Public Housing Authority: A History

 

          The seeds for America’s public housing initiative were planted during the nation’s great age of industrialization.  For the wealthy it was the “Gilded Age”, an era marked by the rapid accumulation of riches fueled by an speculative entrepreneurial spirit and unfettered by the limits of government regulation.  Business expansion in America’s urban centers relied heavily on human capital and those demands were met by a massive movement of people from farming communities to the cities.  These minions were supplemented by successive waves of immigrants who took flight from the famine, persecution or poverty of their native lands to seek a newer world in America’s promised land. 

 

            This land of opportunity, however, posed new challenges for America’s city dwellers.  Chief among those was adequate housing.  By 1890 New York’s Lower East Side was the most populous area on earth, cramming more than 334,000 people per square mile.  Tenement packed neighborhoods became fertile breeding grounds for crime, disease and delinquency.  Reform movements begun in the 1880s were led by well intentioned middle class individuals, social organizations or religious groups who sought to improve the lot of the poor and provide clean, safe places to live.  The settlement house movement was one expression of this reform impulse.  Pioneers like Jane Adams in Chicago and Alice Griffith in San Francisco and others supplemented their social service efforts with legislative initiatives designed to improve housing conditions.  Despite modest successes in many northeast cities, the massive scale of urbanization and prevailing laissez faire attitudes on the part of most municipal and state governments, prevented significant improvement.  (argued for status quo).   Housing the immigrant masses and their poor native counterparts was either too noble a goal or a concern too distant to engage the active interest or sympathy of most Americans.

 

            That would all begin to change in 1890.   Jacob Riis, a native of Denmark had immigrated to New York City twenty years earlier and quickly landed a job as a police reporter for the New York Tribune.  Riis’ experiences in some of the most notorious, crime ridden neighborhoods of New York became the subject of a sensational book length expose How the Other Half Lives.  Riis became a national celebrity, befriending the likes of Police Commissioner and soon-to-be president Theodore Roosevelt and lecturing to national audiences on the evils of slums.  By the time of his death in 1914, Riis had written ten books on the subject and held a prominent role as a “Progressive Era” reformer. 

 

            Although Riis and his disciples championed reform with a passion, they shared a general pessimism regarding the elimination of slum housing or their accompanying evils.  In his introduction to How the Other Half Lives Riis glumly concludes that ”the ‘system’ that was the evil offspring of public neglect and private greed has come to stay. . . .  Nothing is left but to make the best of a bad bargain.”   Two years after the publication of Riis’ book, Congress bowed to public pressure by directing the Commissioner of Labor to make a full investigation “relative to what is known as the slums of cities.”  Published two years later, the report helped further raise consciousness relative to substandard housing but did little to affect substantive change. 

 

            Nevertheless, Jacob Riis and other reformers had acted as a lightening rod for change and new thought in solving the plight of America’s cities.  These new thinkers shared a more optimistic view of the city’s future.  The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair featured a miniature version of the “ideal city” designed by a young urban planner, Daniel H. Burnham.  Others such as Frederick Law Olmsted, Charles Follen McKim and others championed the “beautiful city movement” and nurtured the establishment of city planning and controlled development.   More business oriented reformers sought to balance the moral obligation to provide clean, affordable housing with the practical need to return a fair profit on capital investment in real estate.  “Limited dividend” corporations produced developments in a number of cities such as Boston (Banks Homes) and New York (Phipps Gardens).  Yet, however noble their effort, these philanthropists continued to battle the time honored tradition that government not interfere with business and that charity was distributed at the local church or alms house, never to become incorporated as a principal of real estate development. 

 

The city of Providence incorporated many of the traits of the modern American city.  Between 1830 and 1860 the population of Providence tripled in size, from just under seventeen thousand to more than fifty thousand.  Thirty years later the city’s residents numbered more than one hundred thousand, fueled by large numbers of immigrants from Ireland, French Canada and Italy.  By 1900 Providence was America’s twentieth largest city, sharing the promise of its big city neighbors and its challenges.   One of those challenges was providing clean, safe housing for its burgeoning population.  During the first decades of the nineteenth century, freed Blacks settled in shabby enclaves such as Snowtown on the north shore of Providence’s salt cove (near the present site of the State House) and Hardscrabble (near present Olney Street and North Main).  Violent confrontations with whites during the 1820s brought calls for a more formalized system of government, and in 1832 Providence was incorporated as a city.  As successive waves of immigrants swelled the capital city’s population new pockets of poverty developed.  The Irish settled along  Providence’s hilly waterfront at Fox Point, soon to be known to locals as “Corky Hill.”  Another Irish neighborhood sprouted in South Providence in a swampy area called “Frogs Hollow.”   Still other immigrants squeezed into overcrowded tenements along the banks of the Moshassuck River where nearby silver, machine tool and textile factories blackened the skies with the smoky refuse of industrial production. 

 

            Ships carrying the dreaded cholera virus found a perfect environment for spreading the disease in the pig pens and filthy slaughterhouses at Fox Point.  The 1854 cholera epidemic in Providence claimed 80 % of its victims among those of foreign parentage from Fox Point and the Moshassuck River neighborhood.  Later reports pointed to “overcrowded tenements” as a contributing cause.  (Woodward, 54).   These squalid conditions prompted visionary mayor Thomas Doyle to undertake the city’s first urban renewal project.  Partly in response to the Nation’s financial collapse in 1973, Doyle undertook a massive slum clearance project in Fox Point, employing more than one thousand unemployed men to clear the neighborhood for renewed development.  When it was all over Fox’s Hill had disappeared from the landscape along with 146 substandard houses, a swampy runoff and the notorious slaughterhouses.  The one million dollar plus project had cleared nearly 400 acres for future development. 

 

            Doyle’s pro-active response to the threatened spread of tenement housing was, perhaps, a factor that set Providence apart from other cities as the new century approached.  In an essay on the population of Providence, written as part of a book length study of the city published by the University of Chicago Press, Professor William MacDonald wrote that large tenement houses typical of larger cities are “conspicuous by its absence” in Providence with only “a few isolated specimens being discoverable.”  MacDonald’s survey, based on the 1900 Federal Census, revealed the existence of less than 100 houses in the city of six families or more.  (Kirk,44-45).  MacDonald concluded that “at the present time in Providence the worst evils of tenement life have not appeared to any alarming extent.”  He did, however, see storm clouds on the horizon, noting a new tendency to “double up” and the rapid conversion of old houses into apartments.   A companion essay by Mary Conyngton observed that “Providence will escape many evils if it regulates promptly. At present the problem is small enough to be easily handled; ten years hence it will be a very different question.” 

 

            The early response for addressing the growing threat of substandard housing in Providence took two forms.  Following the lead in other cities, a group of local businessmen formed the Improved Tenement Corporation in an effort to provide clean, spacious housing for the city’s low income residents at affordable rents.  Organized in 1901, this limited dividend corporation began their experiment with the purchase of two wood frame houses in disrepair.  Renovations included running water, set tubs, fire escapes, landscaped yards along with the liberal use of paint and paper.  At a below market rent of six dollars a month few were surprised that the demand for the tenements was “immediate and steady.” 

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by Paul Campbell

 

Paul Campbell is the Author of: "A Community Apart: A History of Public Housing in Providence Published by the Rhode Island Publications Society, 2007

ISBN 1-930-438-04-x

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