From the Puritans to the Projects: Public Housing and Public Neighbors

Article excerpt

From the Puritans to the Projects: Public Housing and Public Neighbors. By Lawrence J. Vale. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000. 482 pages. $22.50 (paperback).

The question of class inequality has always been hotly contested terrain, occupied on one side by those who demand corrective government intervention and, on the other, by those who maintain that the intervention itself is the problem. Far beyond the realm of academic questions of justice and fairness, however, lie the harsh reminders that inequality endures, despite the well-intentioned efforts of our best citizens and elected representatives. Perhaps the most visible and striking reminders are the high-rise housing projects of American cities. In From the Puritans to the Projects, Lawrence Vale attempts to explain how "the projects became the most vilified domestic environment in the United States and why their residents came to carry such a broadly shared stigma" (v). In so doing, Vale, a Professor of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT, brings an architectural sensibility to bear on his more than twenty years of research into the historical roots of public housing. The result is an illuminating study that exposes some of the enduring antinomies of American social welfare policy. For example, while public housing has often been at the center of contentious debate in American politics, officials and citizens alike have also agreed that they have a duty to care for their public neighbors (Vale's term for those who cannot meet their community's socioeconomic standards). It is Vale's signal accomplishment as a historian to explore the historical roots of this ambivalence, arguing that the troubled housing projects of today can be better understood if they are seen as having grown out of the cultural context of Puritan America.

Although nominally national in scope, the emphasis throughout this book is on the city of Boston, whose "long history affords a rare opportunity to explore the complete development of public housing in one place" (9). One recurring theme in this narrative is the need to distinguish between deserving and undeserving segments of the poor. This is evident when, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it was up to Massachusetts town selectmen to distribute aid to "paupers." If applicants were judged to be poor through no fault of their own, they received aid or "outdoor relief while staying at home. If instead they were seen as "mad," immoral, or simply lazy, they would receive "indoor relief," which meant being forced to take up residence in an almshouse. …