Can Reading Move Forward Built on Racist Foundations?
How the legacy of modernist urban planning and governmental housing policy intersect in Reading, PA
Reading’s geographically-segregated public housing, starting with its first complex Glenside Homes, was, and still is, built in the international trends of failed paternalistic, modernist urban planning and state and national housing policies perpetuating racial segregation.
Decades ago, we stuck our poorest at the fringes of the city, where, for the most part, they still cannot easily access basic services and goods, and often require non-profits to bring these things to them. We pat ourselves on the back for bringing food, books and activities to them, necessary work within the established system – but have we asked: why do we need to do that in the first place? Research shows us the deep and lasting negative impact of neighborhood poverty, and cities around the world have admitted the failure of physically segregated projects-style housing, so why do we continue to keep our poorest fenced in complexes, in a state of (at least attempted) forced dependence, geographically isolated and in the tradition of racial segregation?
Our built environment already exists, and long-ago policies still reverberate today: so what can we do moving forward?
We must look backwards.
Deep in the Reading Eagle archives, courtesy of Reading Public Library, I found this: in November 1939, officials performed the groundbreaking for Glenside Homes, the first project of the Reading Housing Authority. William H. Jeanes, a representative of the U.S. Housing Authority, predicted:
"In 15 to 20 years, the slums of America will be wiped out…Federal housing in the United States will equal, or surpass, what's been done abroad."
“What’s been done abroad” – examples of European public housing that he used as a standard for Reading’s - have been widely accepted as failures, demolished, re-purposed, or widely critiqued. St. Louis’ Pruitt-Igoe may be one example you’ve heard of, the one you saw demolished, the one most spectacularly failed, but its failure was not unique.
Glenside Homes does look different from some of these examples, because it’s not a high rise like Pruitt-Igoe or those favored by the infamous Le Corbusier and his peers (other RHA buildings are more architecturally similar) nor does it follow his architectural ‘five points’ standard - but it is built in a type of spiritual solidarity with the others: a paternalistic view of ruling white males towards the members of their cities, implemented through urban design and planning. And in Reading Public Housing’s case, like many others across our country, built in combination with the federal and state-sponsored policies of racial segregation whose policies seem far behind us but whose effects still linger.
The Modernists were arrogant and paternalistic. They knew better, and they would take care of people and build them homes and they would show them how to live,” said Zef Hemel, former head of the urban planning department in Amsterdam, in a 99% Invisible episode on failed extreme-Modernist complex Bijlmer.
Modernists never intended to just provide literal housing, “It was ambitious, a blueprint not only for a more rational urban environment, but also for radical social reform (Kohlstedt, 2018).”
As the Modernists used architecture to create their own view of utopia, a group of thinkers and artists called The Situationists conversely considered critiquing architecture as the mechanism to critique modern society. They considered how modernist urban planning had created the aspects of their society that they wanted to change, how critiquing architecture could bring about those changes, and they encouraged others to think boldly about these things, too. (And, they produced the Potlach newsletter out of Paris in the 50s, one of Here In My City’s inspirations.)
They rejected Le Corbusier’s Radiant City and the “Christian and Capitalist way of life” he attempted to assert onto residents through that and other projects in what they considered authoritarian-like “social experiments.”
“Modern capitalism dissuades people from criticizing architecture with the simple argument that people need a roof over their heads…people are made to overlook the obvious fact that this…kind of dwelling place are not made for them, but without them and against them (Marcus, 2011).”
In the United States, government officials and planners took inspiration from the modernists, many whom were not originally building for low income populations (Biljimere was originally meant for the middle class, who weren’t biting), and then applied the special kind of paternalism saved for those who need assistance: in addition to the geographical isolation of these low income housing complexes, residents would face forced-dependence policy like income caps.
