Friday, January 15, 2010

Sketches from an American Notebook

Recently, worm had this post about abandoned Soviet cities.

For anyone intending to make a post-apocalyptic film, particularly of the polemical stripe, their location research is done.

Unless, of course, they would rather have their post-apocalypse while not having to leave the comforts of pre-apocalypsia. America is, to be fair, not without its own areas of seemingly irremediable decay.

During the life previous to this one, I lived about thirty miles north of Detroit. And during one of the lives of that life, I worked about 10 miles west of city center. Due to the entrenched nature of freeways, the commute largely, if not completely, shielded the worst of the blight from view.

However, once I played tour guide, starting at the Ford Estate in Grosse Pointe (a couple of spelling excrescences which have burdened subsequent housing subdivisions across the land). Grosse Pointe is beautiful; handsome homes set in a verdant landscape with lake views to help make the point.

Turn your back on it though, as I did, ignorantly, to take the shortest route back to the freeway from the southern end of our grande day out, and within a very short mile, the cityscape goes from splendid to spoiled; Arcadia to Beirut.

Whole neighborhoods — well, once upon a time, anyway — lie largely abandoned, vegetation encroaching everywhere, with plywood turning windows into the eyes of the blind. The houses were once handsome themselves: many of them stately Victorian places. It scarcely taxed my imagination to overlay what could be mistaken for a post-plague land with an image of a post-gentrification makeover.

Depressingly, it was even less of an intellectual burden to see it will never happen.


Blogger erp said...

Interestingly, both set of pictures were caused by the same kind of politics. I don't know about Siberia, but if there was a change in the political situation in Detroit and middle class people would feel safe there again, I'll bet it wouldn't take too long for the city to come alive again.

January 15, 2010 5:41 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Look closer. How many Americans live or work in a building more than 50 years old? Not many.

A great deal of our economic activity has been tearing down and rebuilding our cities.

That's how we house the marginalzed: in decayed old (by our standards) buildings.

That's one way to go about it.

Rural areas are equally depopulated as parts of Detroit. But no one would suggest that's because of creeping socialism.

Drive up U.S. Highway 17 from Jacksonville, Fla. The decay isn't as dense as in Detroit but just as stark.

The reason is that it was once the route of tourists, but they now use the Interstate a few miles to the west.

Even Waikiki, some of the most expensive real estate in the world, has its pockets of squalor.

January 16, 2010 10:44 AM  
Blogger erp said...

The inner cities weren't so much replaced by the suburbs as they were evacuated by the middle class because of creeping socialism and the kind of residents it attracts. The public housing projects exacerbated the squalor and even the wealthy looked for greener pastures.

An elderly neighbor, now long deceased, often told stories of her childhood in Detroit during the 20's and of the wonderful summers at Island Park.

Looking at the picture of the old Detroit Central Railway is so depressing in so many ways, but what disturbed me those most was how sad it is that apparently nothing positive was done with it, but somebody took the time and trouble to climb all the way up to the top just to smash the window glass.

The old corridors between towns were replaced by the interstates. That's why they're derelict now. I remember driving from our house in Queens NY to Worcester MA where my cousins lived. It was all highway until from the Merritt Pkwy, we drove along the bustling Berlin (accent on the first syllable) Turnpike -- quite an adventure for us city kids.

January 16, 2010 11:49 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

creeping socialism had little (more probably, nothing) to do with the rise of suburbia.

It was railroads and interurban cars. That's why the rich suburbs of Philadelphia are called the Main Line.

Then came automobiles. Levittown didn't prosper because people were fleeing socialism.

What did happen, first, was that when whites, more prosperous, left the cities, the city governments, controlled by whites, quit providing services to neighborhoods that brown and black people moved into. They never had provided services to the older colored districts.

Having ruined their downtowns, they then "revived" them through urban renewal, which in most cases amounted to knocking down the houses of black people and promising to replace them, but not replacing them; on the theory that they would go someplace else.

But since they had noplace else to go, they stayed put.

Reagan put the finish on it by exporting their jobs to Taiwan and South Korea.

January 17, 2010 1:26 AM  
Blogger erp said...

Harry, thanks for clearing that up, but if "whites" were perfectly happy living the good life in pleasant communities near their jobs, why would they opt for the nightmare commute to Levittown-type suburbs?

Creeping socialism, not Reagan, built the projects (many of which have already been torn down) which finished off the inner cities.

January 17, 2010 6:09 AM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...

