Long before Ferguson brought it into the news, St. Louis became famous for its monumentally disastrous Pruitt-Igoe Housing Project, an enormous complex that lasted just a few decades before its epidemics of segregation, poverty, decay, and gang violence led the city to demolish all 33 buildings, an act many called “the death of modern architecture” and “the death of the city of the future.” Attitudes about public housing would never be the same. But it wasn’t always this way.
Public housing was once thought of as being positive, radical, and hopeful—the product of a government optimistic about its ability to improve the lives of its poor and working-class families. My own family shared that optimism. I had always heard that my grandparents began their married life as urban pioneers in an inner-city New Deal housing project, but I wasn’t entirely certain what that meant. It was only once I began the work of editing and publishing The Little Bastard, a novella my grandmother wrote about this time in their lives, that I realized just how intimately life in the Neighborhood Gardens on St. Louis’s North Side connected them to the political groundswell of their day.
These stately three-story brick buildings—described in The Little Bastard as “a slum-cleared block about six streets from the riverfront, built sort of like an Italian villa”—were more than simply affordable apartments. As Joseph Heathcott writes for the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Neighborhood Gardens was something of a revolution, a bold new concept “establishing a template for a new urban form that would endure,” that “inaugurated a new design vocabulary that dominated reconstruction of St. Louis for decades.”
Conceived by a private social welfare organization called the Neighborhood Association, the Gardens opened in 1935 as one of the first low-income housing projects funded by the New Deal’s Public Works Administration. According to Robert G. Barrows,these New Deal housing projects were meant to construct better housing for the populations living in American cities’ worst slums.
During the real estate crisis of the early 1930s “Herbert Hoover’s President’s Conference on Home Building and Home Ownership…brought together housing experts from around the nation to respond to this dire situation…[embodying] the beginning of a change in attitudes regarding the role of government in housing. One recommendation suggested that government should begin to aid private efforts to house low-income families—an idea that, at least in the United States, had generally been derided as unacceptably radical.” The resulting “radical” act was limited, lacking any real teeth until 1933, when Franklin Roosevelt’s administration took power amid 25 percent unemployment and rampant foreclosures. That year Roosevelt signed legislation creating the Public Works Administration, giving the agency power for “construction, reconstruction, alteration, or repair under public regulation or control of low-cost housing and slum-clearance projects.”
It’s important for contemporary readers to keep in mind how revolutionary the very idea of government-funded low-income housing was at the time, when considering the uncomfortable fact that the Gardens, like all of these early projects, was purposefully racially segregated.
According to Barrows, in the case of Indiana’s Lockefield Gardens, the housing project was built in “the Negro section” of the city, and was therefore meant to provide low-income housing “solely for Negroes”—those very people who had inhabited the slums cleared for construction. The national tendency when building these housing projects was to “not disrupt pre-existing racial patterns of neighborhoods,” and so when largely black slums were replaced, the housing was meant for those same residents. Neighborhood Gardens was similarly segregated, but all-white; in fact the purpose seems to have been to keep white families in the city and, what is more, to encourage “wholesome” nuclear family structures (i.e., not the chaotic multi-generation tenements of the city’s immigrant populations). While the buildings were white-only, the hope was that should this preliminary experiment work, better housing for black families would follow.
There must have been an element of daring in my grandparents’ choice to move to the Gardens. Like many of the residents, Peggy and Bill Schutze were low-income young marrieds, but they were also from genteel, educated backgrounds—they had met in the well-regarded journalism school at the University of Missouri, a far cry from the working-class factory hands envisioned by the Gardens’ founders. Their parents were probably terrified when they moved there, and likely would not have been comforted by the news that, as my grandmother wrote in The Little Bastard, “You get good police protection in such a tough district.” The passage goes on, rapturously, “But besides that, when the most suspicious characters in the city live next door to you, they lose their mystery. They’re just like anybody else, only not so lucky.”
In those years St. Louis was an exciting place to be, and not just in the Neighborhood Gardens. According to Heathcott, the 1930s were a period of “lively experimentation” in St. Louis, “when architects, planners, and reformers generated new possibilities for the application of design to the reorganization of urban life.” The city was socially and politically alive. As just one example, when Missouri farmworkers needed support for the famous Sharecroppers’ Roadside Demonstration of 1939, the protest organizer came to St. Louis, where he was easily able to stir up vociferous support for labor organizers.
