A Klee drawing named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
— Walter Benjamin, 1939
On Roots and Recovery
Today’s focus on the development of “sustainable” communities as being critical to the recovery of the economy and the challenge of maintaining our high standard of living raises important questions: What is sustainable environmentally, economically, and socially? Who will be a part of the future economy and how will they participate? Or, in general, what do we mean by progress? In his 2011 State of the Union Address, President Obama articulated a goal for a “Sputnik moment” for America to “win the future.” He illustrated the argument with perhaps an ill-considered reference to the nation’s past achievement of putting cars in driveways. To be fair, education, energy, production, infrastructure, and technology are all necessary and prudent components of this
plot toward progress. But this is not the first time we have been here, as the car (or two or three) in every driveway illustrates; we must expand our view. It is important that we collectively think about the consequences of our past, and the impacts of our imagined future. With ‘blight’ effectively still in the toolkit for the policymakers, designers, builders, and bankers who help shape urban regeneration, one wonders what lessons have been learned from our diverse and collective contexts. Cities are resilient places of memory, and along with nature, can be our greatest teachers. Perhaps our cities’, and their inhabitants’, promise and progress for the future just may have something to do with their recovered past.
In researching my own family history, I stumbled upon an online repository of post-war articles and reports about Flanner House, a social services organization that worked in Indianapolis dating back to the turn of the twentieth century. The documents included photographs, reports, and even building plans relevant to the organization’s work transforming a slum in the inner city into a community with garden plots and newly constructed homes. This story is compelling in that it narrates the historical decline and recovery cycles of the city, while depicting the struggles and triumphs of the urban fabric, and the people therein.
My grandfather was one of those people. Albert Allen Moore was born in Nashville, Tennessee in 1905; he graduated from Tennessee State University in 1934 with a bachelor’s degree in Agriculture. Like many blacks escaping the Jim Crow South between World War I and World War II, he moved northward for a better life. He came to Indianapolis where he eventually found work as the Agricultural Director for Flanner House. He taught other blacks from the Great Migration how to farm vacant lots within the city. His work, essentially what we today might call urban agriculture, literally became the foundation of Flanner House’s larger mission to improve the quality of life for the urban community. With their increased role in community development, they received acclaim for their innovation in encouraging residents to save money and use their own skills and labor to build their own homes and improve their communities. This comprehensive framework allowed the families who participated in these programs to at least partially circumvent the racist practices of the various socio-economic structures of the time, and climb the economic and social ladder.
A Context for Cooperation and the Flanner House Gardens Program
Blacks who moved north after the Civil War and into to the twentieth century faced significant challenges. As their population in northern cities grew from the significant migration, in most cases their segregation into identifiable neighborhoods became more defined. These neighborhoods quickly became overcrowded, underserved, and disinvested. During the Great Depression—and much like today—blacks were more affected by the depressed economy than whites. Despite these conditions these communities were still strong and had social, economic, and intellectual power within them. Black leaders including Dr. Benjamin Osborne, a follower of Marcus Garvey, began to directly address the distressed state of their communities. Dr. Osborne began an organization called the Consumer Unit, acting on his mission to “lift [the Indianapolis Negro] out of the mire of economic serfdom to a point of economic stability by producing and marketing some of the necessities of life instead of remaining a dependent consumer factor.” The organization was conceived as a large-scale cooperative that would produce and sell food. He assembled over one thousand members; however, he was never able to raise enough money to realize the project. Afterward he attempted another project. This time he asked for assistance from the federal Rural Resettlement Administration for his Homestead Project. The program would have allowed low-income city workers to buy homes at a reduced cost, with the consideration that they could afford the mortgages because they would also grow their own food on the land to provide additional income. While the program was not explicitly for blacks, white landowners and organizations feared the project would be for predominantly black residents and successfully lobbied the federal government to not fund the project. Instead, in 1935 the New Deal government approved and built Lockfield Gardens in Indianapolis, one of the first segregated public housing developments in the United States.
The cooperative model that Dr. Osborne envisioned was later implemented at Flanner House in the early 1940s. With donated funds and land they began a comprehensive urban agriculture program as a part of a “Self-Help Services” unit. During and after World War II people in the community experienced higher food prices, in part due to shortages in Europe. Access to affordable and healthy food became a critical issue to the viability of the community. Through the Garden Program, families and individuals were offered plots of land and given access to tools, mechanical plowing, seed, canning facilities, and consultation with the Agricultural Director. They also provided indoor training that focused on growing food and cultivating land, on home economics, canning, food
preparation, and nutrition. The program grew over several years to include six hundred garden plots on nearly one hundred acres of urban land on the city’s near north side. Over two hundred families participated in the program.
