How Atlanta’s Public Housing Created Space for Black Women to OrganizeHistorians in the News
tags: African American history, Atlanta, urban history, urban planning, womens history, public housing
The City of Atlanta opened its first public housing development in 1936 and demolished its last one in 2011. Both its creation and its demise were pushed forward by a biracial coalition of civic and business leaders, with public housing first seen as a solution to a problem and later as a problem to be solved through demolition and redevelopment. At times during the 75-year interim, though, public housing tenants, particularly Black women, found ways to use the structures of public housing to access public resources and advocate for their interests, writes Akira Drake Rodriguez in her new book, Diverging Space for Deviants: The Politics of Atlanta’s Public Housing. The housing developments were a type of “political opportunity structure” for people whose interests were not well-represented by the city’s ruling political coalition, Rodriguez writes.
“Without the restrictions of uplift ideology, religious morality, and respectability politics structuring political opportunities, more deviant Black interests had the ability to assert power through public housing developments,” Rodriguez writes. “New political norms, tactics, and strategies emerged to complement this more radical assemblage of interests for Black social and spatial justice.”
Rodriguez, an assistant professor of city planning at the University of Pennsylvania Weitzman School of Design, writes that she became interested in the story after reading a news article about the city tearing down its last public-housing development a decade ago. (Full disclosure: I also do part-time, seasonal work for the Weitzman School.) Tracing the development and decline of public housing in Atlanta, she explores how racism and white supremacy isolated the city’s public-housing developments and constrained their benefits, but also created unique organizing opportunities for marginalized people. Rodriguez recently spoke with Next City about her research, and what she hopes contemporary tenant organizers will take from it. The conversation has been edited.
You describe the coalition of civic leaders that established public housing in Atlanta in the early days as being tenuous. Who was part of that coalition and why was it untenable?
This was a coalition that came out of crisis. It was people who were major landowners, who had control of the city coffers, legislators and business owners, as well as this kind of progressive arm, a lot of reformers, a lot of religious and social workers, in addition to the trades. You see a lot of construction workers and trades workers coming together to support this project of public housing. And that coalition fell apart once the value of public housing and the public housing tenant began to decline. Once there was no more public housing to construct at a wide scale, once it became clear that the slum clearance project was not enough to save downtown property values, that coalition essentially fell apart immediately. Once all the federal funding and subsidies dried up was when suddenly it was not an attractive program anymore.
You write in this book that “race has functioned as the central organizing logic in the planning and spatial production of Atlanta.” How did white supremacy play into the development of public housing specifically?
White supremacy translated into how public housing was structured, but also how it was managed, and it eventually led to its demise. The white supremacist, heteronormative, patriarchal categories of the nuclear family were used to establish an early categorization of the deserving and undeserving poor. Areas were targeted as slums or blighted based on which categories of poor lived there, and there were programs and mortgages and lending policies of course to attract the deserving poor into different areas, away from the undeserving poor. Once that project was successful, and the undeserving poor had more access to public housing, suddenly the project is [considered] a failure. Suddenly they are “The Projects.” They’re no longer even considered housing, they’re considered projects. The people who live in them are stigmatized and targeted once again for blight and demolition. White supremacy certainly shapes and therefore limits the efficacy of the public housing program as it currently exists.