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I Visit a Housing Project: 1940

I Visit a Housing Project

by DOROTHY CANFIELD, Survey Graphic, February 1, 1940

Editor’s Note: Dorothy Canfield Fisher (1879 – 1958) was an educational reformer, social activist, and best-selling author in the early decades of the twentieth century. She strongly supported women’s rights, racial equality, and lifelong education. Eleanor Roosevelt named her one of the ten most influential women in the United States. She introduced the Montessori method of child-rearing to the U.S. and she presided over the country’s first adult education program program.Dorothy Canfield, Noted Author and Social Activist. [View Image]
[View Image]
Dorothy Canfield, Noted Author and Social Activist.

I DON’T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT HOUSING problems, but I know what I like. What I wanted to find out was how I’d like it if the circumstances of my life should put me into one of these brand-new, queer-shaped, rather stark-looking, low cost housing projects, about which we all read more or less in the newspapers, and at which we crane our necks as we drive by and are told: “Look, that’s one of the new federal building projects.”

Inside my head was probably about let is inside the head of the ordinary general-public American, some vague, blurred, uncoordinated information about m, the dubious result of what is fled “general reading”—a little, that about the difficulties of getting decent using for people with small incomes, out modern methods of construction, out labor unions and Mr. Arnold’s goings-on, about streamlined plumbing and linoleum and so on. But no raw material from which to draw any answer to the crucial question: “If I lived one of those houses, would I like it?” And my father brought me up on the maxim, in regard to our public schools: “If it’s not good enough for me and my children, it’s not good enough for anybody’s.”

I REALIZED THAT THIS UNPROFESSIONAL standard is not the usual one. I knew that these modern public developments (alias “building projects”) were original conceived as an emergency measure against a crisis of unemployment and intolerably bad slums, that subsequently a permanent housing program was evolved primarily to tackle the basic problem of bad living conditions. I knew that, whatever they were, they were better, that is, materially more comfortable, than the murderously bad, old style tenement lodgings and wooden three-deckers in which people used to be forced to live (and still are, millions of them).

All the same, what an American wants to know, needs to know, to keep track of what kind of a country his is getting to be, is whether our national long range planning for the future intends to create conditions which he would be willing to accept for himself as the irreducible minimum of decently endurable life. Just to give you an idea of what I’m talking about, I’ll say that the photographs of those brand-new, shining-clean modern, low rent projects in Nazi Germany any look very attractive on the printed page. But, as far as I go, I’d rather live in the most wretched low style tenement in a poor part of any American city, than pay the kind of rent that gets paid in Germany for the slicked-up material cleanness. And if I would, I assume that most of my fellow-Americans would too.

SO IT WAS WITH THESE PREMISES TUCKED away silently in my mind that I went off to the Cambridge housing project for the visit about which I’m telling you here. My account is quite unarranged, just as it happened, as truthful as I know how to make a report on something seen. It’s what you would have seen and heard if you had been along. We drove through a pretty poor part of town, full of blackened, sagging, old wooden tenements and stopped the car in front of some plainly put-up, rather low brick buildings, arranged on a sizable lot of ground with many angles, evidently to give a maximum of light in the windows—for all its plainness, a striking and hopeful contrast to the squalid mess we had just left. Down the middle stretched a broad open space, with concrete walls on each side of close-cut grass.

The office first. A bald, prosaic, very efficient and reassuring atmosphere of business. It felt like a place where accounts are kept, where rent is paid in and complaints made about faucets that leak, from which bills for rent due and men in overalls with pipe-wrenches, and exhortations not to walk on the grass (that grass!) go out. Not the least trace of the determinedly cheery, sociable atmosphere which is sometimes exhaled by people doing good to their fellowmen, and which gets pretty hard to breathe after a while, if there is too much of it in ordinary everyday existence.

To the questions I asked here, the answers ran: “No, there is no special nursery school for the children who live in the project. No, we haven’t a district nurse of our own. Nor a Girl Scout troop of our own. We are part of this quarter of Cambridge. We take our share of what everybody around here has in the way of social service.”

