High-Rise Hellholes

To the Editors:

There is little with which I would disagree in Alexander von Hoffman's splendid review of Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh's and Lawrence J. Vale's books on public housing in Chicago and Boston ["High-Rise Hellholes," April 9, 2001]. I believe, however, that the public housing disaster needs to be seen in the larger context of the times.

The ills that beset public housing were not entirely unique; rather, they were largely due to problems that arose in the wake of the huge postwar influx into the cities of poor blacks from the South and Hispanics from Mexico and the Caribbean. A destructive process of widespread vandalism, the theft of plumbing and wiring from unoccupied apartments, arson, and the preemption of empty apartments by drug gangs began in the early 1960s. Private landlords, unlike the public housing authorities, could and did abandon properties when it became impossible to cover minimum maintenance and operating expenses from rental income. Abandonment accelerated the process of destruction; and by the end of the 1960s, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of housing units had been destroyed. Losses in the Bronx alone were probably large enough to have housed the entire population of Syracuse, New York.

While public housing did, as von Hoffman states, have some unique problems, the catastrophic developments in public housing were more than matched by those in private low-income housing, and both were driven by the same basic forces. As a participant in the executive branch group developing the Housing Act of 1961, I was struck by the inability to devise appropriate remedies despite general agreement on the need to do something about public housing. Public housing was deemed unlikely to survive the proposed abandonment of the annual-contributions financing formula--which had disguised the costs of housing and spread them over 40 years. Income standards might be relaxed for current tenants, but higher income standards for new admissions were regarded as a nonstarter with Congress.

Frederick Hayes
Former housing specialist, U.S. Bur. of the Budget; former budget director, NYC
Utica, NY

Alexander von Hoffman Responds:

Frederick Hayes, as usual, makes a very good point. Public housing did indeed evolve within the context of a changing housing market in inner-city neighborhoods. I would add that population movements were the underlying cause of housing abandonment and arson. As middle- and working-class whites moved out of urban neighborhoods and into the suburbs, African Americans and other racial minorities who previously had been bottled up in inner-city ghettos were able to fan out across large sections of the city. The result was a collapse of the housing market in the inner city, which then was left to the poor. As a historian, I would also note that this process came to a climax at the end of the 1970s, not the 1960s.

Even within the overall context that Mr. Hayes describes, however, public housing had its own peculiar history. The private market, to my knowledge, never developed large concentrations (80 percent to 100 percent) of very poor, young, single mothers with children as did large-scale big-city housing projects such as Robert Taylor Homes.

Oops, She Did It Again

To the Editors:

When Andres Serrano's Piss Christ made its little stink, I asked several writers if they would be so enthusiastic if the object dunked were, say, a menorah or a Buddhist figurine. Then, about the Brooklyn brouhaha, I asked a similar and simple question. Now Harvey Blume answers part of my query: whether Judaism is, pictorially at least, "off limits" ["Oops, She Did It Again," April 23, 2001]. Blume's rationale makes sense to me, but I wonder what a "laissez-faire First Amendmenter" (say, Nat Hentoff) would say. Blume is probably correct when he sees Renée Cox's Yo Mama's Last Supper as "a tendentious gesture of affirmative action." (Well, to my mind, that is no great endorsement.) But he doesn't address the most salient and insulting aspect of Cox's too-cute parody of a Christian icon: its more-than-tendentious title. The most cutting put-down in blackdom is, to Blume, I guess, justified because of the "Crusades, the Inquisition, and all." Respect for Judaism and the promotion by certain Jews (the director, Charles Saatchi, for example) of childish work by black artists are quite different matters--just as the "self-parody" of Franz Kafka and Philip Roth (or, say, Bruce Jay Friedman, Woody Allen, and Saul Bellow) is quite different from the simplistic picture-making of two quasi-Catholic artists.

The purpose of these exhibitions is to tweak those of reflexive sensibilities; I suggest--Blume and Camille Paglia notwithstanding--an attitude of restrained disdain.

Jerome Bronk
San Francisco, CA

Harvey Blume Responds:

I happen to think that Serrano's Piss Christ was an interesting work of art, an attempt by the artist to contend with, to absorb or repel, the central icon of his faith. Mr. Bronk seems to want to know what I would think, say, of a Piss Moses. I would think it was a bit funny, more like kitsch. Moses is already a bit like kitsch whenever he is translated from the written word to graphics, never mind the golden shower.

My real point was about media. Judaism is not "off limits" to being tweaked by means of graven images; it's just that text, for reasons I try to explain, has been much the more promising way to go. And I really don't see much difference between what Andres Serrano, Chris Ofili, and Renée Cox have done in graphics and what Philip Roth did in Portnoy's Complaint. Okay, Roth is funnier; but, believe me, plenty of Jews thought that Portnoy's masturbating into a calf's liver before putting it back in the refrigerator was anti-Semitic.

But Mr. Bronk and I are having the beginnings of a real conversation here. I welcome that. Conversation was the last thing Camille Paglia had in mind.

A Question of Power

To the Editors:

"A Question of Power" by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. [April 23, 2001], was a rich piece, albeit slightly revisionist; but it returned me to my childhood with the wonderful cartoon of Franklin Delano Roosevelt surrounded by his agency children. I hope the "loyal opposition" takes heed and ceases dancing around with George W. Bush and his friends. The public doesn't know it yet, but we're being led down a primrose path of fiscal irresponsibility.

Don Slagel
Waldoboro, ME

To the Editors:

"A Question of Power" should be read and digested by every thinking American. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., clearly explains the power struggle that has dominated U.S. politics since 1776, and he accomplishes it in just four pages! He is the exceptional intellectual who has the verbal skill to communicate effectively. His article should be widely circulated.

Florien J. Wineriter
Salt Lake City, UT

The Case (Once Again) for Universal Health Insurance

To the Editors:

Robert B. Reich's proposal that the Democratic Party hitch its future election hopes to the wagon of universal health care may be overly vulnerable to inevitable attacks ["The Case (Once Again) for Universal Health Insurance," April 23, 2001]. A more marketable proposal might be to advocate extending Medicare to all children, with the related costs to be covered by general revenues. The foregoing assumes that Medicare, in its present form, has been successfully defended and that adequate prescription drug coverage has been added to it in a way that has not reduced the program's financial soundness. Those issues and Social Security are keys.

Jetson E. Lincoln
Monclair, NJ