I have read a number of accounts of the decline of cities and not one of them is at all similar to Eagar's version. What's interesting about it, though, it that it presumes massive and vicious racism as policy by the Democratic Party and particularly its liberal wing. That is, the political faction that was running these cities as they systematically tried to starve out the "brown and black people". And the lesson Eagar draws from this is "racism is a conservative idea".

January 17, 2010 6:35 AM  
Blogger Bret said...

erp asks: "...why would they opt for the nightmare commute to Levittown-type suburbs?"

Bigger backyards and baseball fields for the kids.

Harry's account is, IMO, mostly accurate, though incomplete and one-sided.

It also does show (as aog points out) the inherent evil in the Democrat city governments.

January 17, 2010 10:10 AM  
Blogger Gaw said...

The most comprehensive account (staggeringly so) I've come across of why American cities look as they do is Robert A Caro's biography of Robert Moses. Moses was the man most responsible for the modern-day sprawl of New York.

It's a story of love and power: a love of the modernity of cars, roads, bridges and tunnels and the power to use the distance these developments permitted between work and home to segregate on racial and class grounds.

January 17, 2010 11:51 AM  
Blogger erp said...

Gaw, I disagree that the intent was to segregate. It was the law of intended consequences. I grew up in Queens NY in the 40's and it was quite blue collar and quite bucolic.

There were many large undeveloped parcels in my neighborhood -- we called them the woods, great parks were dotted all around with lots of green areas, children's wading pools and swings, etc., multiple ball fields, handball and tennis courts, and in the winter, a low lying area on the ball field was flooded for ice skating. We rode our bikes everywhere -- out to Rockaway Beach, the roller rink or the 1939 World's Fair grounds with its immense aquacade pool. We even had a great view of the Manhattan skyline.

We could take the subway or even a bus to Manhattan and my favorite place on earth, Central Park.

Although we lived in what are now called town houses, they were roomy and sunny and had small front and back yards. Working folks took the short subway ride to Manhattan or anywhere else in the five boroughs. In those days there was little fear of crime and practically everywhere in the city was safe.

Were there minorities in this blissful land? Of course, but each ethnicity kept to its own neighborhoods. Where I lived happened to be mainly Irish (although we were pretty far away from being Irish ourselves, the neighbors were friendly). Nearby were colored (as we called them -- it wasn't a racial slur), Jews, Puerto Rican, Italian, German, and Polish neighborhoods.

When the soldiers came back from the war (WWII), housing was needed for new families and people started thinking of moving to the island (Long Island) where housing developments were springing up and into the nightmare of commuting.

The LIE (Long Island Expressway) aka the world's longest parking lot was built and more and as more people moved out of the boroughs leaving formerly stable middle and lower middle class neighborhoods to lower and lower income groups and to a steady decline.

In those days, there were underlying unfriendly feelings and suspicion among the different ethnicities and plenty of anti-Semitism, but there was nothing like the deep hatred that developed between blacks and whites that happened later and was mostly due to the resentment by whites of the welfare culture. The left kept pushing the same failed policies (creeping socialism) until the hatred solidified into the class warfare we are still feeling.

My generation were much more tolerant than our parents, most of whom were recent immigrants, so the suburbs were much more integrated although still blacks and Jews kept mostly to their own neighborhoods even in the suburbs. That's mostly changed by now, but I'd bet it's not completely gone.

So to answer Bret, when I got married in 1956, we didn't think spending a lot of time commuting was time well spent, so although we did get out of the city, we went where we could live and work in the same geographical location.

January 17, 2010 2:20 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Well, since we started in Detroit, we could recall the '43 race riots. I forget how many people got killed, but it was hundreds. So much for the tolerant blue collar city people.

I got to watch the last episodes of this, I was at the meetings when white councilmen maneuvered to destroy black neighborhoods and make the people go away.

My cousins, who grew up on the South Side of Chicago and moved to Palos Park and Winnetka when they got rich, took me on a tour of their old neighborhood in about 1977.

It was black and rundown. One of my cousins said, all innocently, about the garbage: 'When we lived here, if you dropped something city crews picked it up before it hit the ground.'

'It's sad,' she went on. 'Now the only business that's growing is the board-up service.'

It wasn't particularly a Democratic thing, although mostly. There were still a few Republican machines, notably in Philadelphia; and they behaved no differently.

