The history of public housing suggests that utopia is not merely a naïve idea, but may be a dangerous one. In her recent book The Provisional City, UCLA professor Dana Cuff has argued that some of the worst housing projects in Los Angeles were the result of well-intentioned and civic-minded people, who, during the first half of the 20th century, were trying to rid the city of neighborhoods they considered slums.
"It should not be assumed that some profit-grubbing developers were responsible for the most egregious civic works; the state and the Progressives were leagues ahead when it came to disrupting communities," she writes. Cuff quotes an Illinois woman trying to protect her neighborhood against the expansion plans of a local university: "They can really destroy you, the nice people."
The new Aliso Village is a neighborhood of 470 dwelling units built on the site of the most notorious housing projects in East Los Angeles. The question is: Can good design, even the most enlightened by current standards, bring civility to a low-income, historically crime-ridden neighborhood? And if we have learned that utopian, do-gooder housing projects can fail, are we not inviting a similar failure by replacing the 1940s version of the good life with our own ideal?
One thing we do know, at least, is that architecture can make things worse — much, much worse. The site of Aliso Village was originally occupied by a poor neighborhood known as the Flats, where tiny, makeshift houses were crowded together, sometimes as many as three per residential lot. The project that replaced the Flat was called Aliso Village and could be described as an example of utopian Modernism. In the early 1940s, a team of architects that included Lloyd Wright (son of Frank Lloyd Wright) created a set of U-shaped courtyards or "armadas," framed on three sides by apartment units stacked three stories high. These were scattered like horseshoes across the 35-acre plan, without a strong relationship or continuity among the different complexes.
In a few decades, the shortcomings of this design became apparent: The unprogrammed spaces between the individual apartment complexes provided too many places for bad actors to hide. It did not help that Aliso Village was obviously a housing project in an isolated location, just across the Los Angeles River from downtown L.A.
Its only neighbor was the equally notorious Pico-Aliso project, which the Los Angeles Housing Authority demolished in 1998 and later rebuilt. By the time the housing authority demolished the original version of Aliso Village in 1999, no fewer than 10 separate gangs operated on the fearful back alleys.
Again built under the aegis of the city's Housing Authority, the new project takes advantage of some updated thinking in urban design, as well as plentiful experience and research on the redevelopment of similar neighborhoods nationally. Built under HUD's well-regarded Hope VI program, the new Aliso Village is a set of three different clusters or "villages." As in all HOPE VI projects, the units are a mix of for-sale and rental housing, in the hope of stabilizing the neighborhood with a core of ownership.
The first village is devoted to 93 for-sale, detached, single-family homes. The second portion is a combination of courtyard housing and conventional apartments (201 units), while the third cluster has 176 units, most of which are townhouses. The overall density is 21 units per acre, and the rental units are targeted for a range of incomes from very low to moderate. The Lee Group of Marina Del Rey is building the single-family housing, while a venture of The Related Companies of California, based in Irvine, and McCormack Baron & Associates Inc. of Los Angeles are building the rest of the units. McCormack will also manage the property.
Unlike the 1940s project, the layout of the new Aliso Village is orderly and rational, with an emphasis on defensibility: the streets are straight and provide to clear sight-lines, and there are few, if any, hidden or hard-to-see spaces. Parking is accessible through rear alleys, which keeps the streets relatively car-free and makes them a little more inviting to people on foot. In a refreshing show of courage and civility, the developers have opted not to erect gates.
Seeking to preserve the few assets of an isolated neighborhood, the plan tries to optimize the relationship between the housing and the long-standing Utah Elementary School at the center of the site. In an ingenious land swap, the developers gave the Los Angeles Unified School District a new child care center near Utah Elementary in exchange for an acre or so of the green space just west of the school. The site will become fenced ball fields that the neighborhood can use after school lets out, and which are locked up after hours. Additionally, the developers are negotiating with the school district to build a middle school at the lower left hand corner of the plan, where retail was originally envisioned. A further benefit to the area is a future station of the Red Line subway, planned just east of Mission Road and First Street.
In short, the project has many things going for it: defensible design, landscaping, home ownership, a variety of incomes, a mix of housing types, coherent streets and transit adjacency. Best of all, perhaps, the new Aliso village does not look like "the projects." Will these factors finally help turn around one of Los Angeles's most stubbornly scary neighborhoods? Or are social forces simply too virulent to be cured by some well-meaning design moves?
The question here is whether urban design, including some of the more viable notions of the New Urbanism, can add safety and comfort to what had been one of Los Angeles's worst neighborhoods. A first response might be skeptical: What culture (or the poverty cycle) has denied, architecture cannot provide.
The advantage of the present project is its modesty. The goal here is to create a more or less normal neighborhood with an emphasis on defensibility. Aliso Village is not a shot at utopia, but a reflection of experience.
"There is evidence from other community developments of this type that if you pursue this path and have enough of a clean slate as you do here, you can right a lot of the wrongs," said developer Bill Witte, senior vice president of The Related Companies. With 35 acres, he added, "you can redefine the context."
Here, at least, architecture has done what it can to support safety and continuity, and it has avoided the worst of the known pitfalls of public housing. The project strives not to be utopia, but a functional neighborhood with some known problems. The new Aliso Village is starting life with its eyes wide open.