In her seminal work "Death and Life of Great American Cities" Jane Jacobs criticized these special programs and regulations that those in public housing must participate in or abide by, pointing out that we assume that because people cannot afford housing in the private market that they must need all sorts of other special services and accommodations, “People who cannot be housed by private enterprise have been turned into a statistical group with peculiar shelter requirements, like prisoners, on the basis of the statistic of their income.”
I saw this “peculiar...requirements” standard during my time in the traditional nonprofit industrial complex; implicitly, policies reinforced the belief that if people need assistance, they must have somehow caused it themselves, must be lacking education or information, must need training and education and special monitoring…rather than prioritizing the consideration of the multiple systems which caused people to be in need of assistance in the first place.
And I recently experienced this paternalism firsthand, in a much, much smaller way: I researched a local npos’ application process to apply for a micro-business loan, and found that the application process required me to submit a detailed personal budget - and then to go through personal budgeting training. I had successfully gone through the intense post-2008 mortgage application process before, and certainly the bank had not required me to complete personal budget training. And so I wondered why those in charge at this NPO assumed that my lack of business-startup capital - ie: lack of access to those with that capital - meant that I needed basic life skills training; this has been my experience with the standard model.
At Pruitt-Igoe, those in power barred men from living in the complex, literally splitting up families; fathers and husbands had to leave the state! In a less extreme, but just as telling and disturbing example of paternalism, residents were prevented from having TV’s. Today’s RHA tenants have income limitations, which can force them to choose between stable housing and upward mobility opportunities (RHA didn’t respond to my email or phone calls for more information, though I’m happy to include their comments in a follow up piece). A couple of years ago I was part of a collaborative pilot program led by a large NPO in Berks County – I won’t say who, but you know them - and though they had the funding to hire a full time program staff, they chose to offer part-time pay, as to not jeopardize their target potential staff member’s housing eligibility. Were they doing their best within the established system? Were they perpetuating it?
Jacobs observed in the 60s that “Virtually all observers of public housing have, sooner or later, weighed against the destructiveness of tenant income limitations and have advocated their abandonment (Jacobs, 2016).”
Well, not all.
In the 1850s and 1860s Baron Haussmann re-designed Paris, laying the foundations of modern zoning practices, which, when later combined with the racist policies of the United States, resulted in geographically-isolated and often racially-segregated public housing units. The SI criticized the new separation between not only work and play but also now between socioeconomic classes,
“[he] broke up the old craft districts, separated residents from workplaces, workplaces from places of leisure, neighborhoods from markets, class from class…Haussmann changed a collection of self-contained villages into a grid for the circulation of autonomous commodities, a transit system to accommodate the new desire of capitol to move, to parade…If Housman had not extended the division of labor into a division of life, he had also blessed it (Marcus, 2011).”
Many of the standards Jane Jacobs called for back in the 60s to undo that separation are now best urban planning and architecture practices worldwide: short blocks, mingling buildings in age and condition, and mixed use neighborhoods,
“…mixed use development is happening all over the world. We seem to have come 180 degrees away from the Modernist idea of separating functions. Now urban design is focused on creating neighborhoods that have shopping and recreation and housing all mixed in together – no car needed... (Wouldn’t that be great?),” said 99 Percent Invisible Producer Katie Mingle.
Glenside Homes sits along the major road that splits open my neighborhood, if you can call it that: public housing on one side, a Section 8 complex, houses and a handful of small businesses on the other (a grocery, a laundromat, a corner store, a rotating eatery, a nail salon and a used-furniture shop). The block is long, and turning motorists ignore the pedestrian signals at the block’s end anway, so tenants run across the busy 183, which has a speed limit of 25 that soon turns into 40; motorists take it like the highway and there are no police cars monitoring the school zone to stop them. The nearby public library branch is nearly closed, and I don’t know of any more safely or reasonably-walkable restaurants or grocery stores.) The block is long, and turning motorists ignore the pedestrian signals at the block’s end anyway, so tenants run across the busy 183, which has a speed limit of 25 that soon turns into 40; motorists take it like the highway and there are no police cars monitoring the school zone to stop them. The nearby public library branch is nearly closed, and I don’t know of any more safely or reasonably-walkable restaurants or grocery stores.
