Monday, August 24, 2009

$1 billion "Utopian" housing project — but where are the bars on the windows?


"Utopia is a hard sell in Jordan Downs," reports the LA Times. Jordan Downs is a housing project in Watts, Los Angeles. It is planned for a complete makeover:
The new Jordan Downs will cost more than $1 billion and take more than five years to complete. Current project residents will be moved into temporary housing across the street while their old homes are torn down and rebuilt. Then, if things go according to the master plan, they will move back into a new complex with middle-class neighbors, a bank of shops and businesses, and a cutting-edge high school campus next door.
Ronald Perkins, a longtime resident of Jordan Downs, was skeptical.
"I think," Perkins said, taking pains to be polite, "that I would feel better with bars of some type."
Assuming that he meant window bars, and not boozeterias serving beer and tequila shots, it appears that Perkins is more realistic about change in the project environment than the "consultants and architects" who showed up to deliver a pitch to the Jordan Downs population that they would be better off in the billion dollar development from dreamland.

He probably understands what the planners do not. (Or maybe they do, knowing perfectly well that the real beneficiaries will be contractors and vendors receiving juicy political payoffs). Perkins perhaps realizes that even after the billion dollar rethink of Jordan Downs, he and his family will need bars on the windows for the same reason they always have. The culture of the place, as distinct from the architecture and various designed-in amenities, won't change much.


Housing projects have proved an abject failure time and again, because dignity and self-respect can't be imposed from above. You could move every resident of Jordan Downs into Buckingham Palace and within a few years it would feel like the project does today. People would be demanding triple locks on the doors with gold leaf moldings.

Individuals and communities create their environment through their values and way of life. It's not just a matter of crime — I don't doubt that there are many Jordan Downs residents who deplore drug dealing, theft, and criminal gangs. But attitudes that hold people back keep them in projects, whether of the seedy variety or the deluxe model. Attitudes: willingness to be dependent on government handouts; irresponsible breeding; an entitlement mentality; alienation from the larger society that can reach paranoid dimensions.
Only about a dozen of Jordan Downs' 700 families turn out consistently at architects' planning sessions. "The projects ain't feeling this right now," explained longtime resident Fred "Scorpio" Smith.

Aside from 13 years in the penitentiary, Smith, 37, has lived in Jordan Downs his whole life. He ticked off a string of tenants evicted for penny-ante transgressions, like elderly "Miss Lewis," kicked out after 53 years, Smith said, when a project employee saw a set of clothes belonging to her 47-year-old son.

"He lives in Riverside. Showed them his address." Still, Lewis was accused of violating her lease by harboring a tenant not on the lease, Smith said. "It's like they got a secret list. You blink twice and you're out."
Maybe 13 years in the pen gives you nostalgia for barred windows.

Anyway, if "Miss Lewis's" 47-year-old son lived in Riverside, why was he in Jordan Downs? I can't help thinking we're not getting the whole story from "Scorpio." I find it hard to believe elderly "Miss Lewis" was kicked out of her digs because her son dropped in for a few days. It's more likely he was up to no good.


Even if Mr. Lewis was an angel visiting earth, though, there are perfectly good reasons why managers of places like Jordan Downs have to be strict about unauthorized residents. I presume that leaseholders are vetted to determine if they are likely to be responsible tenants. If a unit can become a crash pad for any number of supernumeraries, the environment is on the way downhill fast.

"Miss Lewis" knew the rules — how could she not after 53 years? But punishing her is not the point. In a place like the project, everybody knows everybody else's business. Once it was common knowledge that one person flouted the terms of her lease and got away with it, a chain reaction of similar stories was sure to follow.


What to do about the persistent culture of poverty, seemingly resistant to amelioration, that plagues most American urban centers? Pumping tax money into it offers little hope for improvement, and may even be counterproductive by encouraging the toxic mentality that holds people in projects. They must be encouraged to take responsibility for themselves and drop their self-defeating attitudes.

Also, it would be useful if the country would quit merrily importing poverty from beyond its borders. "Blacks … have watched the population in the project shift from virtually all-black 40 years ago to more than two-thirds Latino today," the story says.


1 comment:

MnMark said...

"They must be encouraged to take responsibility for themselves and drop their self-defeating attitudes."

I have to disagree. I think this is mostly a matter of genetics and the bell curve. Genetics affects personality and intelligence, and these people don't have the intelligence or the self-control to live in a way that is above what they're living in now. The fact that black nations all over the world are similar cesspools supports this. Do blacks somehow transmit the same culture of failure among themselves all over the world, even when they have lived for hundreds of years in the midst of successful white cultures? Or might it just be in their genes? It's rude to suggest it, but it's the simplest explanation.

Thus there is nothing to be done about it. If we still lived in a confident white society that was willing to impose its norms on blacks, the black crime and illegitimacy rates could be pushed back to their pre-1960s levels but they'll never match white levels because of the genetics.

But we'll keep pretending for a while yet that it's not genetics, but culture, and that culture can be changed. And we'll squander trillions more dollars trying somehow to get these people to change their culture. At some point people's patience and wallets will be exhausted and we'll see that the real solution is to separate ourselves from them and show them enough respect to leave them alone to live out their destiny and develop their cultures in whatever ways best suit their genetic inheritance.