Since I said explicitly that racism is not correlated with right/left politics, I don't see much need to respond SH, but I will. The people who did this in the cities I was personally familiar with (Atlanta, Raleigh, Greensboro, Norfolk, Portsmouth) were Democrats at the time, but they all went to their spiritual home, Nixon's Republican Party, in 1970-72.

I don't suppose anybody who lived through those times would ever propose that Democrats were not racist, although those were not, by and large, the liberal wing of the party. A lot of them became Republicans, too.

I once wrote a column about who did and did not support integration. One of the targets, the somewhat famous editor Virginius Dabney, claimed that he hadn't been a racist at all, he just wrote what his publisher wanted. Duh.

The Republicans can try to wrap themselves in Lincoln's robe, but I was there. The ones I knew weren't entitled to it.

January 17, 2010 6:23 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I've read Caro, too. Curiously, Moses, for all his chicanery, had his city escape him.

My son lives just off Robert Moses Parkway, and when we visit Queens, we often stay in a B&B in the Moses garden city, which is what he expected New York's outer boroughs to look like.

They don't.

January 17, 2010 6:26 PM  
Blogger erp said...

Harry, I'm only talking about what I know and that is New York City when I was growing up.

I don't know what the '43 riots in Detroit were about, but if I had to guess, the word, "union" would come to mind.

Can't speak to conditions in Chicago either, but Democratic thuggery is always a good guess re: Chicago.

Garden City is the exception that proves the rule. On this we can agree. There are some other nice towns mid-island as well.

It's amusing how you dismiss democrats who are racists as just early incarnations of their real Republican selves and then dragging poor maligned wannabe socialist Nixon into to it as well is ridiculous.

Nixon is a model of benign thinking on race compared to Johnson and Carter. Kennedy -- didn't have any thoughts in his head about race relations or anything else not connected with his er private life.

Reagan was no a racist and no amount deconstruction of his words will make him one -- ditto GW Bush.

January 17, 2010 6:51 PM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...

""Since I said explicitly that racism is not correlated with right/left politics"


Reading the Daily Duck group of blogs, you'd get the impression that racism is not a conservative idea. That's a change for me.

January 17, 2010 8:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Race, crime and welfare may have a lot to do with why rejuvenation of inner cities is so hard, but "white flight" is overstated as the driving force that led to the creation of the suburbs. Race and crime didn't drive anybody to the sprawling suburbs of Toronto and Montreal. It continues to amaze me how many intellectuals, even some on the right, talk as if nobody in their right minds would move to the suburbs unless they were (pardon the pun) "driven" there. Ditto with the assumption that it they are some kind of social and aesthetic hells.

Once everybody could afford a car, the suburbs became the place where young families went to nest. They offered new home ownership, a plot of land, modern schools and, most importantly, lots of other kids and organized activities. For the children of the Depression and WW11, the promise of a "fresh start" was a powerful magnet. My parents moved there in the early fifties and I was always under the impression that, if they were fleeing anything, it was their nosy families and social stratification. Plus commuting hell is fairly recent. In the early days, the commute was often no more taxing than a cross-town bus.

Harry, re: your elegantly compacted social history in comment four. How come the whites could flee, but the blacks had "nowhere to go"? That seems problematic given that they migrated in huge numbers from the South to start it all off. And while your tale is presented as the highwater mark in white meanness, why would anyone feel particularly obliged to "provide services" to his/her own neighbourhood and neighbourhoods they didn't live in? It's one thing to urge to well-off to care for the poor, quite another to lay direct responsibilty the infratsructure and services of one community on another.

I suggest the health of the black urban family has a lot more to do with this.

January 18, 2010 2:49 AM  
Blogger erp said...

Peter, Perhaps in your neck of the woods, driving to work from the suburbs was no different than taking a bus cross town, but in the Big Apple, taking the bus (or subway) cross town was only the last part of the commute after the choo-choo train from Long Island, Connecticut or New Jersey or the hour plus drive in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

Societal Evolution: Soldiers coming back from the war, especially the black soldiers who had been integrated in the military, saw things differently than those who stayed behind. The G.I. Bill encouraging veterans to attend college changed everything forever. We products of blue collar, mostly immigrant, families were ready to take over and we did.

IMO had creeping socialism* not been the guiding force in the city and had society been allowed to evolve naturally, the welfare state wouldn't exist nor would the fractious relationship between the races.

*Harry, thanks for this excellent phrase.

January 18, 2010 7:24 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

'creeping socialism' is not original with me. It was coin of the realm where I grew up, even though it is doubtful that the people who used it had any idea what socialism was, and almost certain that none of them had ever been within 500 miles of an actual socialist.