Jacobs specifically called for public housing to be integrated into the community, “It is wrong to set one part of the population, segregated by income, apart in its own neighborhoods with its different scheme of community.”
As if to prove her point, one former Pruit Igoe tenant recalled the feeling of the complex’s intentional isolation, “strategically planned…to make you feel isolated…seemed more like a prison that you had to escape from (Freidrichs, 2011).”
Decades later we have research on the impact of concentrated neighborhood poverty, different than personal or family poverty, but our infrastructure has not caught up. Richard Rothstein explains how the effects of racial and geographical segregation itself caused a type of feedback loop, like unreasonably long work commutes that were financially costly and time intensive, and caused a mismatch between where jobs were and where the people who needed the jobs were forced to live.
Jacobs also rejected the modernists’ belief in the power of clean, quiet, sunshine and grass to magically fix urban problems, “If quiet and clean in themselves are the keys to success, why are the borders of water fronts or college campus or large parks stagnant?” She noted that the complexes she visited usually had unused quads, and ‘community rooms’ often went unused as well.
A former resident of Pruit Igoe echoed Jacobs’ sentiment here, too, “People go to where other people live – even if it means kids play in back alleys rather than front lawns.”
I see life on the front porches and stoops during my commute through the neighborhoods around Glenside (because I am on bike I can smell it too, sidewalk grills and corner restaurants). I see life out front of the bodega across the street from the complex - the one with the mini Statue of Liberty waving a Puerto Rican flag - where people sit on lawn chairs and there’s always bbq or bicycles for sale out of someone’s truck. But I don’t see a lot of activity on Glenside Housing’s empty lawns modeled after the ones that Jacobs saw on her survey of public housing decades ago, the ones praised by the modernists as the solution to urban ills.
In "The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America" (that I checked out from Reading Public Library), Rothstein explains the difference between “de facto” segregation (individual/ personal or private sector racism) and “de jure” segregation (laws and policy decisions passed by local, state and federal governments).
He argues that the latter, de jure or policy by the state, are the true foundations of housing segregation in our country. He outlines example after example of how the federal and states governments not only supported but required racial segregation in housing: urging suburban communities to adopt exclusionary zoning laws, blessing the evictions of African American homeowners by community associations, and giving developers FHA loans only if they barred African Americans.
Proponents for these racist policies often justified them by pointing to the effects that those policies actually caused, swapping cause and effect. Here’s how: Because of racist policies, African Americans were limited in housing options and were forced to pay more than their white counterparts for housing, “Such exploitation was possible only because public policy deprived African Americans opportunities to participate in the city’s white housing market (Rothstein, 2017).”
Due to their limited options, many people of color – blacks specifically – were forced into contract sales because they couldn’t get mortgages, so not only were they not building equity for their payments, like white neighbors, but they also could be evicted after one missed payment. Charged with disproportionately high payments and threat of eviction, they were often forced to invest less in home property maintenance and into subletting, which resulted in overcrowded homes and schools, etc. Realtors helped bring about dropping property values by ‘warning’ whites about dropping property values, and once enough white people panicked and left, the FHA used this as proof that values fall once African Americans move in, as opposed to as a consequence of racist government policies.
He explains why residential segregation is so hard to undo and continues to perpetuate. First, depressed incomes (also due to racist federal policies) become multi-generational.
Second, the value of white suburban housing appreciates, continuing the gap. I picture it in my mind an asymptote, those lines in math class that get closer and closer but eternally do not touch; these differences won’t close with race neutral policy. Thirdly, federal subsidies for low income families’ housing is mainly used to rent apartments in minority areas where economic opportunity is scarce, not in integrated neighborhoods.
