Architecture on Film : Public Housing

Thurs 28 Jan 2010 6.30pm

Public Housing

Frederick Wiseman is the world’s living master of documentary film making; frequently referred to as ‘a genre unto himself’ and ‘one of the greatest non fiction filmmakers who ever lived.’ Perhaps best known for the controversy surrounding his documentary on a Massachusetts psychiatric institution, Titicut Follies (1967), which was forbidden from distribution for 23 years due to its perceived exposure of the state’s failings. Through an important catalogue of now 38 films Wiseman has continued to chart over 40 years of American life in an ongoing dialogue between people and institutions, reality and filmmaking.  With a novelistic take on the documentary form, Wiseman’s methods see him capture hundreds of hours of footage with a minute crew, transforming in the edit suite but a fraction of these candid observations into feature films with drama and narrative, structure and rhythm, that tell stories and open windows onto worlds and situations.

In Public Housing, widely acclaimed as one of Wiseman’s greatest works, the director turns his lens towards the community of Chicago’s Ida B. Wells housing estate. A portrayal of architecture in both its physical and social forms, the film observes the estate’s residents as characters in an urban set, in an unfolding conversation with their environment. There are pest control workers with hearts of gold; police constantly exploring the line between empathy and enforced order; block parties; residents association meetings, and even an opportunistic music video shoot – all played out to a background of drug use and hope, frustration and enterprise. This is the flip side to The Wire’s gun toting urban storytelling; offering instead a subtly epic and immersive observational experience.

Public Housing is a masterful film about the distance between problems and solutions, structures and people – and therein perhaps the true core essence of architecture itself. A rare opportunity to see the work of this modern master on the big screen.

USA 1997, Dir Frederick Wiseman, 195 min

With thanks to Zipporah Films


Programme Notes by D. Bradford Hunt

Author, Blueprint for Disaster: The Unraveling of Chicago Public Housing

Frederick Wiseman’s “Public Housing” (1997) captures an American institution at its nadir.  Since entering a downward spiral in the 1970s, U.S. public housing projects have been sites of governmental neglect, entrenched poverty, and perceived hopelessness.  For some, public housing is a tragic example of good intentions gone awry; for others, the program is evidence of the state’s perniciousness, segregating African Americans in modern-day poorhouses.

Wiseman’s non-narrative film confirms parts of these worldviews, but in other ways, it complicates them.  The film explores the bleak built environment of the Ida B. Wells Homes and its surroundings on Chicago’s south side, yet the interactions of residents with various state entities – including police officers, maintenance staff, project managers, and social workers – returns the focus back upon the rest of us.  Wiseman forces viewers to wrestle with the responsibility of society towards deep social problems. 

The Ida B. Wells Homes was not always a neglected space held together by desperate tenant leaders and the strong arm of the police.  Designed by a group of architects led by Alfred Shaw of Shaw, Naess, and Murphy, Wells’ 1,600 low-rise rowhouses and walk-up apartments opened in 1941 as the pride of the African American community.  Residents considered their modern units, with central heating and refrigerators, a major “step-up” from the slums they had escaped.  One resident recalled that Wells in the 1940s and 1950s was “probably as close as you could get in those days to a middle-class black community.”

Over time however, Wells changed.  The six-story Wells Extension (1955 – Ernest Grunsfeld, Jr.) and 14-story Darrow Homes (1961 – Solomon and Cordwell) doubled the community to 3,600 units.  These elevator buildings contained larger apartments with more bedrooms, increasing the density of youth and exacerbating maintenance problems.  Wells began to exhibit the dysfunctions described by critics Jane Jacobs and Oscar Newman, where social disorder and lack of “defensible space” made it difficult for residents to police their own community.

As in other cities, the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) lost the capacity to maintain its increasingly chaotic properties.  Under U.S. policy, maintenance budgets were tied to tenant rents which, in turn, were tied to tenant incomes.  As the working-class were pushed out of public housing by higher rents and social disorder – and pulled as well by a less discriminatory and more affordable housing market between 1965-75 – poverty became more concentrated.  As a result, the CHA’s budget resources eroded, and belated efforts by Washington could not stem the bleeding.  Deindustrialization in the 1980s and the crack cocaine epidemic in the early 1990s were further brutal blows.
Beyond structural forces, human tragedies also haunted residents, managers, and the police at Wells.  The year before Wiseman arrived, five-year old Eric Morse was dangled out of a 14th story Darrow Homes window before being unintentionally dropped to his death; boys twice his age were torturing Eric for refusing to sell candy for them.  The incident devastated the community, shocked the nation, and confirmed to political leaders that public housing, especially the high-rise variety, had to come down. 

Bypassing the objection of some residents, the CHA (with Clinton then Bush Administration backing) leveled the entire Wells complex and scattered its residents.  Today, a new complex is nearly complete, shaped by the tenets of New Urbanism but also by the CHA’s fear of repeating its recent past.  Former residents meeting strict criteria have been allowed to return to new “mixed-income” communities whose names reflect the marketing plans of developers:  Oakwood Shores and Jazz on the Boulevard.  Yet only one-third of the apartments are available to former public-housing families, with the bulk being offered at market rates.  Thus, 3,600 public housing units have been replaced with only 1,000, aggravating the affordable housing shortage.

Wiseman’s immersion in the space of the old Ida B. Wells is, at times, physically exhausting. We observe the pleadings of resident leaders, the lectures of social workers, and the uncertainties of police work, but we get neither the resolution nor the solutions that we might crave.  Instead, by the end, the sum of vignettes in “Public Housing” present a subtle yet devastating critique of the state’s effort to talk at the poor, rather than engaging them in a productive dialogue; the absence of residents’ voices leaves a void that remains a central element of both Wiseman’s film, and current government policy. 

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