SH, the correlation of conservatism and racism was pretty close to 1.0 where I grew up. I also still have an involuntary reaction of 'how odd' whenever I meet a black person with a degree in engineering or science. Such existed in the world, but not in my world, until I was a well-grown man.

I am sure that to my dying day, I will always think of non-racist conservatives as somehow unnatural.

Peter asks: 'How come the whites could flee, but the blacks had "nowhere to go"?'

Well, where would they go? They weren't going back to sharecropping, and they weren't going to be employed in the suburbs. They were stuck in the cities, working in automobile, garment and similar factories. It was quite late in the game before they were considered for hiring in retail, which is about the only kind of employment there was in the suburbs then.

If I can refer back to my Chicago kinfolk. My uncle had a successful chain of retail stores in the small cities ringing Chicago. He refused to expand into Chicago, because those dirty Democrats would have required him to hire black people, and he never did, except for janitors.

I admired him in many ways. He came from a desperately poor background and raised himself up pretty much by his own bootstraps. But he was a racist. Not a thoroughgoing racist.

He would have been willing to hire Japanese Chicagoans to meet the antidiscrimination laws, but he said he couldn't find enough of them.

Today is Martin Luther King Day. When I moved to North Carolina in 1963, it was the first state where I lived that it was not illegal for white and black children to attend the same school. My parents immediately enrolled me in an integrated school.

Although it was no longer illegal, by that time, to attend interracial schools in N.C., people did not jump at the chance. There were, in 1963, exactly 5 in the whole state, with a combined enrollment of under 500.

January 18, 2010 10:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

erp, I must ask, why does socialism always creep in the States? Everywhere else, it canters across our front lawns.

January 18, 2010 4:32 PM  
Blogger erp said...

Peter, you guys are just too darn nice.

January 18, 2010 4:39 PM  
Blogger Bret said...

I'd say it's been cantering here for the last little while as well.

January 18, 2010 7:48 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


Interestingly, both set of pictures were caused by the same kind of politics.

To an extent, certainly. In the Soviet Union, state intrusion into the economy was pervasive, and created a parade of one industry towns with no economic resilience. In the US, the same thing happened, but to a much lesser extent. Bethlehem and Pittsburgh both saw core industries collapse. However, neither city saw widespread abandonment and decay; both cities are nicer to live in now, BTW.

Detroit is different. Its population is, at most, half what it was in the late '70s. It had a dominant industry controlled by pig-ignorant trade unionism protected from education by the Wagner Act. It also had a significant influx of blacks after WWII.

Racism certainly deserves its share of the blame. Orrin Judd has, IMHO, is completely correct in this regard. Essentially all cities across the US ghettoized black populations, then aggravated that by consciously slighting infrastructure spending in those areas. Then, in case that wasn't enough, the social pathologies that poverty aggravates were concentrated within a population that has very low intermarriage rates.

I don't know about Siberia, but if there was a change in the political situation in Detroit and middle class people would feel safe there again, I'll bet it wouldn't take too long for the city to come alive again.

That is a very improbable if. Detroit's government is (like most, if not all, black dominated city governments) a shambolic, self perpetuating, combination of corruption and incompetence. Take the school system for just one example.


Look closer. How many Americans live or work in a building more than 50 years old? Not many.

Okay, I'll look closer. The increase in the US population over the last 50 years absolutely guarantees many residences and workplaces will be less than 50 years old. Beyond that, the oldest areas in the US have houses far older than 50 years, and are beautiful places to live (Wheeling, WV, for just one example.)

Rural areas are equally depopulated as parts of Detroit. But no one would suggest that's because of creeping socialism.

Of course not. Similar consequences in very different environments need not have the same cause. What portion of the US working population was engaged in agriculture eighty years ago vs. today?

I got to watch the last episodes of this, I was at the meetings when white councilmen maneuvered to destroy black neighborhoods and make the people go away.

No doubt. But you seem to have never heard of Daniel Patrick Moynihan's book, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action

Two things never fail to astonish me here: how prescient that book was, and the cast of characters who criticize it.

Okay, make that three. Add in the resolute MSM's resolute failure to come to terms with this particular slice of reality.

January 19, 2010 11:07 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


It's a story of love and power: a love of the modernity of cars, roads, bridges and tunnels and the power to use the distance these developments permitted between work and home to segregate on racial and class grounds.

