Failed Ambition: Ruins, Gaze, and Public Housing
Much of our fascination with ruins—and perhaps some of our uneasiness—revolves around their stark testimony to failure, and perhaps no ruins aesthetically underscore the collapse of modernity more clearly than public housing. Public housing was born from a distinctive marriage of modernist optimism and racist and classist ideologies aspiring to remake the American city (and with many global parallels). Last week Detroit’s Brewster-Douglass housing project went under the wrecking ball, another in a series of 20th-century housing projects—Pruitt-Igoe, Cabrini Green, the Robert Taylor Homes—that are routinely stereotyped as the epitaph for modernity’s over-reaching ambition, xenophobic nostalgia, or the misplaced optimism of state-supported housing. Regardless of their legacy, the ruins and razing of public housing raise interesting questions about gaze and how we see and imagine particular sorts of ruins.
Ruins fascinate us because they energize our imaginations, providing material evidence of lost experiences while simultaneously underscoring the passing of that heritage. Those lost experiences assume meaning through an idiosyncratic mix of popular iconography, mass discourses, and personal spatial and material experiences that shape how we perceive places like Detroit (what Edward Said referred to as “imaginative geographies”). Every ruin fuels a distinctive corner of our imagination and tells a distinct sort of story, and the narrative of public housing ruination is distinguished in modest but critical ways from the tales woven about industrial decline, dead malls, or eroding post-Soviet landscapes.
Few architectural forms provide more repugnant and compelling testimony to postwar ambition and arrogance than the hulking carcasses of communities like Brewster-Douglass. Brewster-Douglass is astounding for its ambitious scale—between 8000 and 10,000 residents lived in Brewster-Douglass at its peak—and difficult to ignore as a massive material thing that once included six 14-story high-rises amongst a scatter of low-rises covering a space five-by-three city blocks.
The public housing narrative has long been weighed down by the specter of failure, so it is well-suited to ruin discourses: in these narratives Brewster-Douglass and public housing are invoked as material symbols of grandiose social engineering and long-term decline and collapse. This risks becoming a transparent moral lament: many communities were vital social places, despite the 21st-century gaze that tends to see such brick and concrete monoliths as pure functional ugliness. The imaginary Brewster-Douglass is quite strongly linked to perhaps its most famous residents, the Supremes, an interesting but somewhat shallow reduction of the community narrative to a cultural incubator from which a few creative souls emerged; we can celebrate the cultural lives that thrived in such places, but it seems myopic to detach it from structural racism. Little of the popular discussion on places like Brewster-Douglass has dissected the structural processes that produced enormous racially based impoverishment and then extended it with indifferent municipal support (e.g., as in many projects, Brewster-Douglass had poor maintenance, and the interstate was sliced through the neighborhood in the 1960’s).
It may be irrelevant why we gather for public housing’s wake. The ruin photographers who flock to Brewster-Douglass’ decline and its eventual razing (including a March event Curbed referred to as a “demolition party“) may well have wrestled with no especially concrete sociohistorical processes, instead marveling however obliquely at the aesthetics of high-rise destruction (including captivating aerial drone views). It does not seem particularly convincing, though, to argue that we are fascinated by ruination without any consideration of ruins’ sociohistorical if imagined meanings; that is, ruins create particular sorts of fascination based on aesthetics, scale, and sensory experience as well as our concrete spatial experience and inchoate notion of particular building and cityscape histories. Our accounts of public housing ruins may sometimes be shallow and ideological, driven by moralistic senses of public housing and urban decline and reproducing racist and classist distortions. But part of the mission of ruin scholarship may be to critically contextualize the concrete ways imagination is socialized to see particular things and how we link those ruinscapes to our perceptions of the contemporary world.
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All images are by the author.
These thoughts occurred to me on a field trip to Brewster-Douglass with the Wenner-Gren Foundation-supported Archaeologies of the Present workshop at Wayne State University; nobody in the workshop bears any blame for my own reading of Brewster-Douglass and ruins.