithic power structure, it frequently alienated people in that power structure who were willing to be allies or sympathetic to their appeals.

Warehousing the Poor

We’re not saying that people attacking the planned rebirth of Foote Homes are necessarily Alinsky adherents, but the tone and the overheated rhetoric would make the old community organizer proud.  Unfortunately, all of this obscures the importance of attacking Memphis’ serious poverty problems and to begin it with an end to the warehousing of poor people.

While opponents to the Wharton Administration’s plans for Foote Homes talk about destruction of a “neighborhood,” it is like no neighborhood we are familiar with.  Its residents are isolated and surrounded by an invisible wall that holds them as captives in an environment of crime, severe unemployment, and dire need.  There are few connections to art, meaningful community life, and to opportunity itself.

Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan has said that these old-style housing projects create “whole neighborhoods of concentrated poverty and segregation” and Brookings Institution’s leading urbanist Bruce Katz characterized them as “warehouses for the very poor.”

For us, if there is every an imperative for changing things, it is in asking ourselves if we know of any child who deserves to be raised in such conditions.  More to the point, they start life with a stigma that becomes a serious obstacle to success in school and in life.

A Different Day and Time

There’s no denying that many public housing policies were born in a hot house of racism, neglect, and the political desire to put poor people where they could be watched.  There was little emphasis on livability or creating a culture of opportunity.  All in all, public housing overall has been an ignoble chapter in American human services and stands the American dream of a home on its head.  It’s no wonder that none of our friends who grew up there romanticize the experience and want to do whatever it takes to prevent others from living there.

Back to the campaign against city government’s plan for Foote Homes, it has been said by an organizer that “this neighborhood has been demonized by those folks who have a private interest in seeing public money used to move a low-income neighborhood out and to redevelop this really in a gentrified manner.”   It’s typical of the rhetorical over reach that has typified the debate about the plan for the Foote Homes neighborhood and belies the changes that make old-style organizing difficult in Memphis.

The most-used strategy is to pit poor against rich, black against white, and grassroots against government just ring hollow here.  Today, things have changed: Memphis is a city with an African-American mayor, elected officials are majority African-American, African-American voters decide all political contests, and many of the programs to improve neighborhoods are funded by the so-called rich.

Records Success

Meanwhile, a study earlier this year concluded that although former residents of public housing do not see marked improvement in their quality of life when they move from public housing, they are nonetheless happier.   “The bigger the change in poverty that you got through a move, the bigger the improvement in well-being and health,” said Lawrence Katz, an economics professor at Harvard University who has led the long-term evaluation. “

City of Memphis has been a national leader in HOPE VI – now Neighborhoods of Choice – projects that have transformed public housing and is held in high esteem among Washington HUD officials.  Only a handful of cities – including some many times larger than ours – have gotten five HOPE VI grants, and with its last award, Memphis Housing Authority will have transformed public housing as we knew it little more than 15 years ago.

The five HOPE VI grants have provided $150 million to City of Memphis to remake public housing, but that amount has been leveraged several times with private and philanthropic support.  Former Mayor Willie W. Herenton who led the navigation to land the five HOPE VI grants (before he was Shelby County or Memphis mayor, A C Wharton provided legal help for these projects) said that old-style housing projects were little more than government-created ghettos for poor people.

In truth, it’s difficult these days to find anyone who argues that massive public housing projects were smart social policy, because in concentrating the problems of poverty into compact, overcrowded environments, the web of poverty-related problems was merely amplified and intensified.

A New Melody

HOPE VI projects have served as physical symbols of how far Memphis Housing Authority (MHA) has come since 1992, when it was cited as one of the nation’s worst-run public housing agencies. It was the same year that Lauderdale Courts, whose Apartment 328 housed the family of aspiring singer Elvis Presley from 1949 to 1953, was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and Memphis’ first African-American mayor, Willie W. Herenton, took office.

The new mayor set two priorities for MHA – get off the HUD list and attract more federal money to his city. It’s no coincidence that changes in MHA leadership and success with HOPE VI applications ran parallel, because the close work between MHA and HUD to turn around the Memphis public housing agency led to the improved relationship and confidence level that became the foundation for a stepped up campaign for more funding.

It was not long after MHA got off the HUD list in 1995 that it received the first HOPE VI grant, and the attention to relationship-building paid off with more success – four more grants since 2000. Lemoyne Gardens became College Park, Lauderdale Courts became Uptown Square, Lamar Terrace became University Place, Hurt Village became Uptown Homes, and Dixie Homes is becoming Legends Park.

In each case, a public housing project that was “no man’s land” for anyone but its residents became a site for New Urbanist-influenced housing, and one in particular, Elvis’ former housing project became a national model for how public housing could be made more livable while preserving a prime example of New Deal architecture.

Tale of the Tape

Instead of the wrecking ball for Lauderdale Courts, it became a $36 million public-private redevelopment christened as Uptown Square. Unlike the other HOPE VI projects where all buildings were razed, only 95 of the original 442 Lauderdale Courts units were removed.

Overall, according to Memphis Housing Authority, 2,465 of 2,812 units in the five HOPE VI developments were demolished and 1,299 people were relocated. Of that number, 555 were relocated to other public housing, 522 used vouchers for new housing, and 222 relocated private-owned housing.

In the end, Memphis needs more than a rebranded HOPE VI. Rather, it needs good old –fashioned hope itself – hope for a cathartic discussion that moves from debates about symptoms of poverty – crime, teenage pregnancy, infant mortality, and low high school graduation rates – to a plan based more on action than analysis.