Tomorrow, Germantown will watch one of the city’s last high-rise public housing projects come down after years of decay, crime, and ultimately, vacancy, to make way for lower density apartments. The demolition of the Philadelphia Housing Authority’s 51-year old Queen Lane Apartments is just the latest in a national shift away from project towers in favor of smaller scale, mixed-income affordable housing.
Over the last 20 years, PHA has demolished 23 similar towers, from a portfolio that once counted 36. But why were buildings like Queen Lane constructed in the first place? And why have so many been torn down?
Public housing in America originally emerged as a New Deal program in the wake of the Great Depression, following decades of lobbying by progressive, grassroots “housing associations” that argued clean, well-designed residences were the key to eradicating urban slums and poverty. The Philadelphia Housing Authority was created as a municipal agency in 1937 to manage an initial $20 million investment from the Federal government. They were “authorized to exercise the power of eminent domain to clear slum areas and to provide safe and sanitary dwellings”.
In its beginnings, public housing was uncontroversially segregated by race, with the director of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Public Works Administration flatly advising that “the racial composition of a project should conform to the prevailing racial composition of the surrounding area.”
By 1950, the federal government was pouring even more money into housing programs to make up for a national housing shortage and increasingly slum-infested cities after years of wartime neglect. Planners in Philadelphia selected 25 potential sites for additional housing, including an area designated as the “Queen Lane Project” at Queen Lane and Pulaski Avenue. Ultimately, 42 rowhomes and other structures were cleared to make way for the project, the sixth public housing development in city history.
Like most of the sites that were ultimately selected for public housing, the surrounding area was already experiencing white flight, and the PHA determined that the $1.6 million (13 million in 2014 dollars) Queen Lane Apartments would be a “nonwhite” project. The building itself, designed by architect Thaddeus Longstreth, would be a single, jutting 16-story apartment block, despite its situation amongst a sea of three-story rowhomes and Victorian townhouses.
Many of the other public housing projects built in the early 1950s were similarly hulking, partially a reaction to cost-saving measures imposed by federal government which advised that an already high 50 units per acre was the ideal population density for public housing. Pressure from realtors and developers, fearful that public housing would compete with the private market, also pressured the federal government to construct units with smaller floor plans.
“They were placed in areas where community opposition would be minimal, industrial areas, near highways,” said John Kromer, the city’s housing director in the 1980s. “They were built in bad places with inferior materials and without amenities to support size of population.”
But architects also played a role in the jarring scale of such projects, voluntarily exceeding the recommended 50 units per acre in a quest to build more noticeable structures.
Indeed, Queen Lane featured 119 units crammed into just 3/4th of an acre, even though PHA had acquired almost an entire city block for housing. The additional space was used for parking and a minimalist playground.
“Architects love to build high buildings because that’s what impresses other architects,” wrote city planner Oscar Newman in a 1972 critique of high-rise projects. “Who sits up and takes notice of little row housing? That may be exactly what the people who are going to live there really want, but it’s not what the architects want to build.”
Just twenty years after Queen Lane’s opening in 1955, flaws in the high-rise, high-density construction were obvious. Devastating cuts in federal funding led to serious maintenance issues, like chronically malfunctioning elevators. Projects towers like Schuylkill Falls, which had won awards for Oskar Stonorov’s modernist design in the 1950s, were vacated in the 1970s, in part because its architectural flourishes made security and maintenance more difficult.
Additionally, pressure built from progressive groups aiming to reduce tenant screening processes and eliminate de facto segregation. In Philadelphia, 90 percent of public housing applicants were African American, but PHA “screening” ensured 51 percent of actual tenants were white. While public housing had originally been popular with working class families, the policy changes led to a shift in PHA residents who were more likely to be poor and black. White families largely abandoned attempts to integrate public housing, and upwardly mobile black families came to regard project towers as stepping stones to anything better.