IT WAS EXPLAINED TO ME LATER THAT larger projects in other cities do have community facilities and other services as part of their set-up—and that such facilities and services are usually used by the whole neighborhood, whether or not one lives in the project. That is to say that the people in a housing project are not isolated, segregated, removed from the everyday life of the community. Rather, that the folks of the entire neighborhood, not just the residents in a public housing project, may have a new and much needed social center.

“No, no such rules at all” (this particular set of answers was given with a markedly bored, not to say exasperated patience which amused and pleased me). “No, tenants do not have to turn the lights out at 10:30 every evening or a policeman is called. No, no rules against radios. No, no clause in the lease saying that in case of war the rooms will have to be evacuated in twenty-four hours. Yes, sure, no dogs or cats are allowed—I don’t say that if a kid is crazy about a pet we don’t look the other way, so long as there’s no trouble caused.

“Why, just the rules that any decently run apartment house has to have. No more. No less. No different.”

I HAD BEEN TOLD THAT THERE WERE TWO or three large assembly rooms or halls for the use of tenants, and asked with inward suspicion: “Do the tenants have parties and dances and sociables and so on, there? ”

The laconic Yankee reply was balm. “If they want to.”

Oh, excellent! If they want to. Yes on that score, I’d just as soon live here myself.

This was fine. Not so fine, in fact the one thing I heard and saw which I did not like at all, not at all—but what else can be done, they asked me, and I had no answer—was the rule about the income of the tenants. I had known, everybody knows, that of course these low rent apartments are for people with small incomes, and that—human nature being what it lamentably is—unless the necessary precautions are taken they will be snatched up by people with more money, thus shutting out those who really need the new housing. But observe the anesthetic effect on the human imagination of abstract language: “unless necessary precautions are taken.” That sounds all right, doesn’t it? But it doesn’t sound all right to find that self-supporting, hard-working, self-respecting, American citizens must not only, when they become tenants, reveal exactly what their income is to the last cent, but that they must keep on revealing it. The “management” has a right continually to pry into the accounts of every family. When the children grow up to high school age, old enough to take on the small odd jobs which American children have taken from time immemorial at sixteen or seventeen to help out in the family budget (Saturday rush hour work in the big grocery store, mowing of lawns, taking care of children for an hour or two, carrying out the ashes from the furnace). If they venture to do these things long enough materially to raise the family income they put the family in danger of being expelled from pleasant, clean, sunny quarters, and sent back to the dirty, dark, wooden firetraps of old times. Thrift, industry, skill, competence—not too much of that!

I didn’t like it at all, and neither would you, when a housewife in one of the bright, airy, convenient kitchens we visited, said to the manager who was showing me around: “Schraffts wants me to come back three mornings a week through the holiday rush,” and added, very anxiously, “the pay is pretty good. Will that be all right?” The old-American that I am was up in arms. That a woman with three children to bring up on her husband’s wages should, with fear in her eyes, be asking permission in that humble apprehensive way to practice an old skill of hers, to make a little extra money for shoes and underwear and cod liver oil. . . .

YET MY DOCTOR SON REMINDED Me THAT evening when I was talking over the visit: “That’s only another piece of our whole system in its present state—society makes provision for the very poor, and the well-to-do look out for themselves—the ones who are penalized are the hard-working, good managers among the upper part of the low income group. Don t you realize that the same thing is true in medical clinics—in the practice of medicine now?” Yes, of course I had known that medical care is, so far, managed that way. But what it means had been camouflaged by that “necessary precautions’ verbiage. How could I have known that it means someone in authority warning, in effect: “Don’t dare use your free-time and skill to improve the family’s condition, or out you go.” But let me tell you something else. The man from the office didn’t like it any better than I did—I was thankful to see that from the expression on his good American face. I suppose the writers of the housing law were in the same quandary when they aced the question.

