Mon, May

The Rise and Fall of an American Dream: How one photographer saw the promise of public housing in L.A.'s Aliso Village

NEIGHBORHOOD RECALL-When Aliso Village opened in 1942, the modern housing project was a radical new experiment. As one of ten new developments in Los Angeles,

Aliso Village was among the first racially integrated housing projects in the country. The 34-building village housed 800 families, representing a massive redevelopment scheme at the time. In his unpublished manuscript, Aliso Village, USA, photographer Leonard Nadel captured an optimistic view of life in the new planned community. In one photo, families gather at the building’s entrance, the building’s facade reflecting the bright California light.

Designed by the Housing Group Architects, led by Ralph Flewelling and Lloyd Wright (the son of Frank Lloyd Wright), Aliso Village was part of the effort to provide war workers with “clean, attractive, healthful homes.” The Great Depression, followed by World War II, had created a severe housing crisis—more people had migrated to California to work in the war plants, the mayor of Los Angeles had said, than during the entire Gold Rush. The aesthetic of modernist architecture, operating under the axiom “form follows function,” offered a sense of efficiency and technological progress. If the 19th-century tenements were seen as crowded and slapdash, then the airy, light-filled new architecture, constructed using modern materials and techniques, announced a belief that the world could be rationally remade. “Public housing is one social movement which can make Los Angeles the servant of future generations,” the mayor proclaimed at the project’s dedication.

To make way for Aliso Village, developers razed the diverse working-class immigrant neighborhood known as The Flats, nestled along the Los Angeles River. Nadel documented not only the areas targeted for redevelopment but also the new public housing like Aliso Village and Pueblo del Rio that came to replace them, eventually leading him to become the official photographer for the Housing Authority of Los Angeles (HACLA) from 1949 to 1953. Nadel, a social documentarian in the mode of Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine, and Dorothea Lange, saw the photograph as an instrument for social change. His extensive documentation of the living conditions in impoverished neighborhoods was intended to spur action. In his book, Nadel described Aliso Village as a blissful “island in the slums.”

Left: 2319 1/2 Damon Street (Santa Fe), 1950, Leonard Nadel. Leonard Nadel miscellaneous papers, 1948–1990. Getty Research Institute, 2002.M.42. Right: Outdoor laundry lines, ca. 1948–1949, Leonard Nadel. Leonard Nadel Photographs of Aliso Village. Getty Research Institute, 2002.M.42

Meet the Families…, ca. 1948–1949, Leonard Nadel. Leonard Nadel Photographs of Aliso Village. Getty Research Institute, 2002.M.42

Aliso Village, USA, which Nadel created during an intense six-month stretch between 1948 and 1949, conveys a utopian faith in integrated housing as a foundation for democracy. Intended in part to showcase the New Deal achievements of the 1937 Housing Act, the photographs of rows of identical buildings, separated by neat strips of lawn, emphasized the modernist ideal of communal living. The development included a baby clinic, a cooperative preschool, and a residents’ council.

Nadel’s photographs depicted four families, a cross-section of multi-racial Los Angeles, in the midst of everyday life. “The Taggarts, the Wilsons, the Ramirezes, and the Wong’s, together with several hundred families like them, make Aliso Village a collective expression of the fact that different racial and cultural groups can and do live together as neighbors and friends,” he wrote in the book, which encouraged readers to embrace integrated public housing as a social good.

In depicting Christmas trees, Boy Scout troops, sewing lessons, pillow fights, and family dinners, the photographs showed each family assimilated into a common American identity. “The faces in Nadel’s monograph are hopeful, their stories idealized, and the direction of that idealization is telling: each family is hardworking, firmly located in the American dream, and appreciative of public housing as physical shelter and social community,” wrote architectural historian and former Getty scholar Dana Cuff. “At a time when government agents enforced segregation and interracial fraternizing signified communist leanings, the early residents of Aliso Village predict a radically new society.”

At the same time, if Aliso Village was supposed to represent the good life, whose vision of the good life did it represent? Accompanying the civic zeal for new affordable housing, led by middle-class reformers, was the wholesale destruction of the pre-existing communities that had suddenly been deemed “slums.” As resident Frances Camarena told Cuff, “We always wondered why they chose our neighborhood to tear down. They just decided it had to be cleared up, and that’s it. To me, it was a good, happy memories. It was sad when they tore it down. People didn’t want to go.”

While many tend to equate architecture with the unchanging and monumental, what such large-scale projects like Aliso Village reveal is the city’s fragility: each new urban dream erases what came before. “The buildings of the poor, particularly the homes they build themselves,” wrote Cuff, “are indeed the most fleeting.”

The second, widely televised demolition of a Pruitt–Igoe building in April, 1972. Source: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Image courtesy Wikimedia

By the 1950s, the perception of public housing had drastically changed. In Los Angeles, a hotbed of McCarthyism, the Red Scare curtailed the socialist ambitions of the New Deal, and Nadel himself resigned from HACLA after a colleague was blacklisted. Just a few years after Nadel shot Aliso Village, USA, city council members were already pressuring the housing authority to suspend the public housing program, claiming that residents would rather “do business with private enterprise.”

In the decades that followed, federal support for public projects declined further. As many white families moved to the suburbs, families of color were often left in areas of economic abandonment and unable to move as a result of racist policies such as redlining and restrictive racial covenants. Due to a dearth of funding, many of the modernist housing projects across the nation fell into disrepair. This state of disrepair, in turn, was often used to justify the further defunding of public housing. In Aliso Village, the drug trade and gang activity grew as economic responses to this lack of public investment, and residents eventually self-organized to protect their communities and fill the gaps in social services. When the Pruitt-Igoe towers, a massive series of low-income high-rises in St. Louis, were spectacularly imploded in the 1970s, it marked the end of an era that one critic, Charles Jencks, called “the death of modern architecture.”

Now the dream of Aliso Village, USA—and the very idea of housing as a human right for all—seems a distant reality. “The stripped-down modernism readily associated with the ‘projects,’ initially taken as a futurist symbol of efficiency and scientific rationality, has now come to stand for the failure of public housing,” Cuff wrote. Despite its promises, modern architecture alone could not solve the underlying disparities of race and class in America—and still today, try as we might, society has not yet designed its way out of social problems. By the end of the 20th century, Aliso Village—against the protests of some residents—had been demolished, like the Flats before it, for yet another vision of the future.

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