Nearly everyone was dissatisfied by the 1970s. Black civil rights leaders, like Cecil B. Moore, decried horrendous living conditions and “warehousing” of the poor, black Philadelphians, while white residents staged rallies to block new PHA construction and pushed for the teardown of existing units. John Gallery, housing director for then-Mayor Frank Rizzo, stepped into this crisis and took it upon himself to commission a study of the city’s high-rise projects which were largely viewed as “the worst of worst” that public housing had to offer.
“People felt high-rises were unsuccessful and created unhealthy living situations. But some were successful, and we didn’t know why,” said Gallery, in a recent phone interview. “The focus of study was not on demolition, that was just one option. It was a search for alternatives.”
In 1979, Gallery retained architectural firm Ueland and Junker to conduct tenant interviews and site surveys of structural conditions at 14 PHA properties with high-rise towers, including Queen Lane. The report’s findings, summarized in a 1979 Philadelphia Evening Bulletin article, recommended converting the majority of the city’s housing projects to elderly housing, preserving a handful of viable family developments, and demolishing the worst.
According to the report, Queen Lane fell somewhere in the middle: “The 16-story building should be converted to housing for the elderly, even though it is not close to good transportation and shopping facilities. Crime is moderate at the 26-year old project. Conversion is recommended, but other projects have priority.”
However, the report also determined that implementing its recommendations would cost $450 million (1.4 billion in 2014 dollars) and displace 4,000 families who resided in public housing. Gallery said Rizzo was intensely concerned with appeasing neighborhood associations in both black and white neighborhoods across the city who were demanding solutions to problems at the city’s housing projects. The mayor echoed the report’s findings and pushed heavily for widespread elderly conversions and demolitions nonetheless.
“It’s been my idea for a long time… and we’re going to build other housing.” said Rizzo, at the time. “I just think it’s a bad scene, I wouldn’t want to live there.”
Even so, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, the federal agency that funds and regulates public housing across the nation, balked at the idea.
“I would say that’s not feasible, that’s not our policy,” said Richard Mapp, a HUD special assistant in the 1970s. “If you convert these all to homes for the elderly, what are you going to do with all those people on the waiting list… It just seems ludicrous, it doesn’t make any sense.”
Gallery also said many PHA tenants were also opposed to the plan. “Everyone interviewed said conditions were terrible,” said Gallery, “But tenant [representatives] and housing advocates would never support the idea of demolition. [They] were opposed because if towers got demolished there was no funding to replace them.”
But 30 years later, Rizzo’s “ludicrous” plan has become common practice for housing authorities across the country. Gallery believes the change in attitudes came with the Clinton administration’s creation of HOPE VI, which promised funds to replace demolished high-rises with other kinds of low-income housing.
PHA ultimately went even further than what Gallery’s initial study had recommended, demolishing several housing projects that had been recommended for elderly conversion (like Queen Lane) in favor of low-rise, suburban style housing. Crowds at the first housing projects to fall in the 1990s routinely cheered the crashing towers. The reconstructed neighborhoods, with grass lawns and, sometimes, garages, still feel out of place in Philadelphia, but have observed precipitous decreases in crime, according to PHA.
Most of Philadelphia’s 13 remaining towers have since been converted to elderly housing. The demolitions of high-rise towers alone have resulted in a net loss of at least 2,500 units of housing, even after low-rise replacement units are taken into account. Some of the difference has been made up through the issuance of additional vouchers for rental subsidies, formerly known as “Section 8”, but today PHA still serves far fewer people than it did in the 1970s.
Reflecting on the impending demolition of Queen Lane, Gallery said he still doesn’t know exactly what made some high-rises successful and others dens of crime and dysfunction, or if the decision to essentially hit the “reset” button for many public housing developments was avoidable. However, he criticizes HUD and housing advocates for not reflecting on the impact of large-scale public housing until conditions had deteriorated to inhuman levels.
“People pursued the same policies from the 1950s even after circumstances had changed,” he said. “People were more interested in protecting the public housing that existed because it was better than nothing.”
But Gallery said he also sees a connection between the past and the present wave of demolitions.