“But how else . . .?” Don’t ask me. I don’t know how else. But I don’t like it any better because of that.

I ALSO THOUGHT I DIDN T QUITE LIKE THE way people let us in to look over their homes, when my guide knocked at the door and explained: “Some visitors who’d like to look around your apartment.” It was a Saturday morning, at the hour when housewives have their heads tied up in dusting cloths, when the children, home from school, are all over the place with their noise and clutter, when cooking for Sunday is being done. The women who opened the door exclaimed: “Oh, everything is in a mess. If you had only come later!” But they opened the door and let us go in. There were fresh, airy, sunny, clean and easy-to-keep-clean rooms, three or five according to the size of the family, big windows looking out on broad garden-like courts, bathrooms plenty good enough for the Roosevelts. Who wouldn’t be satisfied to live here? Twenty-one dollars for three rooms, and thirty dollars for five rooms, which pays for heat, constant hot water ( think of that), electricity for lighting and refrigerators. You should just see those electrified, spotless, convenient kitchens!

This was all right—yet for a moment I could scarcely keep from wondering if those housekeepers let us in, total strangers, at a very inconvenient hour, because they didn’t dare not to? And then, when we knocked at another door this happened: a woman whose head was tied up in the usual dusting cloth, opened the door, but only a little. “Some visitors who’d like to etc., etc.,” said my guide. And said the woman, not spunkily, not aggressively, not disagreeably at all, but naturally just as you would have said it or I: “Oh, I’m sorry, but I’ve got everything upside down, cleaning house. I’m in no state to see visitors. You’ll have to come some other time,” and with a pleasant nod to us, and a friendly smile at our guide, she just shut the door. He took it as naturally as she said it. “Hurrah!” I thought, tramping down the fire-proof concrete and steel stairway after him. That’s something like. Those others had let us in just because they were good-natured—or because they caught the idea that they were helping other people to have a chance at houses like these, by showing them off.”

WE STOOD AT THE FOOT OF THE STAIRS looking up and down the wide sunny open space outside. Since it was Saturday then were lots of children playing around. Almost half the number of people in the apartments were children. As one of them told me, “more than six hundred kids.” I looked at those who came and went past us. They were, I was pleased to see, like any children, with that good, fearless, unself-conscious, natural expression in their eyes one likes to see, with good warm clothing no dingier than everybody’s in a city. They were healthily and uninhibitedly noisy too, yelling and screeching at each other, just as my grandchildren do—and just as the children in the streets on our way had been But what a difference, really, between this space for play and the dangerous dirty, unwholesome streets and vacant lots where these children used to play before their families moved into these planned surroundings.

I turned to the man from the office and put a crucial question to him: “What is the single worst cause of friction between the tenants and the management?” (Perhaps, I thought as I put it, that is the sort of question one shouldn’t ask.) But there was not an instant’s hesitation in his answer. He knew what the worst source of friction was and he shouted it out with a will. “Grass!” he cried. “We cannot keep them off the grass.”

I stared, remembering the beautiful grassless French public gardens. “Then why have grass? ” I asked.

But my guide had not seen the Luxembourg or the Tuileries parks. “No grass!” he exclaimed horrified, his eyes wide with the Anglo-Saxon veneration for our fetish “What would you have?”

“Gravel. Nice, well-raked gravel, with trees growing at frequent intervals. You can’t have trees here now because their roots would kill your old grass. And a well-painted circular bench around each tree for the mothers to sit on. Then the children could run and race in all directions, free as air. And you’d never have to think up a new way to yell at them to keep off the grass.”

Well, he evidently thought I was crazy. But I know I’m right—for I’ve since been told some other projects do keep the grass in its place. And who ever would have thought I’d have a constructive idea about a housing project!


This work may also be read through the Internet Archive.

Source:  Canfield, Dorothy, ” I Visit a Housing Project,” Survey Graphic, Vol. 29, No. 2, p. 89 ( February 1, 1940), New Deal Network, (June 10, 2014).

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