True, but more in racial than class terms. Driving across most US cities today shows a gradation in wealth, rather than sharp delineations between rich and poor. Up until a generation ago, though, there was no end of ways to confine blacks to specific areas, throughout the entire country.

That is why I simply can't buy Harry's notion of racism as somehow conservative. It wasn't. As a teenager growing up in lily-white Southern California suburbia forty years ago, I took it as a matter of fact that blacks were simply not quite fully human.

I am a conservative, but can no longer abide that idea.

Moreover, there is no ignoring that when people get married and have children, they overwhelmingly desire what suburbia offers, and are willing to put up with substantial commutes in order to get it.


Race, crime and welfare may have a lot to do with why rejuvenation of inner cities is so hard, but "white flight" is overstated as the driving force that led to the creation of the suburbs.

Sort of like a controlled experiment, this makes the notion that the suburbs are the product of white flight untenable.

It says something, none of it good, about intellectuals that they reflexively dislike suburbia (no doubt as a synonym for bourgeois).

January 19, 2010 11:07 AM  
Blogger erp said...

Skipper, the difference, of course, being our government didn't build the town and force people to live and work there.

I still think there's hope for places like Detroit. Energetic young people with little money and lots of energy restoring them as viable places to live and bring up children. The local governments can be co-opted back to serving the public easily enough if the flow of federal dollars is staunched.

January 19, 2010 12:15 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Last try. I didn't say racism was conservative. I said all the conservatives I knew, up to the age of around 30 (with a single exception) were racists.

Wheeling is an odd choice. I haven't looked it up, but the decline in population there couldn't be much different from Detroit's.

January 19, 2010 1:34 PM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...

But in America, and especially in the South, conservatism and racism were Siamese twins.

January 19, 2010 2:37 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


Which is why a photo essay of cities gone to rack and ruin is pretty much done within a dozen or so zip codes.

Of course there is hope for Detroit; however, the social pathologies are so concentrated that, no matter what we do (or stop doing), my money is on continued failure.

If I was the Head Dude What's in Charge, I would use stimulus money to scrape the blighted areas clean, leave nature to them, then sell the property. Perhaps there are types of developments that could combine the appeals of suburbia with those of a city close by. But that doesn't stand a chance of working so long as completely dysfunctional city governments are involved.


Last try. I didn't say racism was conservative. I said all the conservatives I knew, up to the age of around 30 (with a single exception) were racists.

Forty years ago, everyone I knew, liberal or conservative, was racist. I am certain that, across the board, the proportion of people who make a priori judgments based upon skin color isn't a patch on what it was then.

This is neither a conservative or liberal issue.

And I think it is at least one example contradicting the assertion that people in general are not capable of moral improvement.

Wheeling is an odd choice. I haven't looked it up, but the decline in population there couldn't be much different from Detroit's.

Wheeling has lots of buildings older than 50 years that people continue to use and live in. Is the area thriving economically? No. Is it blighted in any particular way? No. Is it a beautiful place to live? Absolutely.

WV is a fairly poor area, as poor as many inner city areas. But there simply is not the pervasive -- oh, words fail me here -- social breakdown that so thoroughly characterizes places like Detroit or Washington DC.

Why is that?

January 19, 2010 4:51 PM  
Blogger erp said...

Dare I say it, creeping socialism hasn't gotten to West Virginia as yet. It sure is a beautiful state. If we ever get up that way again, we'll make a point of checking out Wheeling.

You know, I just realized that I don't know what Harry means by racist. Did everybody I knew as a kid think coloreds should stay in their own neighborhoods. Yes. Did they go out with baseball bats to smash heads. No.

I went to Newtown High School, a huge high school in Queens. There was no segregation, but as usual in high school, students found their own group and mostly stuck to it. Everyone was well behaved. There were no incidents at school functions or dances. In fact, I did a lindy with a black boy who asked me to dance. Sorry to say we weren't Fred & Ginger, so we didn't cause a sensation one way or the other.

Things have gotten a lot better. My niece married a black and neither of my parents batted an eye. Had I done that fifty years ago, they both would have had coronaries.

I'm sick of dredging up what happened in the past. We've made tremendous progress and should pat ourselves on the back.

BTW - Drudge is calling it for Brown 53 to 46.

January 19, 2010 5:45 PM  
Blogger Bret said...

erp wrote: "I just realized that I don't know what Harry means by racist."