While the program focused on food and agriculture, economics and community foundations were always important considerations. Documents show that Moore also envisioned and directed these Self-Help programs as a social bridge to connect young people and seniors, men and women, those from the rural south, and those who grew up in the city and had never seen a farm. The gardens were especially encouraged as an activity for teenagers, mothers with young children, and seniors. These groups were not as able to get regular paying work; however, through the gardens, they were able to contribute to the sustenance of their families. Also, the program needed to be affordable, and had the promise to provide people with supplemental income. While some families cultivated land for food for their own households, others used multiple lots to generate extra produce to sell for additional income. In a newspaper article promoting the garden program Moore states:
We have done everything possible to keep cost down on this program. Annual membership is only one dollar and the cost of plowing is $1.25 per plot. The plot is approximately one-sixth of an acre, which is large enough for the average family. Anyone seeking to raise a larger quantity of food for canning purposes can obtain additional plots for the cost of plowing…In the fall they may can their surplus produce at Flanner House Cannery.
In today’s dollars, this would be the equivalent of a family in an inner city being able to have access to one-sixth of an acre of plowed urban land for around twenty dollars per year. After WWII, the program included recent veterans in its education programs under the GI Bill. By 1944, Flanner House had constructed a large cooperative building that included a larger cannery, community meeting spaces and classrooms, and a cooperative food market. The new facility became a source of pride and a positive example for the development and recovery of a derelict and undervalued community. It served as tangible proof for the residents and leaders in the community, and the city and state governments, of the greater potential for the people and place, despite and regardless of race, station, or background. Flanner House later opened a credit union; many Garden Program members would save money from selling their canned produce to start businesses, educate their children, and even buy homes.
Remembering the Fall Creek Homes Project
With a seed group of only 21 low- to middle-income blacks, Flanner House initiated the Fall Creek Homes project, a large development near Downtown Indianapolis. The plan included over 300 residential units, open space, and even a watershed plan for Fall Creek. The group got approval from the City Planning Commission in 1945 to acquire and plot a tract of land along the creek and near Crispus Attucks High School, the city’s segregated all-black high school. The Commission, however, should not get much credit for this plan to improve the living conditions of the city’s growing black population as it is clear their agenda was to create a “place” for blacks to go so they would not move into the nearby established white neighborhoods. Many of the individuals who participated in the program were recent World War II veterans, and worked in a variety of occupations from postal clerks and police officers, to workers in the automotive and pharmaceutical industries in the city. They earned anywhere from $3-4,000 thousand dollars per year, roughly equivalent to today’s approximately $35,000 median personal income. The premise of the program was simple—people would be trained in the skills needed to contribute to the construction of their own homes, thereby significantly reducing the costs of housing. After work and on weekends, the small group with no construction experience worked on a pilot home; it took them nearly 6,000 hours to complete.
A fund was established, including a significant contribution from the city’s pharmaceutical magnate, Eli Lilly, Jr., to provide for the purchase of land, construction equipment and materials to build the homes. Once the homes were completed, they were purchased using FHA mortgages. The proceeds from the sales were directed back into the housing fund and other Flanner House programs serving the community. With lessons learned from the pilot home, and with individuals dividing tasks suited to their interests and abilities, the group was eventually able to construct the homes in just over 2,100 hours. These modest houses, similar in layout and design to those constructed throughout the United States after WWII, were designed by Hilyard Robinson, a prominent black architect from Washington, D.C. known for his work with affordable housing. With significantly reduced labor costs, the homes were constructed for 40 percent less than what they would have cost using conventional housing development models.
The Fall Creek Homes project was successful in that it created one of the first substantial black communities with working and middle class homeownership in the city. While homeownership is a keystone of America’s capitalist society, this community also based its foundation on the model of community equity encouraged and championed by Flanner House’s Self Help programs. The irony of the ‘Self-Help’ programs is that it was largely a cooperative structure, with people in the community helping each other in the most basic needs for food, shelter, and a combination of communication and education. The program gained national acclaim, and eventually the model was exported to other contexts, including less urbanized areas in other regions. They honed their program into an essentially corporate model, complete with branding, slogans, and endorsements.
According to a 2009 HUD study, over seven million American households paid more than one-half of their income for rent or lived in severely inadequate conditions, or both. These figures are up 42 percent since 2001. The increase is over 20 percent since 2007 and the start of the Great Recession; the national unemployment rate doubled during the same period. While race and geography are still a critical factor in poverty, the HUD study found that worst case needs increased in urban, suburban, and rural areas, and in all regions, and among all racial and ethnic groups.
