Podcast #67 – Public Housing for Dummies with Alex Bauman

mpls sumner field 1936

Kids at Sumner Field, Minneapolis’ first public housing project. (Photo MNHS.)

The podcast this week is a conversation with Alex Bauman, the vice president of the board for streets.mn and a sometimes prolific writer about Minneapolis transportation and urban policy on streets.mn and at his blog Getting Around Minneapolis.

Alex recently left his job at the Minneapolis Public Housing Agency, and so I managed to sit him down at Ngon Bistro on University Avenue last week to pick his brain about public housing policy in Minneapolis and around the country. I called it Public Housing for dummies, and in this case, I was the dummy. I asked Alex all about public housing policy, where it’s located, and the history of all different public housing programs as they’ve evolved through the 20th century. We had a great talk and I hope you enjoy the conversation.

The link to the audio is here.

3 thoughts on “Podcast #67 – Public Housing for Dummies with Alex Bauman

  1. Mike Hicks

    I enjoyed this one. I don’t think you ever nailed down the architect of Pruitt-Igoe — the name you were looking for was Minoru Yamasaki, who also did the World Trade Center in New York City. He also served as architect for two buildings in Minneapolis, the former Northwestern National Life building, which sits at the north end of Nicollet Mall, and the neighboring 100 Washington Square. Their main tenant has gone through a bunch of names — Reliastar, ING, and now apparently Voya. I’m not a fan of Yamasaki’s work — 100 Washington is totally bland, and I’ve waffled between totally hating and being grudgingly okay with the old Northwest National Life building.

    His record has definitely been marred a lot by the failure of Pruitt-Igoe. The modernist tower(s)-in-the-park style of the complex is a favorite target for urbanists who prefer more traditional neighborhood designs, though the direct financial pressures during construction and operation of the complex are probably more to blame for a lot of the issues.

    But a lot of his other architecture is just really bland or ugly. He liked vertical lines and tree-like arches, plus some other geometric shapes like hexagons. Some of his work seems to fit well when surrounded by trees, like the Oberlin Conservatory, but a lot of his work is just unpleasant. A lot of his buildings have been torn down.

    Anyway, public housing seems like a really important piece of the puzzle for understanding the decline of cities in the second half of the 20th century. I’m sure there are lots of people who see public housing in general as a failure, but there are lots of reasons why certain projects failed and others didn’t. One important question we haven’t totally answered is, how concentrated or dispersed should we allow public housing (and, by extension, poverty) to be? Minneapolis and Saint Paul still have a lot of high-rise buildings for public housing, but they’re typically spread out from each other. Was that a good idea? There have also been some neighborhood-style layouts, such as the Glendale Townhomes mentioned in the podcast (from 1952, apparently). Is there a difference in outcomes between people living in towers versus shorter structures? (Not that I really like the layout of the Glendale area very much — still pretty suburban, single-use, and very ’50s).

    1. Alex

      Taller vs. shorter was a big talking point during the Hope VI years, one of the best things of which was the emphasis on CPTED (Crime Prevention Thru Environmental Design). Many people believe that lower buildings get more “eyes on the street”, although I’d point out that taller buildings can lead to more people overall. But it’s hard to argue that 1st or 2nd floor units are better for families, so parents can monitor their children playing outside and react better.

      Thanks for the reminder about Yamasaki. I agree with most of what you said, but I actually think the NW National Life Insurance building is really beautiful. It certainly needs modification to interact better with the street (or at all) but great proportions and facing materials.

  2. Janne Flisrand

    I haven’t listened to this one, yet, but reading Mike’s comment, I want to make a shout out reminder that “public housing” is a subset of “affordable housing,” and it’s important to be careful about that fact. Most “affordable housing” is NOT “public housing.” (To be clear, Mike didn’t say that, but more than a decade in the affordable housing world has taught me to be hyper-clear on those facts.)

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