Well, Harry does seem to speak a slightly different language than many of us, so that's not surprising. Racism is also a spectrum as I wrote once upon a time. There's very, very racist to very mildly racist (for example, you find the other race somewhat less sexually attractive than your own). Many people fit into some category of racist somewhere in the spectrum and the groupings have changed over time.

January 19, 2010 7:11 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

'Why is that?'

No one answer. Racism a big part of it, though.

Some 30 or 40 years ago, the New Yorker had a long series on the decay of cities. One factoid stuck in my mind.

Some official in Baltimore, perhaps styled housing commissioner, was at a conference on decayed housing, where a New York City official mentioned that NYC had 800,000 decayed housing units. (And, no, erp, they were NOT put up as public housing.)

I cannot recall the exact words now, but they were something along the line of: 'How do you address something on that scale? That's more units of decayed housing that Baltimore has of all housing.

I suspect if you look a little harder, you'll find substandard housing in lots of places.

I can recall an apartment block on Church Street (the main drag of black Norfolk) whose brick exterior wall was cracked wide enough to throw a basketball through. People were living in it.

Racism takes many forms, as Bret says. When erp was living in Queens, black people were not allowed to visit the Cotton Club.

On the other hand, when I was in college I used to drive past Soul City, N.C., which I was not allowed to visit because I was white.

I suggest reading the chapters on debt peonage (otherwise, slavery) in John Barry's 'Rising Tide,' which is hands-down the best outsider account of American racism I've ever read.

There were some antiracists in the South when I was growing up. I didn't know about them at the time, but since then I have come to hear of them. Most of 'em were commies, at Highlander Folk School and places like that.

I'm sure you've never heard of it.

January 19, 2010 7:57 PM  
Blogger erp said...

Bret, I like your post and with your permission would like to use it as a segue to a post I plan to write about how the election last night may have had even more impact on the media than on politicians.

Media companies as well as individual news purveyors and opinion writers have some serious thinking to do. They've failed miserably and with the help of the internet, a lot of the public caught on to them.

As for gays, I have a live and let live attitude and while I support civil unions, I stop short of supporting marriage for the reason that marriage was designed primarily as a legal protection for women and children. That quaint idea may be somewhat dated in today's world, but IMO it still makes sense even though feminists' insistence on no-fault divorce helped destroy the family and has greatly lessened that protection and left many women and children dependent on taxpayers instead of husbands for support.

IMO that's why so many women vote for the nanny state.

As for babies being born in laboratories -- no, no a thousand times no!

January 20, 2010 6:14 AM  
Blogger erp said...

Harry, are you being disingenuous? You can't be unaware of the reason for the decay of tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of housing units in New York.

The answer is simple -- rent control, another prime example of creeping socialism. We just can't get away from it.

All those people who owned those building, many of which are prime examples of urban architecture, didn't wake up one morning and say, I want to destroy my property and walk away from what I thought would be an income stream just to oppress the coloreds. Landlords lost control of their property and couldn't afford to keep it up, "Tenants" trashed the apartments, kick-backs were demanded by renting agents and ridiculously low rents, far below the market, insured that buildings would be abandoned.

No one, not even you Harry, think the housing projects were built for the benefit of the downtrodden. Construction was shoddy even by the low standards of the times. The projects were huge money makers for organized crime (watch the Sopranos for a little taste of how it worked), the building trades, police, fire, sanitation unions* and politicians from the local precincts up to the highest levels in Washington got a piece of the action.

*From which blacks were excluded until very recent times.

January 20, 2010 6:32 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Yes, I am aware of the problems with rent control in NY and San Francisco.

However, the problems with substandard housing in NY precede that by more than a hundred years.

I urge you -- and everybody else -- to visit the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. This is the most wonderful museum I have ever seen, if you consider the function of a museum to be education about the past.

I warn you: You may not admire free markets as much after you come out as you did going in.

January 20, 2010 9:43 AM  
Blogger Bret said...

erp wrote: "Bret, I like your post and with your permission..."

I hereby give permission to everyone to use anything I've ever written and posted to "Great Guys Weblog" or any blog comment forum anywhere. Attribution is optional as well.

Same with any music I upload to the Internet as well.

January 20, 2010 11:47 AM  
Blogger erp said...

Harry, let's agree to stick to the 20th and 21st centuries. Sub-standard, i.e., sub today's standards, housing was the rule in centuries prior everywhere in the world.

January 20, 2010 1:31 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Who said the East Side Tenement Museum is limited to the 19th century?