Many of the economic challenges we see today echo those of the past, but of course there are differences. The impact of globalization and urbanization since World War II are key examples. Changes and progress in society are tangible as well — in 1933, Dr. Osborne’s Homestead project was stopped primarily because of overt and statutory racism. We have a long way to go; and we have also come a long way. The challenge is to continue to find a path, despite difficult circumstances, toward progress. In a globally connected and competitive world defined by rapid change, innovation, and resiliency, moving forward may not be adequate. We may need to move past forward.
In some cases the contemporary manifestations for self-help urban redevelopment have been associated with gentrification and identifiable “urban pioneer” groups such as artists, recent college graduates, gays, hipsters, bougies, and yuppies with either overt or camouflaged middle class and capitalistic value systems. The tangible and marketable benefits of gentrifying neighborhoods make them hard to stop, or at least without the help of crippled macro-economies. But there are exceptions. Habitat for Humanity began using a self-help housing model twenty-five years after Flanner House completed their first pilot home. Other similar organizations have produced thousands of housing units for low- and middle-income people in a broad range of communities. Individuals, families, small cooperatives, and other groups have found ways to redevelop in varied contexts nationwide. It is important that cultural differences in approach and action in urban spaces are acknowledged in formulating the market and value systems for the control and consumption of those spaces. We know the current rules—those who are able to consistently add the most (market) value in the shortest amount of time usually win. During these “lean years” there should be an interest in limiting the potential division and conflict between the bicycle-riding, CSA-shopping hipsters taking advantage of low-cost space in inner-cities and small towns, and the people – who are often lower-income, immigrants, or racial or ethnic minorities – who have been in these communities for years. Much like Benjamin’s Angel of History, these groups often watch their communities smashed by the storm of progress, and the pioneering people that come with it.
The potential for today, however, seems to be our expanding notion of community, identity, and place. After recent events in the Middle East it is no longer theoretical to say that facebook and twitter changes the way that people’s communications collectivity define their world. A 60-year old lady from the block and a 25-year old hipster can both “like” their same neighborhood CSA or locally owned juice shop. One wonders what the outcome of Dr. Osborne’s Consumer Unit would have been if he had a cool facebook page and kickstarter account. What could have Albert Moore done if modern microfinance could have helped fund his gardens, or if he could google and blog the latest cultivation techniques? Access to information and improved social connectivity are means for us to challenge and push beyond our individual moves forward, and instead toward a more comprehensive and common move forward. In this respect, I think the course of action in a Middle West community over sixty years ago seems progressive even for today. They showed that there is the potential to be a pioneer in your own back yard. They demonstrated that it is possible to colonize your own neighborhood, or even yourself. They combined community, cooperative, and corporate models to achieve their difficult yet ambitious aims. I will end with a curious piece of propaganda/prose in Flanner House’s “New Frontier” plan that I think is still an appropriate charge for us today in order to “win the future”; it states:
What is it about? About people. About their needs. Their abilities. The land the live on. The land they till. The food they grow. About the cities they live in. About the jobs they do. How they do them. And about the houses in which they live. About what people know. And don’t know. And what they ought to know. Ought to know how to help make America still greater.
About the Author: Justin G. Moore is a Senior Urban Designer and City Planner for the City of New York Department of City Planning. There he is involved in the redevelopment of the City for a range of programs including affordable housing, cultural and commercial centers, mixed-use industrial areas, and parks and open space. He is responsible for conducting and managing complex and important research investigations, urban design plans for the physical design and the efficient utilization of sites of the City’s major geographic features and infrastructure, public spaces, land use patterns and neighborhood character. His recent projects include the Greenpoint & Williamsburg Waterfront Plan, the Hunter’s Point South Master Plan, the Coney Island Comprehensive Plan, the Brooklyn BAM Cultural District, and New York City’s HUD Sustainable Communities projects. He is a recipient of the Department of City Planning’s Barney Rabinow Service Award, Special Projects Award, and the Michael Weil Urban Design Award.
He received degrees in both architecture and urban design from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. He continues to work in academic and research fields as an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Architecture at Columbia University in the graduate Urban Design and Urban Planning programs, and his work has been recognized through several competitions, conferences, and publications. His interests have focused on the delineation and design of public space, infrastructure and environments in relation to private, individual, and cultural controls and their impact on sustainable, social, and community development.]