Producing the Projects: Atlanta and the Cultural Creation of Public Housing, 1933-2011 Open Access
Downloadable ContentDownload PDF
The history of Atlanta's public housing and its eventual demise is as much a story about representation as it is one of architectural design, funding, and policy. In order to educate the public about slum clearance and public housing, have the early program viewed as successful, and eventually lobby for its demolition, architects, housing advocates and opponents, housing authorities, and local and national government officials represented modernist architecture and public housing policy using photography, film, news media, annual reports, as well as local and national publications to shape public opinion.Many scholars have examined the rise and fall of public housing, seeking to situate architecture, funding, or policy as the crux of public housing’s problems. Others have looked at the establishment of communities and political activism within public housing projects. Most recently, scholars have turned their attention to dispelling widely accepted and long-held myths about the program. This study not only demonstrates that public housing enjoyed great success in its early decades and faced tremendous troubles by the end of the twentieth century, but it interrogates why the program was viewed in those ways and how those views shaped policy decisions.By examining architectural renderings and plans, pamphlets, annual reports, photographs, speeches, and government records among other archival sources, this project reveals common rhetorical and visual conventions used throughout the history of public housing’s promotion. In addition, it reveals that ideologies regarding uplift and “New South” boosterism are woven in to the entire history of public housing’s representation and promotion. Photographers, public relation firms, and media consultants, all of whom have yet to receive adequate attention from historians, worked in conjunction with the Atlanta Housing Authority and others to shape the trajectory of the city’s public housing. This work highlights the way media and public relations shape public policy and urban planning and results in an approach to urban history, policy history, and architectural history that draws from cultural history and visual culture to show how New Deal, Fair Deal, and Great Society liberalism was imaged, branded, and sold and how neo-liberal politics were later promoted in the service of dismantling the public housing program. An examination of public housing’s representations also reveals the vital role of race in shaping the public housing project and the ways in which it was viewed and understood.Atlanta, Georgia, serves as a distinctive case study for examining the role of public relations and representation played in shaping the trajectory of public housing policy. Atlanta was been a pioneer in the field of public housing. The city was both the first to erect Public Works Administration housing projects in the 1930s and the first in the nation to plan for the demolition of its entire stock of family public housing in the 1990s. Secondly, with its low-rise, low-density, row house design, Atlanta’s public housing is actually more representative of the nation than the more frequently studied dense high-rises of Chicago and New York. Most importantly, image and public relations were particularly important to Atlanta’s growth and played an unusually strong role in shaping public policy as well as in guiding decisions about development. As a self-fashioned “New South” city, Atlanta looked to public housing as a key symbol of the city’s racial moderation, modernism, and economic success. Because the image of the city was so closely tied to the image of its public housing projects, demolishing “the projects” became an act of resurrecting Atlanta’s image and future.