This revolutionary spirit runs through The Little Bastard, as a group of Gardens neighbors takes on their local mob boss in a somewhat madcap caper. The St. Louis League of Women Voters enjoys a cameo in the novella as well, with the venerable suffragist and civic leader Edna Gellhorn represented in fictional form. The spirit of reform swelling around the Neighborhood Gardens was surely part of the draw to my grandmother, a lifelong progressive, aspiring journalist, and undercover political junkie. There was a bohemian appeal as well; listed among the Gardens’ 1940s inhabitants was the reporter and playwright William Inge, with whom my grandparents shared cheap wine and late nights.
Apart from its revolutionary and bohemian seductions, life in the Gardens was uniquely suited to young families. This family-friendly quality of the Gardens was no accident. Progressive reformer J.A. Wolf spearheaded the project after having studied the European mass worker housing of the Bauhaus and Walter Gropius; the buildings themselves were designed with the health of their residents in mind. According to Michael R. Allen of St. Louis’s Preservation Research Office, “Working under the assumptions of the miasma theory of disease—that sickness is spread through dark, crowded spaces—the architects designed ample light through metal casement windows, cross-ventilating passageways and balconies double-loaded on protruding stairwell bays.” There were no basement apartments, and each unit had plentiful windows, a balcony, and its own entrance, ensuring that for all the communal aspects of the buildings, there remained a seemly privacy for each family. Heathcott describes other amenities including “a wading pool, fountain, sandbox, and expansive play areas in the grass courtyards.” And as Robert Kohn, the director of housing for the Public Works Administration, reminded J.A. Wolf: ‘The housing itself is merely a means to a greater end, namely, the rehabilitation of family life for people of modest means.’”
Heathcott notes that Wolf and his Neighborhood Association were “fully mindful of the importance of their project to the future of urban reform: ‘It is hoped that the project will be in the nature of a clinic. If the Gardens can prove that it is profitable to eliminate the desolate ring of ruin which now practically surrounds our downtown business section, and that clean, sanitary, and attractive quarters can be furnished at a fair return. It is a reasonable assumption that individuals, property owners, and other groups will become interested.’” The idea was never just to provide housing to 250 or so white, low-income families; it was much bigger than that. It was about changing the face of urban living in what were undeniably grim times. It was about establishing the assumption that even poor people, even non-whites, deserved a decent place to live—deserved, in fact, a decent life. It was about believing in the future.
A copy of the Neighborhood Gardens Rules and Regulations from 1938 includes the idealistic motto “Cooperation means working together for the advantage of all.” I think my grandmother was swept up by this idea, and it shows in The Little Bastard: “Behind each balcony somebody was living with somebody, feeling luck that the rent was low and money was coming in. Most of those first-floor apartments had little kids in them, kids born to be President of the United States. Why shouldn’t we have kids if we wanted them? Abraham Lincoln’s folks probably couldn’t afford to have kids either but they did. So could we, maybe with a similar result!”
This optimistic attitude was after all the heart of the New Deal writ into life. Daniel R. Fusfeld, looking back at the New Deal in 1959, wrote,
The most important aspect of the social philosophy of the New Deal was the belief that society as a whole, functioning through government, must protect itself against the impersonal and amoral forces of supply and demand. It represented a great shift away from the philosophy that the self-adjusting market should be given free sway, and that people, resources and wealth ought to be treated essentially as commodities…supplementing the New Deal’s economic interventionism was a new view of the place of the individual in society. The older philosophy—that the individual seeking his own best interests would contribute most to society as a whole, and the corollary that those who were unsuccessful ought to bear the cost.
(Imagine—a government, taking power in hard economic and political times, writing into law the idea that we are all in this together, that we all deserve work and homes and health!)
After their St. Louis reformer days, my grandparents turned to religion, and my grandfather gave up his journalistic ambitions to become an Episcopalian minister. By all counts his focus was less on the spiritual and more on the sociopolitical, his sermons less fire-and-brimstone and more Good Works. My grandmother stayed committed to social service as well, becoming a teacher in her later years and in the 1960s working with kids from the all-black projects in urban Michigan—having traveled in time from the early exuberance of the first federally funded housing projects to their now-notorious high-rise, high-crime spawn. They could never go back to the Gardens, as it were, but their formative years in the Neighborhood Gardens stayed with them.
As one of the characters in The Little Bastard cheers, “Down with Gang Rule! Up with Democracy! Hooray for religion and all that!”