Developers of low-income housing often use federal tax credits mostly on apartments in already-segregated neighborhoods, where there’s less push back from the community. And, Section 8 landlords can legally refuse to rent to tenants who use vouchers, so they are often only used in segregated, poor areas. (You can see this in the Jamestown Apartments, right across the street from Glenside Homes. It's a large complex marketed to voucher holders and owned and managed by a company in Maine called Preservation Management, Inc. Their posted number has been chronically disconnected and until the printing of this Issue and I have not been able to reach local management or heard back from Preservation Management, Inc.)
So, today, federal programs reinforce racial isolation by disproportionately directing those who receive housing assistance into segregated, poor neighborhoods (that are segregated because of the government’s previously established policies).
Glenside Homes is already built, demolishing and rebuilding aren’t very green, and continuing a tradition of breaking up communities to clear low-income housing has its own baggage, too. What’s to be done?
Rothstein calls for new policy that is not race neutral – the policies that created today’s conditions weren’t, and neither can their solutions be, “The cycle can be broken only by a policy as aggressive as that which created ghettos of concentrated poverty in the first place.”
The Supreme Court backed this idea up in June 2015, finding that “the disproportionate placement of subsidized housing in neighborhoods that had been segregated by past government policy could violate the Fair Housing Act, even if placement was not intended to intensify segregation.”
He cites one successful example of a county in Maryland that sets aside a percentage of units for moderate-income families and the public housing authority purchases some of them for rental to lower income families, resulting in mixed income neighborhoods. (One obvious benefit to public housing is its contributions towards limiting student transiency; this stability in housing that equals stability in education might still be accomplished without isolated complexes, however, through mixed-neighborhood public housing efforts.)
Federal tax codes make mortgage interest deductible – a subsidy that favors higher income homeowners, with no counterpart for renters. He also suggests the creation of a counterpart to the mortgage interest deductible in federal tax codes, that favors renters.
(One obvious benefit to public housing is its contributions towards limiting student transiency; this stability in housing that equals stability in education might still be accomplished without isolated complexes, however, through mixed-neighborhood public housing efforts.)
What’s to be done? All the things that are part of a healthy community: functional local government; accessible jobs with living wages that match the local populations’ training; safely walkable and bikeable neighborhoods; incentives and programs that make fresh food available in the only small grocery story in the neighborhood; decent public transportation; economic valuing of work like caretaking and community volunteering; removing policies that assume helplessness, or force dependence, upon receiving a hand up; opportunities for the people who live here to feel like they have a say over new economic and community development or planning. Just to name a few.
This article is far from done. What’s Reading’s history of de jure policy? How does the narrative change (does it?) with changing community race identities? There’s so much we want to dig into, so many people we want to interview, and so much more research to piece together. But all that takes a lot of time and effort, as you can see from our reference list.
So, if these are topics you want to learn more about, or want others to learn more about, please support us & subscribe at
Devlin, R. (2014, November 25). History Book: Reading officials went digging for human decency. The Reading Eagle.
Freidrichs, C. (Director). (2011). The Pruitt-Igoe Myth [Motion picture]. United States: Unicorn Stencil Documentary Films.
Jacobs, J. (2016). The death and life of great American cities. London: Vintage Digital.
Kohlstedt, K. (2018, February 19). Machines for Living In: Le Corbusier’s Pivotal “Five Points of Architecture”. Retrieved from
Kohlstedt, K. (2018, February 23). Ville Radieuse: Le Corbusier’s Functionalist Plan for a Utopian “Radiant City”. Retrieved from
Marcus, G. (2011). Lipstick traces: A secret history of the twentieth century. London: Faber.
Mingle, K. (2018, February 02). Blood, Sweat & Tears (City of the Future, Part 2) [Audio blog post]. Retrieved from
Rothstein, R. (2017). The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. New York, N.Y.: Liveright Publishing Corporation.