You should take the tour. It will surprise you.

January 21, 2010 9:30 AM  
Blogger erp said...

Harry, my point had nothing to do museums.

My point was that there were no standards, sub or otherwise for housing until very recently in the history of this nation and they are still non-existent in most of the rest of the world.

Even as we speak, people in the third world are living in condition just as horrifying as those on display in a museum in New York City. BTW - do you ever have even a tiny little speck of suspicion that some of the displays are enhanced to make conditions look worse than they really were? Nah. Couldn't be, not in NYC.

The people who came to here to our land were lucky, they were able to improve their housing and every other part of their lives because our system allowed them the freedom to succeed.

That is no longer always the case anymore.

Those who are seduced by government "help" are doomed to remain in the poverty of custodial care. Those who rely on themselves and their relatives and friends can succeed the old-fashioned way and sometimes even in less than a generation, they become tax paying citizens.

January 21, 2010 10:19 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Those who are seduced by government "help" are doomed to remain in the poverty of custodial care.

The one-time lifetime entitlement to welfare and AFDC acted to destroy black family structure, the lack of which seems almost perfectly correlated with urban blight.

January 21, 2010 11:16 AM  
Blogger erp said...

Yep, but the flight came second.

January 21, 2010 11:30 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

erp, you really need to visit that museum.

It is not true that housing standards are recent. They go back to the Middle Ages (laws in London against building in wood), to the 17th century (hearth and window taxes) and, yes, to 19th c. New York, where laws were passed requiring air shafts.

If you were to go to the East Side Tenement Museum, you would see that the exhibits have not been enhanced. They are old tenements, scattered over several blocks.

The museum got its start when someone discovered that a building locked up and abandoned in 1930 had untouched apartments on the upper floors. (See also Joseph Mitchell's "Up in the Old Hotel" for a famous example of something similar in Manhattan.)

January 22, 2010 10:51 AM  
Blogger erp said...

Harry, we don't travel anymore, so I'll have to take your word for the museum's authenticity and we'll have to agree to disagree on what the words "building standards" mean.

January 22, 2010 11:24 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Too bad. The group I was with were mostly children or grandchildren of people whose ancestors had come through Ellis Island. They kept saying that what they were seeing matched what their parents or grandparents had told them about what living was like in olden times.

(My ancestors didn't come through Ellis; they came over the beach.)

I do not believe that most Americans have any idea what life was like even 90 years ago, much less 150.

Besides the East Side Tenement Museum, the only other place I know to get a good feel for it is Living History Farms near Des Moines, Iowa.

January 24, 2010 11:11 AM  
Blogger erp said...

Harry, my grandfather brought his sons here almost a hundred years ago to avoid their being taken into military service and although they came through Ellis Island, they weren't destitute. Eventually my grandfather went back to Albania, but my father and his older brother stayed.

Perceptions are difficult to predict. I remember during the Watts riots when people around the world were being interviewed about their reactions. A common thread was the wonderment that our oppressed and downtrodden were well dressed, lived in modern homes, had at least one car, television sets, appliances, etc. That was surprising since we were taught inner city housing was sub-standard, but the rest of world thought it was pretty darn nice and a sight better than their own digs.

As per the law of unintended consequences, the public housing that was built at enormous tax payer expense to replace those dilapidated tenements turned out to be immensely less humane and much worse for residents although they met modern building standards.

January 24, 2010 12:33 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Only partly true. Places like Cabrini-Green were exceptions.

There is still plenty of public housing, including in Manhattan, that is indistinguishable from lower private housing.

In particular, while out with my grandson shopping for shoes last May, I noticed some nice-looking public housing right behind Lincoln Center. I bet some people would pay a premium to live in that.

The people who built public housing -- none of whom expected to have to live in it themselves -- were looking for the cheapest way out, which was warehouses.

So much for efficiency.

Anybody who knew the history of the English Poor Law would have expected no better. But it was regarded as a businesslike approach at the time.

Maui is not typical, but the public housing here -- there is not much of it -- looks great, is carefully managed and nobody complains about it.

January 24, 2010 6:23 PM  
Blogger erp said...

Harry, have you ever seen the South Bronx, Bedford/Sty and similar places? They were no-man's zones of drugs and depravity where even police and firemen were reluctant to go, yet poor people and children were forced to live there.

January 24, 2010 7:02 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Actually, I took my grandson to Bed-Sty in May to play. He had a wonderful time at the Brooklyn Children's Museum.