“I think there’s a link. No one was looking at public housing policy from a larger point of view,” he said. “The same thing may be happening now. Everyone thinks [demolition] is good idea, but has anyone really evaluated the results?”
* * *
Public Housing High-Rises: A Philadelphia Timeline
Spread across 14 different projects, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Philadelphia Housing Authority constructed 36 highrise homes, 22 of which are now gone—a number that tomorrow morning jumps to 23. This table illustrates each one’s timeline and (where available) includes a link to PHA’s fact sheet on what’s there now.
|Name (Revised Name)||Address||Opened||Demolished||Number of Units (Old)||Number of Units (New)||Description||PHA Fact Sheet|
|Norman Blumberg Apartments||2311 W Jefferson Street||1966||Slated, date TBD||501||501||Two 18-story towers with 501 units||Norman Blumberg|
|Cambridge Plaza||948 N 11th Street||1956||2001||372||124||Two 14-story towers with 372 units, replaced with 124 low-rise units||Cambridge Plaza|
|Fairhill Apartments||2443 N 11th Street||1961||N/A||264||264||Two 18-story towers with 264 units||Fairhill|
|Harrison Plaza||1350 N 10th Street||1955||N/A||112||112||One 15-story building with 112 units, with 184 additional units in surrounding townhomes||Harrison Plaza|
|Martin Luther King Plaza||770 S 13th Street||1959||1999||537||136||Three 11-story buildings and one 15-story building with 537 units, replaced by 245 low-rise units||MLK Plaza|
|Mantua Hall (Mantua Square)||3500 Fairmount Avenue||1959||2008||153||101||One 18-story building with 153, replaced with 101 low-rise units||Mantua Square|
|Mill Creek Apartments (Lucien E Blackwell Homes)||751 N 48th Street||1954||2002||674||627||Three 17-story buildings replaced with 627 low-rise units, 377 of which were public housing||Lucien E Blackwell|
|Norris Apartments||2037 N 11th Street||1952||2011||147||51||One 11-story building, replaced by 51 units of low-rise housing||N/A|
|Queen Lane Apartments||301 W Queen Lane||1963||2014||119||55||One 16-story building, to be replaced by 55 low rise units||Queen Lane|
|Raymond Rosen Apartments (Raymond Rosen Manor)||2110 N 23rd Street||1954||1995||1,122||552||Largest PHA complex in history, with eight 13-story buildings and 308 low-rise rowhomes. Replaced with 552 low-rise apartments||Raymond Rosen Manor|
|Schuylkill Falls Apartments (Falls Ridge)||4325 Merrick Road||1954||1996||714||158||Two 14-story buildings, replaced by low-rise townhomes and apartments.||Falls Ridge|
|Southwark Plaza (Courtyard Apartments at Riverview)||1024 S 4th Street||1962||2000||886||470||Three 25-story buildings, two demolished. One tower converted to senior housing, with additional low-rise townhomes||Courtyard Apartments at Riverview|
|Westpark Aparments||300 N Busti Street||1963||N/A||381||381||Three 19-story buildings with 381 units||Westpark|
|Wilson Park||2500 Jackson Street||1952||N/A||727||727||Four 8-story buildings with numerous low-rise housing totalling 727 units. Converted to senior housing||Wilson Park|
|TOTALS||6709||4259||Total loss of 2450 units of housing. 23 of 36 towers demolished|
* * *
Finally, since everyone loves a good implosion, here are some videos of past PHA demolitions.
Schuylkill Falls, Channel 6 Action News:
Raymond Rosen, KYW News 3:
Mantua Hall, video by Amber Hough:
Mill Creek, video by Bradley Maule:
Southwark, video by Youtube user culturedread:
About the author
Ryan Briggs is a journalist who lives in West Philadelphia. A veteran of several economic development agencies in Philadelphia, Ryan has contributed to the Philadelphia City Paper, Next City and other fine, local publications. Follow him on Twitter at @rw_briggs.
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