What you are missing is that there were places full of crime and drugs, where the police were afraid to go, before public housing was ever conceived of; and children grew up there, too.

January 25, 2010 10:36 AM  
Blogger erp said...

... but public housing was supposed to cure all that. Harry, the point I'm trying to make, obviously not very well, is creeping socialism never helps, it always exacerbates.

I hope you realize that the period I'm speaking of was a long time ago. We haven't spent any time at all in NY in a long time and it's even longer than that since we've been au currant of the public housing market. BedSty may be upscale now for all I know. Astonishingly, Williamsburg where my husband grew up is now Yuppieville.

January 25, 2010 11:15 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Great swathes of Williamsburg look like Berlin in 1945,

Public housing DID make things better for many people. Attempts to warehouse poor people did not work, but not all -- or even very much -- public housing was like that.

What really hurt inner city proles was exporting their jobs to Taiwan.

January 26, 2010 9:25 AM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...

So all those horrible tenements you brought up were caused by exporting jobs to Taiwan?

January 26, 2010 10:59 AM  
Blogger erp said...

SH, it's hard to pin Harry down to a period. Jobs to Taiwan didn't happen during the building of the projects which was what public housing in NY was called back then and it didn't happen to jobs held by blacks.

Unions, including the infamous commie ILGWU*, the building trade unions and the municipal unions kept blacks out until relatively recent times. That was a very big factor in black unemployment and to the creation of so-called welfare "queens," as women with many kids were called. The more kids, the more welfare.

Since welfare was only available if there were no men visible, it was the creeping socialism of unions and welfare that created the poverty that destroyed the black family, not Taiwan.

Perhaps in Hawaii, public housing, like the weather and scenic views, is paradisiacal, but in the Big Apple it's more like something designed by Dante.

As for Williamsburg, I was only reporting what I was told, not having been there in at least thirty years.

*International Ladies Garment Workers Union

January 26, 2010 12:29 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Nope, the horrible tenements were pure speculative capitalism at work.

While there may not have been jobs for black people in the needle trades, there were jobs for black people in the northern cities (and in cities generally). That's why they moved there.

They tended to be -- no surprise here -- jobs that could be performed by peasants with small education. From Taiwan, for example.

There was a period, though, when those jobs paid a living wage in this country. People who had them didn't go on welfare.

erp, go to the library and read just the first 10 pages or so of Jack London's 'The Cruise of the Dazzler.' It's an almost forgotten book, but the first chapter paints a good picture of conditions for working class kids 100 years or so ago.

As for Williamsburg, I saw taro growing on Flatbush Avenue last time I was there. Lots of people from the Caribbean living there now. And the Williamsburg Savings Bank, which you may remember, was surrounded by empty lots for a quarter of a mile in every direction. Whatever used to be there is gone now.

A little story about jobs. A friend of mine used to be economic development director of Queens County. Some 20 years or so ago, the county agreed to destroy the metal-working shops in the vicinity of the High School of Aviation in order to lure Metropolitan Life to move its Manhattan offices there.

The metal shops were exactly the kind of good-paying, viable businesses that used to be the backbone of the NY working class. (There are still one or two there, but you have to look hard to find them.)

Two years ago, Met Life decided to spend close to half a billion dollars to move its headquarters back to Manhattan. So the 4,000 clerical jobs in Queens are gone, and the metal jobs won't come back.

January 26, 2010 2:08 PM  
Blogger erp said...

Blacks moved north to work during the second world war. When the soldier came home -- blacks lost their jobs (period, end of story).

Funny, you mention MetLife. My first job while still in high school was at the local office of Metropolitan Life Insurance on Queens Blvd. To get the job, I had to take an arithmetic test. It caused quite a commotion because it was the first and only time a prospective employee got every single question correct!!! A legend in my own time at 17.

WSB getting ready to build Yuppie housing?

January 26, 2010 2:56 PM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...

So, those tenements didn't really hurt the poor? Not like shipping the jobs to Taiwan, at least.

"the county agreed to destroy ..." Is that another example of pure, unbridled capitalism?

January 26, 2010 4:02 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Tenements hurt the poor all right. Look at the mortality rates.

Yeah, it was pretty much an example of unbridled capitalism. The capitalists bought the county government. Cheap, as it turned out.

The reason MetLife moved back was that the chairman couldn't readily join his equals for lunch. It cost the stockholders only another half a billion dollars. Evidently they didn't care.

January 27, 2010 9:11 AM  
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